Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes
Narrated by an eighteen year old photographer, MacInnes’ novel captures the essence of what it was like to be a teenager in London in the late 1950s …
Mr Wiz continued, masticating his salmon sandwich for anyone to see, ‘It’s been a two-way twist, this teenage party. Exploitation of the kiddos by the conscripts, and exploitation of themselves by the crafty little absolute beginners. The net result? “Teenager” ‘s become a dirty word or, at any rate, a square one.’
I smiled at Mr W. ‘Well, take it easy, son,’ I said, ‘because a sixteen year old sperm like you has got a lot of teenage living still to do. As for me, eighteen summers, rising nineteen, I’ll very soon be out there among the oldies.
Ah – the arrogance of youth, to be considered old at twenty!
The novel follows our unnamed narrator through the summer of 1958, and we gradually meet all his friends like Mr Wiz above and neighbours, plus the love of his life Suzette.
Suze is a problem – she says loves him, but she also loves money and the trappings it can buy. She is tempted to marry an older homosexual chap to give him cover and her money. She dangles the narrator on her little finger yet carries on having flings.
The narrator has a small flat in a vibrant and Bohemian area of West London, which he finances through his photographic work – mostly selling pornographic pictures at this time, although he does have artistic ambitions. Downstairs lives Cool, a black man, whose white half-brother has just come to warn him of impending unrest…
‘…he gets round the area and knows the scene, and he says there’s trouble coming for the coloureds.’
I laughed out loud, but a bit nervously. ‘Oh Cool, you know, they’ve been saying that for years, and nothing’s happened. Well, haven’t they? I know in this country we treat the coloureds all like you-know-what, but we English are too lazy, son, to be violent. Anyway, you’re one of us, big boy, I mean home-grown, as much a native London kid as any of the millions, and much more so than hundreds of pure pink numbers from Ireland and abroad who’ve latched on to the Welfare thing, but don’t belong here like you do.’
My speech made no impression on Mr Cool. ‘I’m just telling you what Wilf says,’ he answered. ‘And all I know is, he likes coming here so little it must be something that makes him feel he ought to.’
As the summer heats up, so brews the tension. This is the era of Vespa scooters, Mods and Teds, rock’n’roll, and it will end in the Notting Hill race-riots.
If exploring youth culture and the social make-up of young London is the most serious theme of this novel, the lighter side is seeing what your average London teenager wears, and what they listen to. The narrator is unusual for one who left school at fifteen in that he’s a reader. He was lucky to have an inspirational teacher.
… he made me kinky about books: he managed to teach me – to this day, I don’t know how – that books were not just a thing like that – I mean, just books – but somebody else’s mind opened up for me to look into, and he taught me the habit, later on, of actually buying then! Yes – I mean real books, like the serious paperbacks, which must have been unknown among the kids up in the Harrow Road those days, who thought a book’s an SF or a Western, if they thought it’s anything.
Good chap! But books aren’t his only love. Also very important, more important even, to most teenagers of the time (and now still?) is the music they listened to. In the late 1950s, it wasn’t so unusual for teens to be into jazz…
…the great thing about the jazz world, and all the kids that enter into it, is that no one, not a soul, cares what your class is or what your race is, or what your income, so 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, too, when you come in the jazz club door.
Contrasting against the non-stop activities of the teenagers is the different kind of relationship he has with his parents. He only really visits them in Pimlico where his mother runs a boarding house for unsavory types to use his old dark-room. There’s no love lost between the narrator and his mother, but he is determined to give his poor hen-pecked and ailing father a bit of fun this summer – they go off for a day cruising up the river.
Then it reaches September and the end of the summer. The tensions which had been simmering now begin to boil over. Our narrator turns nineteen, and it’s as if a switch is flipped in him – he does indeed have an old head on young shoulders.
Published in 1959, MacInnes (whom I discovered is Angela Thirkell’s son), was in his mid forties when he wrote it. His narrator uses a rich and complex vocabulary that seems older than his years – not quite Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange which would follow in 1962, more like the verbal flourishes that Russell Brand uses. No-one is known by their real names either, it’s nicknames all the way – just like today’s teens.
What is scary is that in those days, the majority of teenagers were released from the shackles of school out into the big wide world at the age of fifteen. I was scared stiff to leave school at eighteen twenty years later! Through MacInnes’s eyes, these teenagers seem so worldly and happy-go-lucky as they dive into London life with real gusto.
Some of you may recall the 1986 film adaptation starring Patsy Kensit as a rather toned down Suzette and theme tune by David Bowie. Bowie also acted in it, alongside Ray Davies as the father.
Those are the names I remember, but also in the film were James Fox, Mandy Rice-Davies, Steven Berkoff, Lionel Blair, and Edward Tudor-Pole, plus Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman no less!
I remember seeing the film on the big screen and really enjoying it – but it was a big flop for the British film company that financed it. In particular, the critics didn’t like a 1950s film with a 1980s soundtrack – Sade and The Style Council contributed; authenticity was added by veteran jazzman Gil Evans, but that wasn’t enough. I bought the 12″ single though…
I’m currently very drawn to British books set in this pre-Beatles era. Absolute Beginners is the middle novel of a trilogy of standalone novels by MacInnes – together known as his London Trilogy. The others are City of Spades and Mr Love and Justice and I would definitely like to read them. (8.5/10)