Colin MacInnes

The most interesting commentary on the emerging youth culture of the late 1950s can be found in the essays and novels of Colin MacInnes. MacInnes was no teenager himself at the time: born in 1914, he would have been 45 years old in 1959. Although he was born in London, MacInnes spent most of his childhood in Australia, where his mother Angela Thirkell gradually established a reputation as a prolific writer of popular fiction. MacInnes himself returned to Europe in 1930, and eventually settled in London to study painting; he later served in the British Intelligence Corps during the Second World War. During the late 1940s, he began to establish a career as a writer, producing journalistic essays and novels, and working in radio broadcasting.

MacInnes was fascinated by the Soho netherworld of crime, prostitution and drugs described in Barry Miles’s London Calling. He led a fairly chaotic, restless existence, moving from one address to another, and was often short of money. He was a prodigious drinker, and probably an alcoholic. He was bisexual, with a well-documented preference for African men, and was quite open about his use of male prostitutes. Those who knew him frequently described him as unpredictable, quarrelsome and difficult. Ray Gosling, whose mentor he became, depicts him in his autobiography as moody, irascible and opinionated, but also as a fiercely independent thinker and a ‘fighter for liberation’. Gosling even makes a comparison – at first sight quite improbable – between MacInnes and the upright military figure of Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the scout movement:

If any one was, though, he was the Baden-Powell to the 1960s – he fought for, led and chronicled, cajoled and disciplined the formation of our compassionate, permissive society (abortive though it may now be in part). (p. 72) 

The most obvious manifestation of MacInnes’s political radicalism was not so much related to young people, however, as to the cause of anti-racism. As we’ll see, this was a recurring theme in his writing, especially in his response to the ‘Notting Hill Riots’ of 1958, which are documented in Absolute Beginners (they actually took place in Notting Dale, some distance north of Notting Hill itself). In the aftermath of the riots, he played a key role in a short-lived group called the Stars’ Campaign for Inter-Racial Friendship, and was involved with several black liberation campaigns: as late as 1971 he appeared as a character witness in the trial of the self-professed Black Power activist, Michael X. Nevertheless, MacInnes was also somewhat of an outsider – or at least an ‘insider-outsider’, as he described himself: he felt at home in the multicultural, cosmopolitan buzz of London, and he was praised by some of the key New Left writers (such as Stuart Hall), but he was never a team player. During the 1960s, he never regained the comparative success of his three ‘London novels’, to be discussed below: he died in 1976.

Some of MacInnes’s best journalistic writing on these issues is contained in a collection called England, Half English, published in 1961. The book contains both shorter and more substantial pieces about a wide range of issues, from London’s drinking clubs and sex workers, through Ella Fitzgerald to the Elgin Marbles and Pevsner’s Buildings of England. There are critical essays on contemporary drama and the artist Sidney Nolan, as well as relatively obscure figures such as the novelist Ada Leverson. There are also interesting pieces on what we would now call ‘post-colonialism’, including an extended essay based on a trip to Nigeria, and a piece about immigration entitled ‘A Short Guide for Jumbles (to the Life of their Coloured Brethren in England)’, originally published in 1956: here MacInnes warns his white readers (‘Jumbles’ are ‘John Bulls’) against a whole range of patronizing assumptions – although (like his novel City of Spades, which tackles the same issues) the piece is not without problematic generalizations of its own.

While there is a shared set of concerns cutting across these essays, I want to focus here on three that are specifically concerned with youth culture. ‘Young England, Half English’, first published in 1957, was written for the decidedly upmarket literary journal Encounter. Here, MacInnes sets out to explain for his educated older readers the appeal of a new generation of teen pop stars – and specifically that of ‘the Pied Piper from Bermondsey’, the working class Tommy Steele. Steele’s rise to ‘the status of national idol’, he suggests, is partly about his talent: he is both ‘animally sensual’ and yet ‘innocent’, possessing a ‘joie de vivre’ that MacInnes claims to find ‘irresistibly engaging’. However, he also seeks to explain this phenomenon sociologically, as a consequence of the increasing affluence of young people, which the market researcher Mark Abrams would go on to document a couple of years later. In response to fears about ‘Americanisation’ (as evidenced for instance in Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, published in the same year), MacInnes paints a more complex picture: Steele, he argues, is not just a copy of America, a kind of English Elvis. He may sing in a ‘shrill international American-style drone’, but he speaks in an English Cockney accent. MacInnes looks forward to the possibility of a more English singing style, and to songs that would deal with English topics, but he thinks this is an unlikely development (although in fact, he would not have long to wait).

