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TEDDY BOY RIOTS & RIGHT-WING ANGRY YOUNG MEN:
Awake For Mourning by Bernard Kops is a late-fifties London novel that deserves to be rescued from obscurity. It starts out as a competent example of kitchen sink fiction as popularised by the angry young man 'movement' of the 1950s, but turns into something far stranger and more wonderful as the book progresses. The story of the Kirby family of Camden Town need not detain us for too long. Jack Kirby gets out of jail and has difficulty reconnecting with his wife Lilly and daughter Ann.
On the way home from his stretch in the nick, Jack befriends a young con from Bethnal Green called Mike Lewis, who moves in with him. Jack is a middle-aged alcoholic idealist who failed his medical exams as a young man and was more recently banged up for performing illegal abortions. Jack didn't even make money from his 'crimes', he performed the abortions as acts of kindness towards his impoverished neighbours whose lives might have been ruined by the birth of unwanted children. While he's been inside, Jack's wife Lilly has gone on the game, and she ultimately goes mad when she learns that their son - who is away in the army - has been killed. Between Mike (who from being a self-centred thief is slowly transformed into someone who accepts social responsibilities) and the birth of Ann's baby, Jack and his daughter balance their at times difficult relationship.
That said, the plot summaries on both editions of the novel stress some rather more interesting aspects of the book. The page one blurb of the paperback does this in particularly sensational terms:
LET'S GIVE THIS BLASTED, LOUSY, STUPID, BACKWARD COUNTRY A JOLT - FRIGHTEN THE SWINE IN WESTMINSTER
Young Mike Lewis walks out of nick after a three-year stretch, nowhere to go, lusting for life. He stops by at the room of an ex-con mate of his in the backstreets of Camden Town, lays his old mates's wife the first night and falls in love with her pregnant daughter the second.
Mike tries to pick a wallet off a bored and power-crazy homosexual Derek Bishop. But Derek has other plans. Systematically he converts Mike Lewis the con into
pop-song hero, idol of millions and leader of the fascist New Youth Party.
SUDDENLY VIOLENCE ERUPTS IN W.1...
The strap-line on the front cover of the softback sums things up in even fewer words: "The brutal novel of a young ex-jailbird who swayed a generation". The blurb on the inside flap of the hardback kicks off with the following - rather more sober - assessment: "In this penetrating first novel, Bernard Kops set out to reveal the forces which have moulded the whole of our acutely self-conscious and seemingly nihilistic younger generation."
As we've seen, much of the book is taken up with a theme Kops would pursue for many years, claustrophobic family relationships. However, what takes this book forward and in many ways places it ahead of the author's more mature work, is a vein of satire directed against a group of writers whose right-wing views were less than popular among novelists who shared Kops' East End Jewish background. Derek Bishop, the key figure in regard to this, doesn't appear until nearly half way through the story (chapter 8, or page 107 of the 1958 MacGibbon & Kee edition). Derek has a rich sugar daddy who bankrolls his activities. That said, Bishop doesn't present himself to the world as gay, he even thinks of himself as straight, but sleeping with a rich man is a price he is prepared to pay to realise his nihilistic political philosophy. Mike is simply used as a front for Derek's fascistic New Youth Movement. Bishop dreams of being a man of action but he is in reality a dreamer, an ex-journalist who associates with other writers. A scene set during a party at Derek's flat includes the following:
"Who're they?" Mike asked.
Bishop is even more obnoxious in his political views than he is in his personal relationships.
Meanwhile, Derek thought of other things.
