The Magazine

What's It All About?

The director and stars of the new Alfie miss what the book was trying to do.

Nov 22, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 10 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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THE HERO of Bill Naughton's 1966 novel Alfie is a cocky fellow, well-dressed and glib, a Cockney playboy who knows what it takes to woo the girls. When he first appears, Alfie is with Siddie, a "married woman of twenty-nine, so she said." She's his "regular Thursday night bint," he explains, and "a fair bit of grumble, clean as a nut, a trifle on the leggy side for my fancy, with muscles on her calves." But "she's got this beautiful chest." And "talk about cleavage!--it's like the Rotherhithe Tunnel."

They're parked near the Thames, at Blackfriars, in a Ford Consul deluxe. Alfie is done for the night, and done with Siddie too, although she doesn't know. Lately, she's been getting pushy, stepping too far into Alfie's space. "Once a married woman gets too hot on," he advises, "that's the time to cool off. They get you into trouble and it's not worth it."

Alfie is full of advice, an impulsive talker: "I no sooner think something than out it comes. I can't keep anything to myself." His is a riveting voice, by turns charming and repellent, full of shrewd insight and verve. And it's not surprising to learn that Naughton first created Alfred Elkins as a character in a 1962 radio drama that was soon turned into a successful London stage play starring Terence Stamp. Alfie was Naughton's first novel and sold well in both Britain and the United States, where it was promoted as another daring sign of changing literary times--the ribald confessions of a contemporary Casanova.

Born in 1910, Naughton was raised in Lancashire, and critics often placed him among "the Angry Young Men"--a loose category of British novelists and playwrights who came to prominence during the postwar years. These included John Braine, John Osborne, David Storey, Allan Sillitoe, and Kingsley Amis, whose 1954 novel Lucky Jim was widely regarded as a key "angry" work, with its satirical bite and its disillusioned protagonist at sea among the pompous and pretentious bourgeoisie.

It's true that Naughton shared with Braine, Storey, and Sillitoe a sympathetic interest in working-class characters and themes. He came from a "common laborer's background," as he notes in On the Pig's Back, his 1987 autobiography, and for years his highest hope was to land a "regular and assured" job and a decent pension. Naughton did not attend a university and taught himself to write in the early morning before heading off to drive a truck or bag coal--his main jobs before his writing found its way to the BBC and the London stage.

In fact, Naughton became a compulsive writer who drew closely from life. At the time of his death in 1992, Naughton had compiled a vast journal stored in steel trunks. These, he often said, were by far his most important writings--one man's eight-million-word record of a life fully lived and acutely observed. Naughton recorded countless conversations, many of them overheard in the pubs he frequented and the places he worked. He recalled friends, conflicts, flirtations, dreams, withholding nothing. At his request, Naughton's diaries will stay sealed for years to come.

Naughton was also interested in spiritual and religious matters. In his autobiography, he declares bad writing "a sin against the Holy Spirit--from which source all literature springs." He was a devoted reader of St. Augustine and the mystic Jakob Boehme. A practicing Catholic, Naughton's discovery of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis was, he adds, one of the most momentous events of his life, "far more important than getting married, or having plays and films put on or anything of that sort."

IN ALFIE, Naughton's keen observational skills--and his Catholic sensibility--are much in evidence. Naughton, one assumes, had known many Alfies in his life--clever, coarse men who covered up their fears with posings and boasts. Alfie fears both intimacy and pain. His expectations are low, and he lives for the day. Alfie's disdain for others scarcely conceals his hatred of himself. "I've never respected anybody or anything in all my born days," he admits, adding, "I expect I'll go to the grave not having been respected in turn." But then, "you can live without it. It's dying out everywhere."

Doused with Yardley Eau-de-Cologne for Men and looking sharp in his mohair pants, Alfie is both comic and pathetic, in constant need of the attention and affection he accepts as his due. The strenuous pursuit of women makes for a "marvelous life," he insists, particularly when one adds in the extra little privileges that often come one's way. One of Alfie's conquests runs a dry cleaning shop: "I used to get my suit cleaned in the bargain." Another, a chiropodist, is "no sex bomb as they say" but willing to "trim my toenails handsome."