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date: 22 September 2020

Angry young menfree

(act. 1956–1958)
  • Michael Ratcliffe

Angry young men (act. 1956–1958), was the catch-all name applied by the popular press to a group of novelists, poets, playwrights, and philosophers, most prominently Kingsley Amis, John Braine, John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe, John Wain, and Colin Wilson (1931–2013). The group was unusual in that the major figures—apart from Amis and Wain—had small respect for each other's work and almost never met. Speaking in 1957 Osborne dismissed the '“Angry Young Man” cult' as 'a cheap, journalistic fiction' (Carpenter, xi). However, the figure of the AYM, as he was also known, was not under their control, and proved a potent one for Fleet Street editors and theatre audiences after the seven years of austerity that followed the Second World War. The key texts that gave rise to the concept of the angry young men are the novels Hurry on Down (Wain, 1953), Lucky Jim (Amis, 1954), Room at the Top (Braine, 1957), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Sillitoe, 1958, 1959); the plays Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer (Osborne, 1956, 1957); and the philosophical inquiry The Outsider (Wilson, 1956). They are as distinguished by their differences as by what unites them.

The AYM were angry about—or at least emotionally stirred by—quite distinct things. Amis and Wain were Oxford graduates and redbrick university teachers; among the targets of their subversive comedies was the exclusiveness of received literary opinion. Braine, a Roman Catholic and provincial librarian then working in the West Riding of Yorkshire, wrote a bitter attack on the small-town cynicism and hypocrisy that destroy a passionate love affair. Sillitoe, an impoverished autodidact who went straight into piecework in a Nottingham factory at fourteen, laid bare a class war that had never gone away. Osborne, a touring actor with no formal further education, attacked English apathy with a ferocious cry for more feeling. The Outsider, described on its dust jacket as 'An inquiry into the nature of the sickness of mankind in the mid-twentieth century', called for a new race of genius-heroes to end, among other things, what George Orwell had described in Homage to Catalonia (1938) as 'the deep, deep sleep of England'.

Those identified as angry young men mostly worked in, or wrote about, what would then have been recognized as a ‘B-list’ of British towns and cities—Reading, Leicester, Derby, Swansea, Bingley, Stoke-on-Trent—and shared a very English distaste for ‘abroad’. Their heroes love women, but find them, like the reforms of the new welfare state, emasculating. Wilson apart, either they or their heroes had served in the last stages of the Second World War or done national service, and the threat of nuclear annihilation rumbles through their work. They despised mediocrity, and found they lived in what appeared to be a mediocre country. After an empire and two exhausting world wars the big question was: what now? The short-term answer, in both their work and lives, was that a lot of beer was drunk, and later, with success, a lot of wine. The long-term answer was never found.

Orwell had died in 1950, leaving no obvious literary heir. Few leading writers were addressing life outside London or the subtle social changes taking place in Britain's post-war world. Angus Wilson had introduced homosexual protagonists into his novels at a time when homosexuality was against the law; William Cooper's Scenes from Provincial Life (1950), which also has a gay relationship at the centre of its plot, was set in and around a Leicester school and was very influential on both Amis and Wain. But Wilson and Cooper were both over forty by the mid-1950s, and there were no young radical British writers of novels or plays. The most influential editors and critics had been to public schools and were middle-aged; they preached the twin faiths of Bloomsbury and modernism, and hoped to discover a young genius from the working class.

What happened first, though, was a modest revolution in poetry and criticism by clever grammar-school boys. Among leaders of what came to be known as the Movement (although all resisted any grouping) were Philip Larkin (from Coventry), Amis (south London), and Wain (Stoke), who had met as Oxford undergraduates during the war. In April 1953 Wain replaced the quintessential mandarin John Lehmann as editor of the First Reading programme on the BBC Third Programme and began his campaign against metropolitan refinement with a fifteen-minute extract from Amis's still unfinished Lucky Jim. Two days later the novel was accepted by Victor Gollancz, who published it in January 1954. Amis frequently discussed drafts with Larkin. But it was Wain's own novel Hurry on Down (1953)—the tale of a mediocre history graduate wilfully dropping through society and putting off for as long as possible what he nervously calls 'the task of adjustment to the world'—that first defined some enemies against whom the angries' battles would be fought. Among these were emotional dishonesty, the banality of consensus, and the manifest nonsense uttered by those unworthy to be in charge. These targets were all hit with more wit and precision in Lucky Jim than in Hurry on Down, and the two authors had a prickly relationship thereafter.

