Looking back in anger

Hilary Mantel

  • Almost a Gentleman. An Autobiography: Vol. II 1955-66 by John Osborne
    Faber, 273 pp, £14.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 571 16261 4

One of the more extraordinary revelations in A Better Class of Person, the first volume of John Osborne’s memoirs, was the fact that the author was proposed as the leading man in the 1948 film The Blue Lagoon. The teenage Osborne by his own account had a hollow chest and acne, and a loin cloth would not have shown these off to advantage; the opportunity to loll among the palms with Jean Simmons went to the Welsh actor Donald Houston. Houston was blond and wholesome, and had a long career, much of it in B-movies; it’s interesting to think that John Osborne might have enjoyed it in his stead. Osborne as the fourth intern in Doctor in the House, alongside Dirk Bogarde, Kenneth More and Donald Sinden ... Osborne as a Spartan, as a rugby fan, as Dr Watson ... He would, you feel, have snarled a hole in the screen.

A Better Class of Person is written with the tautness and power of a well-organised novel. It is a ferociously sulky, rancorous book, remarkable for its account of the lower-middle-class childhood on the fringes of London, and for its vengeful portrait of a mother who had ‘eyes that missed nothing and understood nothing’.

Osborne’s father worked in an advertising agency. He was a semi-invalid for most of his son’s youth; his mother was a barmaid – or, as she put it, ‘a victualler’s assistant, if you please’. They moved often, from one rented suburban house or flat to another. Until he was sent away to a third-rate boarding-school, the boy had virtually no education; his mother preferred to keep him at home to go window-shopping with her, or to the cinema. These were the days of the double-feature, and he saw, he estimates, two hundred films a year. He had a crowd of relatives who are, in his view, spiteful, greedy, stupid and pathetic. They manifested ‘a timid melancholy or dislike of joy, effort or courage ... Disappointment was oxygen to them.’

It is an atmosphere in which effort is despised, and anyone who has the temerity to try to advance in life must bear the complacent smirking of those who predict that it will all end badly. His mother Nellie Beatrice (so he calls her – the family called her Dolly) dominates his life and shapes the picture of himself which he gives to the reader. The whole book bears witness to the grown man’s failure to separate himself emotionally from a woman he despises – from Nellie Beatrice with her flaking face-powder and her Black Looks. The consequences of this failure are played out in the second volume: they are a disabling misogyny, a series of failed and painful relationships, a grim determination to spit in the world’s eye. He is not lovable, he knows; very well, he’ll be hateful then.

It might, the reader thinks, have turned out quite differently. Throughout both books Osborne reproduces letters sent to him by his mother and relatives. Uncle Jack writes to him: ‘There is nothing to report, only I have lost the sight of one eye.’ If the Osborne family had lived, say, in Lancashire instead of London, such a letter would have made Jack a local celebrity; a turn of phrase like that would be a family treasure. But Osborne’s humour is aggressive, not black, not self-deprecating, not tolerant; it makes the world a harder place. The letters make the memoirs easier for the reader, however: one looks forward to them. In the days of heady fame – of Broadway and the Royal Court, of pursuit by the press, of ‘love-nests’ and ‘hideaways’ and CND celebrity rallies – the letters still wing their way. ‘Sid is upstairs in Bed. He had all his bottom teeth out on Wednesday.’

How did our hero escape Nellie Beatrice, Sid and the rest? He had a footling journalist career on Gas World – and, briefly, on Nursery World. Primed by his success at the Gaycroft School of Music, Dancing, Speech, Elocution and Drama, he tried the theatre. Talent seems to have been less important than the ability to live on almost nothing and endure insults from management and patrons. Jobs in rep were advertised in terms like these: ‘No fancy salaries, no queer folk.’ Queer folk appear on almost every page of both volumes of memoirs, and Osborne is at pains to point out – many, many times – that he has no homosexual proclivities. He’d rather a dosshouse than a warm sofa where his timid virtue might be imperilled; and indeed, many of his theatrical lodgings didn’t rise much above the dosshouse level.

