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Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes

Absolute Beginners (original 1959; edition 1984)

by Colin MacInnes

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Title:Absolute Beginners
Authors:Colin MacInnes
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Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes (1959)


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One of the reasons I picked up Absolute Beginners again was because of historian Dominic Sandbrook's daft grudge against Colin Macinnes (in [book:Never Had It So Good|43872]). I last attempted it in my teens. It had been a slowish read – proved to be the same this time round – and was easy to give up on back then because the library copy was a horrible mouldy one.

Now, the vintage atmosphere and detail in the story was way more interesting so I hung around to savour that (when younger I'd filed this era as being 'before anything was cool'), noticing differences from the film musical, and processing the late 1950s slang. Plenty of 60s slang is still immediately familiar yet this stuff from only 5-10 years earlier, not immortalised in pop culture, can require a moment's thought to work out. These characters are the cool kids of my parents' generation, yet they are so different it reminded me how facile the idea of generation=social attitude can be. (One of the good points Sandbrook makes is that most people of this era, even the younger ones, weren't mods, hippies or their rock 'n' roll precursors, they were hardworking squares.)

There's something artificial about the way the main character loves the term “teenager” (as beloved of the media then as “hipster” has been for the last few years, though back then there was more fear and real disapproval, rather than the contemporary eye-rolling). He likes defining what it means to be a teenager – it's a culture at least as much as an age, squares aren't really teenagers – and it's not that different from The Who's 'My Generation', by the time of whose release the narrator and his mates might (if they weren't still pop-culture purveyors) be boring oldsters. The over-consciousness of cultural definitions works in a way because he's one of those entrepreneurial kids who's interested in talking to the media and getting noticed by the movers and shakers (in an 80s or 90s setting he'd be a DJ / party planner, here he's a photographer, proto-Blow-Up) but it's also a reminder that Absolute Beginners was written by a champagne socialist easily old enough to be the protagonist's dad. Some of the press evidently loved it (a quote on the back from Harpers & Queen says "Prose as sharp as a pair of Italian slacks and vivid as a pair of pink socks", The Sunday Times: "The cult novel of the year."). But I'd love to know what the real teenagers of the day thought of this book... Was everything in it so five years ago by the time they ever saw a copy? (By the 80s, presumably re-reviewing in the light of the film, the NME says "Macinnes caught it first - and best"; and Paul Weller, just born when it was published, "a book of inspiration.")

Some reviewers are critical of the way black, Jewish or gay people are described by the narrator. There's an element of positive stereotyping, complimentary or neutral description with frequent reference to some of the narrator's friends' background (how lively a friend's Jewish household is compared with his English one, there are white girls who fancy black men apparently because of sexual stereotypes, that sort of thing). But they have personalities too, and the narrator is way more inclusive and accepting than most of his contemporaries, even prepared to get injured defending his mates during the Notting Hill race riots. His way of speaking is what, over decades, evolved into the contemporary attitudes that mean it isn't okay to say the same things now. Such critics tend to dislike arguments for historical context, but if ever there was a good one for those people cutting a text some slack, it's with this book.

I'm kind of surprised to see so many reviews on here, and quite good ones, for Absolute Beginners; I'd had the impression its reputation was fading. Seems that inclusion in 1001 Books To Read Before You Die has boosted it a bit. For my part I'd recommend it mostly for people interested in the social & cultural history, and for those who like some background to their vintage clothes/film/music habit. ( )
1 vote antonomasia | Jun 5, 2014 |
published-1959, london, lifestyles-deathstyles, britain-england, winter-20132014, racism, radio-4, fradio, cults-societies-brotherhoods, music, recreational-drugs, art-forms, prostitution, gangsters, glbt, under-500-ratings, young-adult, casual-violence, period-piece, bullies
Read from January 12 to 19, 2014


Colin MacInnes's cult classic about teenagers, style and racial tension in 1950s London.

Description: London, 1958. "I swore by Elvis and all the saints that this last teenage year of mine was going to be a real rave." The eighteen-year-old narrator of Colin MacInnes' cult classic is determined to declare his independence from earlier generations, as he roams the city with his camera and a sharp eye for the stylish and the subversive. In the smoky jazz clubs of Soho, the coffee bars of Notting Hill and the cheap rooms of Pimlico the young and the restless - the absolute beginners - are revolutionising youth culture and forging a new carefree lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. Meanwhile the Teddy Boy gangs are staging internecine battles, and a generation of Black immigrants is struggling to make a life in a hostile city. The definitive account of London life in the 1950s and what it means to be a teenager, this account of a young man's coming of age captures the spirit of a generation and the changing face of London in the era of the first race riots and the lead up to the swinging Sixties.

Read by Joel MacCormack Abridged and produced by Sara Davies.

Theme tune: Laurie London - He's Got The Whole World In His Hands - 1958

1. Last year as a teenage for our protagonist, and in Notting Hill too.

2. Mr Cool reports trouble brewing on the streets, the Fabulous Hoplite brings news of a party at Dido Lament's, and Suzette won't be persuaded out of her impending marriage.

3. The teenage narrator of Colin MacInnes's cult classic sets about making some serious money in an attempt to win back the love of his life, and there's a worrying visit from Mr Cool.

4. The teenage narrator is still shocked by Suzette's marriage to Henley. Determined to try and woo her back, he takes the opportunity of a boat trip up the Thames to pay her a visit.

5. The teenage narrator finds himself caught up along with his friends in the violence that erupts on the streets of his home patch in Notting Hill.

Unsuprisingly, because of the parentage, MacInnes is at home with his subject matter and the writing is accomplished. ( )
  mimal | Jan 19, 2014 |
Read it a long time ago , but only remember bits of the film. Brought home from parents to reread sometime.
-shelved indefinitely 27 april 2011
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
Earlier this year at the London Picture Gallery I saw a photography exhibition of the photographer Ida Kar who took pictures of bohemian London during the 1950s. Amongst all the black and white images was a photograph of a tall lean man lying on a bed in a spartan flat in Soho. Another image was of an attractive young couple, sitting on the floor, reading the papers with an toddler jumping all over them. The captions said that the first was the author of this book, Colin MacInnes. The couple in the second picture apparently inspired two characters in this book. Thinking that it would be fun to read the book with the two images in my head, I got hold of a copy through the library.

I got a lot more that I anticipated. A very clever book. The author manages to take us on a journey through London of the 1950s moving from one scene to another and giving us a humorous commentary on society and (low) life in London as he saw it.

Just the fond descriptions of London alone, made reading this book worthwhile for me. ( )
1 vote pengvini | Mar 30, 2013 |
A classic and rightly so. It's in the same league as the Catcher in the Rye and similar too in many ways. Yes the characters are transient but so are people in real life- friends are transient and the people that we know, we pick apart and examine through our own eyes and mind. The main character here has some shrewd observations on the development of London, generational differences, the economy and the disappearance of British culture and in a sense reason. Yes it is a look through the some might say naive eyes of a teenager but then the clue is in the title.
This book brings a town alive in a very real sense. Every encounter we read about has something to show us about its people or nature and the book never outstays its welcome. An excruciatingly engaging read! ( )
1 vote polarbear123 | Mar 19, 2012 |
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It was with the advent of the Laurie London era that I realised the whole teenage epic was tottering to doom.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140021426, Paperback)

Penguin film edition paperback, vg+

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:49:30 -0400)

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