I forget which of my teachers called me an ‘angry young man’, which is a shame as it lead to just about the only useful thing I took from school. I was a cocky wee gobshite and regularly got ticked off in class, but the phrase ‘angry young man’ clearly had something more about it than the usual earbashing, so I asked my mum to explain. She told me of John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Alan Sillitoe and John Braine, and I rushed off to the library to devour ‘Look Back In Anger’, ‘Lucky Jim’, ‘Saturday Night And Sunday Morning’, ‘Room At The Top’ and whatever else I could find about these 1950s writers who raged against the establishment.
As I learnt more, I kept finding references to a writer called Colin Wilson, whose book ‘The Outsider’ had kicked the whole movement off. He’d written it at the British Museum while sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath, but, pre-Amazon, I couldn’t find it anywhere.
I never read ‘The Outsider’ or thought of Wilson for years until I came upon this excellent summary of Wilson’s life on Another Nickel In The Machine. Then came two more references in quick succession, in Barry Miles’s ‘London Calling’ and David Kynaston’s ‘Family Britain’. When I saw Wilson’s ‘The Angry Years’ for £3.99 in a remaindered bookshop in Waterloo, I knew I shouldn’t resist.
I’m glad I did. What a treat. Wilson’s book is a lively package of memoir, biography, literary criticism and score-settling as he describes his life with the ‘Angries’ in the 1950s. At times, Wilson comes across as a sort of intellectual Forrest Gump, who becomes unexpectedly famous and then wanders round the literary scene telling his peers why they aren’t as clever or important as he is, acting baffled that they take this the wrong way. It is bracing stuff: ‘I wrote [Kingsley] Amis a letter… trying to explain what I found unacceptable about his attitudes’; John Wain ‘seems totally unaware of how real people behave’; Beckett writes ‘dreary rubbish’; ‘Osborne’s use of a current event only demonstrated his lack of invention and the bankruptcy of his creative talent’. Larkin and Tynan also get it in the neck, and there are walk on parts for Sillitoe, Wesker, Braine and Alex Trocchi.
Wilson may not be subtle – and the latter part of the book, tracing the Angries’ decline is genuinely sorrowful – but by and large he’s right. When I first read ‘Look Back In Anger’ I thought it was nasty, fatuous and improbable, but was too frightened to say so. Ditto ‘Lucky Jim’. If this was meant to be a comic novel, why is it so bloody unfunny? And Jim Dixon isn’t angry (or all that young), he’s a middle-class twat with arrested development. I guess context is everything, and these works were revolutionary when they came out, paving the way for the novels that I loved: ‘Billy Liar’, funny, touching and true in all the ways ‘Lucky Jim’ wasn’t, ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’, a rabble-rousing morality tale that made a virtue of its simplicity, and above all David Storey’s ‘This Sporting Life’, which towers over everything else produced by or sucked into the Angry Young Men/Kitchen Sink orbit.
For me, the Angry Young Men worked best when rooted in the working class, and dilettantes like Amis’s Dixon and Osborne’s Porter just seemed to be a slightly different and no more appealing version of the very phoneys they raged against.
Throughout the book, Wilson writes engagingly and incisively and it’s sad that he has been so neglected (an issue this article takes up). But Wilson is a hard-to-pigeonhole oddball with a tendency to rub people up the wrong way, utterly convinced of his own seriousness but also happy to write books about things that aren’t allowed to be serious such as aliens, murder (at one point he mentions his ‘homicidal acquaintance Ian Brady’) and the occult.
I liked the book a great deal, but still won’t be rushing out to buy ‘The Outsider’ as I think I’d rather leave it unread. But I’m delighted that Wilson has reintroduced the Angry Young Men to me after a decade and am hugely grateful. So thanks Colin, and don’t let the bastards grind you down.