Monday, 6 April 2009

Absolute Beginners

I've mentioned that with colleagues I'm researching English teaching in London secondary schools from the end of the war to the mid-1960s. In that connection I've just been re-reading Colin MacInnes's 1959 cult novel Absolute Beginners. (England, Half English, above, is essays, but the cover would have suited the novel too. The picture's by Pat Fogarty.)

I can see why it was a cult novel and it still appeals on the third reading (the first having been, I suppose, soon after it came out). It's about the London scene in 1958 and culminates in the Notting Hill Riots. The narrator is 18 (19 at the end) and, very consciously and assertively, a teenager – a species of which he speaks as its would-be philosopher. The book is sharp on the social types and scenes he moves between, and lyrical on the fabric and feel of the city, its neighbourhoods and populations.

I went back to the book wondering how far the moods and attitudes it depicts would have been those of a proportion of the pupils in 'our' London schools and come up against a problem of plausibility. Not only is this a novel, it's a novel about an 18-year-old young man's expression of his distinctive, consciously adopted teenage identity written by a 45-year-old whose own youth was spent in an Australian public school and then, from age 16, in various employments in Europe.

Of course, in the late '50s MacInnes knew his London youth in so far as a middle-aged man could who hung out with those of them who went to certain coffee places, bars etc, and who had sex with not a few of the boys. (I know this from, amongst other sources, Tony Gould's biography, Inside Outsider.)

But it's clear that no-one who at 18 had been that working class kid with a useless 'elementary school' education (it must have been secondary modern) and coming from the childhood that's depicted could have either arrived at such clear and definite views on such a range of current issues, or articulated his views with such eloquence. The attitudes expressed are blatantly those of a liberal Guardian reader: extremely articulate about politics (despite despising the Parliamentary game), anti-capital punishment, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic (though less obviously anti-sexist). And above all he's already, at nearly 19, got everything worked out to the point of an announceable 'position'.

MacInnes has in fact written his idea of the ideal Teenage Manifesto as he wishes some teenager had written it but none actually did, and of course his wishes are those of a 45-year-old who had never been that sort of youth. Whether any 1958 teenager really was so insightful and certain is of course a matter for inquiry. The evidence would be diaries, letters or recordings from the time, and if any exist I'd love to know of them.

I looked at Tony Gould again and was surprised that he has nothing to say about the sheer implausibility of this character, nor about his strange style. It's impossible to believe, for instance, that the following was the subcultural style of any actual group of British youth; it's the dialogue from the first couple of pages:

IT WAS with the advent of the Laurie London era that I realized the whole teenage epic was tottering to doom.
'Fourteen years old, that absolute beginner,' I said to the Wizard as we paused casually in the gramophone section to hear Little Laurie in that golden disc performance of his.
'From now on,' said Wizard, 'he's certainly Got The Whole World In His Hands.'
We listened to the wonder boy's nostrils spinning on.

'They buy us younger every year,' I cried. 'Why, Little Mr L.'s voice hasn't even dropped yet, so who will those tax-payers try to kidnap next?
'Sucklings,' said Wizard. ….

The Wiz looked wise, like the middle feller of the three old monkeys.
'It's not the tax-payers,' he said, 'who are responsible. Ifs the kids themselves, for buying the EPs these elderly sordids bribe the teenage nightingales to wax.'
'No doubt,' I said, for I know better than ever to argue with the Wizard, or with anyone else who gets his kicks from an idea.
Mr Wiz continued, masticating his salmon sandwich for anyone to see, 'It's been a two-way twist, this teenage party. Exploitation of the kiddos by the conscripts, and exploitation of themselves by the crafty little absolute beginners. The net result? "Teenager"'s become a dirty word or, at any rate, a square one.'

I smiled at Mr W. 'Well, take it easy, son,' I said, 'because a sixteen year old sperm like you has got a lot of teenage living still to do. As for me, eighteen summers, rising nineteen, I'll very soon be out there among the oldies.'

The Wizard eyed me with his Somerset Maugham appearance.
'Me, boy,' he said, 'I tell you. As things are, I won't regret it when the teenage label's torn off the arse pockets of my drip-dry sky-blue jeans.'

I find it easier to believe in the argot of Alex and his Droogies in A Clockwork Orange.

Gould doesn't cite any serious critical accounts of Absolute Beginners except one, by Richard Wollheim in 1962, that I'm hoping to dig out from the library stack tomorrow. There must be lots of others but I haven't got round to hunting them out. But in any case, my interest at the moment is more sociological than literary: is this novel a fair, if over-articulate, representation of the attitudes of an influential section of London teenagers in 1958-9?

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