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A tasty cake, but do we really need the icing?


A review by Vaughan Robertson of Colin Wilson’s The Angry Years: The Rise and Fall of the Angry Young Men (Robson, 2007)


As years go by I sometimes feel that Colin Wilson has a definite schizophrenic bent to his work. The Angry Years is the good Wilson: generally well-written, interesting, quirky, stimulating. The Epilogue apart, I finished this book after a non-stop reading splurge – such was its hold on my attention – that compelled me to re-read Bill Hopkin’s The Leap (ten quid from Colin Stanley – well worth it) and to even go out and track down Declaration as edited by Tom Maschler.

    The photographs of the young Angries in the Wilson book further cement the nostalgia his prose arouses. The Toby Young review of it was wrong-headed and spent too much time in a personal attack on Wilson per se: easy game, as Wilson is so open to personal critical opprobrium as a result of his own rather naïve bonhomie and self-aggrandizement. It is a far better book than Young (a cousin perhaps of the terrible H’s - Ritchie and Carpenter - the latter of whom Wilson sauces as a source of this book’s gestation) would have us believe – although that bloody Epilogue is a bit of a worry, something I will come back to.

Yet – Wilson’s other more recent tome all ‘about’ Atlantis and Neanderthals – a tenuous linking never made in its pages – is crap. I said as much in my review of it. I actually feel quite ripped off by forking out to pay for its qualitative inanity.

    How much of this Jekyll/Hyde schism is due to Wilson’s quotidian need to earn money to pay bills and thus accept shitty editing and shoddy deals from El Cheapo Publishers, I don’t know. How much is due to a lack of new things to say and a symbiotic debilitating decline in writing prowess as time seeps on, I also don’t know. How much is due his relentlessly encroaching rapport with things occult and arcane which roughly started with The Occult back in about 1970 and which subsequently exponentially overtook his more avowedly philosophical texts, I also don’t know. I do know he will be shaking his head as he reads these latter words and spluttering ‘that bloody Robertson is still going on about my switch to so-called ‘non-Existentialism’…he never did understand where I am coming from.’

    I like The Angry Years and agree with Gary Lachmann’s fair Independent review about most of it. Like much of Wilson’s better work, it is an exercise in Existential Literary Criticism, which is something I have always lauded him for, although the very thesis of judging an author via his/her contribution to our understanding of the ‘meaning of life/how to live’, is not original – see, for example, Sartre’s historically earlier essay on literary criticism available in his Philosophical and Literary Essays. Other more recent books by Wilson like Dreaming to Some Purpose and Books in My Life have also happily followed his own tracks and furrows of (autobiographical) ELC.

    The AYM (from here on an abbreviation for The Angry Young Men), were – to Wilson – a grouping that never really existed as a cogent entity, whose nomenclature was initially either invented by a press officer named George Fearon or was appropriated from Lesley Paul, and were more a misnamed and silly sensationalist grouping propped up primarily by Kenneth Tynan in his own attempt to gain attention/to rebel, and to rant more specifically against the extant Mandarins, seen by Tynan, the Kingmaker, and his protégé John Osborne, as boring old farts/fogies generally of a ‘higher’ social strata than many of the AYM, who then themselves became - almost as a self-fulfilling prophecy – ‘members’ of club they didn’t even know they were in.

    For the grouping remained and still remains amorphous – a general cover-all for Braine and Wain, Amis, the aforementioned Tynan and Osborne, Murdoch, Lessing, Richardson and Anderson. Alexander Trocchi and perhaps Stan Barstow crept in too, as did Bill Hopkins and Stuart Holyrod. And a young Colin Wilson was right there as he had serendipitously had published at much the same time as Look Back in Anger a book called The Outsider, which had about as much in common with Osborne and Amis as Idi Amin had to Scotland – because he once wore a kilt.

    Indeed, the only thread of similarity Wilson had with most of the other ‘Angries’, except Holyrod and Hopkins also who shared his pedestalling of Nietzsche, was that he was working class. (There was actually another interesting oblique relationship between some of these guys too – the Leicester connection – which becomes even more interesting if Harry Summerfield Hoff aka William Cooper is included in the angry mix.)

    So, where these young chaps did have some sort of commonality – not all, all the time, by any means either – was that they were in rebellion against a system whereby the literati landed gentry ‘owned’ the literary scene which was therefore infused with their stuffy dry staleness and genteel hypocrisy.

