MacInnes’s London

Michael Mason

  • City of Spades Mr Love and Mr Justice Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes
    Allison and Busby, 254 pp, £6.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 85031 331 7

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.