He toured the provinces in melodramas about ‘middle-class girls compromised in their cami-knickers’ and in ‘northern comedies’ where he failed to see the joke. Between jobs, he learned to subsist on evaporated milk and boiled nettles. His Hamlet was a ‘leering milk rounds man’; he featured in a production of Aladdin so bad that the child amateurs who formed the chorus were abducted from the theatre by their furious parents, so that the ‘Big Spectacular’ had to be cancelled. His first play got its world premiere in Huddersfield, and lasted for a week.

The first volume left Osborne in 1956, at the point where – in 17 days – he had completed Look back in anger. George Devine, the first artistic director of the English Stage Company, arrives in his life (in a rowing-boat) and makes him ‘preposterously famous’. Osborne vehemently denies claims that the play was first entitled On the Pier at Morecambe, but a photographed page of his notebook shows that several titles were contemplated. They include Angry Man, Man in a Rage and Close the cage door behind you. Only one strikes you as false to its begetter: Farewell to Anger.

For in this second volume, it’s hello to some more. Fame makes Osborne savager than ever. What is wonderful is how the years have deepened the ire, how memory has mauled his wounds so that they open again before the reader’s eyes. When he was a boy, a hospital messed up an appendix operation, leaving him with a hole in his side; they gave him a special pencil with which he could cauterise the wound and help it to heal. If you could wish the playwright one thing, it would be a styptic pencil for his psyche. Self-mutilation is, however, a riveting spectacle.

On the cover of Almost a Gentleman Osborne wears a miscellanea of camp togs, and an expression at once quizzical, combative and prissy. As with the first volume, frail jokes and bad puns decorate the text. We know the writer is on form by page 20, when we read of ‘Binkie Beaumont, most powerful of the unacceptable faeces of theatrical capitalism’. There is some repetition: the comedian Max Miller is once again ‘a god ... a saloon-bar Priapus’, and various people are ‘a sphinx’, or, in the case of his second wife Mary Ure, ‘not a sphinx’. The spite, though, comes up new and fresh.

When Look back in anger opened at the Royal Court, the warmest reaction was Philip Hope-Wallace’s ‘spinsterly condescension’ – Osborne has always at his command the exact, skewering phrase – but then the Sunday papers came out. Ken Tynan called it a ‘minor miracle’ and praised it in these peculiar terms: ‘I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look back in anger.’ Some critics said: ‘It calls out for the knife.’ All these years on, Osborne will not take the point. ‘Hamlet is too long,’ he says grandly.

Thereafter the hostility of his audiences fuelled his talent; so did rows with the Lord Chamberlain. The list of cuts required to The Entertainer has a strange poetry of its own: ‘Page 30, alter “shagged” ... page 43, omit “rogered” (twice) ... Act III, page 21, omit “balls”.’

If the balls were omitted, this book would be nothing. It is essentially a book of vitriolic gossip. It does not pretend to be a history of the Royal Court – which is just as well, or we’d never hear the end of the disputes about who said what to whom. (Did Lindsay Anderson really try to ban critics from the Royal Court? Lindsay Anderson doesn’t think so.) It tells very little about how Osborne and his contemporaries went about freeing themselves from the constraints of the theatre as they found it; Brecht’s influence barely merits a nod.

Indeed, the book tells us less about Osborne’s work than about other people’s reactions to it, and less about applause than condemnation. After the opening of his musical satire The World of Paul Slickey, the New Statesman said with restraint: ‘It has almost every fault.’ Playgoers, less circumspect, chased him up Charing Cross Road.

His attitude to his audience is always uncompromising: ‘Their pleasure inflames my prejudice, their indifference stirs my rage.’ In hindsight, Osborne takes a gloating pleasure in trashing his best efforts. Yes, there was a theatrical revolution – the barricades manned by lecherous petty-minded egotists. Yes, the Angry Young Men were political radicals. But this radicalism, he tells us now, was a gigantic sell-deceit. They were duped by traitorous fanatics. When, the reader wonders, did Osborne become so discerning? When did he become able to see the true nature of things? It is only the development of some cooler qualities that gives a point to retrospection: since he is as angry as ever, is he any more likely to be right now than he was then? There is no particular reason, of course, why people who write their lives should be fair to themselves or other people. It is more diverting if they aren’t. But when revenge seems the major motive for writing, diversion soon becomes mixed with disgust.

