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 era, and with Britain now in Europe, seemed dated or forgotten.

In the song he wrote (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 (and Beatles, Stones, Who, Clapton, etc. fans) were in their mid-20s. They were getting married, labouring in work cubicles or on the factory line, or just leaving higher studies.

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

John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe were charter members of the “Kitchen Sink” writing school, an awkward term the emblematic writers tended to shy away from. Another sobriquet for them, more descriptive and romantic, was 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 built an impressive career as a writer despite having left school at only 14.

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

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

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was directed by Karel Reisz, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia whose father, a lawyer, 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 realist filmmaker. He is remembered in particular too for the The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Via his anti-heroes Sillitoe channelled the working man’s dissatisfactions in the postwar era, their aggressions and unpredictable paths. These sentiments were echoed in the lyrics and sound of contemporary popular music from Liverpool to Los Angeles, especially rock and roll.

Early Sillitoe 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.

Ray Davies saw this duality of artistic aims and gave it expression in the song quoted from.

Arthur Seaton was the protagonist of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a disconsolate bicycle machinist in Nottingham. He was a potent symbol of the kitchen sink, antithetic to the suave male ideal of contemporary literature.

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

Ray Davies, the London-born composer and main vocalist of The Kinks, was the thinking man’s rocker par excellence. He did his part to make sure his literary counterparts would be remembered.

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. One book in the trilogy offers an interesting two-page reflection on beer from the angle of identikit housing estates and the anodyne pubs that served them.

The anti-hero is Frank Dawley who at 27 gives up his factory job, leaves his family, and seeks a wayward path to more meaning than life as a wage-earner can offer. One of his plaints is 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, taste and discrimination in beer would not seem one of them.

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

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

This becomes 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 his wanderlust and help the family in his absence).

He searches for a pub to have a valedictory drink to his old life but has trouble finding one. He ends up in an area of crumbling structures being torn down for redevelopment. Still standing are a few outdoor privies, a symbol of what he is fleeing.

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

As preface to the dramatic conflict to come Sillitoe writes that Dawley had definite ideas about beer. He knew when something “wasn’t right” in a pint, and would sometimes leave it on the counter and walk out. This was the problem of inconsistency of cask-conditioned (hand-pulled) beer. Not being “right” meant the beer might be sour, or cloudy.

On this occasion the pint came to Dawley “warm”, a serious failing for him. Indeed, despite hoary international jokes about warm English beer, cask-conditioned ale should never be warm but rather at 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 such a request, Sillitoe tells us, is accommodated silently.

The landlord tells Dawley that in his pub the beer is always fine, and 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 he can’t stopper the genie of rebel. He lifts the glass of beer and dramatically upturns it on the tiled floor. The landlord demands that Dawley clean it up and the oldsters in the corner intone as if a Greek chorus, “that’s just, that’s just”. The world is stacked against Dawley for simply exercising gastronomic judgement, a right his “betters” take for granted.

The stand-off leads to an epic fight in which Dawley gets away with barely a moment to spare. He leaves his tormentors in the literal dust of bereft workingman’s Nottingham.

Despite his sympathy with Dawley’s predicament Alan Sillitoe was no doctrinaire leftist. While at one time feted in the Soviet Union for his seeming working class solidarity Sillitoe was an individualist above all, and declared on one occasion he believed in meritocracy. He was a classic humanist and British democrat.

To Sillitoe, the writing life made you free, in the sense that one could live without conforming to preset societal expectations. For many pop stars success made them free in a similar way.

Sillitoe died seven years ago. I’ll always wonder what he thought of Britain’s revived and vibrant beer culture, which he lived long enough to witness. Although he was not Pollyanna about modern British society – the 2008 financial crisis soured him not a little – he surely regarded the beer efflorescence as a good thing.

Finally, to answer Ray Davies’ question “where are all the angry young men now?”, I’d say the smartest and most talented, such as Davies himself, Lennon,  Bowie, Jagger, Osborne, Sillitoe, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, and Albert Finney, made it, and achieved a kind of stasis, or equilibrium in their lives.

As John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, once observed, “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 the Intofilm guide. All intellectual property in or to image belongs to British Lion or other lawful owner, as applicable. Image is used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.