I can only guess I first heard the term ‘Absolute Beginners’ when The Jam released a single of the same name in October 1981. As to when I actually connected it to the book of the same name by writer Colin MacInnes, I honestly could not say. What I can say is once I had read the book though, it stayed with me, well, to this day. It was the detail in it, which examines the first teenagers in the UK, which stood out for me, along with the writing style with random lines like getting a cab to a modern jazz gig, which struck a chord with me and seemed to point out how to live your life.
After joining the newspaper industry in 1982, I would occasionally ‘acquire’ tickets to gigs, review screenings of films and the very occasional premiere. Which is how in April 1986 I found myself in the same row as Jonathan Ross and Danny Baker at the Prem for the film of the book.
Director Julien Temple had turned it into a musical, a la West Side Story, basing that premise on the line in the book that stated ‘one thing is certain, and that’s that they’ll make musicals one day about the glamour-studded 1950s.’
Starring the likes of David Bowie, Sade, Patsy Kensit, James Fox and Ray Davies among others and having a soundtrack, which included some of those named above, plus the likes of the Style Council, Gil Evans, Slim Gaillard and Working Week. With all that going for it, it should have worked nicely, but in truth, it failed to catch fire on the night and reviews of it weren’t kind as I remember.
(I watched it back fairly recently and with over 30 years distance, it weren’t actually that bad.)
Anyway, enough of my star studded youth, what of the writer himself? Colin MacInnes was born in August 1914 son of singer James and writer Angela. Of decent stock, he found himself related to Stanley Baldwin and Rudyard Kipling.
He was moved to Australia in 1920 when his parents divorced and his mother remarried and emigrated. Never truly settled, MacInnes returned to Europe in 1930, and relocated to Brussels till 1935, before studying art in London.
During the Second World War he served in the Intelligence Corps, working all over Germany until well after the end of the conflict. His first novel ‘To The Victor The Spoils’ was written as from the perspective of that experience.
He then worked for BBC writing scripts, before going freelance until he could make enough money from his writing. He hit his straps with a series of books from 1957, including ‘City of Spades’ (1957) ‘Absolute Beginners (1959) and Mr Love and Justice (1960)
By this time he was a die hard regular in ‘The French’ and ‘Muriel’s’ in Soho as well as low life clubs in the East End and Notting Hill.
The ‘old’ Notting Hill loomed large in his books. But bear in mind, this was not the area of multi million homes owned by hedge fund operators that we know today, but rather run down dwellings operated by slum landlords, complete with a new wave of immigrants, looking to set up home there. MacInnes captured the burgeoning racial tensions in the area, and the nascent easy going sex life and drug scene life lived by some.
‘City of Spades’ was among the first books to reveal the inner lives lead by the newly arrived immigrants into the UK and as such achieved cult status as a book. It contained tales of shebeens and dope dens, balanced out by those who worked hard to make a new life for themselves and their families.
As mentioned earlier it was ‘Absolute Beginners’ however that became the book to read for anyone who was interested in the early ways of Modernist life, which included a few pals and myself when we finally got round to it. There’s plenty to soak in on the clothing front, as well detailing the jazz dominated life of the early ones who lead the way for us to follow.
The name of the hero and narrator of the book, a sharp-minded photographer is never revealed as if it is not of importance.
‘He is MacInnes’s fantasy figure, really, not a real character at all,’ said the author’s friend Francis Wyndham.
MacInnes himself appears to have been a difficult man to get along with. Never living in one place too long, he was a transient heavy drinker and rude seems to be most often used phrase to describe him. For someone who professed a love the black culture, his attitude can in todays climate smack at times of racial overtones, with him being described in person as being curiously superior to his black companions.
Later books by MacInnes include ‘Sweet Saturday Night’ which looked at the history of the British music hall and ‘Loving Them Both’, which dealt with the subject of bisexuality.
MacInnes himself was openly bisexual when it was very dangerous to be so, and he had a ‘thing’ for the black men he often wrote about and who knew him as ‘queer Colin.’
All these years later interest in ‘Absolute Beginners’ still occasionally rears its head and there was a 2007 stage adaption of the book by Roy Williams, performed at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.
‘What Colin did,’ says his friend and broadcaster Ray Gosling, ‘is this: while Alan Sillitoe and people rediscovered the English working class, Colin alone spotted two other things: that the kids were taking over and that the future was multi-coloured.’
Colin MacInnes died in 1976 aged 61
The Mumper of SE5