"The Rise and Fall of the Angry Young Men"
"The Rise and Fall of the Angry Young Men"
-excerpts from an outline by Colin Wilson of his current work in progress, a full-length study of the "Angry Young Men" of his generation
On May 8, 1956, a new play called Look Back in Anger opened at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. The author was a young actor/stage manager named John Osborne, and the play was actually a blast of rage directed at his ex-wife, actress Pamela Lane, from whom he had separated rather painfully. Osborne was working-class; Pamela was middle-class, and they had married secretly; however, her parents had learned about the wedding and came all the same - an episode that forms the subject of one of the play's best-known tirades.
Look Back in Anger was highly personal – an explosion of adolescent fury and misery that hardly seemed - to me - to deserve a West End premiere. But the English Stage Company, formed by actor-manager George Devine in the previous year, had had a series of flops, and urgently needed a success if it was to survive. Devine gambled on this play because, even if clumsy and immature, it was manifestly alive. Sadly, the most of critics who attended that first night felt it was a failure, although a few of them were kind about it, since it was a first effort. It looked, after all, as if the English Stage Company was going to go into liquidation. But the following Sunday, they were granted the miracle they had been praying for. A controversial young drama critic named Kenneth Tynan gave Look Back in Anger a rave review in the Observer, hailing Osborne as the most important playwright since the war. Suddenly, Osborne found himself famous and the English Stage Company became solvent overnight.
I became part of this story because before the end of that month, it was my first book The Outsider that received an unprecedented welcome in the two 'serious' Sundays. I quite literally woke up that morning to find myself famous, one critic heading his review: "HE'S A MAJOR WRITER AND HE'S ONLY 24". The Outsider, a study in alienated artists and writers, became a best seller in the UK and America, and went into 16 languages in its first year.
I had written it in the Reading Room of the British Museum while sleeping in a sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath to save rent, and this (and my working-class background and lack of university education) is what the media concentrated on.
The popular press insisted on labelling Osborne and myself 'Angry Young Men', although I certainly wasn't angry about anything. (I regarded The Outsider as a work of Existentialist philosophy.) But it was summertime and the silly season, when there was very little hard news to write about, and the press publicised the Angry Young Men for all they were worth, plunging us into a maelstrom of feeble-minded publicity.
Tynan was himself labelled an Angry Young Man, with more justification. At Oxford he had gone to considerable lengths to get himself noticed, wearing plum-coloured suits, lavender ties and a ruby signet ring, adorning the walls of his rooms with the knickers of his girlfriends, and advertising his taste for spanking their bottoms. (He told the audience at the Oxford Union: 'My theme is: just a thong at twilight'.) His passion was the theatre, and he came to London hoping to become a director. When this failed, he became a theatre critic, whose outspoken and outrageous reviews soon made him feared and hated by every actor and producer in the West End. He pinned on his desk a notice: "Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds".
A Paris production by Brecht's company The Berliner Ensemble convinced him that this was what theatre ought to be doing, and he promptly proclaimed himself a convert to Marxism (although, curiously enough, he preferred not to mention this in his credo in Declaration). So that first night of Look Back in Anger was just what he had been waiting for. Launching Osborne established him as the "king maker".
Another brilliant young man had ambitions in the same direction. His name was Tom Maschler, and he was an editor at the publisher MacGibbon and Kee. Maschler decided to cash in on that summer of non-stop publicity by editing a book called Declaration, which purported to consist of the 'credos' of its 'Angry' contributors, including Osborne, myself, Tynan, the novelists John Wain and Doris Lessing, film-maker Lindsay Anderson, and two of my close friends, Bill Hopkins and Stuart Holroyd, whose first books appeared soon after Declaration. Although savaged by the critics, it certainly added to the furore surrounding the 'Angry Young Men'. (Hopkins and Holroyd, I should add, soon regretted their inclusion as their books were also savaged.)
