I’ll Sing About Some People…

In their 1973 dirge-like song Where Are They Now? The Kinks memorialized literary and cultural phenomena that shook up Britain 5-15 years earlier, yet by the Glam Era seemed period or forgotten.

Lead singer Ray Davies intoned (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,
Drain-pipes 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 early fans of Johnny Kidd, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Who, Cream, etc. were in their mid-20s. They were getting married, beavering in work cubicles or on the factory line. Some were just exiting higher studies.

How many knew, or remembered, the places and personalities named by Davies? Even fewer in America would have known, save a few of the Beat Generation Davies name-checked.

John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe were charter members of the “Kitchen Sink” writing school, an awkward term that tended to minimize their artistic ambitions. Another sobriquet, 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 writing career despite leaving school at 14.

An autodidact, his books are well- but closely-written and need good attention to appreciate the artistry.

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 successful, well-loved 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. Britain had given him refuge in 1938.

Following R.A.F. service and a Cambridge education, Reisz became a pioneer social realist filmmaker. He is best remembered probably for The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Via his anti-heroes, Sillitoe channelled the working man’s dissatisfactions in postwar Britain, which might lead to aggressions and wayward life choices. Similar sentiments were echoed in the lyrics and sound of contemporary popular music, indeed from Liverpool to Los Angeles, especially in blues and rock and roll.

The early Sillitoe finds his musical counterpart in The Beatles’ impassioned song “Help”, or The Who’s clanging “My Generation”. And The Kinks’ stark “Dead End Street” speaks for itself.

Ray Davies understood the duality of aims and gave it expression in the song mentioned.

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, as different can be from the received ideal of suave male hero.

Actor Albert Finney was a smash success portraying Seaton in the film adaptation of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The film launched his career and helped bring Sillitoe to international notice.

Broadly, the Kitchen Sink and new wave of visual artists, rockers, and filmmakers vented the frustrations and ambitions of those previously denied a voice by the official culture.

Ray Davies was the thinking man’s rocker par excellence. He did his part to make sure his counterparts in other arts and endeavours were remembered.

Sillitoe later wrote the well-received The Death of William Posters (1965), the first part of a fictional trilogy. It continued themes introduced by his first two books, and offers an interesting two-page reflection on beer.

The anti-hero here is Frank Dawley who at 27 gives up his factory job, leaves his family, and enters on paths hopefully providing more meaning than a wage-earning life. One of his plaints in the latter role is having to cope with “the same brands of ales”.

Sillitoe was surely aware how the auras of wine appreciation and wine-merchant attached to conceptions of genteel living. Of course too wine and Bacchus are associated with poetry, the highest literary calling.

In his way, Sillitoe was making the case for beer, for the right of suburban man to exercise discrimination in beer taste – not to have one of life’s pleasures determined for him. By implication, Sillitoe claimed the right as an artist to write about beer.

Preparing to depart Nottingham for the open road Dawley parks his car in a strange part of the city (he later sells it to pay travel expenses and help support his family).

He searches for a pub to have a valedictory drink to his old life but has trouble finding one. He ends up in a crumbling quarter undergoing redevelopment. Still standing are outdoor privies, a symbol of the life is fleeing.

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

As preface to the dramatic conflict to come Sillitoe writes Dawley had definite ideas about beer. He knew when a pint “wasn’t right” and would sometimes leave it on the bar and walk out. This referred to the inconsistency of British cask-conditioned beer. Not being “right” meant the beer might be sour, or cloudy.

On this occasion the pint comes to Dawley “warm”, a serious failing. Indeed despite hoary  jokes about warm English beer, cask ale should never be warm but rather at a cellar temperature, pleasantly cool.

Dawley asks to change the beer but the landlord gets testy. Dawley is not on his own turf, where such a request, Sillitoe writes, is accommodated silently.

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

Dawley knows he should take the money and leave. But he can’t stopper the genie of rebel. He lifts the glass of beer and dramatically upends it on the tiled floor. The landlord demands Dawley clean it up and oldsters in a corner intone as if a Greek chorus, “that’s just, that’s just”.

The world is stacked against Dawley, for simply exercising discrimination in taste, a right his social betters take for granted.

The stand-off leads to an epic fight in which Dawley barely saves his skin. He leaves his tormentors in the literal dust of bereft workingman’s Nottingham.

Despite his sympathy with Dawley’s condition Sillitoe was no doctrinaire leftist. While at one time feted in the Soviet Union for his seeming working class solidarity, Sillitoe remained an individualist, above all. He 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 one could live without conforming to pre-determined, societal expectations. For many pop stars, success made them free in the same 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 positive change.

Finally, to answer Ray Davies’ question “where are all the angry young men now?”, I’d say the smartest and most talented of them, as Davies himself, John Lennon,  David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Michael Caine, etc., made it, and achieved a kind of equilibrium, or stasis in their lives.

As John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols group 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.