29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Birth of Youth Culture
This is the second of Colin MacInnes' London novels, often referred to as the "London Trilogy" even though each novel is a self-contained story with no connection with, or characters in common with, the other two. Each deals with a separate aspect of London life during the late fifties and early sixties: "City of Spades" with the city's growing immigrant communities,...
Published on 6 Mar 2010 by J C E Hitchcock
9 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Crudely written
I found a copy of this book in a junk shop last week, and picked it up out of curiosity. I recalled that it had the status of a cult classic, and remembered the film adaption of 1986 (probably best known now for David Bowie's title song), but hadn't realized it was fifty years since it was first published. I read it as a historical document, thinking mostly about the...
Published on 27 April 2009 by Jeremy Walton
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Birth of Youth Culture,
This review is from: Absolute Beginners (Paperback)
This is the second of Colin MacInnes' London novels, often referred to as the "London Trilogy" even though each novel is a self-contained story with no connection with, or characters in common with, the other two. Each deals with a separate aspect of London life during the late fifties and early sixties: "City of Spades" with the city's growing immigrant communities, "Absolute Beginners" with the growth of youth culture and "Mr Love and Justice" with the city's underworld.
"Absolute Beginners", set in the summer of 1958 is written from the first person perspective of a teenaged freelance photographer. We never learn his name; when the novel was made into a film by Julien Temple in 1986 he was named Colin after his creator, rather oddly given that the book was never intended to be autobiographical. MacInnes would have been forty-four in 1958, a generation older than his character. The novel is divided into four chapters, entitled "In June", "In July", "In August" and "In September", of which the first, taking up half the book, is by far the longest. Each details a particular day in the narrator's life during the month in question.
The main theme of the novel is the youth culture of the period. MacInnes saw that the growing material prosperity of the late fifties, especially among younger people, had led to the growth of a new, specifically teenage, culture. The teenagers of whom he writes do not want to be dismissed as kids, but neither do they want to be classed as young adults. They see themselves as the "absolute beginners" of the title, a phrase which on the one hand indicates their youth and inexperience and on the other their desire for a fresh start, for a world as different as possible from that of the "taxpayers", as they designate the older generation.
MacInnes does not actually use the word "mod", possibly because it had not been coined in 1958, but the narrator's tastes- for jazz music, for sharply-tailored clothes, for motor-scooters and for coffee bars (he does not touch alcohol, despite being, at eighteen, old enough to drink legally)- and his disdain for the rival Teddy Boy movement betray him as belonging to what was to become known as the "mod" subculture. (Admittedly his cool pretensions take a bit of a knock when he confesses to a liking for Gilbert and Sullivan, the music of choice of middle-aged, middle-class, middlebrow Middle England). Mods tended to admire all things Italian, especially fashions, and this may be reflected in the fact that the narrator refers to the West London district where he lives (actually part of Notting Hill) as Napoli, after the Italian for Naples. One aspect of mod culture not dwelt on in any depth is drugs, although mods were known for their use of amphetamines.
The youth culture described in this book is very different from the one I knew as a teenager, but then I was not even born in 1958 and did not enter my teens until after the great cultural shift of the sixties. Sharp suits were anathema to seventies teenagers who, taking their cue from the hippie movement, generally made it a point of honour to look as scruffy as possible. Those of my generation, who saw rock as the authentic music of youth and jazz as a niche speciality for middle-aged enthusiasts, might be surprised that MacInnes' hero prefers Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday to Elvis or Buddy Holly, especially as we now look back at the late fifties as the birth of the rock-and-roll era. At that time, however, before the rise of the Beatles, jazz was still very much part of the British youth scene, being associated with the mods just as rock was associated with their rivals, the "rockers".
Another difference between MacInnes' narrator and the teenagers of ten or twenty years later is that, although he is in rebellion against the adult world, his rebellion is not motivated by political concerns, apart from a hatred of racism. For him the main sin of adult society is that it is square and boring, and politics, of the left just as much as of the right, is one of the squarest and most boring aspects of that society.
There is no sharply defined plot, unlike some of MacInnes novels. "Mr. Love and Justice", for instance, is much more traditional in terms of its narrative structure. Much of the first chapter, in particular, simply describes the narrator meeting friends and acquaintances and discussing his outlook on life. What plot there is concerns the narrator's hopes of getting back together with his ex-girlfriend, Crêpe Suzette, who is about to enter a marriage of convenience with her boss, a gay middle-aged fashion designer. There is little in the way of physical action until the final chapter which takes place against the background of the Notting Hill race riots.
This is not, in fact, a novel one reads for its plot. There are, however, three good reasons to read it. The first is MacInnes' wonderfully vivid prose style which, as one might expect in a novel narrated by a teenager, makes great use of slang and colloquialisms. The second is his equally vivid gallery of characters who often go by eccentric nicknames. (Besides Crêpe Suzette there is the narrator's friend The Wizard, the gossip columnist Dido Lament and - best of all- a gay rentboy known as The Fabulous Hoplite).
