Angela and Son

Dan Jacobson

  • Inside Outsider: The Life and Times of Colin MacInnes by Tony Gould
    Chatto, 261 pp, £12.50, September 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2678 7

The most interesting parts of the lives of writers often enough take place before they become writers. In Colin MacInnes’s case, one might say that some of the most interesting parts of his life took place before he was born. He was the great-grandchild of the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones, and was thus connected with both the Kipling and the Baldwin families; he was the grandson of an Oxford Professor of Poetry (of no great distinction, it must be admitted); and the son of Angela Thirkell, the novelist of upper-class English life, and James Campbell McInnes, a man of working-class origins who became the foremost British lieder-singer of his generation. Unfortunately for this marriage of the muses and the classes, Campbell McInnes was also drunken, violent, and (though he succeeded in fathering three children by Angela Thirkell, and then in raping the children’s nursemaid) inveterately homosexual.

It is perhaps inevitable that Tony Gould should present Colin MacInnes’s life as, in effect, a protracted Oedipal drama: one from which he was quite incapable of extricating himself. Like his mother, or in competition with her, he became a writer; the subjects he chose to write about were those bound to cause her the maximum degree of shock and dismay. Like his father, or in competition with him, he became a drunkard and a homosexual; he was also much given to perpetrating verbal violence against others, and was apparently addicted to having physical violence inflicted on him by his lovers. This was after he had passed his boyhood in Australia, where his mother had taken him in consequence of a second, unsuccessful marriage to a Melbourne businessman. She then returned to England, and after the lapse of some months MacInnes followed her. He worked in commerce in Belgium for some time; tried his hand at being an art student under the guidance of William Coldstream and other members of the Euston Road Group; served in the Army during the war – idly in Gibraltar and actively, later, in northern Europe; and entered the profession of writing as an art critic for the BBC and the Observer.

His first published novel was about his experiences in wartime; his second, June in her Spring, to which he always remained especially attached, was set on a sheep station in the Australian outback. It was only when these were out of the way that he wrote the novels which were to give him a really substantial readership: City of Spades, which is about a fly young black man, Johnny Fortune, making his way through a largely black London demi-monde; and Absolute Beginners, a novel about London teenagers which enjoyed even greater success than its predecessor. Around this time he also wrote many of the essays collected in the volume England Half-English, which contains some of his most charming work. The book includes essays on his ‘Aunt Trix’ (Rudyard Kipling’s sister) and General John Monash, the Australian First World War hero, who had been a visitor to his mother’s house in Melbourne; it also contains an account of a long and adventurous journey in Nigeria just before the country attained its independence.[*]

Thereafter, though he occasionally managed to produce interesting essays and reviews, his life and work went into a decline from which there was to be no recovery. The novels he published after the last of the ‘London trilogy’, Mr Love and Justice, were weakly imagined and attracted little attention. As a recorder of the ‘youth culture’ and the ‘pop scene’ he had to contend, not only with a subject that had itself greatly changed, but also with flocks of rivals and imitators who were much younger than himself and more nakedly opportunistic. His biographer tries to be as thoughtful about and as sympathetic towards MacInnes’s decline as he is about his early years and relatively brief period of success: but there is little that can be done to make the last decade or more of the life interesting or rewarding to the reader. Each drinking bout is bound to be like the one before or the one to come. There is nothing to be said about the black male prostitutes with whom MacInnes compulsively consorted, and who appear to have remained faceless, nameless, wholly without identity. (One suspects that that was precisely their function, as far as he was concerned.) Every piece of cruel or wounding behaviour which he gratuitously inflicted on friends, strangers, helpers or professional associates – and which some of them described forgivingly to his biographer, while others did so with an evident residue of anger – resembles the rest. MacInnes maintained his lordly, solitary, hectoring, inebriated, secretive, hand-to-mouth existence virtually to the very end; he retained to the end, too, his voracious intellectual curiosity. But he had less and less to show in the way of achievement. He was too solitary and too difficult (let it be said to his credit) to become a ‘character’ of the kind that certain English men-of-letters, some of them much more gifted than MacInnes, have been eager to turn themselves into. He died of cancer at 61, and at his own request was buried at sea.