Amis's Jim Dixon, also a mediocre historian, eager to get the right girl and hang on to his campus job, was soon perceived as a new type of Englishman for a new kind of England: scruffy, redbrick, offensive. There was much confusion over where to place Jim on the subtle ladder of class, but the world simply decided that Lucky Jim was the funniest and most disrespectful novel since the war. It received strong endorsement from Edith Sitwell, Anthony Powell, and John Betjeman, but the vulgar new world of Hurry on Down and Lucky Jim so offended Somerset Maugham that he told Sunday Times readers on 25 December 1955 that it was inhabited by people who were not only ill-mannered but actually 'scum'. Five months later in his Observer review the critic Kenneth Tynan joyfully welcomed Osborne's Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre as 'all scum and a mile wide'.

A pained, painful, and violently funny play, Look Back in Anger returned invective to the English stage for the first time since George Bernard Shaw and placed it in the mouth of a sadist who was also a romantic and patriot manqué: 'There aren't any good, brave causes left', cries Jimmy Porter bitterly in the third act of the play. 'If the big bang does come, and we all get killed off, it won't be in aid of the old-fashioned, grand design. It'll just be for the Brave New-nothing-very-much-thank-you. About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus.' Reviews were mixed until Tynan famously declared in The Observer that he doubted if he 'could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger'. In Tynan's opinion Osborne had spoken for everyone in the country between twenty and thirty years old. Nonsense, riposted a Times fourth leader on 26 May, 'the youth of today visits prisons and reads Kierkegaard'.

That Colin Wilson had certainly read Kierkegaard was confirmed by the reviews of his The Outsider on the following day. It was described by Cyril Connolly in the Sunday Times as 'one of the most remarkable first books I have read for a long time', and by Philip Toynbee in The Observer as 'an exhaustive and luminously intelligent study of a representative theme of our time'. This was the bankruptcy of Western humanism and the need for spiritual regeneration through a new kind of visionary hero. Reviewers gasped at the leaps of Wilson's synthesis and the range of his reading. The initial print run of 5000 sold out on the first day. Reporters and photographers were enchanted. Owlish, floppy-haired Wilson told interviewers of the years of swotting in the British Museum's reading room and sleeping out on Hampstead Heath, and the latter scene was reconstructed for a photo-shoot in Life magazine. Time swooned over his turtle-neck sweaters, beaver-coloured corduroy trousers, and pale blue eyes. Wilson-clones were seen in the espresso bars.

The naming of the AYM was imminent. As Look Back in Anger went into rehearsal, George Fearon, an exasperated Royal Court press officer, described Osborne as an 'angry young man'. The first public use of the term came on 7 July 1956 when the Evening Standard journalist Thomas Wiseman referred to 'That angry young man John Osborne'. Two days later Osborne himself repeated the phrase on the BBC's Panorama programme, and journalists ran with it. In two articles in the Daily Mail (12 and 13 July) Daniel Farson drew attention to a 'number of remarkable young men' who 'have appeared on the scene', and highlighted the work of Amis, Wilson, the playwright Michael Hastings (b. 1938), and Osborne 'whose angry young man Jimmy Porter' typified 'the lack of any real belief among his generation'. On 26 July John Barber's piece in the Daily Express ran under the title: 'Today's angry young men and how they differ from Shaw'.