His portraits of colleagues and contemporaries are bilious. Tony Richardson’s ‘duplicity was so sinewy and downright that he was able to deceive friends and adversaries effortlessly’. Freddie Ayer had an ‘organ-grinder’s monkey’s brain’. Olivier gets off comparatively lightly: he is chronically adulterous and manipulative, but so is everyone else Osborne knows. At one point Olivier sings, to the tune of ‘John Peel’, a merry song about buggery.

Women come off worse: Vanessa Redgrave, for example, ‘Big Van’ with her incontinent Yorkshire terrier. ‘Loyal’ is often the best adjective he can find for a woman; it is a trait more often valued in dogs. He may despise the women who cross his path, but doesn’t refuse them. George Devine, who was such an influence on his career, would ‘pull on his pipe lingeringly at the sight of a pretty girl’; Osborne was also a pipe-man. Back in his Gay croft School days he had run away from a fiancée who worked in a building society – run away from the £12 Bravington’s engagement ring, and the Saturday promenade to look at furniture in the High Street. He married Pamela Lane, who he met in rep in Bridgwater, but their work took them to different parts of the country, and the relationship expired from lack of interest.

His next wife was Mary Ure, who played Alison in Look back in anger; even in his description of the wedding ceremony, Osborne is sneering at the bride. She is accused of having a large family, and of having bought a going-away outfit which would ‘photograph pretty disastrously in the departure lounge’. When once again it is time to ‘pump out the blocked drain of matrimony’ he moves on, via mistresses, to Penelope Gilliatt. ‘Why do you keep marrying these women?’ the agent Peggy Ramsay asked him. ‘I’m sure they can’t possibly want to marry you.’

It is not long before moaning and sneering again dominate the text. Gilliatt is accused of nothing much worse than ‘dumb pedantry’, self-importance, spending too little time on her husband and too much on her Observer film column – and of not knowing how a writer works because she is not a proper writer herself. The actress Jill Bennett arrives on the scene. Osborne doesn’t like her much – but why should that impede his career as what he likes to call a ‘cocksman’?

Here the reader’s mind may go back to A Better Class of Person. Early in his acting career Osborne worked with Lynne Reid Banks, who went on to write The L-Shaped Room. Pronouncing her ‘unspeakable’, he saved up his hatred until ‘some time later at an improbably posh party in London I offered her a sandwich. I had taken some trouble to insert among the smoked salmon and cream cheese ... a used French letter. The unbelieving repulsion on her face ... was fixed for ever for me.’ An unbelieving repulsion steals over the reader too, who begins to wonder whether Osborne is – and one must phrase this delicately – faintly deranged. Through this new book, the question is constantly posed, and for some people it will answer itself when Osborne in a ‘fast forward’ takes us to 7 October 1990, the day after Jill Bennett’s death. Falling upon her newspaper obituaries, shredding them line by line, he denounces ‘this whole rotting body of lies and invention which was her crabbed little life’. He tells us that she ‘was a woman so demoniacally possessed by Avarice that she died of it’, and quotes Tony Richardson’s judgment that she was ‘the worst actress in England’.

At this point, the pious reader may wish to pray, the queasy reader vomit, the prudent reviewer consult the libel laws. Adjectives stored up – ‘fascinating’ perhaps, or ‘scurrilous’ – don’t seem worth using. It no longer seems possible to make a literary judgment on this second installment of Osborne’s life; the author forces from his reader the moral judgment which he has worked so hard to elicit.

Harold Hobson, writing about him in the Sunday Times at the peak of his fame, said: ‘Self-loathing appears to be the driving force of his art. He should control it; he is not as bad as he thinks he is.’ I don’t know about that.