Absolute Beginners is, unfortunately, now best remembered for a lacklustre 1980s film version (except among neo-mods, where it remains a well-kept secret, depicting as it does the formative days of coffee bars, scooters and jazz as subcultural pursuits). The work is divided into four months; while there is no strong central narrative arc, the early part concerns the unnamed narrator’s life as an amateur photographer (and pornographer) and his amorous pursuit of his ex-girlfriend, Crepe Suzette, while the later – well, we’ll come to that. This is the second book in MacInnes’ London Trilogy, and, like the first (the impressive City of Spades), it is set on the fringes of London’s seamier cultural systems, and written in a colloquial-poetic register which is sometimes reminiscent of a more cheerful Hubert Selby Jr.
While CoS dealt as its central subject with relationships between black and white Londoners and African migrants, AB focuses on the teenager and ‘the birth of cool’ – and, published in 1959, we are in the early years of existence of that particular demographic – as the eighteen-year-old narrator points out, his is the first generation in which ‘yoof’ (as they’re now known) had the spare cash for independence, and the leisure of not yet being completely incorporated into the systems of adulthood (as well as chrysalidic mods, teddy boys are a central subcultural focus, in a not-so-sympathetic depiction). So while in today’s light there sometimes seems to be a naivete about the Caulfield-esque narrator – a narratorially-approved lack of acknowledgment of the way in which the image conscious and apolitical teenager does not, in fact, stand outside the system – this can perhaps be attributed to the originality of the concerns he describes in era in question, combined with the well-rehearsed figure of today’s teen, more even than at that period completely subsumed as a figure of capital and consumption. Furthermore, the question of involvement and apathy is raised in the book’s concluding episode, dealing with the narrator’s response to race riots. On this note, in some ways the work can also be seen as a bildungsroman, as the narrator, on the cusp of adulthood, transcends an individualistic and amoral focus on the survival of the self as project, and then on the pursuit of cash, to become a figure sobered by the death of his father and a central mover in fashioning a community response to the appalling prejudice and brutality of emerging white-on-black prejudice and violence (such as that which occurred in 1958) – leading to a final decision to leave behind the city, unrealizable and perhaps utopian romantic hopes, and the familiar which has now been outgrown.
As in City of Spades, race is a central concern, and MacInnes is perhaps the central figure for the exploration of this trope, the anxieties (and cultural enrichment) caused by the reversing of the direction of Empire as it crumbled. As in CoS, not only racial outsiders but others, such as queers (MacInnes himself was openly bisexual) and pimps, are sympathetically depicted, if, again as in that novel, with occasional tonalities and implications which may strike a slightly off note for the contemporary reader – and female characters are not his strong point, though some, such as lesbian pimp Big Jill, shine here. Ultimately, this is not as strong a work as CoS, and it has the same tendency to mild didacticism. However, it is nonetheless a deeply original novel which, if it depicts a particular and formative moment in the balance between various identity relationships, still resonates in the present day (particularly with the recent resurgence of the BNP). AB is ultimately (and in this way it seems like a forerunner of the sublime-grotesque kitchen-sink urban imagery we find in the lyrics of bands like Pulp) a conflicted paean to a gorgeously-depicted city, at a tense moment of cultural crux and flux.