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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