As the above list suggests, the phrase Angry Young Men was no longer confined to Osborne and myself. Lindsay Anderson was a left-wing film maker – in fact, a Marxist. John Wain was a poet and novelist who had attracted attention with his first novel Hurry on Down in 1952, about a hero who rejects the kind of respectable employment for which his university degree qualifies him, and prefers to drift from job to job. Doris Lessing came to London from Africa, and her first novel The Grass is Singing (1949) had been an angry portrayal of the attitude of white males in Rhodesia towards women and blacks. Wain's friend Kingsley Amis, who had achieved success with Lucky Jim, wisely declined to contribute to Declaration, thereby showing more wisdom than Hopkins and Holroyd.
In fact, long before the end of 1956, everyone was sick of the Angry Young Man cult, including the popular newspapers that had launched it. In 1957, my second book Religion and the Rebel received an unprecedented panning from the same critics who had praised The Outsider. Osborne's second play The Entertainer escaped the backlash largely because Laurence Olivier played the lead, but the critics made up for it with the reception of his musical The World of Paul Slickey, a satire on gossip columnists, after which Osborne was actually chased down Shaftesbury Avenue by enraged members of the audience. By this time the AYM movement had achieved too much momentum to fade away – particularly since the emergence of America's Beat Generation, and a volume called Protest: The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men included contributions from Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs as well as myself, Osborne, Amis, Wain and John Braine....
After its spectacular beginnings, Osborne's career became in many way anticlimactic. It was obvious to me after seeing Look Back in Anger that his basic problems were self-pity and failure to control his temper. This became clear to everyone in 1961 when he published in Tribune an open letter that started: "This is a letter of hate. It is for you my countrymen", and went on: "Damn you, England. You're rotting now, and quite soon you'll disappear..."
Critics of his plays were not surprised; they had become accustomed to receiving abusive letters from him. When, in 1966, The Times listed in its diary column some negative reviews of his adaptation of Lope de Vega's A Bond Honoured, Osborne sent the newspaper a telegram announcing that he was now declaring "open and frontal war" on newspapers and their paid hacks.
Luther (1961) is a Brechtian play that is ultimately unsatisfactory because he failed to bring Luther's personality into focus. Inadmissible Evidence (1964) is about a divorce lawyer who is on the verge of a mental breakdown because of a sense of personal inadequacy.
What became obvious in subsequent plays was the Osborne was writing much too fast (he admitted that his plays were thrown down on paper at top speed), and without real attention to workmanship. The result is a slapdash quality that led most critics to see a steady deterioration in the work of the '60s. Ronald Hayman, whose book on Osborne is basically sympathetic, says of Time Present and A Hotel in Amsterdam: "What was most disappointing about them was a total lack of the energy that had made the earlier plays so exciting...", and he says of the next play West of Suez: "There is very little shape or situation or action...." Of A Sense of Detachment (1972), in which an actor/manager sits on stage and exchanges chitchat with the audience, The Financial Times remarked "This must surely be his farewell to the theatre". And indeed it was, virtually, for a play called Watch it Come Down (1974) was taken off after only a few performances. There was still to come a sequel to Look Back in Anger called Déjà vu (1991) which was rejected by several managements, and when finally produced, dismissed by critics as self-absorbed and overlong. By the time he died of diabetes in 1994, Osborne had become an alcoholic....
Of Kingsley Amis, it might be said that his decline was caused by taking up an unsustainable attitude and sticking to it. The attitude in question was admiration for the 'ordinary chap' who regards culture as an affectation. Lucky Jim is a satire on the recorder-playing, folk-dancing crowd at a provincial university (based on Leicester, where Philip Larkin was working). The "ordinary chap", junior lecturer Jim Dixon, is contrasted with the pretentious bores who talk in drawling upper-class voices and dote on "filthy Mozart". Dixon had decided to teach mediaeval history because it was a "soft option", but everything about his job and his colleagues reduces him to "orgiastic boredom'" and rage. (Perhaps Amis's attitude was influenced by the fact that his own thesis on Victorian poetry had been turned down at Oxford, and he was forced to take a teaching job in Swansea.)
