I’ll Sing a Song About Some People

In his dirge-like, theatrical song Where Are They Now? (1973) The Kinks’ Ray Davies memorialized literary and cultural events that shook up Britain in the 50s and 60s but by the glam/prog/protest era seemed dated or forgotten.

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…

In 1973 the first generation of The Kinks’ English fans (generally also Beatles, Stones, Who, Clapton, etc. fans) were in their mid-20s, getting married, coping in work cubicles or the factory line, or finally leaving school.

How many knew the figures named by Davies? Even fewer in America would have known them, save the reference to the beatniks.

John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe were charter members of the “Kitchen Sink” writing school, an awkward term that probably muddied – quite literally – as much as illuminated. It’s one reason the emblematic writers tended to shy away from the title.

Another sobriquet for avatars, 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 Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve he made an impressive career as a writer, this despite leaving school at 14.

He was autodidact, and the books are well- but closely-written: one needs to pay them good attention, but with commensurate results.

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 successful, well-remembered films.

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

Following 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 in the postwar era, the aggressions and unpredictable paths they lead to. The sentiments evoked paralled those powering the lyrics and sound of contemporary pop music from Liverpool to Los Angeles.

Early Sillitoe in particular finds his musical counterpart in The Beatles’ impassioned song Help, or The Who’s clanging My GenerationFor The Kinks, their stark Dead End Street speaks for itself.

It is no surprise Ray Davies returned the favour in the song quoted earlier.

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 Sillitoe was, of the genteel ideals of postwar British literature.

Actor Albert Finney’s smash success portraying Arthur Seaton in the film adaptation of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning launched his career and helped bring Sillitoe to international notice. Broadly, the Kitchen Sink and the new wave of artists, rockers, and filmmakers were expressing the frustrations and ambitions of those previously denied a voice.

Ray Davies, the London-born composer and main vocalist of The Kinks – the thinking man’s rocker par excellence – did his part to make sure his literary counterparts wouldn’t be forgotten.

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

The book offers an interesting two-page reflection on beer from the angle of identikit housing estates and the anodyne pubs that serviced them.

The antihero is Frank Dawley, 27, who gives up his factory job, leaves his family and seeks a wayward path to more meaning. His plaints for the sterile life as a wage-earner included having 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 five 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 suburbs 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 an episode later in the book. Preparing to depart 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 old life 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 of what he is fleeing.

Dawley finally finds a pub still open and orders a pint of mild ale. 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.

As 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 the beer 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, then the norm in Britain. Not being right could mean a pint that went sour, for example.

On this occasion the pint came “warm” to Dawley which, of all the beer faults, was the most serious for him. (Despite hoary jokes about warm English beer, cask-conditioned ale should never be warm but rather cellar temperature, pleasantly cool).

Dawley asks the landlord to change the beer but the latter’s hackles rise. Dawley is not on his own turf where the change, says Sillitoe, is usually accommodated silently.

The landlord states that in his pub the beer is always fine, and he refuses to 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 within him. He lifts the glass of beer and theatrically upturns it on the tiled floor.

The landlord demands that Dawley clean it up and the oldsters in the corner intone as if a chorus “that’s just, that’s just”. The world is stacked against Dawley for exercising ironically a just discrimination, for asking simply his due.

The stand-off leads to an epic fight in which Dawley gets away without a moment to spare, leaving his tormentors in the literal dust of bereft workingman’s Nottingham.

Alan Sillitoe was no doctrinaire leftist. 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.

To Sillitoe writing made you free in the sense that one could live without conforming to preset expectations. For many pop stars of his time success made them free no less.

Sillitoe died seven years ago. I’ll always wonder what he thought of Britain’s revived and vibrant beer culture, as he lived long enough to see the revival of small-scale, individualistic brewing. Although he was not Pollyanna about modern British society – the 2008 financial crisis soured him not a little – he must have regarded the U.K. beer revival as a good thing.

Finally, to Ray Davies’ question “where are all the angry young men now?” the answer is the smartest and most intrepid of their generation such Davies, Lennon,  Bowie, Osborne, and Sillitoe refashioned themselves.

As John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols once said, you can’t be angry forever.

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.

 

 

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