Derrick Buttress on the Old Market Square

Interview: James Walker
Illustrations: Paul Fillingham
Thursday 12 July 2012
reading time: min, words

Derrick Buttress began writing in his late thirties, and recently had his first short story collection - a celebration of local figures and the Broxtowe community he grew up in - published at the age of eighty. He’s also the first commissioned writer for The Alan Sillitoe Committee’s contribution to The Space, the new BBC/Arts Council digital media project, where he celebrates the history of Nottingham’s favourite bit of paving, the Old Market Square...


What was Broxtowe like in the 1930s?
Broxtowe estate was built then to house families uprooted by slum clearances, especially from Sneinton and Radford. It was built on a hill; the houses on the lower ground were for ‘average’ families with no more than five or six kids, but as you climbed the hill, the estate got rougher and there were houses with huge families - I remember stories about families with sixteen kids. Those of us who lived down the hill were a bit wary of those at the top, though if you went to Player School you were pretty safe because you mixed with the tough lads every day, and you could even be considered a pal.

A school named after a fag baron...
I found out years later that Player was considered to be in a ‘deprived’ area, and the teachers got extra wages to teach there. If I’d known that then I might have been more of a nuisance just to make them earn their bonus. It was remarkably free of trouble considering that most classes had forty to fifty kids in them. The kids were tough, but so were the teachers, so I never witnessed any serious disobedience. Most teachers were armed with weapons. The three-pronged tawse was the main one - a leather whip more suited to lashing a shire horse than a child. One teacher had a small plank of wood which he called ‘Oscar’, and would hit you with it for small demeanours like blotting an exercise book, or for major ones like being two minutes late for school.

What were the best parts of growing up there?
The best part of being a kid in Broxtowe was playing in the street. There was little in the way of entertainment, apart from a twice weekly visit to the Forum cinema or to an evening class at school. Mostly we played football and cricket on the street, or just a street game such as Tin-Lurkey or Statues. Broxtowe estate in those days lay on the edge of the countryside. Bilborough village was still intact. And Strelley was completely unspoilt - in a few minutes a gang of us could be exploring the fields, scrumping the orchards or searching the hedgerows for birds’ nests. Sometimes we were chased home by a farmer or a dog, but that just added to the excitement and the fun.

What’s changed since?
The major difference between peoples’ lives then, and now, lies in the fact that everybody had a job then. What that gave them was a place on the social ladder, an identity, a sense of belonging somewhere, no matter how low on the scale. I knew lads who could hardly read or write, but who worked, and fitted in without resenting the fact that they were regarded as ‘labourers’. Others went on to do well in whatever job they had started when they were fourteen years of age. A classmate, Derek Creswell, even became the Sheriff of Nottingham – twice!

Your memoir Broxtowe Boy was published in 2004. How was it received?
I was pleasantly surprised when I began to get letters and phone calls after the publication. I was stopped in the streets of Clifton several times by people who had read it. They seemed to like it a lot. The most bizarre response was when I was being rushed to hospital with gallstones.  The ambulance driver asked me my name as I was clutching my stomach and trying not to scream. “Derrick Buttress”, I said. The ambulance man put down the form he was filling in, a smile on his face.  “Do you know,” he said, “I’ve just read your book. I loved the bit about your mum pawning your best suit. But my favourite chapter was..“ But I’d just about passed out then.
You began your writing career rather late.
I didn’t start to write until I was in my late thirties. I came across a poetry magazine and liked the free-verse style, and the contemporary voice. I wrote my first poem and it was accepted. After that initial success I was invited by students at Clifton Training College to allow them to publish a pamphlet as part of their arts course. Unfortunately, they left the loose printed sheets lying about at the college during the vacation. When the new term began, the sheets had been gathered up as ‘litter’ and carted off to wherever waste paper ends up. The second attempt at a collection was thwarted when the publisher had a heart attack. Eventually, John Lucas at Shoestring Press published Waiting For The Invasion in 2002. I was interviewed on Radio Nottingham about the collection and explained that much of the material for the collection came from a memoir I had written ten years earlier, just after I retired from my teaching job. John Lucas rang me to ask what this book was that I’d talked about. He told me to send it to him, and inside a week he had offered to publish it. The book, of course, was Broxtowe Boy.

