Tuesday 20 September 2011, 07:00
Editor's note: First published in 1961 to much acclaim, The Day of the Sardine is the story of Arthur Haggerston a school-leaver with zero educational qualifications, an absentee father, a mother who gives him a hard time, and a home in a slum-clearance area of Newcastle. Written by Sid Chaplin it's been abridged for Book at Bedtime by his son Michael Chaplin. It's on Monday to Friday this week at 10.45pm and you can catch up on the Radio 4 website - PM.
When I was a small boy, growing up in Newcastle in the late fifties, I used to go for walks with my Dad on Sunday mornings before Two-Way Family Favourites and the Yorkshire pudding.
Sid Chaplin, author of The Day of the Sardine, adapted by his son, Michael, for a Book at Bedtime
Often there was a particular destination: an old and rather overgrown cemetery with fine, idiosyncratic memorials and a pair of severe stone gatehouses by the Newcastle architect John Dobson. As we walked around I'd swish at thistles with a stick and he'd stand and scribble in his ubiquitous notebook. It was only many years later that I discovered what he wrote down: he was collecting names for characters in his books.
Twenty-five years ago it was Old Jesmond Cemetery that we chose for my Dad's grave, and marked it with a piece of the Frosterley marble that keeps the structure of Durham Cathedral in place.
But now here's another memorial - an abridgement of one of those novels for Book at Bedtime - but more to the point, a rich entertainment for the Radio 4 audience.
The Day of the Sardine is the tale of Arthur Haggerston, recent graduate of a sink school, trainee tearaway, embarking on a slippery journey into adulthood, dabbling in gang violence, seeking love and friendship, and all the while searching for a moral compass in an increasingly prosperous but also uncertain world.
The author called the book "a social thriller", a response to the changing times and the crumbling working-class culture of his adopted home - we moved to Newcastle in 1957 - and it remains as relevant today, 50 years after it was first published.
It's a gripping book, with brilliantly realised characters and sense of place, great comic interludes, but above all else deeply humane and sympathetic, like the man.
And the strange title? That refers to a piece of advice Arthur receives from his Ma's lodger and lover, the wise Harry, who works in a fish cannery: "Don't swim with the shoal, lad. Don't be a sardine. Be your own man. Navigate yourself."
I believe the abridgement works well, but it was hard work. Indeed it was one of the most difficult things I've ever done, for reasons both technical and personal. I suppose the experience has been, in John Mortimer's phrase, a voyage around my father, and as a result after all these years I've got to know both the book and the man rather better. His voice speaks through every line, often in revealing and surprising ways. As the architect Berthold Lubetkin said in another context "The song is over, but the chords go on vibrating".
As for Arthur Haggerston, I don't know whether my Dad found the name in the cemetery. Maybe I should go back and have a good look. Maybe I'd find traces of both of them there.
Michael Chaplin has adapted The Day of the Sardine for Radio 4