In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

MacInnes’s LondonMichael Mason
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
City of Spades Mr Love and Mr Justice Absolute Beginners 
by Colin MacInnes.
Allison and Busby, 254 pp., £6.50, April 1980, 0 85031 331 7
Show More
Show More

With his three London novels Colin MacInnes hit on a marvellous subject-matter, into which he saw deeply. In other departments, however, he did not have the qualities to match. The books are consequently a frustrating experience – giving the sense of something thwarted, or half-realised. Taken as a group, indeed, they testify to the author’s unease about how best to convey his materials and vision. Each of them has its own distinct, extreme principle of style and/or organisation, while their subject-matter remains extraordinarily uniform. There is very little in common, for example, between the alternating first-person, colloquial narratives of City of Spades and the sententious, schematic narrative of Mr Love and Mr Justice. The theme of the pimp, however – one of MacInnes’s most idiosyncratic preoccupations – dominates both plots.

As a journalist, MacInnes had that bad habit of ambitious, insecure writers of using quotation marks too much. He aspired to write like Orwell, but evidently couldn’t settle into an equivalent of Orwell’s manner which satisfied him (another bad habit was a frequent recourse to italics for emphasis, which enhances the feeling of strain). In the London novels MacInnes had Dickens more in mind than Orwell, but stylistically this drew him into the feverish, erratic speech of Montgomery Pew and the Absolute Beginner – and not on to the confident, consistent grotesque of his model. MacInnes often seemed no more comfortable in these exotic idioms than in the standard English he had retreated from.

Another point of difference from Dickens is of course that in MacInnes’s fiction eccentric languages tend to invade the text at large – an effect comparable to making Major Bagstock the narrator of Dombey and Son. Esther Summerson narrates half of Bleak House, it is true, and there is perhaps a reminiscence of her in Absolute Beginners. Her ingenuous account of things has a clear purpose, however; while something like the Absolute Beginner’s description of boats on the Thames does not: ‘Canoes, of course, and eskimo boats with one oar made of two (I hope you dig), and even the craziest number of them all – a flat one like a big cardboard box the same size each end, where the chick sits on cushions in the front part, with a brolly, and her stud heaves the thing along with a hop pole.’ The encoding into a bizarre kind of English here seems to have been done just for its own sake.

MacInnes insisted that the idioms of City of Spades and Absolute Beginners were his own invention, which makes them additionally cipher-like. It is not hard to see why his readers might have assumed otherwise – that is, that the real speech of black Africans and West Indians, and of teenagers, was being copied. All three London novels seem to be extremely concerned to transmit various kinds of information. The Absolute Beginner is continually ‘explaining about’ such things as jazz clubs. Montgomery Pew’s story is, in a very downright way, a series of lessons about London life. The documentary intention, though MacInnes rejected the adjective, is certain. And the idioms, while imaginary, were meant to be appropriate for an existing section of the community. The passage in which MacInnes explains this (from his collection of journalism, England, Half English) is worth quoting because it also illustrates the nervous incidence of quotation marks in his prose; there is something very striking about this hectic disowning of various expressions in the context of a discussion of deviant idioms: ‘I chose a language for “coloured people”, or for teenagers, that was almost entirely an invented one: though true, so far as I could make it, to the minds and spirits of the characters I was describing. Strict naturalism of language (about which there is no practical difficulty if one has “an ear”) would, in the case of social exotics such as these, result in a “period dialect”: pedestrian, and fixed for ever in the time-stream. So I tried in each case to re-invent, from reality, a more “real” – and therefore timeless – language.’

Two different kinds of writer, journalist and fantasist, co-existed in MacInnes and the London novels were, in varying degrees, an attempt to gratify the needs of both. The journalist in him contributed one of the great strengths of these books: their understanding of the beastliness of the British national character. MacInnes saw through the clichés about British individuality and good sense to the abiding reality: that Britons are at once peculiarly aggressive and peculiarly deferential to authority. He was not distracted by the brief appearance in the 1950s of certain ideals of the common good, because he recognised that British political culture is always in the last resort a matter of hatreds and hierarchy. Sooner or later, generous, communal ideas are perceived in this country to be soft-minded or dangerous. The advent of the present Conservative government would hot have surprised MacInnes. His picture of Britain could include phenomena just as distinctive as our unarmed police or our unwritten constitution, but rather less trumpeted: our shameful popular press, for example. One of the best things in Absolute Beginners is the episode in which the comment on a race riot in an imaginary popular daily is set against the reality.

MacInnes was proud of his insights about British life, and he worked them into formulations which he liked to repeat. Reading around in MacInnes tends to be like having a drink once too often with a man whose epigrams you had hitherto thought were unstudied. The sententious side of MacInnes came out increasingly in the London novels, in inverse ratio to the imaginary idioms of MacInnes the fantasist. The last of them, Mr Love and Mr Justice, is full of philosophising: ‘All human conversations hold inside and beyond them other, and often larger, conversations that remain unspoken, of which the exchange is just the seventh part (if that’s the figure) of the iceberg that breaks surface.’

Mr Love and Mr Justice also confirms what the first two novels might suggest: that the emphasis of MacInnes’s interest in blacks, teenagers and so forth fell very oddly and restrictively. He was fascinated by the practical workings of the criminal law, by coppers and courtrooms, but not in proportion to the importance of these things in the life of the city. Mr Love and Mr Justice reads in places like a manual on dealing with the police and repeats at greater length, more solemnly, advice on such matters as lying in court already offered in City of Spades. Wherever his eye rested he looked for the illicit and forbidden (and the idioms he invented are mainly slangs of various sorts). It is no exaggeration to say that he was obsessed by the notion of the pimp. The motif first took the form of black men running while prostitutes, but it was the pimping – traditionally one of the most disapproved of occupations – that interested MacInnes, not the blackness. The theme detached itself from that of race and became the central topic of Mr Love and Mr Justice. It was still cropping up in the last novel MacInnes published before his death, Out of the Garden. Pimps tend to be the only males in his fiction whose sex life is dealt with. Heterosexuality is thus transformed into a version of homosexuality, permitting what was clearly an important displacement of feeling.

MacInnes might have created more satisfying novels if he had gone further down the road which his instinct for the forbidden opened to him. He should have been more thoroughly an outsider, in the phraseology of the period. Unfortunately he hankered after the cool, reasonable, Orwellian subversiveness, and he wasn’t at ease with it – any more than he was at ease with Orwell’s plain English. City of Spades, in which exotic languages are most vigorous and consistent, is by far the best of the London novels. In the end, it may not ‘explain’ that much about London life, but it communicates something just as interesting in its naughty, amoral fantasy (and it has the power of a dream) of BBC editors and civil servants being turned on to sex, drink and brawling by black acquaintances. Naughtiness is just what is missing in Absolute Beginners. The hero makes a living from pornographic photographs and mixes with lesbians, crooks and, inevitably, pimps, but he is still Esther Summerson: teetotal and opposed to drugs (sounding on this subject like a trendy parson – ‘the big kick you should try to get by how you live life sober’), and virginal. The characters in Mr Love and Mr Justice are naughtier, but by now without much relish. The order in which MacInnes wrote these novels is in some respects the opposite of that which might be guessed. Although he became increasingly famous as they were published, he seems in the process to have lost his nerve.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.