Writers still form identifiable generations. For all their curmudgeonly individualism, the "angry young men" of the 1950s stood for something. By contrast, argues Allan Massie, the 1980s generation are disconnected and indifferent to life in Britainby Allan Massie / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Orwell’s essay Inside the Whale is principally concerned with Henry Miller, but it also includes an analysis of the different tendencies displayed by writers in the two decades between the wars. The most admired writers of the 1920s- Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence, Huxley-might not “look much like a group,” but showed “a certain temperamental similarity. What it amounts to is a pessimism of outlook.” Then “quite suddenly, in the years 1930-35, something happens. The literary climate changes. A new group of writers, Auden and Spender and the rest of them, has made its appearance, and although technically these writers owe something to their predecessors, their ‘tendency’ is entirely different. Suddenly we have got out of the twilight of the gods into a sort of Boy Scout atmosphere of bare knees and community singing. The typical literary man ceases to be a cultured expatriate with a leaning towards the church, and becomes an eager-minded schoolboy with a leaning towards communism. If the keynote of the writers of the 1920s is ‘tragic sense of life,’ the keynote of the new writers is ‘serious purpose.'” As literary criticism this is pretty slapdash-not the sort of thing that would meet with academic approval. Even as social criticism, it is somewhat cavalier. And yet there is something in the distinction Orwell makes. He may be wrong in detail, but you can’t escape the feeling that he has hit on a real difference. After all, writers do express attitudes to society in their work-sometimes consciously, sometimes not-and a look at the “tendency” of the writers who win favour or are fashionable in any period can be enlightening. I doubt whether many have read Orwell’s essay without thinking that their understanding has been improved. A caveat must be entered. The writers who most clearly express the “spirit of the age” are not necessarily the best. In the list which Orwell gives of 1930s writers who display what he takes as this characteristic tendency, there are some notable (and natural) omissions: no Waugh, no Greene, no Henry Green, no Powell. The only novelist in his group whose work has lasted as well as the work of that quartet is Isherwood. All this means is that the best writers of a period are not necessarily the most typical of whatever is the prevalent “tendency.” the last couple of years have seen the deaths of Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, John Wain-all members of the “tendency” which critics and journalists plastered with the label “angry young men” in the 1950s. It was a description which they all, at one time or another, repudiated-as did Alan Sillitoe to whom it was also applied. Yet even if the label was ridiculous, there was a sense in which most of those who were stuck with it had a good deal in common with each other. They did not form a group, but it wasn’t absurd to form them into a group. In 1957 the publishers MacGibbon and Kee brought out a collection of essays under the title Declaration. Edited by Tom Maschler, it proved sufficiently popular to be brought out in a Book Club edition two years later. The contributors were: Doris Lessing, Kenneth Tynan, Stuart Holroyd, Lindsay Anderson, John Osborne, Colin Wilson, Bill Hopkins and John Wain. Maschler’s introduction began with the challenging statement: “A number of young and widely opposed writers have burst upon the scene and are striving to change many of the values which have held good in recent years.” They were indeed a motley crew, and a good part of some of the essays is devoted to criticising the work of other contributors, or of those such as Kingsley Amis who had been invited to contribute but declined to do so: “I hate all this pharisaical twittering about the ‘state of our civilisation’ and I suspect anyone who wants to buttonhole me about my ‘role in society,'” he told Maschler, thus giving the world a foretaste of the Amis of the Garrick Club bar. Doris Lessing, for example, took to task “the most exciting and interesting writers we are producing” for being despite “all their vitality, sunk inside the parochialism” of British life. That parochialism was just what Amis and Osborne both delighted in and reviled. She upbraided Colin Wilson for saying, “like all my generation I am anti-humanist and anti-materialist,” not because it was an absurd assertion, but because “outside the very small sub-class of humanity Mr Wilson belongs to, vast numbers of young people [in China and the Soviet Union] are both humanist and materialist.” So it goes on. Lindsay Anderson denounces Kingsley Amis as “a coward” and John Wain as “a conservative.” Colin Wilson and his disciple Bill Hopkins (whatever happened to him?) call for a new religious outlook, and Stuart Holroyd for a “radical re-orientation of consciousness.” They couldn’t look less like a group. Yet, despite their disagreements and often divergent views of life, they had a good deal in common. Lessing was perhaps the odd one out: as a woman; as someone brought up outside England; as an adherent to an international faith, communism; and as being “in the possession of an optimism about the future obviously considered jejune by anyone under the age of 30. (In Britain, that is.)” For the rest: they were mostly middle class or lower middle class, only Sillitoe being a proletarian. (And he would himself contest that description.) Most