The AYM core of Wain, Amis, Osborne, and Wilson was officially established; and the Mail and the Express drafted the angries into one of Fleet Street's oldest circulation wars. It was a dizzying recruitment, but if Osborne and Wilson rode the tiger of celebrity with some zeal, Amis was content merely to give it a passing flick. He never saw Look Back in Anger, and his review of The Outsider in The Spectator deplored the immodesty, irrationalism, and 'lack of ordinary human warmth' in Wilson's view of the world, 'feeling as I do that one is better off with too much reason than with none at all'.

In the fevered climate of the autumn that saw the Suez campaign and the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising five million people watched an extract from Look Back in Anger on BBC television (16 October), while Granada TV screened a complete performance (28 November). The text became a best-seller. Britain's last imperial adventure informed Osborne's next play, The Entertainer (first performed 10 April 1957), which compared the nation to a tatty old seaside revue of goose-pimpled nudes and rock 'n' roll run by a sour and bankrupt comic—a role savagely well taken by Laurence Olivier, the greatest actor of the day. 'Don't clap too hard', snaps Archie Rice as he stares into the dark of a half-empty theatre, 'It's a very old building'. Colin Wilson reviewed the play for The Express. Concealing his opinion that Osborne was 'utterly without talent', he announced instead that the myth of the angry young men, invented by journalists, was now dead.

It was not. From 22 July, under the banner 'Sex and success', the Express began a ten-day serialization of John Braine's acclaimed novel Room at the Top. Reviewers had compared Braine to Stendhal, and added him to the canon of the AYM at the age of thirty-five. His hero Joe Lampton is, like Jimmy Porter and Jim Dixon, a philanderer on the rack in the urban provinces (here the West Riding of Yorkshire), but with two differences: Joe has very bad memories of the war, and he is a philanderer consumed by guilt. He falls in love with an unhappily married woman, and Room at the Top achieves something rare in English fiction: a tragic love affair with convincing sex. Jack Clayton's 1959 film, with Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret, kick-started a distinguished decade for British cinema [see British new wave cinema].

Attempts to bring the angry young men together usually failed. Wilson was the most eager, pursuing Amis for a meeting and giving Braine a bed for the night in Notting Hill. Daniel Farson in turn brought Amis and Wilson together for lunch and invited Osborne to Wilson's flat. Neither encounter resulted in closer relations, though Braine was a welcome if lugubrious guest in the late 1960s at Amis's self-styled 'fascist beast' lunches at Bertorelli's in Charlotte Street, London, which also included Anthony Burgess, Anthony Powell, and Bernard Levin. (Amis wrote Braine's entry in the Oxford DNB, where he describes him as 'a man of great natural sweetness'.)

In 1957 the young publisher Tom Maschler (b. 1933) invited a broad selection of AYM to contribute their views on the world in a collection of personal manifestos—a most un-British idea. Amis refused to take part, Braine was never asked, and Iris Murdoch declared that she had 'nothing to declare'. The line-up was still impressive: Doris Lessing (b. 1919), Osborne, Tynan, Wain, the young film director Lindsay Anderson, Wilson, and his fellow outsiders Bill Hopkins (b. 1928) and Stuart Holroyd (b. 1933). Lessing was optimistic on the writer's vital role, commending in her immediate juniors their 'protest against the pettiness and narrowness of what offends them' (Maschler, 23). Both she and Maschler dismissed the AYM label as little more than a convenience of the moment, but Maschler believed that 'some of our writers of today … may determine our society tomorrow' (ibid., 9). Most reviewers were unconvinced.

Osborne's furious republicanism kept him in the public eye; but Wilson's star was fading, as the media and public tired of his self-regard and drift into what seemed like a kind of crypto-fascism with a contempt for those less gifted than his heroes. More damaging was his inability to argue philosophically, while insisting that he was doing so, and reviews of Religion and the Rebel (1957), the sequel to The Outsider, were recantingly harsh. Philip Toynbee, for example, dismissed it as 'a vulgarizing rubbish bin'. Probably the largest-ever gathering of AYM and their acolytes mustered in the tiny Royal Court on 9 March 1958 for a Sunday night performance of Holroyd's spiritual drama The Tenth Chance. Present were Holroyd, Wilson, Osborne, Tynan and his wife, Elaine Dundy, Michael Hastings, the poet Christopher Logue (b. 1926), and Sir Oswald Mosley, an admirer of Wilson. The play was not well received by some and the evening rapidly led to confrontation. Cries of 'Rubbish!' (Logue) and 'Stay out of my life, Wilson!' (Tynan) were followed by noisy exits and a punch-up in the pub next door: 'We'll stamp you out, Tynan! You wait' (Wilson). It seemed to be all ending like a scene from Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School.

