Representations of London in Colin MacInnes’s "Absolute Beginners"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

24 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Stasy Adams (Author)



1. Introduction

2. Notes on Author
2.1. Biography
2.2. Intention
2.3. Critique

3. Cultural Background

4. About the Novel

5. The Representations of London in Absolute Beginners Analysis of the Setting

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

I have often amused myself with thinking how different a place London is to different people.

James Boswell

(Wolfreys 2007:1)

What is a city? Some people associate it with diversity, size, mobility, freedom, hope, glamour, change etc. For the others, on the other hand, the city stands for chaos, crowds, misery, poverty, noise, loneliness, anonymity, despair, decadence and crime. Some are glad to live there and others try to escape from it.

One of the most important, biggest and famous cities in the world is London. The capital of Great Britain that lies on the river Thames has a very long history. Today London is a very important industrial, commercial and cultural centre, not only in Great Britain but also in the entire world. It is a city with thousands of different faces and places.

For centuries, London inspired writers such as V. Woolf, P. Ackroyd, J. Sinclair and in particular Charles Dickens, who is regarded as the first London novelist.

Die Stadt London nimmt in der englischen Literatur eine besondere Stellung ein. Von Daniel Defoes Moll Flanders (1722) über Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859) und Great Expectations (1861) bis hin zu postkolonialen Romanen wie Timothy Mos Sour Sweet (1982), Salman Rushdies Satanic Verses (1988) oder Hanif Kureishis The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) wird die Großstadt London zum Knotenpunkt ganz verschiedener Diskurse

(Meyer 2005:118).

London’s importance as Europe’s largest city, trade metropolis and centre of the British Empire is reflected in literature of the 18th and 19th centuries. In particular the rapid growth of the city due to the industrial revolution was a challenge for the literary world which, on the one hand, was celebrated as multiplicity, and was considered a threat on the other hand. In terms of the 20th century Breuner argues in his survey about London novel:

Nach den großen Stadtromanen der ersten dreißig Jahre dieses Jahrhunderts, die Zeugnis ablegen von der engen Verbindung von Moderne und Stadt, ist das Thema Stadt in der neueren englischen Literatur etwas in den Hintergrund getreten. Die bedeutenderen englischen Romane etwa der letzten sechzig Jahre sind nicht auch gleichzeitig wichtige Beiträge zur Darstellung der Stadt und zum Bild Londons (Breuner 1991:17).

However, taking a look at the novels of contemporary British literature one can discover that the city still plays an important role and that many writers have chosen London as a setting for their novels. Now it is about time to pass to the 1950s and take a look at literature of the post-war period.

Immediate postwar London fiction tends to reflect a shell-shocked city – weary, grey and rationed emotionally as well as physically. At the same time, it exhibits a determination to create a new, more vibrant, more egalitarian metropolis. The 1950s is generally held by Anglo-English critics to be epitomised by the plays of John Osborne and Arnold Wesker, or the working class novels about young men on the make by John Braine, David Storey and Alan Sillitoe, more often set in provincial cities than London. All exhibit the kind of blindness of which Phillips complains. Phillips contrasts these writers with Samuel Selvon and suggests that ‘The Lonely Londoners (1956) is the best example of a 50s novel that tackles the problems of race and class that bedevilled British society at the time’ […] Phillips also pays tribute to Colin MacInnes as ‘the great exception’ amongst Anglo-English writers. More than any other white writer of the period, MacInnes embraced London’s multiculturalism […] (Thomas 2005:313f).

The name in this quotation is Colin MacInnes. MacInnes’ contribution to London literature is his London Novels City of Spades, Absolute Beginners and Mr. Love and Justice. “MacInnes was interested in exploring the submerged worlds of 1950s London that engaged both black and youth subcultures” (Bentley 2003:149).

Colin MacInnes’s little known trilogy of London novels comprises vividly composed fictions of the underside of London life. In City of Spades (1957), Absolute Beginners (1959), and Mr. Love and Justice (1960), autonomous fictions linked by a common fifties setting, he creates the milieux of immigrant blacks, of independent teenagers, and of “ponces” (pimps) and police, whose worlds are hidden within a more often fictionalized London (Blodgett 1976:105).

