The London Novels by Colin MacInnesColin MacInnes
Allison & Busby (£10.99)

by Douglas Messerli

Montgomery Pew, an innocent underling in the government bureaucracy, is suddenly named assistant-welfare officer of the colonial department. No one, including himself, knows how he has gotten the job, but taking his new position seriously, he “sallies forth” to inspect the welfare hostel—after meeting Johnny Macdonald Fortune, a new emigrant from Nigeria and the hero of Colin MacInnes’s 1957 novel City of Spades. The colonial department hostel has “the odor of good intentions,” but no longer houses Montgomery’s new “friend”—with whom, moreover, the Trinidadian “Spades” (the word with which Johnny has described himself and other blacks, as opposed to “Jumbles” like Montgomery) want no association because he is an African of “primitive barbarity.” With his girlfriend, BBC executive Theodora Pace, Montgomery sets out to discover the whereabouts of the likeable Johnny and uncovers in the process an entire London underworld of sex, drugs, violence, and other vices.

In the hands of writers less talented than the Australian-educated MacInnes, this tale would become a story of innocence vs. evil in which, depending upon one’s political position, the inevitable consequences would be either entirely deserved or the result of the hatefully bigoted white society. MacInnes and his heroes, however, make no such easy judgments. This author is interested far less in the causes of this underworld of joyful corruption than in its uncontained and exuberant existence. MacInnes is seldom condescending and truly cares about his characters through his pitch-perfect presentment of them through language: this is not a book dominated by dialects as much as a prose-poem made from the differently modulated rhythms in which his figures intelligently speak.

Montgomery and Theodora, in turn, are satiric innocents, who in their absolute wonderment of the previously undiscovered “planets” hidden away in tiny hotels and grand apartments, encounter this “brave new world” without much judgment. Early in the novel, Montgomery attends a “mixed” dance at the Cosmopolitan Dance Hall where “English Jumbles” and “African Spades” try to out-dance one another in a manner reminiscent of the dance between the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story—which opened on Broadway the same year, 1957, in which MacInnes published this novel. But in City of Spades the dance ends, more predictably perhaps, with no cross-over relationship, but with a police raid. Montgomery soon after loses his job, and other than his and Theodora’s continued involvement in this black underworld, the rest of this work contains few Jumble characters who are not enforcing British “law.” In other words, the reader of MacInnes’s book must recognize quite early on that there is nothing for blacks to do in London except to hide.

It is almost a shame that MacInnes’s fiction has to have a plot, for the excitement of this book lies not in its series of upheavals, such as the financial ruin of Johnny Fortune, his ultimate charge of living with a prostitute as a pimp (what the British call “ponces”), and the courtroom drama in which Theodora temporarily “saves” Johnny by announcing that she is pregnant with his baby. Rather, the book entertains its reader with its ongoing kaleidoscope of human beings one cannot simply “summarize.” In each of MacInnes’s three novels under discussion here, the innocent visitors to the underground London in which the author revels attempt to comprehend differences between the “types” encountered. Montgomery, for example, explains his theories to a West Indian friend who has just taunted him:

“What! You recognize some difference? Ain’t we all just coal-black coloured skins to you?”

“Don’t be offensive, Mr. Tamberlaine. Like so many West Indians I’ve met, you seem to have, if I may say so, a large chip sitting on your shoulder.”

“Not like your African friends? They have less chip, you say?”

“Much less. Africans seem much more self-assured, more self-sufficient. They don’t seem to fear we’re going to take liberties with them, or patronize them, as you people do.”

“Do we now!”

“Yes, you do. Africans don’t seem to care what anyone thinks of them. So even though they’re more clannish and secretive, they’re easier to talk to.”

Mr. Tamberlaine considered this. “Listen to me, man,” he said. “If we’s more sensitive like you say, there’s reasons for it. Our islands is colonies of great antiquity, and our mother tongue is English, like your own, and not some dialects. So naturally we expect you treat us like we’re British as yourself, and when you don’t, we suffer and go sour. Why should we not? But Africans—what they care of British? For African, his passport just don’t mean nothing, except for travel, but for us it’s loyalty.”

. . .

“I think…it’s easier for them than it is for you. They know what they are, and you’re not sure. They belong much more deeply to Africa than you do to the Caribbean.”