‘Pop Songs and Teenagers’ was published the following year in The Twentieth Century, another literary magazine. Here, MacInnes goes rather more on the offensive against what he describes as the ‘abysmal ignorance of educated persons about the popular music of millions’. He challenges such people’s ‘morbid dislike of these symbols of popular culture which they feel are undermining not so much culture itself, as their hitherto exclusive possession of it’, and he condemns them for having ‘a lamentable lack of curiosity about the culture of our country in 1959’. Here again, MacInnes notes the rise of young British performers such as Steele and Lonnie Donegan, who have come to equal the popularity of Elvis and Paul Anka – although he laments the fact that they are still singing ‘in American’. He also provides a more detailed sociological account of the rise of the teenager, noting how their increased spending power is fuelling not just the music industry but also a distinctive new market in technology, transportation (scooters) and food and drink. These young people, he claims, are ‘a new classless class’. They are ‘blithely indifferent’ towards politics and ‘the Establishment’. They are internationally-minded, a ‘post-Hiroshima generation’, but they are not merely ‘Americanised’: rather, they have transformed American influences into something of their own. They are independent of adults – ‘in their private lives, they don’t like to be told’ – and they are joyful and ‘gay’ in what he describes as ‘the dullest society in Western Europe’.

However, MacInnes’s account here is not entirely sanguine: he also suggests that it is ‘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’. These fears were also dramatized in the character of Wizard in Absolute Beginners, who joins the racist attackers in the Notting Hill riots – although as MacInnes remarks in a footnote to this essay, he felt that the ‘worst offenders’ in these events were not the young people but the ‘countless respectable adults who just stood and watched’.

The final essay I want to consider in this collection was also published in The Twentieth Century in 1959, and is entitled ‘Sharp Schmutter’. It details the ‘dos and don’ts’ of contemporary English menswear. MacInnes contrasts his preferred style both with mainstream adult fashions, but also with the clothing of the Teddy Boys and that of the followers of Trad Jazz, who (he suggests) ‘simply haven’t got the money for sharp clothing’. His favoured style is described in considerable detail: it is smart and tailored, an early version of the ‘mod’ style that was to become much more widespread a few years later. It belongs largely to the newly affluent working class, although it has a certain ‘classless’ appeal; and its influences are primarily drawn from Continental Europe (especially Italy) rather the USA (and here again, MacInnes detects a ‘growing indifference to America’). Once again, we can see this style in evidence in the descriptions of the characters in Absolute Beginners; and MacInnes’s detailed attention to such issues is especially evident in his comparison between two of his minor characters, the Misery Kid with his ‘trad drag’ and Dean Swift, a hip ‘modernist’.

Once again, MacInnes feels compelled to persuade his readers that attention to such matters is not merely ‘frivolity’, or a matter of young men becoming ‘effete’. He argues that, like pop music, this isn’t the only preoccupation of the young. On the contrary, he asks:

Isn’t it rather a minor (and pleasant) part of an international upheaval which is changing, behind the lock-jawed deadlocks of the politically mighty, all forms of social intercourse, the world’s boundaries, thought, art – everything, almost? (p. 157)

On reading these essays, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that MacInnes was well ahead of his time, in a great many respects. He is not blindly celebrating youth culture, but he is making the case for taking it seriously, and treating it with respect. He is alert to the political dimensions of what some might dismiss as mere trivia – to subtle changes in class identities and especially to the rise of what we now call multiculturalism and globalization. And, like Stuart Hall and Ray Gosling, he is also looking ahead to social and cultural changes that are only just emerging over the horizon.


