I’ll Sing a Song About Some People

In his dirge-like, theatrical song Where Are They Now? (1973), The Kinks’ Ray Davies memorialized various social and literary phenomena of the last 20 years.

In the song he writes (my ellipsis):

I’ll sing a song about some people you might know
They made front pages in the news not long ago ….

Where are all the Teddy Boys now?
The Brill Cream boys with D.A.s,
Drainpipes and blue suedes,
Beatniks with long pullovers on ….

I hope that Arthur Seaton is alright.
I hope that Charlie Bubbles had a very pleasant flight,
And Jimmy Porter’s learned to laugh and smile,
And Joe Lampton’s learned to live a life of style.

Where are all the angry young men now?
Where are all the angry young men now?
Barstow and Osborne, Waterhouse and Sillitoe…

The song’s final line is that rock and roll still lives on, which is to say rock and roll is not just reflective of social changes, or a trend itself, but has a validity of its own.

In 1973 the first generation of The Kinks’ English fans (generally also Beatles, Stones, Who, Bluesbreakers, Clapton, etc. fans) were in their mid-20s, getting married, getting on at work, or getting out of school finally.

How many knew who the named figures were? Even fewer would have known in America, save the reference to the beatniks. If they knew at all, it was through the successful films of Alan Sillitoe’s first two books.

John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe were charter members of the Kitchen Sink writing school, an unkind term that probably hurt as much as helped, which is why the emblematic writers generally shied away from the title.

Another sobriquet, more romantic, was the Angry Young Men.

Sillitoe was born in Nottingham with a plastic spoon in his mouth, and had a difficult childhood. After a spate of factory work and a goodish stint in the RAFVR he made an impressive career as a writer, this despite leaving school at 14.

He was autodidact, and his books are well- but closely-written, you need to pay them good attention with commensurate rewards.

His novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and the story cycle The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer were acclaimed on release and made into well-loved films. See the opening scene of the former, here.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was directed by Karel Reisz, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia whose lawyer-father and other family were killed by Nazis. The British had given him refuge in 1938.

After RAF service and a Cambridge education Reisz became a pioneer social realism filmmaker. He is remembered in particular as well for his work on The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Via his heroes Sillitoe channelled the working man’s dissatisfactions with his lot in the postwar era, the aggressions and odd paths that lead to. The sentiments evoked were at bottom in the popular music that hit from Liverpool to Los Angeles, finally.

Early Sillitoe finds its counterpart in many ways in, say, The Beatles’ song Help, or The Who’s My Generation. It is no surprise Ray Davies returned the favour in the song mentioned.

Arthur Seaton was the protagonist in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a Raleigh bicycle machinist in Nottingham. He was a potent symbol of the kitchen sink, the antithesis, as his creator, of the genteel analogues of mainstream postwar British literature.

The actor Albert Finney’s smash success portraying Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning launched his career and helped bring Sillitoe to international notice. Broadly, the Kitchen Sink, the Beatles, the new wave of artists and filmmakers, were part of the opening of the arts to parts of British society previously foreclosed.

Probably few of the Kinks’ declining fan base in the 1970s – their Tommy-style rock operas didn’t sell well – knew who Seaton and Sillitoe (the sibilance no accident, surely) were. Ray Davies, the London-born tunesmith of The Kinks and thinking man’s rocker par excellence, did his part to make sure they wouldn’t be forgotten.

Sillitoe later wrote the well-received novel The Death of William Posters (1965), the opener of a trilogy. It continued the themes introduced by his first two books.

I mention it here because it offers an interesting two-page reflection on beer from the angle of early 1960s English estates and their pubs.

In the book the antihero Frank Dawley, 27, gives up his factory job and leaves his family for the uncertain future of a wanderer. Among his plaints for the sterile life as a wage-earner and young father was that he had to cope with the “same brands of ales”.

This is an interesting statement, as of the many things an everyman might be preoccupied with, exercising taste and discrimination in beer would not seem top 5 in the list.

Yet Sillitoe was surely aware how the aura of wine and wine-merchant attached to genteel life. Wine and Bacchus too are symbols of poetry, the highest literary calling.

In his way, Sillitoe was making the case for beer, for the right of the man of the estates and dingy pubs, or a writer who drinks beer, to exercise discrimination and not have one of life’s pleasures pre-determined for him.

This becomes more clear in a later two-page episode in the book. In his final stages of departing Nottingham for the open road Dawley parks his car in a strange part of the city – the car is later sold to fund the travels and help the family while he is absent.

He searches for a pub for a valedictory drink to his native town, but has trouble finding one. He is in an area of crumbling structures being torn down for redevelopment. Some of what is still standing are outdoor privies, another symbol.

Dawley finally finds a pub not shuttered and orders a pint of mild. The older regulars in the place stare at him, not for the order but for being a stranger in the pub. The theme of outsider is omnipresent in Sillitoe.

In preface to the dramatic conflict to come Sillitoe explains that Dawley had very definite ideas about beer. He knew when something “wasn’t right” in a pint and wouldn’t finish it but would leave it on the counter and walk out. This was the problem of inconsistency of cask-conditioned beer, still with us.

In the strange pub the pint comes “warm”, which of all the beer faults was the most serious for Dawley. Despite hoary jokes about warm English beer, cask ale of course should never be warm but rather cellar temperature, pleasantly cool.

Dawley knows this, in his connoisseur way. He asks the landlord to change it and the latter’s hackles rise. Dawley is not on his own turf where the change, says Sillitoe, is always accommodated silently.

The landlord announces that the beer is always fine in his pub and he won’t change it. Voices rise, finally the landlord slams the money on the counter and tells Dawley to “clear out”.

Dawley knows he should take the money and run but can’t hold the genie of rebel in him. He lifts the pint and theatrically upturns it on the tiled floor.

The landlord demands that he clean it up and the oldsters in the corner intone, “that’s just, that’s just” (one of the many phrases and turns in the book always understood but probably obsolete even in Britain now, only 50 years later. They call Dawley a “bleeder” for example, or loser, whiner we would say).

The stand-off leads to an epic fight in which Dawley gets away just by the skin of his teeth, leaving his tormentors in the literal dust.

Alan Sillitoe was no leftist identikit man. While at one time feted in the Soviet Union for his working class solidarity, he was an individualist above all and declared on one occasion that he believed in meritocracy. He was a classic humanist and British democrat.

In the short but excellent Wikipedia entry on him, he is quoted that even a modestly successful writer could sort of liken himself to having achieved a gentleman’s life.

He meant that writing made you free, not in the same way a gentleman is, but in the sense both could live without conforming to preset expectations. And in that sense too, both were in an elite class.

Sillitoe died seven years ago. I’ll always wonder what he thought of Britain’s revived beer scene, as he lived long enough to witness it. Although he was not Pollyanna about modern British society – the last financial crisis soured him a bit – he must have regarded the modern beer revival as a good thing.

Finally, to Davies’ question “where are all the angry young men now?” I’ll answer: the best of their generation, like Davies, Lennon, Osborne and Sillitoe made it and refashioned themselves. As John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten once said, you can’t be angry forever.

Speaking of English beer and especially pubs, the English beer writing duo of “Boak and Bailey”, Ray Newman and Jessica Boak, have just released their 20th Century Pub. We haven’t read it yet but knowing much of their published input to date are confident of its great merits. Not to be missed by anyone who wants to understand how the English pub evolved and changed in all its guises in the last century.

Note re image: the image above, a still from the film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, was sourced from this online film guide. All intellectual property in or to image belongs to British Lion or other lawful owner, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.