Montgomery’s assessment of these “differences,” however, ultimately comes to nothing, as the West Indian turns the tables so to speak: “Thank you for the compliment to our patriotism. So many of our boy who serve in R.A.F. would gladly hear your words.” MacInnes puts forward the ideas, in other words, without losing sight of the complexities of the human beings he presents—and for that reason this author’s frail humans seem almost invincible. Warned of his possible murder on his voyage home, Johnny Fortune remains a forceful figure taunting the very culture he is about to leave: “No one will kill me, countryman!...This is my city, look at it now! Look at it there—it has not killed me! There is my ship that takes me home to Africa: it will not kill me either! No! Nobody in the world will kill me ever until I die!”

If City of Spades ventures into a London unknown by most of the gray-garbed, post-war adults of the city, Absolute Beginners, published two years later, celebrates the new dominance of the British teen scene. The work’s hero—a 19-year-old unnamed narrator whom I shall call Colin as a nod to the later film1—experiences the last year of his teens with such zest and belief in the future that the reader is nearly swept away by the vibrant energy of youth. Colin has left his Pimlico home and family—a sex-crazed mother, a near-retarded lug of a step-brother, and a beloved and belittled Dad—to celebrate the joy of life. No matter that his employment is often involved with pornographic photography, Colin is in love with the times; he is, as American writer James Purdy put it in his novel Malcolm of the same year, a “contemporary,” a young man absolutely in love with the city—its gloriously posh mews, raunchy dives, and dilapidated neighborhoods such as his own Napoli. He and his teenage generation are suddenly in control, and his rapturous descriptions of London make one suddenly want to return to the metropolis of 1959:

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 nosily beyond the 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.

MacInnes adds to this heady mélange of youth a large lesbian urban-dweller, Big Jill, a black jazz musician named, what else, Cool, and various other characters who nearly blind the reader with their larger-than-life personalities. But as we know from having just read City of Spades, there are many other layers of existence in this palpitating wonderland. Colin gets a sense of something going amiss when his beloved girlfriend Suze (his Crêpe Suzette) heads off to the alter with the slimy bisexual Henley; the “absolute beginner” 14-year-old Laurie London becomes the hot pop singer of the moment; and he himself is assaulted near the river by a former schoolmate, Edward the Ted (“Ted” being British slang for a hooligan). A later night visit to his Napoli apartment by Ed also ends in violence, and with Ed’s warning that a local gang leader, Flickker, “wants Cool aht ov ear.” Colin can hardly believe his ears and seeks out Cool for confirmation, who explains to him that “Something’s cooking… Excuse me, but you wouldn’t notice, son, not being coloured,” continuing “Up till now, it’s been white Teds against whites, all their baby gangs. If they start on coloured, there’s only a few thousand of us in this area, but I don’t think you’ll see there’s many cowards.”

Suddenly we recognize that this young, savvy teenager, when it comes to race relations, is also a complete innocent; like the hero of his favorite childhood book, Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, Colin is a visitor to a world never before imagined. His joy in the city, his belief in his nation begins to crumble:

I couldn’t take all this nightmare. I cried out, “Cool, this is London, not some hick city in the provinces! This is London, man, a capital, a great city where every kind of race has lived ever since the Romans!”

Cool said, “Oh yeah. I believe you.”

“They’d never allow it!” I exclaimed.

“Who wouldn’t?”

“The adults! The men! The women! All the authorities! Law and order is the one great English thing!”

With his outraged cry, we recognize that Colin will now be forced to come of age. If he has previously scorned the “absolute beginners,” he must recognize himself as having been one of them. The race riots—based on the actual Notting Dale and Notting Hill “race riots” of August and September 19582—break out, loosing chaos upon Colin’s beloved city. He saves a young black man, is witness to underground plots by West Indians blacks, and is nearly himself arrested after being attacked by white thugs, before order is restored. At the airport, from where he plans to escape to Oslo—a scene, along with Fortune’s departure in City of Spades, which reminds me of another unnamed narrator’s escape at the end of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger—he witnesses what one recognizes is a transformative vision, a vision that the true future of any great city lies in its people, in their respect for one another:

…in taxied a plane, quite close to where I was standing, and up went the staircase in the downpour, and out came a score or so of Spades from Africa, holding hand luggage over their heads against the rain. Some had on robes, and some had on tropical suits, and most of them were young like me, maybe kiddos coming here to study, and they came down grinning and chattering, and all looked so dam pleased to be in England, at the end of their long journey, that I was heartbroken at all the disappointments that were in store for them. And I ran up to them through the water, and shouted out above the engines, “Welcome to London! Greetings from England! Meet your first teenager! We’re all going up to Napoli to have a ball!”…and suddenly they all burst out laughing in the storm.

