Colin Macinnes : Writer of Modern Life

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My lord, one thing is certain, and that’s that they’ll make musicals one day about the glamour-studded 1950s.
Colin MacInnes, “Absolute Beginners” 1959
Bernardo Bertolucci once wrote, “One does not forget the light of a film. There is.... a light in ‘A Bout de Souffle’ that announces the 60s.” This light also animates “Absolute Beginners”, Colin MacInnes’s groundbreaking exploration of late 50s youth culture which appeared in the same year as Jean-Luc Goddard’s inauguration of the French New Wave. Indeed, rather than the pop-promo gloss and empty camp of Julien Temple’s 1986 film version, it is Godard’s edgy jump-cuts and knowing direct-to-camera asides that best evoke the nervous energy and streetwise cool of MacInnes’s breathless prose, as his unnamed narrator gives a conducted tour of the jazz clubs and coffee bars, street fashions and musical trends, teen-tribes and London types of the then nascent “teenage revolution”.

The novel’s author was 44 at the time, but was no stranger to the London it describes. Born to a respectable family of the establishment (his mother was Angela Thirkell, a popular novelist of the time, his cousins Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin, his great grandfather Sir Edward Burne-Jones), MacInnes’s homosexuality and artistic temperament led him to break with his conservative upbringing and secure background, and make it his mission to report, in journalism and fiction, on an unseen society of Soho hustlers, Brixton ponces, Cable Street dope friends and Notting Hill spades that had grown up in London in the aftermath of the war. Like Burroughs and Genet, his romanticization of working class vitality, immigrant marginality and criminal daring was infused with a self-punishing masochistic homoeroticism; like Norman Mailer (whom he revered), he heralded the age of the hipster, belonging to that “new breed of.... urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts”, and sharing their ambition.



.to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious
imperatives of the self... to encourage the psychopath in oneself, to explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness, and one exists in the present, in that enormous present which is without past or future, memory or planned intention..

Norman Mailer, “The White Negro” 1957

In the words of Frances Wyndham, London for MacInnes was “a city as ripe for conquest as Balzac’s Paris”. Yet his three great London novels – “City of Spades”, “Absolute Beginners”, and “Mr Love and Justice” are less works of social realism (MacInnes shunned his reputation as a “documentary” novelist) than poetic fulfillments of Baudelaire’s injunction to artists to attend to and extract “The Heroism of Modern Life”:

The spectacle of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences – criminals and kept women – that drift about in the underworlds of a greatcity... all prove to us that we need only open our eyes to recognise our heroism.

At a time when Britain was suffocating in nostalgia for a lost Imperialist past and shrinking in horror from a loud, brash, Americanized present, MacInnes considered it his first duty as a writer “to be a witness to the society of his own age”. A dandy in “sharp schmutter”, a lover of street life and true “man of the crowd”, it is MacInnes whom Baudelaire could be describing in his famous essay, “The Painter of Modern Life”:



...he has deliberately fulfilled a function which other artists disdain, and which a man of the world above all others could carry out. He has gone everywhere in quest of the ephemeral, the characteristic traits of what, with the reader’s permission, we have called ‘modernity’.

If the intellectual hipster of the immediate post-war period was the cultural spark for all that was to follow, the teenager was the highly inflammable tinder. With the welfare state and consumer boon giving them unprecedented economic independence, young people in England would come to play an increasingly central role in the country’s social, cultural and political history. MacInnes was among the first to realise this:

The kids discovered that for the first time since centuries of kingdom-come, they’d money, which hitherto had always been denied to us at the best time in life to use it, namely, when you’re young and strong...no one couldn’t sit on our faces anymore because we’d loot to spend at last, and our world was to be our world, the one we wanted and not standing on the doorstep of somebody else’s waiting for honey, perhaps.



Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, and the entire novel vibrates with excited anticipation of a radically open future as we follow a freelance photographer on an exhilarating ride through his eighteenth summer, a summer that dances with such heat and light that it seems as if “It can shine on forever”. Against the great cinematic backdrop of “that old whore London” – the “fairground” of Soho, the “great white and green theatre” of Belgravia, the Embankment lying “curled firm and gentle round the river like a boy does with a girl, after it’s over”, and of course his chosen home of W11, “dear Napoli”, “the residential doss-house of our city” – we are introduced to the fans, musicians, moguls, writers, Teds, Debs and media darlings that go to make up the contemporary scene, along with the queers, Jews, blacks and other minority groups to whom the Absolute Beginner feels an instinctive attraction. All is relayed in a bristling skaz narrative whose infectious rhythms and free-form digressions echo those of the jazz that is the novel’s unheard soundtrack. The first part of the book reaches its climax at a “Maria Bethlehem” (Ella Fitzgerald) concert:

They rose to her at the end – all those hundreds of English boys and girls, and their friends from Africa and the Caribbean – and they practically had togouge us all out of that auditorium. Cats I didn’t know from Adam said, hadn’t it been great, and one cat in particular then said, had I heard about the happenings at St. Ann’s Well, up in Nottingham, last evening? I asked him, what happenings? Not taking very much in (because I was still back there with Maria Bethlehem), when I realised he was saying there’d been rioting between whites and coloured, but what could you expect in a provincial dump out there among the sticks?



