We had to write a non-fiction piece. A letter to the editor, or an opinion piece were suggested. I couldn't think of a topic, so I wrote a book review instead. It's a genuine review, in the sense that it is a review of book I'd recently read. By the way, the name of the publisher is sheer coincidence. It has nothing to do with me or my family...
We were asked to bear in mind the place where it might be published and to choose a style that would be appropriate for that publication. I pointed the piece at the New Zealand Listener so I chose to review a book that might appeal to that magazine's audience. It's a fairly in-depth review and perhaps a bit "intellectual" which is often a characteristic to be found in Listener reviews.
The Angry Years is Colin Wilson's hugely entertaining examination of the angry young men; those playwrights, poets, novelists and critics who made up the first significant post war literary movement in the UK. They took their name from the title of John Osborne's play Look Back In Anger. The hero of that play, one Jimmy Porter, spent most of his time indulging himself in bitter (and rather loud) tirades against the establishment. He was a very angry young man indeed, and many other writers with a deep sense of disaffection at the class barriers that kept them from living the good life, seemed to regard Jimmy Porter's polemics as a manifesto. And so a movement was born.
Wilson himself came to prominence in 1956 with the publication of The Outsider, a collection of essays that examined the literary and philosophical principles that define an isolated individual who finds himself on the outside of society, looking in. It seemed to strike some kind of chord, and it was a massive best seller. On the strength of The Outsider, Wilson himself was often considered to be an angry young man. However he always denied being part of the group. After all, wasn't he an outsider?
Nevertheless, he was certainly very well acquainted with almost all of the writers who were tarred with that very angry brush. They all moved in the same social and literary circles and they saw a lot of each other at parties. As a consequence, Wilson always knew where the bodies were buried, and in The Angry Years, he reveals a lot of salacious gossip about the group's prime movers and shakers. All their dirty linen is aired, and there are no secrets any more. This is a very voyeuristic book, but nevertheless, alongside all of the scandal that Wilson reports, there runs a parallel thread of thoughtful literary and social analysis which digs deeply into the mood of the times, and which closely examines the thinking that lay behind the stance those angry young people adopted.
As a result of his analysis, Wilson comes to the conclusion that the movement, if movement it was, was ephemeral, driven much more by personal feelings and insecurities than it was by conviction and philosophy. Almost everyone involved turned out to have feet of clay.
It is Wilson's opinion that most of the angry young men were talentless one shot wonders, and time seems to have proved him right. Osborne himself never again wrote a play with the stature of Look Back In Anger. Arnold Wesker was a playwright whose reputation once eclipsed even that of John Osborne, but these days his plays are seldom, if ever, performed. John Braine wrote one magnificent novel (Room at the Top), a mediocre sequel (Life at the Top) and a dozen or more utterly obscure novels that never amounted to anything very much at all. And who among us these days can name even a single novel by John Wain? I certainly can't.
Of all the angry writers who were considered to be part of the movement, only the novelist Kingsley Amis and the poet Philip Larkin managed to make a significant, lasting impression on the world of letters. Amis's novels sold well throughout his life and, when John Betjeman died, Larkin was offered the post of Poet Laureate. He turned it down...
Both Colin Wilson and I remain uncertain as to whether Amis and Larkin were ever really quite as anti-establishment as their early work suggested they might be. Certainly the socially and politically disaffected Amis of the Lucky Jim years very quickly turned into a complacent, rabidly right wing, alcoholic, fat and fornicating member of the establishment. It's hard to imagine anyone less angry with the status quo (though he was often angry with his friends...). And Larkin kept himself physically quite isolated from the literary activities of the times. He lived most of his life in Hull, a very long way away from the country's cultural centres. He was well aware of what was going on (his posthumously published letters revealed a lifetime-long correspondence with Kingsley Amis and others) but he took little part in the mainstream, preferring to plough his own furrows. Furthermore I think it is significant that although his poetry was often culturally barbed and extremely insightful, he continued to use rhyme and rhythm in an age when his contemporaries had completely abandoned those old fashioned techniques...
The Angry Years is thoughtful, funny, wise and very probably libellous. I suspect there are good reasons why Colin Wilson waited until all the angry young men were safely dead before he published this book. Sadly, he too has now passed on. I always admired and enjoyed his iconoclasm and his outrageousness. He was often pretentious, but he was never dull.