The frustration and disgust induced by Jim Dixon's job has made him incapable of distinguishing – or wanting to distinguish – between cultural affectation and intellectual seriousness. He assumes them to be the same thing. The same was true of Amis. Even Larkin, who had been his closest friend at Oxford, and who had helped him write Lucky Jim, found his "lowbrowism" irritating, writing to his girlfriend: "I sought his company because it gave me a wonderful sense of relief – I've always needed this "fourth form friend", with whom I can pretend things are not as I know they are... Now I don't feel like pretending any longer... He doesn't like books. He doesn't like reading. And I wouldn't take his opinion on anything, books, people, places...." Larkin's characterisation of Amis as a fourth former goes to the heart of the problem. I suspect that, like Jim Dixon's disproportionate loathing of the culture crowd, it sprang out of some kind of inferiority complex.
When I saw Amis's review of The Outsider in the Spectator, I was not surprised that it was entitled "The Legion of the Lost", and began: "Here they come - tramp, tramp, tramp – all those characters you thought were discredited, or had never read, or (if you were like me) had never heard of: Barbusse, Sartre, Camus...." I took this for a tongue-in-cheek pose, Amis pretending to be the intellectual barbarian. When I met Amis, not long after his Spectator review, I found him likeable, as everybody did. For many years, during which we met occasionally at parties or in television studios or literary gatherings, I regarded him as a friend. It was not until after his death, when I read his vitriolic comments on me to Larkin in his collected letters, that I realised that, where I was concerned, there was a genuine dislike tinged with alarm. It was then that I understood that the attitude he has expressed in the review was more than a flippant affectation....
His friend John Wain was basically a more serious writer, but his good qualities were overshadowed by a self-preoccupation of which he is obviously quite unconscious, and which imparts to his work an irritating air of egocentrism. Hurry on Down made his reputation as early as 1953, but was soon overtaken by the fame of Lucky Jim, and throughout Wain's life, his friend's greater success never ceased to rankle.
Like Amis, Wain was a serial seducer, but there is something about his attitude to women, as it emerges in his novels - his sexual opportunism and tendency to treat them as sex objects - that is curiously off-putting, a flavour of selfishness, as if the purpose of his "conquests" is to prove something to himself. This also came across in his rather prickly personality, which had a touch of paranoia. He took himself extremely seriously, having no doubt that he was a great writer who would one day win the Nobel Prize, and obviously experiencing immense frustration as novel after novel seemed to bring him no nearer to his goal. The problem here was that he saw himself as a humourist, but that his humour is too broad and farcical, as if he is determined to be funny, so that he seldom succeeds in creating character, only caricature.
It is the curiously obsessive egoism that spoils his biggest and most serious novel A Winter in the Hills (1971). Here the hero, an academic, goes to Wales to learn Welsh, planning to get a job at the University of Uppsala, which he hopes will be full of long-legged blondes with good teeth and a casual attitude to sex; but after two unsuccessful attempts at seducing local girls, he settles for stealing the wife of a bus driver who has been kind to him. For me at least, the book has – as the critic Kenneth Allsop said about two earlier novels, "a repellently cold and scaly feel" about it.
While Amis plays at being the anti-intellectual, Wain goes one further and poses as the intellectual who wishes to sound anti-intellectual – that is, practical, down to earth, even grumpy. This is somehow encapsulated in the photograph on the jacket of his book on Dr Johnson, showing the author in a flat cloth cap, as if telling the reader that, although a professor of literature, his feet are firmly on the ground. The brisk dedication to the book: "Ken's", seems designed to emphasise the point.
In mid-life, Wain's career began to falter, and he lived as a freelance journalist and writer. In later life he was often seriously short of money, and ended by being subsidised by the Royal Literary Fund. He died in 1994, the year before Amis.
The story of John Braine also contains an element of tragedy. When I first met him – soon after Room at the Top – he was agonising about what to write next. And he decided on another slice of autobiography, a novel called The Vodi, about a man lying in hospital with tuberculosis when he hears that his girl has dumped him. Predictably, this was a failure. In 1960, he and I went to Leningrad together on a Russian ship; he was tormented by his anxiety about his next book, and although on the wagon when we set out, soon fell off it and spent much of his time gloomily boozing. I had taken my wife Joy, but John made the mistake of leaving his wife behind. He got home earlier than expected, to find her in a compromising situation, and plunged even deeper into alcoholism. But at least it did him some good, for it gave him the idea of a sequel to Room at the Top in which the hero returns home unexpectedly to find his wife in bed with someone else. Life at the Top was a great success and was turned into a film.
