Absolute Beginners

Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes

Absolute Beginners was published in 1959 and set in the summer of 1958.  At face value it is a vivid sketch of a particular place at a particular time (the unfashionable post-war sprawl of west London that MacInnes calls ‘London Napoli’ roughly centred on Notting Hill, and within a diamond bordered by Kensington High Street, Bayswater, Ladbroke Grove, and Holland Park).  Fifty-odd years later, and 35 years after the death of its author, the book is still in print which suggests it has some enduring qualities – but what might you consider them to be?  Does it just have a curiosity value because of its milieu?

This book describes events in the lives of young people in London, and uses the expression “teenager” to describe them at a time before the word came into common use; written when the author was 45 years old (he was born a couple of weeks after the start of WW1), the story has the potential to present a disastrous misrepresentation of this new generation.  Certainly, the characters he describes might be unrepresentative of typically average teenagers of that era, but they weren’t entirely fictitious creations and they self-evidently became a template for a whole generation.  Absolute Beginners describes London on the very cusp of its transformation from the drab austerity of post-war Britain to the swinging London of the mid-1960s.

MacInnes gives his unnamed narrator a distinctive voice through an invented subcultural language that draws on American jazz and beatnik vocabulary.  Although some of the jargon now invokes toe-curling embarrassment, on the whole it succeeds and the device was adopted a few years later (in 1962) by Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange with his Droogs’ ‘Nadsat’ language; we also encountered it being used (badly?) in Tony White’s Foxy-T (2003).  I think the jargon works in Absolute Beginners because MacInnes uses the technique as Damon Runyon did in his stories of gangsters in New York; the dialogue has occasional turns of baroque formality, and his characters become part of the strange milieu with names that serve as character references – the Wiz, the Fabulous Hoplite, Mr Cool, ex-Deb of Last Year and Call-me-Cobber.

However, are these characters, or just character sketches?  Retrospectively we can see they are archetypes, but this wouldn’t have been evident in 1959.  Almost every character became the template for celebrities who emerged in the 1960s and have continued in every cultural generation since from comments about very young pop stars, to gay style icons, Australian media pundits, and down-at-heel socialites.

The characters in the story are self-aware and define their beliefs and behaviour in terms that explicitly reject the values, expectations and obligations of previous generations.  There is a preoccupation with consumerism, brands, fashion and style, pop music, hedonism and money as the means to make all this possible; however, there is a rejection of paid employment as the source of income, and the characters freelance and hustle their way around London.  There is an acceptance of commercial sexuality (prostitution, pornography, and promiscuity) and homosexuality, of drug taking, and of West Indian and Asian immigrants.  There is also a disdain for the politics of both the Right and the Left, for, and mainstream culture.

The book is an eerie premonition of what was to happen in the 1960s with working class photographers (David Bailey, Terence Donovan), mod culture and ‘swinging London’; we already see the sharp Italian suits and Vespa scooters, the Derry & Toms roof-garden restaurant which became an essential part of the iconic Biba fashion chain, the lethal combination of dodgy diplomats, teenage hookers and gay male models which turned into the Profumo affair (1963), and the scurrilous photos that incriminated the Duchess of Argyll (1963).  Our current experience of Justin Bieber, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, reality TV ‘stars’ and the culture of celebrity, the underlying racism and homophobia of the commercial mainstream, are all part of the London we experience today and first foreseen by Absolute Beginners.

The book ends in the chaos of and fall-out from the Notting Hill race riots in the summer of 1958.  The narrator experiences emotional turmoil as his father dies, he gets it together with Suze, he makes amends with Vern and sees Wiz in his true colours.  Although he makes a token attempt to escape by leaving the country, we are left with the distinct impression that he can’t bring himself to get on the plane.

Questions we might consider include

  • Is a book that focuses on a youth culture of 55 years ago still readable?
  • Are gays and blacks portrayed as real characters or are they just exotic stereotypes?
  • Is generation the source of social division as MacInnes implies, or do issues of class, race, gender and sexuality intrude?
  • Is the un-named narrator a younger version of MacInnes?
  • Could the book be located anywhere other than London?

There is further information and analysis of Absolute Beginners on the London Fictions website, linked here: http://www.londonfictions.com/colin-macinnes-absolute-beginners.html

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After the ride of 253

Did everyone have a pleasant journey of 253?

