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The Birth of Youth Culture
on 6 March 2010
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.