You’ve also been a successful scriptwriter, haven’t you?
I was pretty naïve when I started writing plays. I sent my first radio plays directly to producers whose work I admired at the BBC, and the first three were selected. The same thing happened with my first television play; I sent it to a producer and it was bought for transmission on BBC 2. I was commissioned to do another one, and advised to get an agent. I gave them a radio play I had just finished, a love story set in the Second World War. But the agent couldn’t sell it, so I packed up playwriting and concentrated on completing my degree course at York University as a forty year old student.

For The Space you’ve written five pieces about the Market Square. What were your initial feelings towards to it as a child?
As a young child I remember being in awe of Cecil Hewitt’s grandiose, Neo-Baroque showpiece Council House and its attendant Old Market Square – which everybody called ‘Slab Square’ - with its white slabs and walls relieved by concrete tubs of vivid, red geraniums.  They had ‘class’ in my eyes, and were an imposing eyeful after a bus ride through the depressing suburbs. But I found it intimidating, too; this was where authority lived, and most children were taught to be scared of it. Authority was invested in well-dressed men, some in bowler hats, most of them wearing three-piece suits with watch-chains slung across their waistcoats. I had seen them striding confidently up the steps to disappear into the gloom of the Council House, recognising that the building belonged to them and not to my parents who were having a struggle to pay the rent on our council house.

Considering the recent presence of the Occupy Movement, has it always been a site for civil disobedience?
I never saw, or heard of civil disobedience until the 1960s. I’d read about the Nottingham Lambs in the 19th century when they burned down the Duke of Newcastle’s house - now known, of course, as Nottingham Castle. The only disobedience I remember was when a few drunken students painted both the lions pink. I think it was in the late 1940s. It shocked Nottingham. The likeliest candidates for creating civil disobedience were supporters of the old Communist Party who would stand up and spout their hatred of Winston Churchill, Tories, Americans, and capitalists. Their heroes were Joseph Stalin and the Soviet five-year plans for industry. I recognised one of the speakers as a pleasant, mild-mannered bloke, and the local leader of the Tailors and Garment Workers. When he jumped on the wall of Market Square to harangue the small crowd waiting for the pubs to open on a Sunday night he was a firebrand.  But people didn’t trust firebrands after the Second World War. Most people wanted peace and quiet.

Were you there for VE Day?
Yes. There were thousands of people celebrating and they filled the Square and the surrounding streets. The Conga blasted out from the balcony of the Council House and a few people formed a line which hopped through the crowd. More and more people joined it, and soon it almost circled the Square, everybody laughing and having a great time. It really expressed how relieved people felt about the end of the war. I suppose I’m one of the few left alive who witnessed the joy of it.

When you grew up, what jobs did you do?
I worked in tailoring factories for years alongside sewing machinists, the majority of them women. They had it hard: most had families and had to look after a husband and children as well as work at least an eight hour day on a machine. They got paid less than men for doing the same job, too.  There were a number of women in Broxtowe with large broods of kids. They, too, accepted their domestic slavery and worked until they dropped.  The status of women has changed so much since then; for someone my age it’s like being in a different world. Perhaps the only thing that hasn’t changed is that women seem more prone to anxiety than men. When I was young, women worried – about a lack of money, about their children, about their health.  Now a lot of them seem simply anxious, even though they have more choice and more freedom. But what do I know about how women feel? What does any male know what it’s like to be a woman?

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning could quite conceivably have had a lead female character then. What do you make of Arthur Seaton?
Arthur Seaton wasn’t a typical factory worker of that era. He was an individual resisting authority, and the restrictive society that tried to define him, control him, according to its mores. Seaton was someone trying to go in a direction he thought was best for him. That was the whole point of the novel.

Which is perhaps something the author felt as well.
The pressure of Arthur Seaton identifying his place as an individual is, perhaps, what Alan Sillitoe himself must have known as he read and wrote his way out of the depressing streets of Radford. An indication of how far Sillitoe’s literary talent might have isolated him is when two friends of mine, both pupils at Radford Boulevard School at the same time as Alan, were adamant that nobody from their school could have written any book, never mind that one. They were convinced that the writing of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was beyond anyone from Radford, and must have been written by his wife, who, apparently, had been to university. So I would be surprised if Alan didn’t sometimes feel a sense of isolation, of being ‘different’, of not quite fitting in and being thought ‘odd’ by people from a background like his own, and by the middle-class literati he came into contact with later. The characters in Sillitoe’s novels are often quintessential outsiders.

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