253 added another layer to the experience of Writing the City. It may have been the most London novel read so far in the London Reading Club.

Unlike the condensed index of 253 characters written in 253 words, the work of 253 was proven to be saturated with full of complexity. As the author says, ‘however unlikely, numbers are always there for a reason. ‘ (p.1)

More than half of the group read 253 as a book in a conventional linear style starting from Passenger 1, leaving the end of line until later. The hypertext readers tended to jump from one place to another like hopping on and off of the Tube.

The unorthodox style of 253 reminded some of flash fiction for its brief and crisp writing. Regardless of the sum of the characters, the author Geoff Ryman seems to have succeeded in characterisation.  The well observed details offered a variety and enabled the characters to be believable and more true to life.

It is interesting to note that the author is an advocate of Mundane Science Fiction Movement setting stories on the Earth with a believable use of technology and science.

Although there is not much futuristic element to label 253 as Science Fiction, the hypertext employing the burgeoning technology of computers and World Wide Web was certainly an innovative experiment which could have been regarded futuristic at the time.

Notable characters:

Mr Tony Colley (Passenger 18), a magician carrying a live rabbit in his bag who works on a cross-Chanel ferry and can hardly see his daughter. He wants to leave the job but he can’t afford to do so.

Mrs Eva Simmonds (Passenger 53) who married to her cousin. She does not realise how ugly he was when she married. He does not allow her to work. Now she is becoming herself as well.

Mr Leon De Marcho (Passenger 134) who lives on the street where William Blake used to live.

Mrs Margaret Thatcher (Passenger 186) who is a thatcher working on the roof of the Globe Theatre.

Miss Anne Frank (Passenger 253) who is now an elder woman, thinking that she is still on the train to Auschwitz.

Those vividly depicted characters are sometimes poignant and seem to induce an essence of satirical social realism to the story.

As 253 is also known as Tube Theatre, the story is like a play performed by the passengers of the Tube involving the dramas that occur on the stage of life.

Being a writer may be sometimes like being an observant passenger on the ride of life. After all, ‘the world is full of coincidence as 253.’ (p.257)

Stories may unfold themselves before us.

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Mind the Gap – 253

a novel for the Internet about London Underground in seven cars and a crash
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Discussing Brick Lane

As Brian has said, we had a lively discussion on Friday; always the sign of a good book. I wanted to leave the discussion with some quotes from the book, which really highlight the contradictions and dilemmas facing the characters as they meditate on fate and free will.

Oh, one last thing; for all of the negative coverage that Bangladesh may get, an LSE survey in 2009 put the country first in its Gross National Happiness Index!

(Next up on February 17th, Koari will be taking us on the Geoff Ryman’s journey, 253 – the book can be accessed free at http://www.ryman-novel.com/)

Quotes from Brick Lane

Chanu to Nazneen (P45): “Why should you go out? ‘If you go out, ten people will say, “I saw her walking on the street.” And I will look a fool. Personally, I don’t mind if you go out but these people are so ignorant. What can you do?

(P65): “A man cannot live without water…but he can bear the thought of no water. A man can live without sex…but he cannot bear the thought of no sex.”

Razia to Nazneenm (P71) “She’s asking for a divorce. I heard it from Nazma, who heard it from Sorupa. Hanufa told her about it, and she got it straight from the horse’s mouth.”

Nazia reflecting on home (P96): “In Gouripur a sweetmaker was a sweetmaker, a shoemaker was a shoemaker, and a carpenter was a carpenter. They did not want to be teachers or librarians. They were not waiting for promotions. They did not make themselves unhappy.”

Razia’s view of women immigrants’ experience (P114). “Listen, when I’m in Bangladesh I put on a sari and cover my head and all that. But here I go out to work. I work with white girls and I’m just one of them…Some women spend ten, twenty years here and they sit in their kitchen grinding spices all day and learn only two words of English.”

Chanu on white working class (P254). “Because our own culture is so strong. And what is their culture? Television, pub, throwing darts, kicking a ball. That is the white working class culture.”

Nazneen’s reaction to Karim’s reading, Hadith of the Day on adultery (P347) “After the first few lines Nazneen heard only the blood in her ears. She watched Karim as a mouse watches a cat; when he turned she would be ready…”It is time for you to go,” she said.