It would be wrong, though, to give the impression that the biography makes more of MacInnes’s unkindnesses and savageries than it does of his equally unpredictable enthusiasms and generosities. Reading this book, I realise, in fact, that my own relationship with him fell into a pattern of a familiar kind. That is to say, he quite suddenly ‘adopted’ me and my work – and my wife and stepson, too, whose tastes he fostered by sending them out-of-print books which he thought would interest them; he sought my company enthusiastically, though always in an abruptly intermittent fashion, and talked with great intensity and frankness to me whenever we met; and then simply vanished, never to be seen or heard from again. We never quarrelled and he was never rude to me. Thus my memories of him are on the whole of a benign if slightly absurd kind. I always had the feeling in his company – evidently others of his acquaintance felt the same, each in his own way – that what he really liked about me was a shadow-self of his own creation: someone who combined a colonial’s dash and freedom from convention with Jewish wisdom and an artist’s melancholy and percipience.

No wonder he was disappointed! He was a great categoriser of people, and when he had a category he valued he would cram the objects of his affection into it, willy-nilly. He once told me that the present editor of the London Review of Books, for whom he had a warm regard at the time, was ‘like someone from the dominions’. I could not see it: but he clearly intended his words as high praise, indeed the highest he could offer. In his eyes, all immigration, whether from the New or Old Commonwealth, whether of writers or of labourers, was to be welcomed, because the newcomers would help to disrupt what he regarded as the utterly congealed and repressive state of English society. He could never accept the argument that the opportunities which Britain offered to immigrants were in fact a direct consequence of the social order and complexity he wanted to subvert. On another occasion he took me to lunch in a small, bare, cheap fish-restaurant, where the patron made a considerable, if wary fuss of him. When the meal was over, and we were walking again through the streets of Soho, I told him how much I had enjoyed it. He looked at me from his great height, his forehead rumpling into its habitual, complicated pattern of creases, with those on one side of his brow running more deeply and more closely together than those on the other, and said, as if we had just shared not a meal but some elaborate or mysterious rite: ‘I was sure you would see the point of it.’ One other characteristic remark was made to me when we were walking near the house I then lived in, and I drew his attention to a block of flats which was occupied entirely by policemen and their families. ‘Just think of all the coppers’ copulations that go on inside there!’ he said, in tones of awed distaste. I confess that when he subsequently published Mr Love and Justice, in which a policeman is one of the main characters, I looked for that phrase and was rather disappointed not to find it.

More than once he spoke to me with contempt of those reviewers who wrote of his London novels as if they were primarily or exclusively documentary in inspiration. Though he prided himself on his knowledgeableness about London low-life, he liked to think of his books as being in some sense prophecies or allegories, as well as pieces of fictionalised reportage. (This intention is most ominously signalled, perhaps, in the bifurcated title of the novel just mentioned: the eponymous Mr Love is a pimp; Justice, his counterpart and alter ego, is a policeman.) The result is that, for all the jauntiness of their narrative tone and setting, the novels have a quality of ceremonious solemnity or self-importance which, I have no doubt, is a part of their continuing, strong appeal to young readers. MacInnes would have been delighted to know that he still has such a readership; he would perhaps have been even more delighted to know that it has come to him most recently through what young readers call ‘the musical press’, rather than through the traditional literary pages of the up-market papers.

The truth of the matter is that there is a curious symmetry between MacInnes’s fictions and those of his mother, and between their respective readerships, which Tony Gould does not remark on – though in general he is quick enough to see such ironies and hidden continuities in their relationship, and even speaks of a late, little-known MacInnes novel about Australia, All Day Saturday, as ‘an Angela Thirkell novel turned upside down’. The point, however, is this. Angela Thirkell wrote her novels about a series of English county families, endowed with superior houses and superior accents and superior love affairs, who are always under threat from the malice and vulgarity of the world outside, as well as from the occasional traitor within, and who nevertheless always manage to survive and, in the teeth of all odds, bravely to sustain their values. Her son wrote about groups of snappily dressed, work-despising, music-loving, lower-class or outcast young people living by their wits, and about their hustling, irrepressible, criminal or demi-criminal black counterparts – all of whom are fundamentally well-disposed to one another and to the world in general, and who, despite being constantly harassed and threatened by the joyless authorities set over them, nevertheless manage to survive and bravely to sustain their values. The dream-world of the mother was the nightmare of the son; and vice-versa. Depending on their age and cultural disposition, sentimental readers can choose to be entertained by either.

[*] Allison and Busby have reprinted City of Spades (248 pp., £2.95, 0 85031 332 5), Absolute Beginners (203 pp., £2.95, 0 85031 330 9) and Mr Love and Justice (176 pp., £2.95, 0 85031 334 1). In September they will publish Absolute MacInnes, edited by Tony Gould.