Friday, December 19, 2008

Look Back In Anger

Rock songwriters (especially those with highbrow pretensions), often, magpie-like, appropriate snippets of culture from various media - a catchy phrase brings a bit of prepackaged significance. As a curious young music fan, I frequently found myself being led down all sorts of interesting paths in pursuit of the origins of these references. Sometimes these investigations take longer than others, as a mere 29 years after the 1979 release of David Bowie's song "Look Back In Anger" (on the record Lodger), I got around to reading John Osborne's 1956 play of the same title.

Like me, you have probably been vaguely aware that Osborne and his play exemplified a small literary movement of the late 50s in England whose participants were dubbed the "Angry Young Men", a convenient analog to the Beats in America. As usual with such newspaper-driven genre labels, one wonders how many of those associated with it would willingly claim affiliation. In this case, there is also a big overlap with a set of poets called The Movement, another journalistic coinage but having a bit more dignity. In any event, manifestos and aesthetic statements of purpose were made and published, anthologies issued and the Establishment defied, at least until the group were old enough to become the Establishment themselves.

Look Back In Anger's central character is indeed angry at everyone and everything - England, its monarchy, its class system, women, journalism. Trying to imagine what England (somewhere in the Midlands) was like in the mid-1950s, one does picture a straitened, somewhat bleak place, still oppressed by the tail end of postwar poverty - the contrast with the America described by Jack Kerouac couldn't be much sharper. Sex, as we know from Philip Larkin (usually considered one of the Angry Young Men/Movement figures) was not due to arrive until 1963, and Winston Churchill (in his third term as Prime Minister) had just finished presiding over the dismemberment of the British Empire. As with some other plays of groundbreaking social significance (A Raisin In The Sun comes to mind), it's not that much fun to read, but perhaps reading plays in general isn't the best way to enjoy them.

I did very much like a 1970 book by John Wain (also loosely one of the "angries") called A Winter in the Hills. Set in Wales and accordingly steeped in its culture, the novel is a sort of social realism, but too colorful and varied to get the cliched "grim" prepended to that term. The basic story describes a struggle that's still quite timely - locally owned and independently operated businesses being pushed out of the way by an unsympathetic conglomerate. Wain wrote 13 other novels, but apparently, were he remembered at all, it should be for his poetry.

No comments: