60 years ago, rage was all the rageby DJ Taylor / July 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Sixty years ago this summer, in the shadow of Suez, the age of Aldermaston and the retreat from empire, the British media found itself fixated on anger. The curious thing about this anger was that it appeared to lurk not in such age-old repositories of discontent as the politician or the trades union activist, but in the much less likely figure of the author. It was the year in which the literary collective known as the “Angry Young Men” took up residence in comment pages and on television screens, when up-and-coming writers like Kingsley Amis, John Osborne and Colin Wilson lit up the review sections like traffic lights, and when a minor scuffle between two dramatists could make the front page of the Evening Standard. More significantly, it was the year in which the “new” anger was thought to have moved on from its original grounding among a gang of middle-class malcontents—Amis was after all by then a university lecturer—and assumed a defiantly working-class focus.
Or perhaps it was only reverting to type. Working-class literary anger, after all, is as old as working-class fiction. Robert Tressell’s great exposé of the Edwardian painting and decorating trade, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists (1914) is aflame with it. The Depression-era novels of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Harold Heslop and Walter Brierley, author of the classic Means-Test Man (1935), blaze with dissatisfaction at a political and economic system that had put three million on the dole and reduced the industrial north to the silent wilderness of Heslop’s Last Cage Down (1935).
In our post-crash world of austerity and limping Tory governments, you might expect the fiction of the present decade to be full of modern-day Brierleys and Gibbons. That it manifestly isn’t has several explanations, but one of the most revealing lies in the nature of that post-war anger and the backgrounds of the writers supposed to be expressing it.
The great symbol of post-war fiction’s working-class resentment was John Braine’s novel Room at the Top (1957). This no-nonsense account of Joe Lampton’s steady climb from nowhere to commercial and social triumph struck a chord with the reading public. Twelve thousand copies of the book were said to have been sold in the week after Braine appeared on the BBC’s Panorama. Once details of the highly promotable author’s early life began to leach into the magazine profiles, the ex-librarian from Bingley found himself hailed as “the new apostle of success.” Humbly born, cynical and aspirational, Lampton—widely assumed to be a projection of his creator—was clearly a man whose time had come.