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Über dieses Buch

This book is the first academic text to examine cynicism as a driving force in the context of post-war British culture. It maps a sensibility that transcends divisions between high and low culture, and encompasses figures such as Philip Larkin, John Lennon and Stephen Patrick Morrissey.




Cynicism has not, up until this point, been considered seriously as a driving force for cultural production in Britain, perhaps because of its apparent omnipresence. This book seeks to make an intervention on precisely this basis. Transcending barriers between high and low culture, the cynic sensibility permeates 20th-century culture as a whole, in both popular and relatively unpopular variants. All of the figures are products of the post-1945 Keynesian consensus period — from Philip Larkin, employed as he was in the expanded university sector of the 1960s, to Morrissey, still seemingly scarred by his experience of a Manchester secondary modern education.
Kieran Curran

1. Annus Mirabilis: Philip Larkin

In the immediate post-World War II period, life was understandably more fractured and disturbed in Britain than before. People had been subject to the onslaught of the Blitz, and had apparently grown more unified in the face of this. The realities of rationing and frugality had emerged with increased sharpness, resulting in a general sense of ennui and apathy which continued beyond the VE and VJ day celebrations, which were themselves somewhat subdued. According to David Kynaston’s citing of Mass Observation data in A World to Build, “riotous abandon was the exception rather than the rule” (9). Soon after, the Franklin D. Roosevelt-initiated lend-lease program, designed to aid the Allied nations during the war with loaned machinery, from industrial to military, was cancelled:
The factories, which people hoped would soon be changing over to the production of goods for the shabby, short-of-everything home consumers are instead to produce goods for export … People are suddenly realising that in the enormous economic blitz that has just begun, their problems may be as serious as the blitz they so recently scraped through.
(ibid. 103)
Bread rationing only ended in 1947, clothes rationing and sweets rationing in 1949 — the public simply had to learn to cope with the results.
Kieran Curran

2. Work Is a Curse: John Wain/Kingsley Amis/Iris Murdoch

The 1930s were an era of economic deprivation coupled with a burgeoning awareness of class conflict in Britain. Narratives such as the fictional Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood or the non-fictional The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell underlined the plight of many ordinary British people who were neither members of the capital-owning or industrial class nor the professional, better educated, comfortable middle class. Unemployment is pathologised in Greenwood’s novel: “it got you slowly, with the slippered stealth of an unsuspected, malignant disease” (169). And key to Orwell’s narrative are the pathetically poor living conditions of ordinary working people (for instance, the coal-miners, “blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust” [31]) and the unemployed alike. During this period, social organisations also arose — a National Union Of Unemployed Workers, serving the interests of a then vast interest group, sought to increase solidarity and collective action in the face of “the deadening, debilitating effect of unemployment” (Orwell 73). Extreme hardship and institutional carelessness were par for the course — the dole was low, and rules preventing working illegally to earn extra money were rigorously enforced — thereby inflating the disparity between “The Establishment” as such and ordinary people.
Kieran Curran

3. Just Another Sunday Evening: John Osborne/Jazz

John Osborne has been variously termed (amongst other things) an angry young man, a socialist, a conservative and a wilful artistic iconoclast. His position in 1950s drama has been, alternately, de-emphasised and over-emphasised. Randall Stevenson is critical of his dominant position in dramatic histories of the post-war period (c.f. The Last of England); by contrast, the contemporary critic Kenneth Allsopp was utterly convinced of his central importance. His treatment of female characters and nostalgic attachment to imperial values lends itself to a critique of his work as inherently backward, quasi-imperialist, sexist and unreconstructed. Yet his key 1950s work — particularly The Entertainer — represents various strands of a sensibility in British popular culture, extending from the Movement writings of the previous chapter, through to the Beatles, and on to 1970s drama, the Smiths and beyond. The cynic sensibility — drawing on Peter Sloterdijk’s dictum that “modern cynicism presents itself as that state of consciousness that follows after naive ideologies and their enlightenment” (Critique of Cynical Reason 3) — occurs in the wake of the death of overarching grand narratives. It entails synthesising an engagement with popular culture across traditional high and low cultural lines, an overall disengagement from direct political action and a Bohemian/quasi-Romantic attachment to the role of the artist.
Kieran Curran