Unfortunately, he once again found himself facing the problem of what to write next, and produced a number of novels with an autobiographical element, some of them (like The Queen of a Distant Country) excellent. But when he had used up the autobiography, he began to write novels about couples in the stockbroker belt who spend their time in one another's beds. John was a great admirer of the American John O'Hara, who specialised in huge "social novels", each requiring enormous preparation, examining some small section of American society, usually the well-off. But Braine was simply not geared to this kind of writing. He was at his best writing about something he knew well.
He tried his hand at spy novels about a Catholic agent (he was Catholic) who has to cross himself before killing someone, but then moved back to thinly disguised autobiography in two painfully slow-moving novels about a writer's affair with a middle aged lady he had met after the bitter separation from his wife.
He put up his work-notebooks for sale, but they failed to meet their reserve price. Finally, living alone in a room in Hampstead, John developed a stomach ulcer, and died when it burst. So he was yet another of my fellow 'angries' whose career ended on a tragic note.
But I always felt that the problem went deeper than mere lack of a subject to write about. He struck me as virtually a dual personality. Basically a romantic (as Room at the Top makes clear), he liked to present himself as a hard-headed and opinionated Yorkshireman who, in his drinking days (he later gave it up) went in for lengthy monologues on practical subjects (like gas stoves) until everyone was paralysed with boredom. Inside he was obviously full of anxiety and self-doubt. Since he was determined to keep this part of himself hidden from the world, it never succeeded in finding expression in his work, which as a consequence was written with only half his personality, and never again regained that kind of whole-heartedness that made Room at the Top so alive.
This strange determination to hide behind a kind of mask became very obvious in later years, when he made a habit of turning up at Bertorelli's, in Soho, for Thursday lunch with Amis and other right wing friends. (Like Amis, John had started out as a socialist.) There he would lay down the law on what was wrong with modern society, modern youth, etc, flogging dead horses until he had reduced everyone to gloomy silence. And he was so obviously a good and well-meaning person behind this façade that no one had the heart to tell him to shut up.
One of the most interesting writers in Declaration, and certainly one who most deserves the label "angry", was Doris Lessing. Born in 1919, her family moved that what is now Zimbabwe in the hope of becoming rich, but this venture failed. Her childhood was unhappy, since her mother wanted her to be a well brought up young lady, and sent her to a convent, which she hated. She left school at 13, but had an inborn craving for books and ideas, and read Dickens and D. H. Lawrence as a form of escape. She left home at 15 to become a housemaid, and married at 19. The role of wife and mother left her frustrated, and she left her husband. At about this time, she joined the Left Book Club because its members (in Salisbury) were book lovers and intellectuals, and married one of them. She was a committed Communist until after World War Two, but became disillusioned and left the CP when she was 25. By then she was living in London, and had written her first novel, The Grass is Singing, which was highly acclaimed. During the Angry Young Man period she was writing an autobiographical series about her heroine Martha Quest. The Golden Notebook (1966) also broke interesting new ground, with a heroine who has multiple selves. In due course, she became an icon of the feminist movement.
For me, her most important breakthrough was in 1979, with her science fiction series Canopus in Argos, where she began to display a preoccupation with a subject dear to my own heart, the evolution of consciousness. (I have always believed that humankind is on the point of an evolutionary breakthrough to a higher level of consciousness.) And the final volume of the Martha Quest novels, The Four Gated City, is particularly exciting because it moves beyond the leftist social attitudes of the earlier volumes, and speaks of the evolution of mankind as we learn to make use of our latent psychic powers, and achieve a kind of telepathic group unity. Doris Lessing seems to me by far the most interesting of my "angry" contemporaries, certainly closest to my own preoccupations....
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