of them-though not Osborne or Colin Wilson-were university graduates. But contrary to the impression quite generally held at the time, they had not all attended “redbrick” universities. That idea got about probably because Amis and Wain set their first novels in provincial universities; but in fact they, like Anderson and Tynan, were Oxford men. They were almost all too old to be called products of the welfare state, or even of the Butler Education Act of 1944-Wilson, the youngest of them, was born in 1931-but all those who were old enough had almost certainly voted Labour in 1945, and most of them professed to be, in some degree, socialists. Amis wrote a Fabian pamphlet explaining why he voted Labour. They did represent an emergent class. This was what journalists latched on to. They were hostile to “the establishment.” This term is still employed today, but what it described has gone-or at least has become so amorphous that the word has lost any useful meaning. As employed by the journalist Henry Fairlie (who is credited with being the first to use the word in this sense), “the establishment” comprised the court, the House of Lords, both front benches in the Commons, the heads of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, the editor of The Times, the judiciary, the upper reaches of the civil service, the director-general of the BBC, and the frequenters of the grander London clubs. It described an interlocking network of influence; a world which defined itself by code words, and whose members were bound together by a common interest in keeping things running smoothly. “The establishment” was always prepared to admit new members who had started life far beyond its orbit, provided they were ready to conform to its standards and admit its wisdom; the novelist and civil servant CP Snow was a good example of an outsider who became an insider. The so-called “angry young men,” most of whom were actually approaching middle-age, or at least well on in their 30s when they became famous, resented the establishment. They also found it risible. They had no time for either its pretensions or its pompousness. They might not actually want a classless society-their imaginative work often showing a nice appreciation of class distinctions-but they mostly hoped for a levelling of the classes. In the 1950s, with a Tory cabinet full of Old Etonians, they seemed refreshingly modern. Yet, when the establishment fractured in the 1960s, it was clear that many of the writers were quite happy to form part of one or other of the various establishments which then emerged. There is one other thing that they had in common: they were very English-even though Doris Lessing thought that Amis was Welsh, presumably because he was a don at Swansea. Lindsay Anderson was almost an exception, being born in India of Scots parents, but-educated at Cheltenham and Oxford-he was at least English in attitudes. This Englishness differentiated them from the establishment, which was British. By that I mean not so much that it recognised the existence of the other nations within the United Kingdom (though it did that too), as that its frame of mind was still imperial. By contrast, the “angry young men” were Little Englanders; their characteristic poet, a close friend of Amis, was Philip Larkin. Their Little Englandness was cultural as well as political. They had very little time for foreigners or foreign literatures-Tynan was a somewhat flashy exception here, with his enthusiasm for Brecht-and they expressed a distrust of abroad. They reacted against modernism, which was an international or cosmopolitan movement, and although as a result of enthusiasm for the cinema and jazz they might seem well disposed towards the US, their enthusiasm for the American way of life was at best lukewarm and easily chilled by experience. The title of Amis’s third novel was I Like It Here; that summed up their preferences. However irritating England might be, it was better than abroad. Curiously, the Tory party of Lady Thatcher and John Major has re-formed itself in their image since its old imperial-establishment formation broke up. Major himself is essentially as English as the novels of Amis and Wain are English. it was another 20 years before a comparable group of novelists emerged. Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Peter Ackroyd, Salman Rushdie and William Boyd all began to be published in the second half of the 1970s and went on to become the most fashionable novelists of the 1980s. A little later, the names of Kazuo Ishiguru and Timothy Mo might be added to that list. Again, these writers might deny that they formed any sort of group. Their novels show marked differences in theme and style. At first sight they may seem to have little in common with each other except early success. And yet, if one is to talk of “tendencies” as Orwell did, some sort of coherence becomes apparent. The first thing to note, however, is that they are a more mixed bunch, ethnically and socially, than the 1950s “tendency.” Rushdie, Ishiguru and Mo write in English but are not English, even though Ishiguru’s most successful novel, The Remains of the Day, is an exploration of “Englishness.” Ackroyd comes from a London working class, but Roman Catholic, background; McEwan is the son of a Regular Army sergeant-major, and spent much of his childhood abroad; William Boyd, the son of a Scots doctor, was also partly brought up abroad-in west Africa, the setting of his first novel-and was then educated at Gordonstoun and Oxford; Barnes had a conventional middle class upbringing before going on to Oxford; Amis, Kingsley’s son, was, unlike his father, brought up in an atmosphere in