A KIND OF LOVING
"I blame these books for a lifelong attraction to brainy, creative working class men, who are usually penniless. It may have led to some personal hardship for me, but these characters were just too damned sexy to resist. While my classmates dreamt of Keanu Reeves and Wham!, my head was full of Arthur Seaton, Joe Lampton and Billy Liar."
Suzy Prince breaks out the Babycham and waxes lyrical about her enduring passion for the British Kitchen Sink fiction of the Fifties and Sixties
COPYRIGHT © 2005, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
"…money marries money, lad. Be careful she doesn't break your heart… get one of your own class. Go to your own people."
- Room at the Top, John Braine (1957)
Much has been written and talked about over the years of the social realist films of the 1950s and 60s. And recently there has been a resurgence of interest, with the BFI's release on DVD of A Taste of Honey and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. But what you don't hear about anywhere near as much these days is the original books, plays and stories which these films were adapted from. It's time to set the balance right, and pay a heartfelt homage to these groundbreaking classics.
The so-called Kitchen Sink novel/play/short story etc., changed the face of modern literature forever. These works sprang from seemingly nowhere, and suddenly Britain was inundated with 'realistic' tales of the lives and concerns of various young working class protagonists. Authors were concentrating on the typical rather than the exceptional, relating the mundane details of everyday life and the frustrations experienced by those with huge limitations placed on them because of their backgrounds, families, social conventions and, ultimately, themselves. The stories were littered with dead-end jobs, unwanted pregnancies, stifling families, shotgun weddings and sexual frustration. The style differed greatly from author to author, but the common factor was the overwhelming and brutal honesty of the writing. There are no typical heroes and villains here. Just people in all their confusing, mixed up glory. Alan Sillitoe explained that in his opinion: "The art of writing is to explain complications of the human soul with a simplicity that can be universally understood." He demonstrates this skill beautifully in the shape of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning's Arthur Seaton; a sexy, self-destructive embodiment of anger and rage, who spends his days at the factory lathe and his nights screwing, drinking and fighting. Most of these novels and plays are written in a deceptively simple style, and the beauty of them is that in most cases the authors were so young that they probably remained blissfully unaware, and therefore unhampered, by literary stylistic norms. Something for which we can be grateful.
It's difficult to discern whether a shift in societal norms subtly allowed working class subjects to stand up and be counted creatively, or whether these young authors created that change themselves. I suspect it's the latter. It is remarkable that many of these books were written at all: most of the authors were of working class origin; the offspring of labourers, miners and other traditional badly paid occupations. These writers were extremely well-placed to describe frustration, and rage against the restrictions imposed upon them. Often the authors had left school in their early teens and begun their adulthood in menial jobs (Keith Waterhouse worked as an undertaker's assistant; a profession which he later gifted to his creation Billy Liar) and usually the men also had experienced a stint in military service. And there was 19-year-old Shelagh Delaney who wrote a play in 1959 and sent it to the radical theatre director Joan Littlewood, who she only vaguely knew about. Littlewood immediately picked up on A Taste of Honey, saying that Delaney differed from the 'Angry Young Men' because "she knows what she's angry about" and the rest is history. This play and subsequent film, is still hailed as one of the best examples ever of the British new wave. Not bad for a working class girl from Salford!
"Piled-up passions were exploded on Saturday night, and the effect of a week's monotonous graft in the factory was swilled out of your system in a burst of goodwill."
- Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Alan Sillitoe (1959)
A lot has been written down the years about the 'Angry Young Men' at the heart of these novels, plays and films. But it should be noted that the female characters had a fairly rough time of it too. Sweet but irritating Ingrid, in A Kind of Loving ends up with a husband who doesn't really love her. Ditto the middle class Susan in A Room at the Top who is unaware that she's being married for her money and social status. These tales are littered with unwanted pregnancies, or widowed, overweight and frustrated landladies. They have had accusations of misogyny levelled at them, but I don't agree with this judgement. The authors were quite simply telling it like it was. There is very little morality in these tales. 'Doing the right thing' generally leads to a life of compromise. Acting like a selfish pig also got you nowhere. It wasn't just grim up north, it was grim absolutely bloody everywhere.
"He threw his money about like a man with no arms."
- A Taste of Honey, Shelagh Delaney (1959)
As a teenager growing up in various market towns in the midlands, the effect that the novel Billy Liar's bohemian and free-spirited girlfriend Liz had on me was enormous. This was of course later borne out by the film with Julie Christie's stellar performance as this girl who might just save Billy from a life of dreariness (but ultimately doesn't. I feel frustrated even thinking about how close he came to escape). Aged 14, I borrowed it from my local library, attracted by the title. Liz pops in and out of Billy's life. Keith Waterhouse explains her effect on Billy like this: "…it was part of the nature of Liz to disappear from time to time and I was proud of her bohemianism, crediting her with a soul-deep need to get away and straighten out her personality, or to find herself or something… I had no real feeling for her, but there was always a kind of pain when she went away, and when the pain yielded nothing I converted it, like an alchemist busy with the seaweed, into something approaching love." That was all I need know. I was not alone in my small-town frustrations. And somebody loved her, somehow or other. I blame these books for a lifelong attraction to brainy, creative working class men, who are usually penniless. It may have led to some personal hardship for me, but these characters were just too damned sexy to resist. While my classmates dreamt of Keanu Reeves and Wham!, my head was full of Arthur Seaton, Joe Lampton and Billy Liar. Strange, but true.
"Our teacher says God made everything. What are factories for then?"
- Up the Junction, Nell Dunn (1963)
It took a while for these novels and plays to be picked up on by the people they were written about. The primary audience for the Kitchen Sink novel was initially the middles classes, who were more attuned to novels and the theatre. Dennis Potter observed that: "…in the [working class social] club or other local centres, there is little or no talk of Wesker or Osborne or Joan Littlewood, and the external culture comes from the telly, and mostly from commercial television." This is undoubtedly a shame, but it doesn't lessen the impact of the work. A writer who is writing in an observational way will always have to stand slightly outside the situation that they are describing in order to do the job properly. That is the natural order of things. Most of these authors by the very act of writing a creative work removed themselves from the traditional trappings of working class culture. One of the best examples of the Kitchen Sink tradition is Nell Dunn's observational novel from 1963, Up the Junction, which is a brilliant depiction of London life for women in low-paid jobs with very few prospects. Back-street abortions, beehives and extra-marital affairs jostle for position with teenage courting rituals and chain-smoking. She is one of the first writers to name consumer goods, from Daz to Babycham, and the style is so realistic that you can practically smell the chip fat as you read.
The reason I mention this here is that Dunn was originally a wealthy journalist from Chelsea who chose to move south of the river and live amongst working class people. The dialogue in her work is so perfectly-observed, I suspect, because her to her ears it would all seem very fresh and new. Female chat about laddered stockings and babies might not stand out to people who grew up with it, but to this outsider it was the spice of life.
Without all these groundbreaking writers, much of the wider culture which we now take for granted might not exist. And the fact that these works are still in print more than 40 years on, is certainly testimony to their continued worth.
(with thanks to Andrew Stevens)
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Suzy Prince is co-editor of Nude magazine, a quarterly publication devoted to going beyond the counter-culture, which has been compared to a paper version of 3AM. She lives in Stoke Newington, London (where the tube doesn't exist, yet).