The London novels

The essays in England, Half English are to some extent journalistic rehearsals of themes that MacInnes was also developing in his fiction. His three London novels in particular have often been praised for their journalistic accuracy. Nevertheless, in one of the brief introductions to these essays, MacInnes refutes the idea that these novels are some kind of ‘documentary’, or the work of a ‘researcher’. They may come from his own ‘direct experience’, he says, but they are also ‘poetic evocations of a human situation’: the language of the characters – including the youthful lingo of the narrator of Absolute Beginners – is ‘invented’ rather than ‘naturalistic’.

My main focus here will be on Absolute Beginners, but this novel should be briefly set in the context of MacInnes’s other London novels, City of Spades (1957) and Mr. Love and Justice (1960). Although it’s doubtful whether MacInnes ever intended these books to be a trilogy, they share a concern with contemporary social issues: the first is primarily about race, the second about youth, and the third is about crime and the sex trade, although these themes feature to a greater or lesser extent in all of them. The first two in particular also have a powerful graphic feel for London locations, which extends well beyond the affluent West End, and indeed the Soho and Fitzrovia districts where MacInnes spent much of his time, to areas like Shepherd’s Bush, North Kensington (‘Napoli’ in Absolute Beginners), Stepney and Kilburn. This is not at all the ‘official’ version of London, or indeed the glamorous image that was later to appear in accounts of ‘Swinging London’: in many respects it shows the seamy underside of the ‘straight’ world, which MacInnes himself liked to frequent. The characters move quickly from one location and social milieu to another, perhaps (as Paula Derdinger suggests) reflecting the more general modernist concern with mobility. As in his journalistic essays, MacInnes shows himself to be a keen observer of contemporary fashions and social rituals across a wide range of London’s diverse communities; but his overarching concern is with the tensions between the past and the present, the blurring of social boundaries, and the sense of impending social change.

Nevertheless, there are some striking differences between these three books, not just in their substantive focus but also in their approach. MacInnes’s interest in questions of race – and his fascination with the worlds of black (and especially African) immigrants – is most fully explored in City of Spades. Like Mr. Love and Justice, this book has a dual perspective, alternating between the accounts of a Nigerian student, the charismatic Johnny Fortune, and a liberal white government employee, Montgomery Pew. The book contains a great many debates between the characters about racial issues, ranging from drugs and criminality, to the appeal of black men for white women, the ‘colour bar’ and racism, and the prospects for post-imperial Africa. Like his stand-in Pew, MacInnes is an outsider to the ‘Spade’ community, and he knows it. He indulges in generalizations (for instance about black people’s musicality and their physical and sexual prowess), while simultaneously warning against them; he romanticizes the exotic ‘other’, while also being aware of the superficiality of doing so.

City of Spades makes an interesting comparison with the film Sapphire, a more conventional ‘social problem’ film produced by Michael Relph and directed by Basil Dearden, which was released (needless to say) in 1959. The film has similarly didactic intentions – it portrays racism as a kind of pathological ‘sickness’ – but it also fails to avoid some of the assumptions that it is supposedly questioning. In one notable scene, we are introduced to the ‘lily skins’ – the young black women who (like Sapphire herself) are able to pass for white, yet are betrayed by their inability to resist the ‘beat of the bongo’ and are compelled to engage in frenzied dancing. (The music, once again by Johnny Dankworth, offers a rather sanitized version of contemporary ‘hard bop’.) In Sapphire, the point of view is that of the white British police officers who are investigating Sapphire’s murder, although they also meet Sapphire’s impeccably well-spoken (and much darker-skinned) brother, who is a doctor. The film’s primary focus is not on the black experience, but on white racism. By contrast, City of Spades offers much more direct access to the perspectives and experiences of the black characters, who are by no means all worthy and well-behaved.

Mr. Love and Justice takes a similarly didactic, sociological approach, in this instance to the sex industry: it depicts the relationships between ponces, prostitutes and the police, attempting to explain how the business works and how the different participants benefit from it. As in both the other novels, there are ongoing debates among the characters that are intended to address the reader’s questions, to challenge familiar assumptions, and to expose some of the hypocrisies and contradictions that are at stake. MacInnes’s third London novel is more tightly focused and structured than its predecessors, and there is less journalistic description for its own sake: arguably, it works somewhat more effectively as a novel, although the parallels and contrasts between the two sets of characters are almost schematic.

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