At this point, however, the longed-for working-class novelist finally arrived; but he was not the naïve exemplar the mandarins had been expecting. Alan Sillitoe never felt he 'belonged' to the working class because he hardly felt he belonged to his own parents. When Saturday Night and Sunday Morning appeared in October 1958 he was already thirty, having served in the RAF, contracted tuberculosis, lived abroad for seven years, read voraciously, been helped by Robert Graves in Majorca, and taught himself to write by writing. In Saturday Night he replaced the conventional class-warrior hero by sharp, sexy Arthur Seaton, a skilled, well-paid manual worker who postpones the revolution until tomorrow because he has all the women and booze he wants today. In Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959), a novella whose narrative is drawn in one single, relentless line, the revolution arrives. The borstal boy declines the offered chance to escape on his dawn solo runs and engineers the far subtler revenge of deliberately losing the race and humiliating the middle-class governor who has patronized his gift. This is one of the angriest stories of the decade, and the anger, unlike Osborne's, is ice-cold. After Karel Reisz's outstanding film of Saturday Night, with Albert Finney, Sillitoe's novel sold five million copies in paperback, as many as The Dam Busters and Peyton Place, the biggest sellers of the time. The producer, Harry Saltzman, bought the screen rights to the James Bond novels with the proceeds.

By the end of the 1950s journalists, critics, publishers, theatre-goers, and readers were moving towards newer excitements, bigger beasts abroad, and deeper anxieties at home: the playwrights Brendan Behan and Shelagh Delaney at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop; the Roots trilogy of Arnold Wesker; Nabokov, Beckett, Pasternak, Harold Pinter, and Brecht; the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a dangerous cold war. The angries went their own separate ways, writing and publishing regularly. Wain wrote an excellent life of Samuel Johnson (1974); Wilson cheerfully told an interviewer in 2004 that he still believed he was 'the most important writer of the 20th century'; Sillitoe and Braine never repeated their first successes, which have remained in print, classics of their time. The best work of Amis and Osborne was still to come. In their later years they cut one another from opposite ends of the Garrick Club bar.

The idea of a dynamic, subversive group of angry young men was hot copy for no more than nine months in 1956 and 1957, but it entered the collective memory of the British where it remains, if with diminished clarity, more than half a century later. More significantly, the AYM phenomenon reasserted the very idea of change itself, and helped to sweep clear the stage upon which the far more extensive cultural revolution of the 1960s—in fiction, theatre, fashion, music, media, politics, art, film, gender, sexuality, public satire, and the end of censorship itself—could flourish.

Sources

  • H. Ritchie, Success stories: literature and the media in England, 1950–1959 (1988)
  • H. Carpenter, The angry young men: a literary comedy of the 1950s (2002)
  • F. Kermode, ‘The outsiders’, The Guardian (25 Nov 2002) [review of H. Carpenter, The angry young men]
  • C. Wilson, The angry years: the rise and fall of the angry young men (2007)
  • T. Maschler, ed., Declaration (1957)
  • J. Heilpern, John Osborne: a patriot for us (2007)
  • Z. Leader, The life of Kingsley Amis (2007)
  • J. Osborne, A better class of person: an autobiography, 1929–1956 (1981)
  • J. Osborne, Almost a gentleman: an autobiography, 1955–1966 (1991)
  • K. Amis, Memoirs (1991)
  • A. Sillitoe, Life without armour (2004)
  • S. Holroyd, Contraries: a personal progression (1975)
  • A. Motion, Philip Larkin: a writer's life (1993)