Absolute Beginners is made up of four sections of uneven length. Each section focuses on a particular day in the four months that span the summer of 1958. In June takes up the whole first half of the book. It follows the unnamed narrator meeting up with numerous friends and acquaintances in various parts of London. He also learns that his ex-girlfriend, Crepe Suzette, is about to enter a marriage of convenience with her boss, a middle-aged gay fashion designer called Henley. In July finds the narrator taking photographs by the River Thames, before attending a performance of the musical operetta H.M.S. Pinafore with his father. Along the way, he has a violent encounter with a former school-friend and watches another friend’s appearance as a representative ‘teenager’ on a TV show. Part three, In August, is the shortest section. It follows the narrator and his father taking a cruise along the Thames towards Windsor Castle. His father becomes unwell on the trip and has to be taken off to a doctor; and in the course of this, the narrator comes across Suzette at her new husband’s house in a nearby village. Finally, In September is set on the narrator’s nineteenth birthday, the start of his last year as a teenager. He witnesses the beginnings and then the full eruption of the Notting Hill riots. In the course of these events, he has a passionate encounter with Suzette, who has returned to London; and his father also dies, leaving him four envelopes stuffed with money. The narrator decides to leave the country and find a place that is free of racism. He doesn’t succeed, but at the airport, he encounters a group of Africans arriving and gives them a warm welcome.
Absolute Beginners shares several characteristics with MacInnes’s other London novels. Like City of Spades, it moves in an episodic, seemingly arbitrary way from one London location to the next: particularly in the first half of the book, the narrative has an almost aimless, improvised feel. The three parts of the latter half of the book focus more narrowly on three key incidents, and stronger narrative ‘hooks’ start to emerge, although the structure is by no means as tight and schematic as that of Mr. Love and Justice. Nevertheless, as in both the other books, and in his journalism, MacInnes has an almost didactic purpose: there is a good deal of self-conscious commentary and debate between the characters on the ‘teenager’ phenomenon – or what is announced in the novel’s first sentence as ‘the whole teenage epic’. This is also placed within a broader set of concerns, especially about multiculturalism and the changing nature of English national identity.
Especially in the early sections of the book, the narrator’s adventures seem almost random, and some of them are quite extraneous to the main plotlines. Although the narrator’s background is working-class, and he doesn’t have much money, he is able to move easily across class and social boundaries, from Teddy Boys and ponces to debutantes and diplomats. Along the way, he has passing encounters with an enormous series of characters with obviously implausible names, who function largely as ciphers for MacInnes’s commentary on contemporary social trends. These include various representatives of current youth cultural ‘tribes’: Ed the Ted (a Teddy Boy), the Wizard (a baby-faced ‘proto-fascist’), the Misery Kid (a follower of trad jazz), Dean Swift (a sharp-suited hipster and heroin addict), Zesty-Boy Sift (a teen songwriter), the Fabulous Hoplite (a gay occasional rent boy) and Mr. Cool (a mixed-race dude). There are also several adult characters who serve similar functions, at least some of whom may be thinly-disguised versions of real people: they include Call-Me-Cobber (an Australian TV celebrity), Vendice Partners (an advertising executive), Mannie Katz (a Jewish poet), Big Jill (a lesbian ponce) and Ron Todd (a Marxist enthusiast for American blues). As Alan Sinfield puts it, MacInnes ‘falls over himself’ in his efforts to include such a wide range of journalistic observations. Yet while the novel is clearly purporting to represent England (or at least London) at a particular moment in history, there is little pretence of social realism here.
MacInnes’s narrator is also, to a large extent, a kind of stand-in for the author – a vehicle for him to engage in a running commentary about the teenage phenomenon. In this respect, he often seems oddly perceptive, and somewhat more self-aware and knowledgeable than one might expect for an eighteen-year-old. Despite having left school at the earliest opportunity, he is also a reader of books, and a lover of serious jazz rather than pop: he pays tribute to Billie Holiday, and to the transcendent music of performers whom I take to represent Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. At one point he even describes (albeit with some astonishment) how he had been taught ‘morals’ by a scout-master in his early years.
The narrator is both a participant and an observer, an ‘insider-outsider’, as MacInnes liked to describe himself. He works as a photographer – initially creating what he himself describes as ‘pornography’, and later enlisting two of his friends to help him produce a sequence of images that he attempts to sell to Vendice Partners, the advertiser. Yet significantly, when the riots start to gather pace, he abandons his role as a mere observer: ‘I took up my Rolleiflex, but put it down again, because it didn’t seem useful any longer’. This ambivalent position is also apparent in the writing style. There is extensive use of youthful jargon (or at least a version of it) and clauses and sub-clauses pile up, much as in improvised conversation, although it is hardly naturalistic. Yet for much of the time, the narrator seems to be addressing a reader who needs to have this whole phenomenon explained, and even justified, rather than one who already knows about it, or takes it for granted.
In this sense, the narrator is rather more than merely a representative teenager. Indeed, there are some more personal storylines that give him added dimensions. His romantic pursuit of Crepe Suzette – and his attempt to define what ‘love’ really means – is one aspect of this. So is his relationship with his father, which becomes a key focus in the later sections of the book. It is hard to avoid the feeling that MacInnes was working through his relationships with his own parents at this point – his resentment of his mother and his sense of loss for his father. Here, and in the vivid portrayal of the Notting Hill riots that takes up the final section of the book, MacInnes moves beyond smart, satirical social commentary to something more moving and profound.