In his novels City of Spades (1957) and Absolute Beginners (1959), Colin MacInnes, an enthusiast of music hall, pop songs and teenagers, offers visions of an inclusive, cosmopolitan London built upon the emergent popular cultural activities of the city’s African and Caribbean newcomers, yet threatened by economic hardship, police hostility and – in Absolute Beginners – race riot (McLeod 2004:27).

In this paper I will be dealing with the novel Absolute Beginners. It is about a young man who lives in the 1950s. As already mentioned, the story takes place in London and this is the subject of my paper, that is, the setting. What I attempt to find out is how London is represented in the novel. Also, how the city is related to the characters, plot and story time? Does the author attach great importance to the setting or is the setting only a background in the novel? How does the setting influence the story’s plot and characters? This term paper deals with these and similar questions concerning London as a setting. But it also should overview the cultural background of the time period in which the story takes place. Also it is important in this context to answer the questions such as: what social, political or economic characteristics of this historical period might influence the story? I also would like to examine how the author himself is related to London and whether he refers to his own life in the novel. Therefore, there will be a chapter on this matter.

The representation of the city in the English novel of the present time is rather a neglected subject so far. The literary criticism was particularly concerned with the fictional city of the 19th and early 20th centuries. There are barely secondary sources on Colin MacInnes and his works, not to mention such sources that give attention to the representations of London in Absolute Beginners. One of the few is, for example, Michael Breuner, who is dealing in Hunger for place with representations of the setting in the London novels from the postwar period till the late 80s, among these is the novel Absolute Beginners, too. There are also some articles and reviews that I refer to and that are listed in the bibliography.

MacInnes remains largely overlooked in critical analyses of the postwar novel. Blake Morrison (1986), Harry Ritchie (1988), Deborah Philips and Ian Haywood (1988) all exclude MacInnes in their otherwise informative books on the literature of the 1950s, and he fails to get a mention in recent critical surveys of the postwar British novel […]. Two exceptions are Alan Sinfield and Steven Connor who both offer short but perceptive analyses of Absolute Beginners […] (Bentley 2003:149f).

However, it lacks in a treatment of the aspect “setting” in Absolute Beginners. This paper is an attempt to change it. In this regard, the novel will be analysed in detail from the viewpoint of space representation. But first I will go into some aspects that are also important in this context. Chapter 2 deals with the author, some facts will be given which could be relevant to Absolute Beginners. Chapter 3 is about the cultural background. Then, before I will examine the setting (chapter 5), there will be a short detour to chapter 4, which is about the novel as a whole, that is, what it is about and some other interesting facts (because the knowledge of the plot is important for the analysis). In the conclusion (chapter 6) all the results and findings will be summarised.

2. Notes on Author

2.1. Biography

Colin MacInnes (1914-1976) was born in South Kensington, London, into an upper-middle-class literary and artistic family. His father was a musician, his mother a writer.

MacInnes himself loved music, especially jazz, and wrote Sweet Saturday Night (1976), a historical account, out of his fascination with the English music-hall tradition. In 1917, when MacInnes was three years old, his mother left her husband, who was a heavy drinker. After her remarriage to an Australian soldier, she and her two sons immigrated to Australia in 1920. MacInnes attended Scotch College in Melbourne and enjoyed vacation trips to the prosperous sheep ranches which would later provide him with settings for his two Australian novels. In 1930, a few weeks after his mother had left her second husband, he followed her to England. He intended to spend just one year there and then return to study law in Australia. After a few months in London he went to Belgium instead; and he also travelled a lot throughout the continent. At seventeen he found employment with a British firm based in Brussels, where he remained until he was twenty-one. He spoke French almost exclusively and acquainted himself with French literature during these years, which he later deemed a “major influence” on his writing. He returned to England in 1936 to live in London’s bohemia and paint. From 1939 to 1945 he served in the British army.