How I wish such a vision might manifest itself to more of my countryman today.

Given the stunning achievements of his first two novels, Mr. Love and Justice, the third volume of MacInnes’s London Novels published in 1960, cannot quite compare. The author’s themes are similar here, as he explores, this time around, the intertwined roles of policemen and criminals. A former seaman, out of work and unable to find a “land” job, Frankie Love takes up with a local hooker and, with some righteous hesitation, finally becomes her ponce. Edward Justice, meanwhile, has just been promoted from street cop to undercover detective, and will soon discover himself in a threatening position with regard to his girlfriend as he begins to take bribes.3

The reader immediately grasps that the two men are destined to be involved with each other. But here, again, MacInnes refuses to take sides, as he develops his characters so deftly that it comes as no big surprise when, as both men’s lives are turned upside down, Love plans to head a detective agency, and Justice may turn the clothes shop he envisions into a “little high-grade brothel.” Once again these two men come to their professions and the world that surrounds them in complete innocence, discovering in the process both the horrors and the marvels of the new worlds they find themselves inhabiting. In that sense, all of MacInnes’s characters are travelers in search of new lives, inevitably both blessed and cursed by the voyages they’ve undertaken. Finally, one might recall that during these “fictional” events, what Colin might have described as a “hick provincial” group called the Beatles were fomenting radical cultural changes in Liverpool, which would spill over into the international scene only two years after Mr. Love and Justice. In 1964 that group would make their own screen voyage to London, with Paul’s randy grandfather in tow, in A Hard Day’s Night4. Truth actually followed MacInnes’s marvelous fictions.

1 Richard Burridge, Terry Johnson, Don MacPherson and Christopher Wicking (writers), Julien Temple (director), released in 1986, and based—quite loosely—on the MacInnes novel. Upon reading Absolute Beginners, I ordered the DVD to discover that, although there are wonderful moments in this “jazz and rock” musical—in particular scenes clearly inspired by the great Jerome Robbins choreography of West Side Story—the movie, in its garish overstatement and simplification of heroes and villains, entirely misses the point of MacInnes’s loving tribute to London teenage life. Perhaps the very fact that the film was produced nearly 30 years after the novel, in an era in which it was much more difficult to maintain the faith and dreams of the original, were against it from the start. I should mention, however, that the casting of Eddie O’Dowell as Colin and David Bowie as the “evil” developer Vendice (not so clearly evil in MacInnes’s book), along with the cameo role of Colin’s mother played by the famed call-girl witness of the 1963 Profumo Affair trials, Mandy Rice-Davies, was brilliant.

2 The so-called “Notting Hill Riots” began on Saturday, August 1958, when a crowd of white men attacked a white Swedish woman married to a West Indian. After she was pelted with stones, glass, and wood, the police escorted her back to her Notting Hill apartment. This incident was the catalyst for daily attacks throughout West London. Mobs of angry white men, sometimes in packs numbering a hundred, chased down and beat any vulnerable blacks they could find. Most West Indians attempted to remain indoors during these weeks, but others fought back. Calm was finally restored, but the shock-waves of these events are felt still today as the reaction, based on the transition of an almost totally white population to a multi-ethnic one, altered many notions of “British” identity.

3 The “Profumo Affair” might almost have been an incident out of MacInnes’s Mr. Love and Mr. Justice. Well-educated and high-ranking Conservative cabinet minister, John Profumo was married to actress Valerie Hobson. In 1961 he met a showgirl named Christine Keeler and developed a short-lived relationship with her. Keeler also had had a previous affair with Yevgeny Ivanov, the senior naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy in London, the fact of which meant that Profumo’s connection with the woman might have endangered British intelligence. When questioned about the affair, Profumo lied to the House of Commons, claiming that there was “no impropriety whatever” in his relationship, but the truth came out later in the trial of Stephen Ward, a wealthy London osteopath through whom Profumo had met Keeler. Ward, the son of the Canon of Rochester Cathedral, had treated such illustrious patients as Sir Winston Churchill, Paul Getty, Douglas Fairbanks, and Elizabeth Taylor. Brought to trial for living on the “earnings of prostitution,” Ward took an overdose of sleeping pills on the last day of the proceedings. One of the most humorous moments of the trial was provided by another call-girl client of Ward’s, Mandy Rice-Davies; reminded by the prosecuting counsel that Lord Astor had denied having an affair with her or having even met her, she replied “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan resigned soon after the official report on the affair. Profumo died last month, March 9, 2006.

4 Alun Owen (writer), Richard Lester (director).

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006