which writing was a natural activity and way of earning a living. It is fair to say that all of them, with the possible exception of Barnes, stand at an oblique angle towards conventional English life. In comparison with the 1950s group, they appear deracinated. Characteristically their fiction reflects this varied experience. It is cosmopolitan in manner and matter. One should always be careful of talking about an author’s intended readership because few, except cynics, write with a particular market in mind. Nevertheless it is clear that these novelists write books which have an international appeal; they do not depend for their success on their exploration of themes natively-or peculiarly-English. Indeed, with the possible exception of Martin Amis it might be said that their novels are more successful the further they get away from contemporary English life. Even Amis, one feels, employs his stylistic brilliance partly to disguise the suspicion (which he may entertain himself) that when he writes about, for example, London street life, he writes as a tourist, with the sort of knowledge that a tourist might acquire, and no more than that. Moreover, his best novel, Money, is partly set in New York, offering there what can be no more than a tourist’s view of the city. Otherwise, all these writers are at their best when they set their books abroad or back in time. Examples of the first are Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, McEwan’s Black Dogs, and Boyd’s An Ice-cream War. Of the second, look at Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor (though this has contemporary sections, its originality depends on the way in which he recreates 17th century London to make the 20th century city seem sinister and foreign), Boyd’s The New Confessions (like An Ice-Cream War, it is actually set both back in time and, mostly, abroad), Mo’s An Insular Possession (to which the same applies), and McEwan’s The Child in Time which offers some variation by being set in the (near) future. Then, though several of these writers have made political statements, even including what may be called political criticism in their novels (this being especially true of Rushdie), they do not seem to have social concerns in any way comparable to those expressed by the 1950s group. One could even say that as artists they are indifferent to what is happening in England, or indeed Britain, today. Inasmuch as they are not indifferent they display pessimism. But most of the time they appear to float free of the political and social questions which concern ordinary citizens. When they do deal with Britain, they prefer not to consider middle England which-one has the impression-they find either boring or contemptible. It may have been wrong to describe Kingsley Amis & Co as “angry,” when they were no more than irritated; but Martin Amis & Co are not even that. They are disconnected. Indeed, it might even be argued that the wheel has come round, and that this group of writers displays the same tendencies that Orwell discerned in the writers of the 1920s. Like them, Martin Amis & Co seem sceptical of progress. They may not give way to despair, for despair is not cool. They may not, like Eliot & Co, look back to a finer civilisation which has now decayed or disintegrated. They may even revel in the manifestations of international junk culture. Yet much of what Orwell has to say of the 1920s writers might be applied to them: “What is noticeable… is that what ‘purpose’ they have is very much up in the air.” True. “There is no attention to the urgent problems of the moment.” True. “Literature was supposed to consist solely in the manipulation of words. To judge a book by its subject matter was the unforgivable sin, and even to be aware of its subject matter was looked on as a lapse of taste.” True-or fairly true. Orwell’s explanation of this indifference to what was happening rings even more resoundingly true: “Was it not because these people were living in an exceptionally comfortable epoch? It is just in such times that ‘cosmic despair’ can flourish.” “Cosmic despair” may be too grand a term for what Martin Amis & Co, often brilliantly, manifest. “Cosmic despair” is, as I have suggested, uncool. But the willingness to turn away from what is happening now is explicable on Orwell’s terms. The last decades of the 20th century are an exceptionally comfortable time for anyone with the ability to write and an alertness to whatever is fashionable. Moreover, contemporary life as lived by the vast majority in Britain-the comfortably housed who take their holidays on the Mediterranean or in Florida, where the highlight of the trip is a visit to Disneyland-may seem to be lacking in the sort of drama that appeals to people with enough imagination to write a novel. It is no wonder if they turn away, to exotic locations or other times; it is no wonder if, when they do touch on Britain, they do so with a dandy’s disdain and readiness to dwell only on its most lurid, but not most typical, aspects. No doubt this tendency, like previous ones, will be supplanted in time, and new writers will emerge who are ready to consider how people actually live in Britain today, to find dramas in the typical and to explore the heart of society and the connections between social groups. When such writers emerge they are likely to find Kingsley & Co more nutritious than Martin & Co, but, seeking a model and inspiration, they may well turn most eagerly to a writer who could never be assigned to any group, and who characteristically evaded classification, but who, in his best novels, tried to understand and criticise the way we live now. I mean Angus Wilson, of course.