He began to write seriously in 1945. Returning to London after demobilization he remained there for most of the rest of his life, never marrying. He wrote some 1500 radio scripts for the BBC in the next few years. By 1948 he had completed his first novel, To the Victors the Spoils. In the 1950s he started his highly successful career as a journalist which was to continue until his death and include publication in an impressive list of periodicals (Encounter, Guardian, Observer, the London and the New York Times etc). “As a significant journalist for a number of major publications and broadcaster for the BBC, he was an important anti-racist public figure during the 1950s and 1960s who attempted to challenge myths about newcomers” (McLeod 2004:43). He was living in racially mixed Stepney when, while least certain of his novelistic abilities, ironically enough he found his best fictional direction – social consciousness – and published the books which established his reputation as a novelist: the London novels. Three autonomous novels linked by a 1950s setting, they recreate worlds hidden within a more often fictionalized London, with great sympathy for social underlings. He also expressed his personal fascination with London in the interpretive text for photographer Erwin Fieger´s London, City of Any Dream (1962) (cf. Blodgett 1983: 482f). Although he loved London “[h]e maintained a sense of displacement in the city of his birth which he put down to his childhood abroad: ‘Born in London, but not reared there for so many vital years, my feeling for the city has perforce become that of an inside-outsider: everything in London is familiar; yet everything in it seems to me as strange’” (McLeod 2004:40). But, nevertheless,

MacInnes was excited by the changes he saw in London after the war and lived, sometimes perilously, among its new peoples, patronizing its liveliest cosmopolitan spaces. […] MacInnes embraced warmly African and Caribbean migration as firing London with a welcome vitality and as the latest stage in a longer history of arrivals fundamental to the life of the nation (McLeod 2004:41 ff).

He was especially interested in marginal groups of the society. This theme is present in his three novels, too. In each of the novel certain milieu is depicted. City of Spades conveys the experiences of a white man in a world of black immigrants. Mr. Love and Justice takes place in a world of vice squad and procurers, where boundaries between justice and breaking the law seem to melt. Finally, Absolute Beginners guides the reader to the ambience of teenagers. What these three novels have in common is a vivid and detailed portrayal of London and its districts, as well as well-informed description of a particular milieu.

Though he wrote several novels, MacInnes does not belong to the exponents of the literary mainstream. Only his London novels from the 1950s were widely spread. They are considered the peak level of his fictional work. Absolute Beginners is the most important and no doubt the most famous of these novels.

2.2. Intention

As it was already mentioned in the biography, Colin MacInnes was a journalist. In this respect, he always took great interest in the events in the world and especially in England. However, he decided to start a novelist career and wrote, thereupon, several novels. Of all his fictional works his London trilogy is the most read one. Though he did not really feel at home in the city, he, nevertheless, took London to his heart over the years. What he most loved about London was the vitality and diversity that, from his point of view, came from the new population groups (immigrants) with whom he often kept company. He was also interested in the youth scene, in various subcultures in particular. Exactly about such young people Absolute Beginners is about. It is quite obvious that MacInnes wanted to provide an insight into life of these people and also to depict the other side of London. Primarily, MacInnes was only interested in the youth scene, and, accordingly, had another conception of Absolute Beginners. He was already working on his novel as suddenly the riots began, so that he decided to include these incidents in Notting Hill in the plot only afterwards; so his story took an unexpected turn. There has been little written about this matter. MacInnes is one of the writers who paid attention to it. “No other novelist, Anglo-English or otherwise, has written about the Notting Hill riots in such depth as MacInnes (and so very soon after the event)” (Thomas 2005:315). So the reader not only becomes acquainted with youth subcultures but also with real events of that time. Therefore, many critics argue that his novels reflect his journalistic activity and that they are after all his further reports. But it is a topic of the chapter 2.3.


Excerpt out of 24 pages


Representations of London in Colin MacInnes’s "Absolute Beginners"
University of Paderborn  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
London in Literature: Selected Novels and Stories
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London, Representations of London, Colin MacInnes, Absolute Beginners
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Stasy Adams (Author), 2009, Representations of London in Colin MacInnes’s "Absolute Beginners", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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