4. That’s What I’m Not: British New Wave Cinema

As a transitional point in the cynic sensibility from the 1950s into the 1960s, this chapter will look at four examples of the so-called “New Wave” of British cinema. All of these films were adaptations of existing literary works — two from a novel, one from a short story and one from a stage play. Two of the four — the Shelagh Delaney-written A Taste of Honey (1961), and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), based on an Alan Sillitoe short story — were directed by Tony Richardson. Richardson had previously made his name as a theatre director of work by the so-called Angry Young Men, as well as through film adaptations of John Osborne plays Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer. Karel Reisz directed Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), an adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s text, whilst John Schlesinger directed Billy Liar (1963), based on the novel by Keith Waterhouse. The films I will discuss have been characterised largely by a tendency towards realism, as well as a fairly strong attachment to their literary source texts. As a result, some critics have viewed the British “New Wave” as being too indebted to a staid form of British realism. The crucial appeal of the form rests in the fact that, in spite of a relative decline in cinema attendances, it was still a medium which particularly resonated with and appealed to a youth audience.
Kieran Curran

5. I’ve Heard of Politics, but This Is Ridiculous: TV Satire/Comedy

The traditional, classical definition of comedy — which is, to some extent, still relevant and workable today — is described by Andrew Stott as follows:
Comedies end happily, often concluding with a communal celebration such as a feast or a marriage. We might add that we would expect a comedy to be funny, and that during the course of its action no one will be killed. (1)
This definition is neat, but seems more applicable to a text such as William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1602) rather than, say, Enda Walsh’s The Warworth Farce (2006). A more pertinent account of the form in a contemporary sense follows:
As a label, “comedy” can be applied across a range of styles, including traditional categories such as pastoral comedy, farce, burlesque, pantomime, satire, and the comedy of manners; yet it also applies to more modern subdivisions: cartoons, sitcom, sketch comedy, slapstick cinema, stand-up, some game shows, impressionists, caricatures, and even silly walks. (1–2)
Such a broad, inclusive account is particularly applicable in this chapter, where the comic practitioners of the Satire Boom, the television playwright Dennis Potter, and the Alternative Comedy cast of The Young Ones alike draw on a wide range of comedic devices and styles.
Kieran Curran

6. Bed Peace: John Lennon

Give the huge corpus of work devoted to picking apart the music, lyrics and cultural significance of the Beatles, critic David Quantick was justified in writing that:
The story is overtold now: even unborn children know, at some deep genetic level, how Paul McCartney met John Lennon at Woolton Fete and showed him some chords … and universities now teach courses on how the respectable band members who were able to mix with royalty became drug-using psychonauts who pushed the barriers of popular music so far back that they collapsed.
(Revolution 7)
Carys Wyn Jones has identified slight currents in popular music academic discourse seemingly devoted to placing the Beatles alongside traditional high cultural practices of yore — for instance, via the Beatlestudies series of conferences/books, which sought to apply traditional (classical) musicological methods to the band. Jones points out the niche carved out by such endeavours, and their determined ignorance of other forms of (less widely intellectualised) popular music — “it is easy to image that Dylan Studies might be regarded as the next desirable step” (Jones 113). In the aftermath of — amongst other things — cultural phenomena such as The Beatles Anthology television series (with subsequent VHS and DVD releases), the 2009 mono reissuing of most of their records, and the extensive three-hour documentary by Martin Scorsese devoted to their third song-writer, George Harrison (Living in the Material World), this “overtold story” can seemingly still be told, and retold.
Kieran Curran

7. Quiet Riot: Stephen Poliakoff

Stephen Poliakoff is a playwright who has become well known — particularly — for his television drama and screen work as opposed to his early work for the stage. Indeed, it is his mid-1970s dramatic work that I find most interesting in the context of the cynic sensibility. The three plays to be discussed in this chapter — in chronological order, Hitting Town, City Sugar and Strawberry Fields — all bear the hallmarks of the sensibility. They all, with degrees of variation, possess the key characteristics of a Bohemian/Romantic approach to their heroes, an apolitical bent opposed to party politics and all-encompassing ideological solutions to the problems of society, and an engagement with popular forms, being somewhat anti-modernist and in opposition to a rigid high/low culture dichotomy. Due to the comparatively low amount of scholarly writing on this part of Poliakoff’s career, I am to an extent ploughing new ground — hence I have used a closer reading style approach in analysing this work. The following quotation is taken from Poliakoff’s own introduction to his collected Plays: One:
Written in February 1975, soon after the Birmingham and Guildford bombings … I became very interested in trying to write a play about a personal reaction to the violence and the ugly mood of the mid-seventies, about people growing inward and private and lonely, after the noise and frivolity of the sixties.
Kieran Curran

