Prof laments loss of the gritty novel

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Remember Joe Lampton of Room at the Top? Arthur Seaton of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning? Vic Brown of A Kind of Loving?

They are almost forgotten, these shop-floor heroes, or anti-heroes, of the Fifties industrial novel. It tells of working-class struggles in communities dominated by mines, shipyards, docks, mills, factories and steelworks which have all but vanished with the demise of heavy industry. But now a professor of English wants to celebrate such fiction with the first academic conference devoted to it.

"Industrial fiction as we knew it has gone and we now celebrate remorselessly the sensitive souls of N1 and NW3 and the endless Bloomsbury trivia," says Professor Stephen Knight, of the University of Wales, Cardiff.

"There is a fair amount of feeling, certainly in the regions, that what we have now are a few sensitive souls banging away on expensive word- processors in London with Arts Council grants producing sensitive books about people in London.

"Industrial fiction by and large was produced by men and women who were there, who saw what was going on and who analysed the dramatic, dangerous and often tragic nature of life at the workface."

The conference will look atDickens's Hard Times, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and other works of the industrial age. Such fiction ended when communities were no longer tied to a single employer and people began to commute to work elsewhere.

"The problem is that there is none of that kind of industry left," says Professor Knight. "There is fiction about working people, like This Life, but there is a big difference. Industrial fiction was largely based not just on the workplace but on the community that was dominated by that mill or mine or factory. The two went together."