By Darran Anderson
From the young turk of English letters to “scrambled egghead,” Colin Wilson’s journey into, and out of, the literary limelight was meteoric. Fittingly it traces the same arc as the Angry Young Men, the loose title given to his generation of 50s writers, bracketed together as young lower-class upstarts, rejecting romanticism and the abstract in favour of socially-conscious, rebellious and sexually-explicit writing. The speed of their ascendancy would be matched only by their calamitous decline. With The Angry Years, Wilson aims to provide a history of the movement from the eye of the hurricane. Somewhere along the line though, due to a giddy mix of arrogance and animosity, he runs aground.
It begins amiably enough. Defying the odds as a working class writer in the stultifying bourgeois climate of the time, Wilson set forth his claim to literary greatness with The Outsider, a masterly examination of the cultural phenomena of the ones who don’t fit in (whether they are philosophers, artists or writers), the reasons for their being and their effect on society. Praised to high heaven by reviewers (kingmaker critic Philip Toynebee championed it as “truly astounding”), it stormed into the bestseller charts and proved a pivotal text in that mid-century transition period when the tradition of troubled bohemian individuals gave way to a mass counterculture.
Post-The Outsider, and with some justification, Wilson was in no uncertain terms of his own genius and was somewhat perturbed to be thrown into the same lot as fledgling writers of a similar ilk. In a sense, they were put together due more to what they opposed than to their common characteristics of antagonism, openness and a desire for the realities of daily life to be made into art. In the first few chapters, Wilson perceptively sketches the cultural no-mans land they had inherited in post war Britain, where art was floundering in stale Edwardian country house farces, a place where a prominent intelligentsia figure like W. Somerset Maugham could label the first working-class students to be allocated university places “scum.” Fifty years into it, the 20th century had not yet arrived. Wilson skilfully depicts the class conflict with a private anecdote, relating the time when the well-heeled father of his girlfriend (and wife-to-be), sickened that his daughter would shack up with a lowly pleb, burst in brandishing a horsewhip roaring, “Wilson, the game is up!” The monotonous era of snobbery and decay needed to be purged, “the younger generation had failed to arrive, and the silence seemed ominous” as Wilson notes, and so the Angry Young Men stepped up.
Wilson’s personal and critical account of what happened next is rife with strong moments. He adroitly describes how the establishment could handle criticism from within, where it could be harmlessly absorbed but not from below, a tendency that gave the AYM their power and also vulnerability. When he connects with his philosopher side, he can be a smart and erudite thinker, hitting on higher truths such as the revelation that “the dark side of human nature” is “based as much upon boredom and lack of purpose as evil or violence.” He unearths overlooked concepts and voices unfashionable but trenchant opinions: particularly his opposition to pessimism in literature and the idea of “sexual underprivilege.” One interesting proposition that there are two forms of creed, “the closed religion of dogmas and prohibitions” and “the open religion of saints, mystics and poets,” is left frustratingly unexpanded upon here. Reminding us of the importance and bravery of mavericks in neutralising the cold hand of Lord Chamberlain over artistic freedom in Britain, he also justly elevates writers of real depth like Iris Murdoch as “the most interesting” of his contemporaries. He also commendably makes repeated denunciations of their sexism and flirtations with Stalinism.
The Angry Years goes up a gear with the accounts of the more excessive characters that cross Wilson’s path. The theatre critic Kenneth Tynan stands out as a sado-masochistic dandy (“I’m twenty-three, and I will either die or kill myself when I reach thirty because by then I will have said everything I have to say”), avant-garde in the true vanguard sense of the word, the commissar of the new wave with his shock and awe approach to criticism (a note attached to his writing desk read, “Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds”) who displayed a proto-Gonzo “trick of jauntily introducing himself and his personality into his reviews.”
Another striking character profiled is the late Scottish Situationist/Beat Alexander Trocchi policing performance at orgies with a ruler, trying to use heroin “creatively” and paying a sorry price for his misdemeanours. Such character studies are sketched memorably and succinctly by Wilson.
And yet just as the book seems to hit it’s stride, Wilson exposes a critical flaw from which it struggles to recover; judgement. Having built up sturdy biographical accounts of his contemporaries, he proceeds to cut them down, to the extent you can only conclude he despises them. His vigorous recounting of their infidelities, imperfections and their respective declines certainly maintain interest; it’s the hints of wallowing in their misfortunes and mistakes that disturbs. Characters are built up and knocked down with petty jibes and acerbic asides. At times it reaches a pitch that is compelling (alas for the wrong reasons) and you can amuse yourself at the sheer flamboyance and cattiness of his comments.