8. No Future/No Alternative: Punk and the Cynic Sensibility

In the following passage from his history of countercultural London, long-standing music writer and cultural critic Barry Miles identified the huge popular significance and impact of punk music on late 1970s British culture:
It is axiomatic that the true character of a culture, the state of its national consciousness, can be glimpsed through a nation’s popular music, television shows and tabloid newspapers. In the post-war period there was never such a division as the one between the punks and the cultural establishment in the late seventies. The punks exposed the barely restrained violence beneath the British stiff upper lip; the repressed rage of the “flog ’em, bring back hanging” old ladies delicately sipping their tea in Bexhill-on-sea and Windsor; the roiling and daily disappointments of the robot-like millions commuting into the City of London each day to make millions for foreign bosses and anonymous shareholders; the blatant hypocrisy of the Fleet Street newspapers, suppressing and distorting facts to suit the political objectives of their millionaire owners; the cynical manipulation of children and the poor by the pony-tailed advertising men of Charlotte Street — one punk band had a song about a champagne party held to celebrate the launch of individual fish-finger packs for pensioners — the steady diet of murder, murder, murder in films and television drama, and, in the seventies, still the puritan admonitions against sex.
Kieran Curran

9. We Are White Crap That Talks Back: The Fall

The Fall, formed in Greater Manchester in the wake of the beginnings of punk in the United Kingdom, were famously described by legendary DJ John Peel as “always different, always the same”. From their foundations in 1976, the only constant member of the group is iconoclastic lead vocalist and lyricist Mark E. Smith. His original concept for the band as encapsulating “primitive music with avant-garde lyrics” has been the driving force of their output up to the present. They have also been the self-styled “white crap that talks back”, a lyric taken from “Crap Rap 2” on their debut LP Live at the Witch Trials (1979). This chapter will look at the strange (and frightening) world of the Fall, with particular focus on aspects of their career in the late 1970s and 1980s. They are a band who, at various times in their career, have synthesised both relatively popular and unpopular forms of music (from punk and acid house to ballet and German art rock). Their lyrics are, by turns, obscure, obfuscating, literary, absurd and hilarious, making reference to a quasi-Kitchen Sink (sur)realism as well as traditional “high culture” as such (the band’s name is itself a reference to an Albert Camus novel). They seem, thus, to be a reflection of a postmodern approach to art, whereby work that transcends older cultural boundaries seeks to “penetrate the cultural Establishment by appearing to celebrate the artistic merits of popular culture, the mass market and kitsch” (Turner 77).
Kieran Curran

10. Somehow That Really Impressed Me: The Smiths

In the following, final chapter of this work, I will discuss the Smiths. My work is essentially looking at mainly “documentary” culture, as Raymond Williams would define it in broad terms: “the selective tradition”, more specifically. This chapter looks particularly at where the Smiths actually fit within this in terms of popular culture. In my view, they represent the culmination of the cynic sensibility, achieving a balance between its Bohemian, apolitical and cross-cultural aspects. The Smiths, to me, appear to some degree to encompass the voices of John Wain, Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, John Lennon, Stephen Poliakoff and Mark E. Smith, among others. The work of each of these artists appears in the context of some degree of British historical upheaval; even, at times, at points of crisis. For instance, Lennon and the Beatles reflect the rapid liberalisation of British society in the 1960s, as well as the maturation of the baby boom generation and the limits of hippy optimism. Poliakoff reflects a disillusionment with the hangover of the said optimism in the 1970s, leading into punk and post-punk music. And many critics see the Smiths as inextricably linked with the deconstruction of the idea of Britain as “New Jerusalem” by Margaret Thatcher’s government. Popular cultural critic Chuck Klosterman alludes to this fact: “In a decade categorized by excess, The Smiths — and especially their sexually baffling front man — were introspective, iconoclastic, and alienated” (50).
Kieran Curran


After the demise of the Smiths in 1987, the cynic sensibility largely fades from view, with few if any figures emerging within popular culture showing the same key characteristics that the previous chapters have mapped out. Of course, Morrissey continued to pursue some of the same lyrical themes (such as the call for the obliteration of Middle English mundanity referenced in the epigraph), but in his pronouncements and artistic outputs from the 1990s onwards has tended to, on the one hand, focus on criticising the process of migration into the United Kingdom (causing some to label him as a neo-racist — at the very least he is guilty of gross nostalgia), whilst, on the other hand, gradually becoming more and more of a parody of his former self. Certainly his album and single output since the Smiths’ break-up has been of a uniformly lower quality. One feels that, in recent times, Morrissey has tended to rely on his past glories and past witticisms (as well as the die-hard loyalty of many of his acolytes) to retain his cultural cachet. Recent media statements as to the barbarity of “the Chinese” and “Canada” as a whole — due to their respective animal rights records — has reinforced the opinion of his detractors that Morrissey has travelled the time-worn path (shared by other cynics such as Kingsley Amis and John Osborne, to name but two) from youthful iconoclast to outright reactionary.
Kieran Curran


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