The Paradox of Anti-Establishment Fiction
The 1960 film The Angry Silence begins with a train arriving at the station of a provincial English town. A mild-mannered looking man in a crumpled suit disembarks, and his eyes pass over his new surroundings. It would be an innocent enough scene, but the man is an union agitator and agent provocateur on a mission to wreak havoc at a local factory.
We live in an age where politicians are now trying to claim the label ‘anti-Establishment’. The SNP want to liberate Scotland from Westminster rule, and UKIP claim they are the only alternative to the homogenised LIBLABCON political parties (read Allan Massie for the link between the two parties). While this relatively new phenomenon has occurred as the Tories and Labour have gradually lost their core support, anti-Establishment feeling has long been an important cultural influence in plays, novels, books and songs. Defining what exactly is the Establishment is no easy task. There have been only two post-war governments which have successfully created a political consensus by which we might say the Establishment operates. The Labour government led by Clement Attlee continued and expanded rationing after the war, nationalised heavy industry, raised taxes and created the NHS. Most of the workforce was unionised, thus giving the unions tremendous leverage over government, and some trade unionists became household names. Although it’s easy to be nostalgic about this bygone age, many writers at the time viewed it with disdain. Angry Young Men dramas and Kitchen Sink Realism portrayed how miserable life could be for much of the working class in 1950s and 60s Britain. DH Lawrence Sons and Lovers style novels about young men sent to work down mines but who yearn to be poets (a literary tradition wonderfully sent up in this Monty Python sketch) were winning the Booker Prize as late as 1976.
The Angry Silence was one of the most interesting and overlooked British films of the era: a sort of kitchen sink thriller which is anti-establishment in tone through its portrayal of unaccountable and sinister trade union power. Richard Attenborough plays Tom Curtis, a factory worker who simply wants a quiet life and the chance to care for his Italian wife (Pier Angeli) and their two children. Their differing nationalities are reflected in the fact that she cooks him a pasta dish which he covers in ketchup and eats with a side plate of bread and butter. When the shop steward Bert Connolly (Bernard Lee) calls an unofficial, wildcat strike, Curtis decides to cross the picket line, angered by the union’s easily manipulated show- of- hands vote. Curtis is then subjected to the full vengeance of strikers determined to punish him and his fellow scabs. Bricks fly through windows, cars are set alight and the scene is set for a violent showdown that can only end in tragedy. The Angry Silence shouldn’t be dismissed as merely right-wing propaganda. Connolly is portrayed as an easily manipulated man who believes in trade union ideals but is powerless to stop the more thuggish strikers who are simply looking for a fight. Also, the film benefits from the then radical directing style of Guy Green. In the union meetings you can almost feel the sweaty tension as men cough, fidget and talk over each other. The sexual discussion is frank and progressive. Michael Craig (who shares a writing credit) has an interesting role as Curtis’ lodger and fair-weather friend Joe Wallace. More at home seducing young women than with union politics, Wallace falls for the one woman who won’t love him back unless he is prepared to take a stand against the men out to destroy Curtis.
Twenty years on from the scathing critique of trade union power in The Angry Silence and the consensus established by the Attlee government was on the brink of collapse, the Wilson and Heath governments tried and failed to reform trade unions through In Place of Strife and the Industrial Relations Act respectively. The Winter of Discontent in 1978-79 enabled the Thatcher government to enact the most radical changes since the Attlee years, dismantling the consensus he had created. Industry was privatised, exchange controls abolished, taxes slashed and unions lost most of their power through the abolition of the show of hands vote and flying pickets. Perhaps the struggle that symbolized the changing structure of the British Establishment more than anything else was the miners’ strike of 1984-85. David Peace was just a teen growing up in West Yorkshire when the strike was at its height. His sympathy lay firmly with the miners and against the government. I was lucky enough to see Peace speak at the States of Crime conference in Belfast. He described how he felt compelled to write GB84 (2004), his epic novel on the miners strike, after looking back on events and realising how little he had done to help the miners in their struggle. The novel traces the government, police, media and security services attempts to subvert and undermine the strike. Peace’s hellish vision of England is a country far more dystopic than anything George Orwell could have imagined in 1984. However, like The Angry Silence, it would be wrong to label GB84 as just propaganda of a different stripe. The novel portrays the paranoia, casual racism and sometimes plain stupidity which was ingrained in the upper echelons of the National Union of Mineworkers. One of the more unsettling features of the novel is the bigotry extended towards the character of Stephen Sweet, businessman and political adviser to Margaret Thatcher. Sweet, allegedly based on David Hart, is a fanatically loyal servant to Thatcher and is referred to throughout as simply ‘the Jew’ by his driver. This portrayal of characters for whom racism is a casual attribute and not a defining characteristic owes a great deal to Peace’s reading of James Ellroy. Stylistically, this is a challenging novel with a non-linear narrative comprised of dreams, diaries, newspaper reports, biased and skewered perspectives. It is as though Peace has transposed Ellroy’s vision and narrative methods of the LA Quartet onto 1980s Yorkshire. While not all of Peace’s Ellrovian experiments have been successful, it does lead to some of the most exhilarating parts of the novel, as in the first-person prose of one striking miner:
Day 239. I get my orders from envelope. I go and do my picket. Kiveton Park again today. I take Tim and Gary and this other young lad. I drive down back roads and side-streets. I park car a good two mile or so from pit gates. I fall in and walk with rest of lads. I take abuse from police on way to front with rest of lads. Krk-Krk. I get stopped and searched for fireworks with rest of lads. I get to front with rest of lads. I stand in dark and cold. I squint into their searchlights with rest of lads. I blink with rest of lads. I tell television crews to fuck off home with rest of lads. I push with rest of lads. I shove with rest of lads. I shout with rest of lads. I call them what they are with rest of lads. I call them scabs with rest of lads. I watch their bus go in with rest of lads. I listen to coppers laugh and chant and bang their shields with rest of lads. I turn and walk away with rest of lads. I take abuse from police on way back to car with rest of lads. I drive Tim and Gary back to Thurcroft with that other young lad. I go in Welfare with most of lads. I get my dinner with some of the lads. I have a pint in the Hotel with a few of the lads. I crack jokes about Gadhafi with a couple of lads. I give a lift up Hardwick farm to this one lad. Then I go back to my blanket on bedroom floor in middle of afternoon and I lie there and I think, Fuck this for a game of soldiers.
Peace portrays the miners strike as the last English Civil War, a battle for the soul of the country. In that sense, it is every bit as much an anti-establishment piece as The Angry Silence. The paradox of anti-establishment fiction is that in a changing political landscape the anti-establishment novel or film of today is the pro-establishment piece of yesterday or tomorrow. While some of the politics of The Angry Silence and GB84 might seem naive, they are still works of raw power, and I’m more inclined to forgive a lack of nuance in the politics of culture than in today’s anti-establishment SNP and UKIP politicians. It’s time for a protest against protest, celebrating the achievements of the two main parties while protecting their legacy from the fringe elements of UK politics.
Cherish the Establishment, as we’ll miss it when it’s gone.