    The AYM were often of a lower social caste in an echeloned English society which especially then was a regimented reminiscence of India’s. They had more energy and candour. They were often angry, although dissentient may well be a better word to use here – albeit about different things. There was a tendency to acute romanticism in many of them as well: things and events redolent of the other side of the Manor were held to as somehow more dear.

    They were also, some of them anyway, sometimes grouped as Red Brick Writers and/or The Movement and they all, somehow, even Wain/Amis/Larkin already in academia, were not just disaffected by the extant literary lions, but by Upper and Upper Middle Class sentiments and mores per se. All were also thrust headlong into the huge swirling hole of class disruption that descended on Britain immediately post-war, when nothing could ever be the same in the zeitgeist.

    And yet – as Wilson wants to say – they nearly all lost their way in a sort of (sometimes drunken and drugged) sexual freefall. Affairs and infidelities, wankings and whippings, liaisons and les ménage different proliferate throughout this text. The ‘Angries’ were ‘sexually underprivileged’ beings in that sex was a vital élan for all, yet was so sanctimoniously suppressed by the very society they fought against that they could not even fuck for freedom.

    They all too often tried to screw their ways out of the mélange of sudden and lost fame, critical acclaim and disdain, monetary advances and financial famines that all too many of them encountered. Fighting cocks and writing blocks indeed. They tried to screw themselves back into their initial visions and versions of liberty but all too many died trying to re-generate the early eminence and the fleeting facsimile of freedom it promised.

    Wilson would have it that many of the AYM had had no real substantial vision to commence with, but were merely reactors and that therefore their inability to sustain their ‘success’ led inexorably to miserable early demises, even if it was not always a corporeal death, but a literary annulling. They were anti-Establishment, but had no alternative to replace it. Under the aegis of E.L.C they failed – except for – as he would have it – Wilson himself (although he certainly crashes in the other tome of his I have already mentioned!) and perhaps a couple of others still alive today. Hollow Men indeed. Wilson puts it well when he delineates "the sense of futility that permeated [them]."

    Incidentally Wilson is not the last surviving member of the AYM as the cover blurb states, given that he was never one to start with! As he accepts, Alan Sillitoe, Arnold Wesker and Doris Lessing are all still pumping out stuff, and indeed he lauds the latter two as having more positive forward thrust than most of the deceased burn-outs – as or example, Wesker with his elements of ‘promotion’.

    Wilson however omits to mention Michael Hastings, Christopher Logue, David Storey and JP Donleavy who are also out there and very much still with us. As are his Spartacan cronies, Bill and Stuart, although curiously they too died a literary death, despite their inner staunchness. Then there is Shelagh Delaney, herself nominated as an angry young woman in the late 1950s. Spare a thought too for the veteran Bernard Kops, whose own devastatingly meteoric rise and soul-crushing fall makes Wilson’s own seismograph read like a merely minor earthquake!

    All of which is presented in a fluid and fluent style, without too many annoying rote repetitions, logical syncopations and vexing digressions. Nor are there so many of Wilson’s philosophical and perverted peccadilloes much of the time, although the references to women’s panties has to appear and there is a fecund fascination with the anus. The sexual imbroglio of the Larkin-Amis/Osborne/Tynan trio one feels is exacerbated by Wilson’s own obsessions with libidinousness, so Tynan’s avowed preoccupation with S & M and the masturbatory fantasies of Larkin-Amis, feed Wilson’s own onanistic menageries.

    He also has to throw in a few references to William Blake and D.H Lawrence in his comments about Murdoch and her magic realism and of course her own variegated sexual interests, which he creditably later acknowledges doing. Wilson, then, is not so overly intrusive with his usual habit of giving us his opinion about every living thing under the sun, although he could never be expected to be a mere observer of a scene in which he played such an important role: it is his first hand experiences after all which lends The Angry Years its piquant poignancy. He WAS there. And it his perceptive outliving of many of his peers that makes their deaths so much more pointlessly wasted. ‘Perceptive outliving’? Wilson saw and still sees the route to remain more positively alive on, something the AYM all too often never did, for so many were insecure and lacked self-belief, something no one could ever accuse Wilson of.