The book’s commentary on the teenage phenomenon largely reflects that of MacInnes’s journalistic essays, discussed above – and at several points, it almost directly echoes them. The narrator repeatedly distinguishes between the world of teenagers and that of the majority of adults, who are variously labeled ‘squares’, ‘conscripts’, ‘taxpayers’ and ‘old sordids’. These include his father – who constantly reminds him about how much worse things were for young people in the 1930s – but also his 25-year-old brother, who is ‘one of the last of the generations that grew up before teenagers existed’. By contrast, the narrator is a ‘Blitz baby’, born during the War. As his mother points out, it was the post-War Labour government that gave the teenagers their ‘economic privileges’, as an unintended consequence of ‘empancipating’ working people. What they failed to do, she argues, was to give them the rights and duties that should have accompanied this. The narrator seems to accept this analysis: ‘you gave us the money, and you took away our responsibility’, he says, and ‘we like it fine… let it stay that way!’
Equally, the narrator doesn’t want to be patronized and treated as a child – as he is by a bank clerk in one early scene. Although he is constantly in search of money, he is clearly one of Abrams’s affluent teenagers. In line with MacInnes’s essays in England Half English, he professes a complete lack of interest in politics and in class (especially in the Marxist arguments of Ron Todd); although he does have an abiding sense of social justice that is largely to do with racial and sexual diversity. He is not anti-American: he doesn’t want English kids to be ‘bogus imitation Americans’, but he also sees anti-Americanism as ‘a sure sign of defeat and weakness’. He is critical of the commercialization of the teenage phenomenon – the record stores, the fashion industry, the coffee bars and clubs, the television shows – but he puts this down to the operation of ‘the adult mafia’. Perhaps with a touch of irony, he also proclaims the ‘divine power’ of youth.
Yet despite his apparent rejection of the adult world, the narrator clearly has expectations of it, which are sorely tested by the Notting Hill riots. He seems to believe that conventional adults would not countenance violent attacks on ethnic minorities: ‘They’d never allow it!’ he exclaims – ‘The adults! The men! The women! All the authorities! Law and order is the one great English thing!’ As the riots break out, he is outraged by the fact that most of the residents of ‘Napoli’ simply stand aside and watch what is happening – although he also notes that the few white people who resist the violent attacks on the black community are actually ‘old-timers’ rather than teenagers. He passionately condemns the establishment’s response to the riots for its complacency and hypocrisy, in terms that MacInnes himself clearly shared.
As well as his reflections on ‘the whole teenage epic’, Absolute Beginners thus provides MacInnes with a further opportunity to work through his views on multiculturalism and national identity. In a sense, the novel aligns this opposition to racism with the figure of the teenager – although MacInnes’s narrator is clearly distinguished in this respect from characters such as Ed the Ted and the Wizard, who eventually joins up with the ‘keep England white’ movement. According to the narrator, England is now moving into a post-Imperial age: it’s time for politicians to stop playing ‘Winston Churchill and the Great Armada’, he says. ‘There are no tin soldiers left any more’: Britain has lost her position in the world, but it has yet to find a new one. The narrator describes himself as a patriot, but he is also explicitly critical of the racist response to immigration. The sequence of the riots is prefaced by the narrator’s critical account of a newspaper article that reads like a contemporary equivalent of today’s right-wing press.
Here, as in City of Spades, MacInnes takes pains to confront stereotypical assumptions about new immigrant communities, but his version of multiculturalism verges on exoticism. Crepe Suzette is described as a compulsive lover of ‘Spades’; and the narrator himself tends to idolize his house-mate ‘Mr. Cool’ and his jazz favourites. A ‘coloured character’ he observes gardening in a London square is described as ‘so bloody civilized’; and Mannie Katz, the Jewish poet character, seems to have been included purely in order for the narrator to express his positive valuation of the entire Jewish race. Yet in the end, this benign view is impossible to sustain in the face of the riots: the narrator ‘falls out of love’ with London, and decides to escape.
Ultimately, MacInnes’s narrator is a member of a subcultural minority, rather than a representative of teenagers in general. Indeed, he might be described as a kind of aristocrat of style. He dresses sharply, drives around on a motor scooter, and enjoys a free and gracious lifestyle. There are two kinds of people in the world, he tells us: mugs and non-mugs. Being a freelance photographer means that he has to hustle for a living, but it also means that he doesn’t belong to the ‘great community’ of the mugs, the ‘Other World’ of conventional wage-earners. As Alan Sinfield points out:
The boy’s time is his own, money problems miraculously disappear, and he has no difficulty meeting interesting and influential people. The impression is that subculture can cut you free from other allegiances: that if you listen to jazz, dress snappily and stay cool, then the rest of it needn’t bother you.
In a sense, the arc of the narrative gives the lie to this optimistic projection, and to the more celebratory view of teenagers that it reflects. The riots reveal the continuing influence of racism (not least on young people) and the apathy of the majority, who seem unwilling to resist. As Sinfield points out, the very ending of the book offers an uneasy combination of hope and despair. The narrator is unable to escape to Norway, or to Brazil, as he attempts to do: he welcomes a group of Africans arriving at the airport, but he is ‘heartbroken at all the disappointments that were there in store for them’. Here again, MacInnes views the impending changes of the coming decade with a mixture of optimism and deep foreboding.