Given that this book was published in London in 1958 there is surely only one group of writers who could have inspired the composite figure of Derek Bishop - and between 1956 and 1959 they mostly lived together at 25 Chepstow Road in Notting Hill. The writers are Colin Wilson, Stuart Holroyd, Tom Greenwell and Bill Hopkins. Since Greenwell was a journalist at the time, and Hopkins was an ex-journalist, their activities were constantly being mentioned by the press. Today they are largely forgotten, but in the fifties they looked like they might win both cultural and political influence. Stuart Holroyd covers some of this in his autobiography Contraries: A Personal Progression (The Bodley Head, London 1975):
Oliver Moxon's spacious Belgravia house seemed an oddly inappropriate setting for a meeting of a subversive political society. Everything about it proclaimed a vested interest in the class-structured, privileged-ridden order of society that the Spartacan philosophy as Bill (Hopkins) expounded it, regarded as a brake on the advancement and effectiveness of the man of genius and vision. But Oliver himself was quite a catch for the Spartacan movement with his wealth and political experience, which, though it didn't go beyond the hustings, was more than any other founder Spartacan could boast of. He had stood as a Liberal candidate in parliamentary elections, and his politics, he declared, were those of Edumund Burke, but Bill had persuaded him that there was room for all shades of opinion within the Spartacan movement.
Obviously Wilson's views are complete brain rot. For a start, the world changes all the time without any necessity for this being engineered by 'men of vision'. Wo/man herself emerged after millions of years of planetary evolution during which there were no humans (let alone so called 'men of vision') around to engineer such changes. Likewise, Wilson's line on class and party loyalties carries suspicious echoes of Oswald Mosley's 'old gang' rhetoric when he was fronting the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. Among those who've heard of the Spartacan movement, it is fairly widely believed that it had direct connections and dealings with Mosley himself. However, it is Bill Hopkins in his novel The Divine & The Decay (MacGibbon & Kee, London 1957) who seems to provide the lengthiest exposition of Spartacan political philosophy. The following is just a small sample:
The other students had all made the mistake of loving outside themselves; had fallen prey to absurd philosophies like humanism, to social systems like democracy, to ludicrous virtues like compassion... The universities of every country were pouring them out in stereotyped thousands. But in their forties they became drunks, homosexuals, drug addicts, sex maniacs or aimless drifters, harnessed to the anonymity of security!
The plot of Awake For Mourning can be read as a parody of the idealist and idealised action of The Divine & The Decay. Peter Plowart, the 'hero' ('hero' to Hopkins, villain to a reader like me) of The Divine & The Decay, retires to a small island to confront and overcome his weaknesses, while a handful of his followers in London assassinate the man who had provided him with the money to found a 'new' kind of political party, but who has become an obstacle to its growth and success. In Awake For Mourning, Derek Bishop uses a similar rich man to fund his political activities, and pushes Mike Lewis forward as a figurehead of his movement, with the intention dumping the young man at a later date and assuming the role of leader.
Kops chooses a talentless pop star as the figurehead of his fictional fascist party, and teddy boys as its followers, to skewer the Spartacan movement and it's angry young man 'leadership'. I don't imagine early readers of the book saw in this anything other than particularly savage satire. In the late-1950s the notion of using pop music for political gain probably appeared ridiculous. The idea of a cross between Larry Parnes (a notorious British pop impresario of the 1950s) and the far-Right wing of the 'angry young man' movement staging a failed London version of the Nuremburg rallies would have simply made most readers laugh.
The fact that from the 1970s onwards neo-fascist movements around the world have attempted to manipulate pop music to their own ends, retrospectively makes Awake For Mourning appear ahead of its time. Today this constitutes a part of the richness of Kops' text (despite the fact that in some ways it means we read the book against the grain of its initial reception). This novel also, and as I've shown, shines a light on the disturbing relationship between English literary activity and fringe far-Right politics of the 1950s. Even if the way most readers will now understand Awake For Mourning has shifted somewhat since the book was first published, the novel remains an effective piece of anti-fascist satire. At the end, Mike's teddy boy fans may riot in Trafalgar Square but this violence marks the failure and not the political ascension of Derek Bishop's New Youth Party.
Terry Taylor's Baron's Court, All Change (the greatest beatnik novel of all time)
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