Virginia Barton

Saintly Billy, On the Pig’s Back

Catholic Herald, 20 February 1987

Review: On the Pig’s Back by Bill Naughton (OUP, £10.95).


images_mobilism_org (2)This delightful ‘‘autobiographical excursion’’ by the creator of Alfie recalls the author’s earliest years in Co. Mayo and his schooldays in Bolton. The intriguing title is a charming Irishism meaning “to get lucky”.

The infant Bill, in sore distress at leaving his beloved Irish birthplace, is persuaded to leave go of the door-post by his mother’s assurance that all will turn out right and in Bolton where his father has gone to work as a coal-miner sure they’ll all be on the pig’s back. Whether or not they occupy this enviable position I leave you to discover.

Ireland is lyrically evoked; a rural community of close relations and kindly neighbours where the air is sweet-smelling and the silence deep. Bolton, on the other hand, is noisy with the tramp of iron-clad clogs and factory buzzers, a mill and mine town facing up to the Great War.

The two places might be portraits of his parents; the gentle, tender mother whom Bill adores and the argumentative difficult father whom as a child he cordially loathes. Little Bill attends the ghastly local Catholic school, but its horrors cannot stifle his growing religious belief. He blossoms inwardly, and his Catholicism and that of his family and relations is a constant motif throughout the book in a way that is natural and deep.

Anecdotal in style, the book contains some tear-jerking episodes, as when the six-year old Bill bravely resurrects the Ran Boys Dance, a St. Stephen’s Day Irish custom, in the uncompromising backstreets of war-time Bolton.

It’s a book full of vivid descriptions and lively characters, not least Bill himself, a real Irish charmer if ever there was one, truthfully self-revealed. It’s the truth in the book that makes it so special. The early chapters tell of his struggle to write and the difficulty of getting even one sentence down on paper. Some useful hints here for the would-be writer.

And the last chapter tells how he falls in love, at the age of ten, with the beautiful Alice, also ten, who has ringlets down her back and a clean frock every day. She reveals to him that his name William means “loved by all”. I wasn’t surprised.



 Catholic Herald, 25 March 1988

Review: Saintly Billy by Bill Naughton (Oxford University Press, £12.95)


Scoffing the last of the baron cakes (these must rate as the cosiest of breakfast goodies) earns the hero of On the Pig’s Back (OUP, 1987) a sharp rebuke from his sister, May. “Saintly Billy” she snorts, with heavy irony, for the lad is just home from early Mass and May’s lie-abed habits deprive her of the treat.

The scene is pleasantly familiar to those readers who enjoyed the earlier “autobiographical excursion”. The clean-scrubbed front kitchen in Unsworth Street, Bolton, in the twenties, with Mam behind the tea-pot and Father down t’pit. The immediate family circle reappear like old friends, the honest and reliable uncles, William and Mick, the cousins from. Co Mayo with their gentle lilting speech and quiet ways.

Kipling’s “family square”, united in defence against a hostile world, is expanded here to a community of Irish immigrants, drawn to the heart of cotton-spinning coal-mining Lancashire, in search of employment and a decent living.

Subtitled A Catholic Boyhood, Saintly Billy is an elaboration in detail of the last nine chapters of On a Pig’s Back and more besides. Graver in tone it has a touch of melancholy that I don’t recall in the previous book.

Billy is growing up and times were indeed hard for the Naughton family with the depression, strikes, the Troubles back home in Ireland, and living conditions we would find intolerable these days.

But the melancholy stems from Mam, Billy’s adored (and really she sounds adorable) mother, who mourns the suicide of her favourite brother with a grief so overwhelming and terrible it changes and ages her virtually overnight. Billy’s prospects look so bleak what with his stultifying school, his awkward and overbearing father and grieving mother, it seems the only door left open to him is sainthood. This pious intention and dazzling career is fraught with difficulties for he is not only intelligent, and therefore recognises every pitfall, but scrupulous in that childlike way where the smallest blot or blemish assumes gigantic proportions.

The trials and torments of adolescence seem to frustrate his noble ambition. Mercifully Billy recognises and then comes to term with the strange obsessions and fantasies of physical and spiritual growth and the book finishes with loud and happy laughter – a relief to hero and reader alike!

Mr. Naughton admits in chapter one that he was born in 1910, so we must assume he’s passed the first flush of youth and eaten of his salad days, but there is a joyful freshness and youthful vitality in Saintly Billy, quite untinged by cynicism, boredom or despair.

As an exile from both Ireland and Lancashire he recalls with delight and admiration the honest features and homely accents of the Boltonians, their tact and neighbourliness, their capacity for grinding toil and their sense of humour. These old mates, from school and street corners are as alive today as 60 odd years ago.

Places are people, and noisy, dirty post-war Bolton with its mean streets, privies, ringworm and fleas, for me at least is Uncle William, Bally Selby, Norman Burke and Miss Newsham in all the splendour of their characterisation. The Irish circle, self-contained but not exclusive, emerges with great credit and Bill Naughton will win many friends for his native land.

As one had hoped all along, the hero, you, Billy agraw, albeit no plaster saint, romps off the last page bursting with brains and energy – and straight into another book – I hope.




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