Monday, 14 March 2016

Absolute Beginners - Colin Macinnes


It's the mod bible, according to Paul Weller, and if he says so then so it is for who else could be better placed to make such a judgement? Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes evokes a period and paints a picture of a time long past when the idea of 'teenage' and a London emerging from the wreckage of World War 2 was something very new and exciting. It's a description of a time when Britain was on the cusp of a great sea change where economic spending power and the very idea of it lent a piquancy to those never in possession of it before.

The story is neither here nor there because the point of Absolute Beginners is in the language, the descriptions and the observations, and if read like this is thoroughly enjoyable if not - it should be said - a tad slow. Practically everyone has a nickname apart from the unnamed narrator, and everyone talks in an endearing hep cat jive slang that displays a love of English and American idioms. People are referred to as 'cats', girls as 'chicks', police as 'cowboys', and coloured people as 'Spades'. Most endearing of all, a good many sentences spoken by the characters finish with the word 'child' in the way that people nowadays would say 'mate'. It's a term used with affection and one that's never used nowadays at all - and it really should.

It's interesting that Colin MacInnes was in his forties when he wrote Absolute Beginners because reading it today it feels as though it's absolutely the voice of a teenager. Though very specific to the time period it's set in, as in 1958, there's an authenticity about the narrator's voice and outlook that doesn't fall into cliché or direness. Three years after publication, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange would be published and though not acknowledged, the influence of Absolute Beginners upon the way Burgess had his Droogs talk is obvious.

At one point, the narrator thinks to himself: "My lord, one thing is certain, and that's that they'll make musicals one day about the glamour-studded 1950s." Little could MacInnes imagine that one day a musical would be made of his book starring David Bowie and the legendary Lionel Blair. Not that the film of Absolute Beginners should really be associated with the book because they just don't compare as one is absolute rubbish and the other is required reading for anyone with the slightest interest in British culture.

Paul Weller is probably right but I do wonder how Julien Temple got it so spectacularly wrong?

John Serpico


  1. I do think it's rather a special book and, like you, admire the way it's written like a teenager as well as enjoying its language (I was quite surprised at some of the expressions). My copy is rather endearingly (for the time of its issue) 'semi'-censored, with words spelt like f--k ! Makes me laugh that they've been left in and it's so obvious what they are, so the censorship seems pointless, but it's a 1964 edition.
    One of my favourite examples of dialogue is conversation with Ed-Ted and its phonetics - let me just find it and quote some... ok:
    "If yer liv up ear" he said, "And don no oo Flikker is, yer do no nuffin".
    "Yeah, who is he?"
    "E eads me mob" (etc...)

    I never saw the film but I don't think I want to!

    Have you read 'Mr Love And Justice', by the way?

    1. Hey, child. I've just rifled through SDS and read your review of Absolute Beginners. It's better than mine! I went for the obvious as in The Jam whilst you went for Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. I salute your imagination.
      We can both agree, however, that the dialogue is brilliant.
      I've not read Mr Love And Justice but again, I've just read your old review of it so now will go on my list of books to be read. So many books so little time. Which then led me to your Pick up a Penguin post from 2011 and Albert Camus. You are discerning of taste, child. The link on that page leads to a YouTube video that has now been closed, leaving me wondering what the tenuous connection was? I wonder if you still even remember? All those years ago...

    2. Oh no, I thoroughly enjoyed yours and it is far better focused than mine. But enough of the mutual appreciation society! I would imagine you'd thoroughly enjoy Mr Love And Justice - I loved it.
      And you intrigued me about my Pick up a Penguin post; even looking at it again now I cannot for the life of me remember what the mysterious link was. A tune, yes, but what? How could I forget something that I obviously put some consideration into choosing in the first place? Dammit, I've no idea!

    3. PS. By the way I can't really take credit for my taste in these books, they were both down to a good friend who sent them my way. Lovely to share these things!