Here’s a taster. Guilty of “intellectual laziness,” Kingsley Amis exhibits such “downright aggressive stupidity that aroused in me a desire to kick him in the crotch and beat him up.” To his classic Lucky Jim, Wilson responds, “So what?”
“Utterly without talent”, John Osbourne <em."would never have been taken seriously if it had not been for the praise of an emotionally retarded critic." He further adds that “the length of his chin, which seemed disproportionate, prevented him from being good looking.” Few get off the hook. It’s hilarious stuff. The problem is I suspect it’s not meant to be.
There is a kind of sordid allure in such lurid details. Hemingway‘s sharp, albeit anatomically improbable, suggestion, “I advise you Tynan to take your fucking eyes and stick them up your fucking ass” lingers in the mind. As does Amis Snr’s purported comment to Philip Larkin, “On Friday I am giving a little coffee-party for six of my students…I am inviting the one I want to bugger and the two I most want to fuck.”
In fairness, due to their deeds, there are few sympathetic individuals within the movement so Wilson may well be spot on. Many were moral cowards, philanderers who disowned their families and drove their wives to madness, botched abortions and lives of loneliness. Tynan beat his wife Elaine unconscious, breaking her nose in the process, while the heroic Trocchi would pimp out his addict girlfriend Lyn for money to score junk. There’s just something about wallowing in the lives of people who have long since died, often in pitiable circumstances, which seems distasteful. Added to this is the veiled motive of revenge. Coincidentally many of Wilson’s targets seem to be figures that have spurned or crossed him; Tynan had bitterly dismissed the writer as “a butterfly-theorist” and “a brash young metaphysical,” while Amis had once threatened, in all seriousness, to throw him from a rooftop. It thus seems a sustained attempt to avenge himself over dead men. The danger is that you can catch things from digging up corpses and rummaging around in their bones.
Behind it all, there seems to be a sort of frustrated, purgatorial talent, meaning the book comes across as the history of the movement according to its Iago. Sometimes arrogance can come across as endearing or humorous (in moments here it succeeds in both those respects) but all too often it falls flat. You wonder about the need for the braggadocio, perhaps it’s an over-compensation for being sidelined. It feeds into a wider disenchantment with the movement, a belief that it was at best a marriage of convenience, at worst a tabloid-deployed snare to trivialise the lot of them. It doesn’t help that he refers to “this angry young men nonsense” and claims to have “had nothing whatever in common with Wain, Amis, Osbourne or John Braine,” at which point you’re tempted to ask why are you writing this book?
The balance of memoir and cultural history is a hard trick to pull off and sadly Wilson fails to do so. Real insight comes in infrequent bursts, leaving the audience to join the dots. He claws it back a bit in the last few chapters but by then it’s too late. The issues promised in the sweeping analytical table of contents are skirted over and seem dropped in to intellectualise rather than aid the telling. His historical accounts seem strangely dry and encyclopaedic, which makes his occasional caustic outburst even more startling. The cutting diatribes, a guilty pleasure at times, ironically encourage sympathy for Wilson’s adversaries. It’s like watching an episode of the South Bank Show, only one that is frequently interrupted by an intruder wandering into shot, roaring insults and “I could’ve been someone!” at the presenter. At times it seems like he’s heckling his own book.
With the exception of Philip Larkin and Iris Murdoch (who were only ever on the periphery), the Angry Young Men rapidly fell apart and lost significance. They had succeeded in exorcising some of the snobbery and gentility from British theatre, introducing a sense of every-day actuality and an element of menace into proceedings, which would path the way for the greater triumphs of David Hare, Brendan Behan and Harold Pinter. In the end, their hasty decline wasn’t due to the forces of conservatism or the establishment who had used their character flaws, of which there were many, to discredit them. It wasn’t even their “plotting and backstabbing,” misogyny or lack of coherence, though they all played their part. It was their own irrelevancy, purveying kitchen-sink dramas while the world was already spinning towards Sputnik and Haight-Ashbury. History outflanked them and they soon looked dour and parochial, black and white in the coming lysergic age.
The Angry Years is an able, entertaining, but highly flawed account. The way Wilson writes and the emotions that guide him seem to reveal more about the rise and fall of the AYM than anything he actually says. They tried and ultimately they blew it. At best the forerunners of the potent urban-realism of Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and latterly Shane Meadows and Peter Mullan, their legacy is still a mixed one due to their defects; for every Alfie or Boys From the Blackstuff, there’s a copy of Loaded magazine or a life-negating episode of Eastenders.
In Alan Sillitoe‘s classic AYM text Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the main character Arthur Seaton rails against authority and the bastards he sees all around him. The surprise, garnered from Wilson’s book, is that the Angry Young Men are to be included in this sorry number.
The Angry Years: The Rise & Fall of the Angry Young Men by Colin Wilson
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