The third reason to read the book is for the author's skill in depicting a particular place and time. In the 1950s Notting Hill, today a fashionable part of London, was a depressed and rundown area. Many of the inhabitants were immigrants, especially Afro-Caribbeans, and people on the margins of society, such as prostitutes, homosexuals, lesbians and junkies, all of whom feature in the novel. Together with low rents, it is the area's diversity which, from the narrator's point of view, makes it such a desirable place to live. (He is originally from Pimlico, a more traditional white working-class area a few miles away). Black characters play an important part in the novel, if not quite as important as they do in "City Of Spades".
"Absolute Beginners" is my favourite one of the London Trilogy. Reading it I was struck by the brilliance of the picture that MacInnes is able to conjure up. Reading it I realised that there was another side to the fifties besides the complacent, conformist, never-had-it-so-good period depicted in so many films and television programmes and that there was a vibrant, nonconformist side to London life a decade before the "swinging sixties" with which we are today more familiar.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sharp, fascinating, and exciting,
The story follows the teenage narrator through a few months in his life as an amateur photographer and general mover and shaker in London in the late fifties. He's smart, precocious, brash with youth, focused on having fun, and hopelessly in love with his frustrating girlfriend Suzette and, in a totally different way, his geeky, caring, old-fashioned Dad. There's plenty of 'Swinging London' here (long before the term was coined), and you can see why the descriptions of the clothes and teenage patois have endeared it to generations of Mods, but there's a lot more meat to the story than that.
Despite his detached attitude and air of teenage freedom, the narrator can't escape the world around him, and it's clear from early in the novel that something nasty is brewing. Amidst his Dad's illness, his romantic frustrations, and growing racial tensions, he has quite a bit of growing up to do without losing his values and his cool. It's in the closing chapters that you recognise that this hip, swinging, seemingly episodic novel is also a really well accomplished bildungsroman, and a meditation on what it means to be young and whether teenagers were really going to change the world for the better (judgment reserved on that).
I must say, I really fell for this book. Even without the deeper meanings outlined above, it is incredibly fun. The narrator mixes with perverts, pimps, and rent boys as well as the supposed great and good, and every few pages we find him in a new scene. It's funny, observant, and irreverent. There are also some beautiful passages about London life which ring true today.
All in all, a lot to recommend it. I ordered McInnes's other novels as soon as I'd finished the last page.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Welcome to the sixties.,
Colin Macinnes's Absolute beginners is an astonishing novel both as a barometer of the way English life was changing in the late fifties and as an affirmation of the new youthful sensibilities that here at least seem to hold out the possibilities of a post class, post racial future. That these possibilities crystallised as a superficial materialism and selfishness through a vicarious rather than engaged youth culture is no surprise to a reader of the novel, for it is Macinnes's genius to contain the two potential trajectories of Britain's future. One of the very best English novels of the 1950's.
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolute Beginners - An Absolute Winner,
By A Customer
This review is from: Absolute Beginners (Absolute Classics) (Paperback)
First published in the late 1950's, 'Absolute Beginners' effectively provides a blue-print for the "Swinging Sixties" before that decade had even begun! Through the eyes of our hero, an 'absolute beginner' in his final year as a teenager, MacInnes explores the new phenomenon of the teenager (MacInnes refers to this period as the'teenage ball') and in doing so provides a remarkable insight not just into the beliefs and social mores of late 50's Britain but also the beginnings of a youth culture that has endured to this day - that of the mod. However, the novel is more than just an exploration of teenage angst and rebellion, with MacInnes challenging the reader throughout the novel and illustrating the difficulty of crossing the 'shadow line' into adulthood when often it seems as if society itself is against you.
The novel therefore remains as 'fresh' and as relevant now as the day it was written and provides essential reading for anyone who enjoys literature that is both fast-paced, exciting and thought-provoking. 'Absolute Beginners' is all of these things and more.
5.0 out of 5 stars Great,
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars,
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Read,
This is a book about youth culture, the beginning. Post war, post National Service, kids earning money and enjoying life. It has its moments of tempestuousness, but a bloody good read.
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolute Beginners makes a comeback,
Famous in its day I wondered whether this book would survive as a classic. It is so well written that although it is a bit slow moving, anyway by modern standards, it keeps the attention throughout. A very enjoyable re-read.
4.0 out of 5 stars English Classic,
A book to be read for the sake of reading, an insight into the birth of the British teenager and perhaps modernism.A very enjoyable read.
4.0 out of 5 stars GOOD READ,
I read the book as it fitted into the era I was trying to recapture. A good read, if a little difficult to "tune" into the writer's narrative immediately. Lots of descriptive word substitutions, and altered phrasing.
Caught the period well, although not quite how I remembered it, living in Mitcham! Far more exotic...........
Anyone interested in the early sixties should enjoy the read.
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Absolute Beginners (Absolute Classics) by Colin MacInnes (Paperback - 14 Mar 2001)
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