    Yet, of course, no Wilson book is totally bereft of his life story, indeed almost every non-fiction book Wilson has ever written is at least partly autobiographical (and I have read them all) and TheAngry Years is chock full of vivid portraits from his own portfolio, so that we are regaled with all sorts of episodes which we have borne witness to many times previously – the book is to an extent self-obsessed. Which may well account for the Ronald Duncan saga, where Duncan is also doused with sexual accelerant, with room also for a mention of Tynan’s pernicious sway over George Devine. Was Duncan an AYM? Or Samuel Beckett for that matter? Girodias and Nabokov and Southern and Burroughs? Doubtful, methinks.

    But they are all here because Wilson wants them to be…and of course the latter clique have heavy lashings of Ointment of Orgasm smeared all over them, regardless of relevance to the title of the book. Lolita, after all, was symptomatic of the angry years in British letters, says this writer cynically. (Mind you, such is the elasticity of the whole AYM corps, I suppose anybody can be substituted, especially if we allow that it was a term also utilized by Rebecca West in 1941. Anyone is welcome to join anytime! Low subs and oranges at half time.)

    We also have to accept Wilson’s own solipsistic sighting of events as fair and reasonable, yet there are a couple of places where I wondered if his view of situations was quite as ‘balanced’ as it could be, as for example whereby the infamous scene of the Tynan/Logue ‘bashing’ is underplayed by Wilson. For he comes across far more as an/the aggressor there in the hilariousSloan Square Stomp piece from TIME in 1958. (There is also, very interestingly, another TIME piece from 1958 regarding the Paris Review and the point that there was, "one early salesman: England’s waspish young man Colin (The Outsider) Wilson who absentmindedly went off with a week’s collection." I wonder if this Colin Wilson will ever expand more on that episode, given that he does touch on it here with the words, "I was allowed to keep a generous percentage of the money", when describing his earnings as a door-to-door salesman! Whom to believe?)

So far, so good and all ELC. The verdict is that the AYM quintessentially failed, even although they were never in the same team or wearing the same uniform and in fact often followed completely divergent tactics!

Finally, we have to further ask just how much of the venting displayed in The AngryYears is Colin Wilson’s vengeance against men like Osborne and Tynan especially? These latter two come across in this book as humourless arseholes, quite frankly. Were they really that one-dimensional? Roger Lewis writes in The Telegraph about Wilson’s spleen: "On the whole, Wilson’s contemporaries did not impress him. Now they are mostly dead, he cannot resist putting the boot in…All Wilson wants to do is settle scores."

    There is an element of perhaps petulant gloating in The Angry Years, but I do not see this as severely as Lewis so obviously does. Wilson was and no doubt remains rather competitive and accepts this here himself with regard to John Braine, and his prose also seems to hint strongly at internecine rivalry in his comments about Stuart Holyrod and Canetti, but he also states firmly that he was saddened by the "wreckage" that was the glut of depressing deaths of so many of his peers. More than anything, this is an idiosyncratic scribe fulminating entertainingly about an important and interesting period in world letters, and in which he played an essential role.

    The apparent bitterness Wilson seems to display in his description of the downfalls of many of the AYM comes across to me more as his further evidence that they just did not have an inherent structured resuscitation system to sustain them through the coruscations and corrugations they necessarily encountered, especially in the dogfight that was and still is the British book scene, a mirror of life itself. But yes, there is some spite here by Wilson. He will have some spectres still lurking, that he wants to exorcise once and for all.

    But then comes the Epilogue – what does it really add? The AYM are only tangentially related to here, and for Wilson they come off as at least attempting to fight their way out of the clingingly damp paper bag that was their social alienation (as opposed to his own existential separation): unlike the post-modern ‘surrender’. Wilson cannot resist stating early on: "I have not had time to talk about my own ideas"! Which is, of course, not quite true. So now he must, and the ideas are a summary once more/yet again of everything he has ever stated. How many of them relate to Angry Young Men and to this book in particular is arguable and as I do want to talk quite a lot about this Epilogue elsewhere, suffice for me to say at this juncture: read The Angry Years (at least up until the Epilogue) – enjoy it and accept it for what it is. Colin Wilson writing in his own indomitable fashion about something he can actually say he witnessed, even garnered, however unwittingly. That’s pretty impressive, for a start.

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