The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Angry Young Novelist

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The Independent Online
MAY I be the first to congratulate Mr Jeff Torrington (dread name]) on his achievement in swiping this year's Whitbread Book of the Year Award for his magnificent, if unashamedly Glaswegian novel (name temporarily mislaid).

There has been much kerfuffle o'er recent weeks about that most incomprehensible of beasts, the modern novel. Not a fortnight ago, there was uproar, furore, storms, gales and what-you-will surrounding the list of 'Best of Young British Novelists', judged, I need hardly add, by our old friend, Mr Salman Rushdie.

But this is neither the time nor the place to discourage the young from their first brave stabs at the profitable fiction market. I have a great deal of time for the young, particularly when they get a bit older. I propose instead to reminisce about my own, highly successful, foray into the world of fiction - supplemented with a tip or two for those youngsters (my young confreres Amis fils and Barnes, to name but two]) who have still not, in my opinion, found the knack of telling a gripping tale in decent English with a beginning, a middle and an end - and preferably in that order]]

Back in the Fifties, the name of Wallace P Arnold would trip off the tongue of every fiction editor worth his salt. My first novel, Life Can Certainly be Quite Unpleasant (Victor Gollancz 1954) was a gritty work of social realism set in a Welsh mining community, searingly autobiographical in that I transferred the Garrick Club and its members to a deep mineshaft on the outskirts of Merthyr Tydfil, dressing them all up in the appropriate miners' gear (blue blazers, reinforced bowler hats, grubby corduroys and so forth) and having them speak in what one might call the 'hearty vernacular' with plenty of 'ee, make mine a pint, luv, if you wouldn't mind awfully'. Needless to say, it won the Gritty First Novel Award.

I soon became known, along with Kingsley Amis, Tommy Steele, John Osborne and Acker Bilk, as one of Britain's 'Angry Young Men', and my sense of youthful frustration was further conveyed in my second novel, Absolutely Livid (1957), in which I made a bitter attack on the government of the day for its disinclination to grant charitable status, with concomitant tax exemption, to some of our leading public schools.

With this brave, outspoken novel, I somehow caught the zeitgeist (dread word]), and thereby earned myself a prime place on the 1958 List of 20 Best Young British Novelists of our Time, along with Robert Robinson, Paul Johnson, Kingsley Amis, Arthur Negus (then alive), Dame Jill Knight and the young Peregrine Worsthorne, whose first novel, Banished be the Suede (John Murray 1956) was an impassioned outburst against the wearing of suede shoes by the English gentleman in public places.

My early promise tailed off somewhat in the Sixties, as my talents drew me increasingly into the worlds of broadcasting and newspapers. However, I still found time to write one notable work, set in the burgeoning scene of the so-called 'Pop' culture. Whistle While You Work (1968) was a colourful, picaresque novel following the ups-and-downs of a contemporary 'Pop' group as they took their marvellous old Stanley Holloway songs 'on the road', all the while lending a helpful hand to the Great British Bobby in his pursuit of those long-haired types who broke the rules upon which the very fabric of our society is based. Nevertheless, the more peevish critics claimed that it was in some unspecified way 'out of touch' with the contemporary scene, and its sales figures never quite reached the double figures its publishers had been hoping for.

Since those far-off days, I have found it infinitely more remunerative to judge novels rather than write the blessed things. As a judge of all the major awards, I am forever on the lookout for the new young Wallace P Arnold with a novel that can capture the sheer unalloyed excitement of my own Life Can Certainly be Quite Unpleasant. Sad to say, I haven't found him yet, but I hereby vow to keep searching until that far-off dream cometh true.

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