John Mortimer

The wrong label that stuck

A young writer produced a brilliant novel that attacked religious fundamentalism, rubbished the press, found politics corrupt and the members of the British upper class shallow and boring. The date was 1930 when the 27-year-old Evelyn Waugh published Vile Bodies.

Sixteen years later Kingsley Amis read Brideshead Revisited at St John’s College, Oxford and sent quotations to Philip Larkin with a ‘burp’ printed after what he thought was every precious line. Although it has to be said that a burp after ‘made free of her narrow loins’ is justified, the incident shows how important it is, if you are struggling to find a new literary voice, to burp at the immediate past.

The journalists who wrote about the ‘Angry Young Men’, after John Osborne had presented them with a title, saw the writers of the Fifties as gritty North Country working-class boys, or the products of red-brick universities, who were resolutely left-wing and intent on changing society. In fact both Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, quoted here as founders of the movement, went, like Waugh, to Oxford, and Amis’s funny and perceptive novels were far kinder to contemporary society than is Vile Bodies. In spite of some early dalliance with the student branch of the Communist party at Oxford, in which Iris Murdoch held a high position, they both settled down on the political Right. It seems there is no one less likely to start a revolution than an Angry Young Man grown old.

Between Vile Bodies and Lucky Jim society had undergone major changes, a world war and a Labour landslide that introduced the welfare state. Yet England in the Fifties is portrayed by some ‘angry’ writers as damp and dull, a wineless land, ruled by Old Etonian Tories, where the restaurants served tinned pilchards and overcooked cabbage and the theatres were full of H.

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