McInnes was still in the process of writing “Absolute Beginners” in late August 1958, when the first reports emerged of a “race riot” in Nottingham. Most, like the Absolute Beginner, complacently regarded it as an isolated occurrence; politicians and the press played down the violent behaviour of a few unruly elements and used it as a basis to argue for bans on coloured immigration and programmes of repatriation. Meanwhile groups like The White Defence League and The Union Movement stepped up their activities in poor areas of Shepherds Bush and Notting Hill. The following weekend in W11 adult men joined gangs of “cosh boys” (a sinister offshoot of the Teddy Boy movement) on “nigger-hunting” expeditions, armed with razors, air pistols and bike chains. In an area where whites still outnumbered blacks ten to one, dozens of West Indians and Africans were lynched in the street as large crowds of spectators passively stood by, and homes were vandalised or petrol-bombed. Blacks were advised to stay indoors; for weeks afterwards shopping had to be done by white friends.

For MacInnes and the few who confronted the ugly reality of what had happened, the events were shattering. Hitherto Britain had claimed moral leadership on racial issues; now comparisons with South Africa and the American Deep South were fiercely resisted. MacInnes was one of the first whites in Britain to write about the experiences of black Londoners, in his 1957 novel “City of Spades” and numerous essays and articles. Describing himself as “an ‘English’ London born, Australian-reared Scot”, MacInnes believed that



England’s essential nature, throughout its history, is to be constantly invaded by new races which the older settlers first resisted, and then accepted once the genius of each race became fused in a fresh form of the English soul.

McInnes celebrated the “mongrel glory” of this decentred, unfinalised Englishness, and welcomed the new wave of commonwealth immigration as a source of “new vitality” that England so badly needed. At the same time, alongside his defence of the teenagers’ new “underground of joy” six months earlier, MacInnes had already warned that

....it would be equally possible to see, in the teenage neutralism and indifference to politics, and self-sufficiency, and instinct for enjoyment – in short, in their kind of happy mindlessness – the raw material for crypto-fascisms of the worst kind.

Disgusted by the failure of the media to condemn the rioting and its continued focus on “the immigration question”, he suggested an “instant book” to his publishers: “my guess is that it will seem, with Suez, the key event of the post-war period.” Instead he worked it into the narrative of “Absolute Beginners”, as the hero sees his “manor” descend into a sickening carnival of mob violence.



Appalled by the passive complicity of his neighbours and the media’s conspiracy of silence, the Absolute Beginner attempts to mobilize opposition to the racist attacks amongst his friends. Jazz, which hitherto has figured as a utopian space where “no one, not a soul, cares what your class is, or what your race is, or what your income, or if you’re boy, or girl, or bent, or versatile, or what you are – so long as you dig the scene and can behave yourself, and have left all that crap behind you...”, now serves as an agent of politicization, as trad fans and modernists alike side up against the Teds “as if to show their admiration for coloured greats like Tudsie and Maria really meant something to them.” But he finds he now has no place in the black community’s early attempts to organise for their own collective self defence, and must work to win back the trust of his former friends. Ashamed of his countrymen, the Absolute Beginner resolves to turn his back on England, but hesitates at the last moment. The novel ends as the summer breaks, and he runs through the rain to greet a family of Africans fresh off the plane, “laughing in the storm”.

“Absolute Beginners” is a tale of lost innocence, and found commitment. The events of summer 1958 were to be a mere foretaste of that great liberating and creative explosion of cultural and political energies that became known as the 60s. While it marked the highpoint of MacInnes’s fictional career, his best journalistic work was still to come, analysing fashion and pop music, campaigning for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, and collaborating with militant black leader Michael X in the New Left Review, Encounter, Oz, Gay Times and the anarchist press. He died of cancer in 1976.



“Sounds like a fairy tale – or was it only a film?” asks Paul Weller in his elegiac foreword to “England, Half English” a reprinted collection of articles by MacInnes. In these jaded times, it can often seem so – the struggles and achievements of the past commodified and repackaged as some slick pop video to be endlessly replayed, inviting only reactionary nostalgia or easy cynicism. Has the teenage revolution simply been co-opted, mere grist for late capitalism’s ever voracious mill? MacInnes’s novel has often been seen as marking some absolute beginning, innocent, idealistic, and uncorrupted, yet this is to miss the fact that the very opening sentence announces that “the whole teenage epic was tottering to doom” as it is exploited and commercialised by the “tax-payers” – “’Teenagers’ become a dirty word or, at any rate, a square one” – and throughout the novel we are confronted with the crass attempts of media, advertising and big business to get in on the act. The Fall into banal consumerism remains today an ever-present possibility to the ongoing “teenage dream”. So too do fascism and revolution, both of which haunt the pages of this book. The choices faced by the Absolute Beginner are the same choices that face us today, and the future has yet to be written. In this sense we are all, still, always Absolute Beginners. “The man who acts,” Nietzche once wrote,

.must...be without knowledge; he forgets everything in order to be able to do something; he is unfair toward what lies behind and knows only one right, the right of what is now coming into being as the result of his own action.

The value of reading MacInnes today is that he teaches us to forget the 60s; his urgent engagement with his own present and pursuit of his own modernity teaches us to look to ours. As Paul De Man writes in his essay on Baudelaire,

Fashion (mode) can sometimes be only what remains of modernity after the impulse has subsided, as soon – and this can be almost at once – as it has changed from being an incandescent point in time into a reproducible cliché, All that remains of an invention that has lost the desire that produced it. Fashion is like the ashes left behind by the uniquely shaped flames of the fire, the trace alone revealing that a fire actually took place.

The lifeless retro of the pop video can never hope to capture the spirit of Colin MacInnes and his time. For that we must return to his books themselves, where, to borrow once more the words of the poet,

The past, whilst retaining its ghostly piquancy, will recapture the light and movement of life, and become present.


Read 1050 times Last modified on Monday, 20 June 2016 14:57

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