Thursday, October 11, 2007

Class Fictions: Look Back In Anger

Tearing down the fourth wall of the home, dramatists and novelists like John Osbourne documented the confusion of class identiy in the "pretty dreary...American age," with nothing to do but wait bored for the great bang of the H-bomb. In re-forging the nation's social contract, post war Britain and the "craddle to grave" schema of the welfare state saw political narratives rocket from traditional community relations of solidarity and struggle to an individuated relationship to the state, and then state blocs against state blocs, literature spilled into the micro cultures of the kitchen and family, and characters left with only new interior comforts in the artificial desires of consumerism and the rat race of social mobility.

Some like the Situationists argued the content of the literature was reactionary and "thirty years behind the times", failed attempts to scandalise, innocent and new to "a certain moral subversiveness that England had managed to completely hide from them." Yet it was very much a new literature, perfectly fitted to cultural theories and sociologies of an emerging new left that struggled to hold together a class identity against the tide of fragmentation. Kitchen sink is almost an inquiry into these tensions, putting the working class voice on stage in an often raucous, confused and unsteady rant against the new order. John Osbourne's Look Back In Anger encapsulates many of these tensions, in a prism of familial tensions sourced in two fold glances back to the past haunting the present and the failing marriage of Jimmy and Alison.

With his university education, Jimmy is a dangerously lit fuse of alienation and anger: disgruntled with the peddlars of social planning and progress, he has an acute awareness of the hokum of a post war shift and a distrust of the "apocalyptic share pushers who are spreading all those rumours about a transfer of power." What he sees is really a middle class escaping its own futility, one trying to make itself more relevent to the coming tide and a more refined mobile capitalism, with status more sourced in consumer goods than blood line and the stiff upper lip: "the old firm, is selling out! Everyone get out while the going's good. Those forgotten shares you had in the old traditions, the old beliefe are going up - up and up and up."

Mostly his frustration is directed against his wife, who identifies herself as a "hostage from all those sections of society they had declared war on." His anger isn't something just directed towards one individual ,or family, or the backgrounds of his various sexual conquests but against their existence as a class; some sick moribund hangover of Britain's pink stained empire in the "Brave New-nothing-very-much-thank-you." More wierdly, Alison sees herself as ironically liberated and abused at the same time to the verbal violence of her marrage, to her its a more livable alternative to "rotting away at home" in the "wicked" clutches of her overbearing parents and the still rotting corpse of pre-War society.

Jimmy's real sense of pain comes from his inabilty to "pass" in the new game of social mobility and he clings to an outdated mode of working class selfhood. But even if Jimmy does puruse his bitter hatred on this grand level it really manifests itself in the personal, the larger social stage being closed to him. Early in his relationship with Alison he wages a "guerilla war" on dinner parties and society events that he gains access using the social leverage of Alison's family: "plundering them, wolfing their food and drinks, and smoking their cigars like ruffians."

For Alison this is made real when her family came back from their colonial role in India, with everything "unsettled" and incapable of a grip of what is happening in Britain, other than a sense of disquite and sub-surface turbulence - even as it stares at her within her own relationship. But Jimmy too sees himself on the losing side of history, just like his father who returned from the Spanish Civil War where "certain God fearing gentlemen there had made such a mess of him."

Having ran the job market jungle from "journalism, advertising, even vacuum cleaners for a few weeks" he's as happy manning a sweet stall as anything else - the power dynamics are the same everywhere and the only arena he can excercise power is in his sexual relationships. He uses women as battering ram and trojan horses to poison and disgust their familes. Jimmy's hatred is Osbournes own hatred of women, its a very precise hatred of a particular sort of woman: "the royalty of that middle class womanhood, which is so eminently secure in its divine rights" that it dares affront the unstated ambitions of working class men that a new fluidity of social status puts them in contact with. In a battle of archetypes Helena tears into Jimmy: "there's no place for people like that any longer - in sex, or politics, or anything. That's why he's so futile."

Alison's father describes him as speaking "a different langauge to any of us," and Jimmy in return abuses him for "still casting well fed glances back to the Edwardian twilight from his comfortable, disenfranchised wilderness" and as merely "a good blow out for the worms." It's a battle of cultural relevence amidst the modernisation process. What Jimmy and Alison know in their bones is that the old fashioned is being flushed. Jimmy, in his cynical spite prefigures this discontent and reforging of class cultures.

Told all was utterly changed, it's dull and paintively obvious to him it that in a stifling class culture, an NHS, scholarship boys and welfare state signify a class society rather than move beyond it. Even the essence of social solidarity, and rethoric of raising all boats is frustrated and rendered null by cultures of difference and classifaction pointedly exploited by the parents of Alison. No wonder he was such an angry young man.

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