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Brick Lane (and Absolute Beginners)

Thanks for an interesting read & lively discussion, Pete.  The note about “authorship” I referred to can be found here.   
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/17/ian-jack-jiri-kajane-albanian-hoax?INTCMP=SRCH

I also mentioned that in the absence of other volunteers, I’ll introduce the third session on Fri 16 March at 2:00pm.    I’d like to base it on Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes.; it’s a bit different from the books we’ve read to date.

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Fate and Free Will in Brick Lane

Imagine your fate has been decided for you from day one.

A teenage Nazneen comes to London from Bangladesh as part of an arranged marriage. Her husband Chanu, who is twice her age as well as twice her weight, is burdened by a thirst for knowledge he can put to no practical use other than impose it on his family. They both try to maintain this arrangement through the early death of a son, the later birth of daughters, the debt owed to the usurer Mrs Islam, the diverting cynicism of neighbour Razia, and of course the charisma of the radical Karim.

Like many first novels Brick Lane is drawn from Monica Ali’s own background (if not direct experience) where intergenerational tensions in immigrant communities prevailed (Ali says the book ‘chose her’). There is no doubting its ambition; it covers issues of race, gender, age, and religion, and there is much to admire in its scale, ironically in a claustrophobic setting – a small flat in a small part of London. In the microcosmic portrayal of a small community you can really sense the changes facing them; from the leaflets of local racists to the perceived threat facing the global ummah, a tension that divides those in the ‘Bengal Tigers’.

Brick Lane was met with great critical acclaim when first published in 2003. In fact Ali was included in Granta’s list of best Young British Novelists before the book (her first) had even come out. Most literary critics lauded the book for many of the reasons I have outlined (its scope, ambition, subject). But Ali has said she suspects it also came from their belief that this was a hidden world, whereas in reality it was a world very close to them, it just hadn’t been popularised in such a way before (or allowed to be). Hari Kunzru wryly said that Ali was that year’s ‘ethnic novelist’, “You are allowed one a year in Britain. I was last year’s! Zadie Smith a year or two before” (http://tinyurl.com/729ncuy). Authors were divided, most notably Germaine Greer and Salman Rushdie, but oddly not until the film came out (http://tinyurl.com/8yqeqnz). It was then she was criticised for the portrayal of the Bengali community; that it wasn’t drawn from her own direct personal experience. However, this of itself is not a reason to criticise a novelist, after all it is meant to be fiction. Ali says she didn’t set out to make an overt political message, and much of the book’s success was very much based on its explication of a changing London and a changing world.

But for all its radicalism of topic and later of response, this is not a radical book. In format it reads as a traditional piece of social realism, on a topic not widely read by western readers before. And for me that is its weakness; like many social realist books it is bleak, there is not a great deal to be uplifted by as you go through it. The portrayal of the working classes is a horror story of unremitting struggle, against authorities and more problematically amongst themselves. Class is the one thing not facing change in Brick Lane; shifting ethnic, gender and intergenerational tensions pervade the book, but class is often the elephant in the room. And it is here where much of the criticism for Ali comes from. Protesters of the book claimed that Ali was influenced by her father, a non-Sylheti from Dhaka, and the characters depict Sylhetis as “dirty little monkeys” who are: “Uneducated. Illiterate. Close-minded.” (http://tinyurl.com/7xbdq2p).

When asked what the book was about, Monica Ali said* it is “a meditation on fate and free will,” and undoubtedly this is the book’s main strength. Nazneen is constrained by the certainty of her own fate (‘it is Gods will’) and belief that she doesn’t have the ‘power to choose’, which is only disrupted when she begins sewing garments to pay off Chanu’s debt to Mrs Islam. Ali was inspired by the work of Naila Kabeer on Bangladeshi garment workers, who through self-employment were given a certain amount of self-determination, sometimes more than their counterparts in London (http://tinyurl.com/6sp9d9q). But it is not only Nazneen; Chanu, Karim, Hasina and to some extent Razia, all also struggle with fate and free will.

So like many books of ambition and scale, expectations are raised and opinions divided. Please offer your own opinion of Brick Lane, but keep in mind your personal struggle with fate  and free will, and let’s see where it leads us.

(*the references to Monica Ali’s discussion of the book are taken from a University of Warwick discussion in 1994 – before the controversy from the making of the film, http://tinyurl.com/7fzmquu).

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The London Reading Club: 2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 20 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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