City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Absolute Beginners by Colin Macinnes

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This is a book I’d never considered reading, thanks to the film of the same name. But, drawn in a by a 1961 Penguin edition with a lovely cover by Peter Blake, I ended up buying it, reading it and absolutely loving it. It’s a supreme evocation of London at the end of the 1950s, as a distinct and meaningful ‘youth culture’ emerges for the first time in history. Macinnes portrays this changing world through the eyes of our teenage protagonist, but more importantly, the mouth. The language is extraordinary – the book is written in this new ‘teenspeak’ and it’s almost like A Clockwork Orange in its endless creativity with this highly local dialect. It dates it, but perfectly. It must have felt like the real ‘Newspeak’ emerging ten years after 1984, but not a top-down imposition on the dictionary; rather, a bottom-up reinvigoration of popular discourse.

Below some choice quotes from the book which offer casually vivid depictions of London – first Soho, then the River:

"So I went out of the Dubious to catch the summer evening breeze. The night was glorious, out there. The air was sweet as a cool bath, the stars were peeping noisily beyond the their neons, and the citizens of the Queendom, in their jeans and separates, were floating down the Shaftesbury avenue canals, like gondolas. Everyone had loot to spend, everyone a bath with verbena salts behind them, and nobody had broken hearts, because they all were all ripe for the easy summer evening. The rubber-plants in the espressos had been dusted, and the smooth white lights of the new-style Chinese restaurants – not the old Mah Jongg categories, but the latest thing with broad glass fronts, and dacron curtainings, and a beige carpet over the interiors – were shining a dazzle, like some monster telly screens. Even those horrible old anglo-saxon public-houses – all potato crisps and flat, stale ale, and puddles on the counter bar, and spittle – looked quite alluring, provided you didn’t push those two-ton doors that pinch your arse, and wander in. In fact, the capital was a night-horse dream. And I thought, ‘My lord, one thing is certain, and that’s that they’ll make musical sone day about the glamour-studded 1950s’. And I thought, my heaven, one thing is certain too, I’m miserable." [p.87]

"Picture, to re-cap, the scene. There, on the wharf, stood the ex-Deb’s bubble-car and M. Ponderoso’s Vespa (because yes, Mickey P. really had delivered the promised goods), and a band of onlookers with complimentary tickets, and up on the bridge above us, the City citizens scurrying to and fro, the men looking like dutiful schoolkids with their brief-cases and brollies, the women as if they were hurrying to work in order to hurry home again, and out in the stream, the fract like Piccadilly circus-on-the-water, and there in the quagmire me, and this temperamental Old Vic duo. the fact is, it was rather difficult to concentrate, because the whole panorama was so splendid, with the sun hitting glass triangles off the water, and the summer with the season really in its grip, making the thought of those short, dark, cold days long ago seem just a nightmare. So we decided to break off for déjeuner. This we partook in a Thames-side caff up a lane that, thought I know the river frontage intricacies like the veins on my own two hands, I’d never discovered – but then, after all, who does know London?" [p.128]

Who indeed. It’s also very funny. Witness this exchange, just after our hero blazes out of the city on his Vespa in a lover’s rage, ending up in the middle of nowhere. A passing motorist helps him out, and he siphons some petrol back into the scooter. The motorist looks on at him with a sophisticated blend of pity, curiousity and altruism:

"’I guess you’ve got enough to take you back to civilization.’

‘Thanks. Where is civilization?’ I asked.

‘You don’t know where you are?

‘Not an idea.’

The cat made tst-tst noises. ‘You really should lay off the stuff,’ he said. ‘Just turn about, follow the cat’s-eyes half a mile, and then you’re on the main road into London. I suppose you want London?’

I handed back the tube. ‘I want the whole dam city,’ I said, ‘and everything contained there.’

‘You’re very welcome to it,’ said this benefactor. ‘I’m from Aylesbury, myself.’ [p.149]

And this is all basically pre-rock”n’roll, remember. Jazz is the thing for the kids in Absolute Beginners, and it’s odd reading about what was actually the more traditional end of jazz in similar terms to how some might react to grime or gangsta rap today. Britain’s love for trad jazz did set up the mid-60s British blues boom (and thence Led Zep, Fleetwood Mac, The Stones, Cream, UK as early adopters of Hendrix etc.), and also paved the way for the likes of John Surman, Dave Holland, John McLaughlin and Kenny Wheeler to become among the finest modern jazz players in the world. All the more curious to hear the genesis of all that lot in these passages:

"And that’s what jazz music gives you: a big lift up of the spirits, and a Turkish bath with massage for all your nerves. I know even nice cats (like my Dad, for example) think that jazz is just noise and rock and sound angled at your genitals, not your intelligence, but I want you to believe that isn’t so at all, because it really makes you feel good in a very simple, but very basic, sort of way. I can best explain it by saying it just makes you feel happy. When I’ve been tired and miserable, which has been quite more than often, I’ve never known some good pure jazz music fail to help me on." [p.187]

All told, it’s a hugely enjoyable book which seemingly effortlessly conjures another time, the echoes of which still persist in a few old remaining cafes of central London, the world of Foyles and Ray’s Jazz Shop, in the rebranding of ‘Carnaby’, and glimpses down now prohibitively expensive mews in Chelsea and Pimlico. As London is in a fevered state of digesting its own entrails, as it always has been, documents like Absolute Beginners form an important history of the city, woven into the fabric of the imaginary library of London.

Absolute Beginners, by Colin Macinnes [Amazon UK|US]


3 responses to “Absolute Beginners by Colin Macinnes”

  1. Preoccupations Avatar

    Tags @ 43 Things … (posted from 43 Things)

    Right now, I’m less concerned about my own tags than I am about how different users’ tags


  2. Dan Avatar

    Trackbacks sent to this post at the time (before I turned trackbacks off):

    » Tags @ 43 Things … (posted from 43 Things) from Preoccupations
    Right now, I’m less concerned about my own tags than I am about how different users’ tags [Read More]


  3. Tom Bailey Avatar

    Having just finished reading this fantastic book I decided to do some Macinnes digging on the Internet…and low and behold I find a city of sound article pretty much at the top of the google search…I’m so glad I was unaware of the film – Such a shame Macinnes died in the 1970’s as he surely would not have authorised such a dire representation of this modern classic… I was unaware of the film, it really has thrown a spanner in the works . . .I was toying with the idea of approaching my record label with a screenplay for it… is that sacrilege? what do you think? Will the British film industry shudder at such a proposal?


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