The Angry Years: Colin Wilson
This material world that we live in is, I believe, shaped in many ways not by the physical structures that surround us but by the intellectual parameters that form the spirit of our country. Some sixty or so years ago we were considered to be a Christian nation with the acceptance of God’s divinity almost unquestioned. Our codes of conduct were shaped by those beliefs and the majority accepted ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at the gate’ in a land where all things were far from bright and beautiful. We did not know it then but the days of the old heavy industries, steel, coal, cotton and general manufacturing were numbered, as was the age of subservience. Within less than two decades of WWII society in Great Britain changed as the era of discontent dawned and people began to question authority. Something had to start this movement away from the previously accepted ‘know your place lad’ mentality of the working class. I believe that a major part of that something was the literary group known as ‘The Angry Young Men’.
In the year 1956 a young playwright called John Osborne had his play ‘Look Back In Anger’ staged at The Royal Court Theatre on May 8th. It was generally panned by all the critics except one, Kenneth Tynan. Some critics said the play was like watching life at home. Osborne didn’t know it then but he had written what was in effect the first ‘kitchen sink drama’ a forerunner of all the soap operas we have today like ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Eastenders’. The one critic that did like ‘Look Back In Anger’ Kenneth Tynan went overboard in his praise of the play calling it ‘the best young play of its decade’. The Royal Court Theatre’s press officer, George Fenton, disliked the play and said to Osborne ‘I suppose you are an angry young man’ and so the term was coined.
At the same time as Osborne found fame as a playwright Colin Wilson had his seminal work ‘The Outsider’ published by Victor Gollanz . The book was a publishing sensation rocketing the young Wilson to instant international success. The Outsider was critically well received as ‘an enquiry into the nature of the sickness of mankind in the 20th century’. Soon Osborne and Wilson were being linked together and termed The Angry Young Men. But as Wilson says ‘anger has to be directed against something and if you’re angry about everything then you’re not really angry’. One man that was really angry was the father of Wilson’s young girlfriend, Joy. He had been shown an extract from what he believed to be a diary kept by Wilson in which he described various acts of deviant behavior (it was not in fact a diary but notes for a novel ‘Ritual In The Dark’) Fearing that Wilson was some bohemian beatnik set on debauchery with his darling daughter the man burst into his rooms brandishing a horsewhip shouting ‘Right Wilson the game is up!’ The next day Colin Wilson’s literary career was in near ruins as the tabloid press ran lurid front-page features about the scandalous author and his wild lifestyle.
Soon Osborne and Wilson were joined by other writers, notably John Braine who wrote ‘Room At The Top’ about Joe Lampton a working class lad who fought his way to success by seducing the boss’s daughter. Also Alan Sillitoe who wrote ‘The Lonliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ a gritty short story about a young borstal boy who defies the authoritarian regime by refusing to win a race against the local public school. This was subsequently a film starring Tom Courtney. The theme of all these writers was somewhat similar, working class anger against a system that seemed determined to restrict upward social mobility and keep the plebian masses in their place. These then were the Angry Young Men that through their literary talent helped to bring a change of attitude to post-war Britain. Their works enabled people to see that they were not merely subservient wage-slaves and could be anything they wanted to be if, as Wilson puts it, they had ‘The Strength To Dream’.
Before we had The Angry Young Men we had the Jarrow hunger marches, striking Welsh miners faced British soldiers deployed by Winston Churchill who was himself a member of the aristocracy. There were twelve year old children labouring in the cotton mills of Lancashire whilst workers were paid starvation wages and survived in permanent fear of the boss man. What Wilson and his fellow writers taught us was that though we may be in chains we can sing like the sea and ultimately be free to be what God created us to be. Not just automatons programmed to dig coal, turn a lathe, weave cotton or stand in line on some soulless conveyor belt stitching soles onto shoes hour after hour after hour. Wilson did this kind of work but he knew that he was destined for far greater things so he abandoned his working class roots in Leicester and escaped to London where he spent all his time in The British Museum reading, researching and writing ‘The Outsider’. What his genius achieved, along with the other ‘Angry Young Men’ and their like was to create a kind of intellectual sea change in this country that we call Great Britain.
As Spiritualists we accept that our short journey in corporeal form is to enable us to develop, learn our lessons and grow closer to the perfection and light of God the divine power. As prisoners of a system designed to control and subjugate us how could we achieve this? Sixty years ago we did what we were told by the masters, the bosses, the ruling class and generally we accepted these authority figures without question. Sixty years ago to think that one could step beyond the rich man’s gate and take over the castle was tantamount to madness. Wilson, Osborne, Braine and Sillitoe broke down that metaphorical gate and showed us that far from being mere cap in hand mill-hands and workers we were free sentient beings capable of constructive thought. As Wilson says one has to be angry at something and he, along with his fellow young literary counterparts, were angry at a society that worshipped the protected elite and subjugated the poor. The Angry Young Men showed us that we have the individual capacity to rebel against the system and win. As Osborne says in Look Back In Anger the main character Jimmy Porter ‘is hurt because everything is the same.’ That is he was angry because he felt that the old class system, was oppressing him. But not for long as the angry young men opened the minds of the public to their possibilities and for the first time in centuries we dared to dream.
The Angry Years by Colin Wilson is published by Robson Books at 16.99p