The Angry Years: The Rise and Fall of the Angry Young Men, Hardback Book

The Angry Years: The Rise and Fall of the Angry Young Men Hardback

5 out of 5 (1 rating)


What were the achievements of the 'angry' writers who emerged in the fifties?

Historically, they gave birth to the satire movement of the 1960s-Beyond the Fringe, That Was the Week that Was and Private Eye.

Their satire and irreverence aroused enthusiasm in man, and a new 'anti-Establishment' mood developed from Look Back in Anger and The Outsider.

All literary movements acquire enemies, but the Angry Young Men of the 1950s accumulated more than most.

Why? Wilson takes us on a journey back to this era, and reveals fascinating and sometimes disturbing stories from the Greats, including John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Kenneth Tynan and John Braine-to name but a few.

At all events, the story of that period makes a marvellously lively tale which, most importantly, was recorded by someone who was actually there.


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One of the reasons I write book reviews is to be able to remember what in them affected me. What I write here is what I don’t want to lose, because in a year I will not possibly be able to describe the book as I can now. The first extraordinary thing about Angry Years is Colin Wilson’s astounding capacity to distil the essence, impact, significance and stylistic growth of novels and plays from the 1950s, when the “Angry Young Men” – of which he was the first and last – were having their say about the world. Wilson taps reviews done at the time, intertwines his personal knowledge and experience with the writers and the context of the times to make it all not merely relevant, but alive, significant and important. Not to mention enthralling.The framework of the book is history. He relates how new authors came to and fit the scene, their personalities, sexuality, and relationships. He seems to obsess (as they apparently did) on their sexual proclivities, which most often featured massive adultery, but also bdsm and orgies. They were a wildly sexual bunch in the nominally buttoned up and repressed 1950s. He analyzes and dissects their literary works with remarkable precision, and usually with extensive reference to both the personality of the author and the literary worth of the product. Wilson is no fan of suspension of disbelief. He calls them out on every non-realistic passage. He is clearheaded and straight up. His own writing is direct, simple, spare and a pleasure to follow.Along the way, he treats us to intriguing observations. -Heroes of serious fiction for the past 200 years have been defeated men. There are exceptions in novels for “uncritical adolescents”, eg. James Bond, but not in serious fiction. -The mind has gears, and the face is the gearbox of the soul. If you learn to change gears, the world appears much differently.-Outsiders are people who hate their dependency on the material world, and struggled to escape it. This is the basis of Wilson’s most famous work.What is most annoying about his era is the seemingly total ease with which everyone got published or produced. Wilson himself was an uneducated 23 year old when he got his first, deepest and greatest book published. John Osborne was a similar age when Look Back In Anger was taken straight to production. All through their lives, the dozen or so authors in this book could publish seemingly as desired, regardless of quality, as shown in their frequent marketplace failures. Untested plays went into production in the West End, sometimes with commitments before they were even written. No number of miserable flops discouraged producers and directors from committing to another. When hard up, several of the authors simply took positions as librarians. This fairytale Britain seems impossible, but these men and women did pull it off, continuously, all their lives. One (known heroin addict) lived off advances for a while, never delivering anything.What becomes clear early on is despite all this intense psychoanalysis and literary analysis of everyone else, there is precious little on Wilson himself. He finally acknowledges it in the epilogue, and then turns the whole thing around, saying he wrote it this way for a purpose well beyond mere memoirs. It’s actually about philosophy, existentialism to be precise. It’s about how Rousseau’s ideas underlie everything that Wilson believes and that they all lived, mostly without realizing it. It is an acknowledgment that sexual freedom precedes social freedom (in Rousseau’s words), and all his fellow authors were ultimately defeated trying to establish their sexual freedom. They never made it to social freedom (though he thinks Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing made the most headway). That this is Wilson’s purpose is quite the revelation. He has been using us – our interest in the period – to expand the point he made 50+ years ago in his first publication, The Outsiders. As a result, the epilogue is (unusually) the most challenging chapter in the book, requiring thought, analysis and appreciation. Wilson pulls out all the stops, demonstrating his expertise and comfort with his thesis. It puts him on a higher plane than his peers, and demonstrates in no uncertain terms why he is by far the most skilled of all of them. So while the others faded in quality, this 75 year old young man still has it – in spades.Entertainment history, literary criticism, personal memoir, philosophical argument. The Angry Years is an exceptional book on any level you choose to take it. David Wineberg

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