MacInnes, Colin (Vol. 23)
Colin MacInnes 1914–1976
English novelist and essayist.
MacInnes's fiction often concerns problems of race, youth, and vice in contemporary London. His London trilogy, City of Spades, Absolute Beginners, and Mr. Love and Justice, is noted for its penetrating sociological observations and its careful rendering of idiomatic speech.
The recent publication of MacInnes's Out of the Way: Later Essays has brought new attention to his work as an essayist and has renewed interest in his fiction.
(See also CLC, Vol. 4 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72, Vols. 65-68 [obituary].)
The city of which Mr. MacInnes writes [in City of Spades] is London and the Spades are its Coloured inhabitants…. Mr. MacInnes tells his story through his two principal characters, Montgomery Pew, a genially irresponsible young man who has drifted briefly into the job of Assistant Welfare Officer at the Colonial Office, and Johnny Macdonald Fortune, his earliest client, a newly arrived student from Lagos of compelling charm and magnificent physique. The technical difficulties of constructing a story to be told by two narrators and the occasional irritations are well compensated for. The method enables us to see the Spade as he appears to himself and to a sympathetic Jumble [white man (i.e. John Bull)] at one and the same time. The converse, though true, is not so important because Spades are not so interested in Jumbles or so ready to bear with their unfamiliar processes of thought and emotion. The author is the last man to peddle an easy panacea for the problems arising from the contact of the two races. The theme of his book is that the difference of character, of mentality, of social code is far deeper than most men of good will would like to think. He loves the Spades and obviously prefers their cheerful, courteous fecklessness to the drab prudence of the Jumbles. But he is too candid not to admit the misery and degradation attendant on hemp-smoking, gambling and sexual promiscuity.
The honesty with which Mr. MacInnes...
(The entire section is 403 words.)
City of Spades is a perfectly straight, unaffected story about a cheerful, bounding Nigerian boy and his life and downfall in London. The lodging-houses, the clubs, the pubs, the whole perimeter-life of a coloured community, are presented by a truthful expert to the innocent eye…. This novel has no trace of artfulness, but much art in the presentation of the various types. Johnny Fortune may seem a little too bright and shiny, Mr Karl Marx Bo and Mr Ronson Lighter a little too comic to be true; yet the attitude of the other characters towards them gives them validity.
This is a good, clear piece of story-telling with a neat and acid ending. Would the cards have been stacked quite so hard...
(The entire section is 291 words.)
Although the decade is almost over, there are few novelists writing about the late nineteen-fifties…. Most writers seem to have stopped taking notes around 1952, when the tall buildings began to go up and the English character took on a new, scrubbed look.
Mr Colin MacInnes is one of the few authors I have come across who has any idea what these hurrying years are all about. [Absolute Beginners] sings with the vitality and restlessness that is seeping out of the glass skyscrapers and the crowded streets. (p. 283)
Mr MacInnes is helped in capturing an elusive atmosphere by the fact that he is writing about the teenagers who are so much a part of it. He is describing a...
(The entire section is 489 words.)
An ambiguous 18-year-old is the first-person narrator of "Absolute Beginners." And because the story he tells is so insistently his own it is an ambiguous story, with some of the blurred effect which always attends a novel that tries to go two ways at once.
Not that there is any blur in the phrasing. Verbally, this is fresh, bright, exciting work. Structurally, it is sound and solid. But the narrator is always simultaneously two persons. One is a sharp young hoodlum who declares, "Yes, man, come whatever, this last year of the teenage dream I was out for kicks and fantasy." The other is a precocious juvenile philosopher whose values, though grounded only in emotion, are energetically moral and...
(The entire section is 220 words.)
For a good many moments in "Absolute Beginners" …, Colin Macinnes's novel of modern London teen-agers, you find yourself thinking that here, at last, is another Salinger, another "Catcher in the Rye." But just when you are ready to conclude this, the jazz-ridden, motor-scooter, coffee-house language begins to pale, and the novel evaporates strangely and regrettably into an unfeeling tape recording, where obscurity takes over in place of subtlety, incantation moves in to replace candid observation, and a frenetic jangling substitutes for effervescence.
It is not that Mr. Macinnes is untalented or that his ear is not sharply tuned to the rhythm of the teen-age mind and the London scene. He recreates...
(The entire section is 212 words.)
[Events and relationships are] a mite too self-consciously arranged and allegorical in Colin MacInnes' novel. "Mr. Love and Justice" is actually a morality play in which none of the other characters has a name, and Mr. Love, in the profession of love, proves essentially concerned with justice, while Mr. Justice, in the profession of justice, is primarily motivated by love.
Yet Mr. MacInnes writes so well that one forgives such obtrusive diagraming. A modern Hogarth in depicting the lowest strata of London, a Daumier in attacking the hypocrisy of the law, he creates living characters (even the nameless ones) in vivid and natural dialogue.
His cynical view of the London police may...
(The entire section is 181 words.)
[The] fiction of Colin MacInnes has remained virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic.
The three novels that make up [The London Novels of Colin MacInnes], and which have taken about a decade to cross the big divide, may change all that. Many an American reader, discovering the humanity and vitality of these explorations of the London scene, will regret having had to wait so long for them. But the delay serves one useful purpose: The passage of time emphasizes the unusual quality of these novels. They read with the immediacy of newspaper reportage, yet they clearly have the added dimension of art, for not a word seems to have dated in the slightest over the years since their first...
(The entire section is 615 words.)
City of Spades is MacInnes's third novel, but his first good one. His To the Victors the Spoils was about the European war and, unfortunately, contrived to communicate the boredom of war in a way that the author did not perhaps intend. His next, June in her Spring, a touching, but slight, account of young love blighted in philistine Australia, reads, although it was published second, like the classic first novel of adolescent agony. Consequently, when City of Spades appeared, one greeted it with a double pleasure; that of reading a good book and that of seeing a talent one had previously believed in, without adequate evidence, come to fruition. (p. 23)
(The entire section is 924 words.)
In many ways Mr. Colin MacInnes's area has always been something one might call the romance of manners. Whether he is exploring London's coloured world, investigating teenage sub-cultures, venturing into Stevenson country or—as he is doing [in Three Years to Play]—re-creating the Elizabethan underworld, the method has been fundamentally the same. Each time an entire section of society, unfamiliar or misunderstood, is given us in authentic and exuberant detail, all its bizarre customs gaily re-enacted. And into this setting he introduces a requisite range of odd, lively, essentially sketchy characters whose unlikely escapades graft fantasy on to historical or sociological fact. Frequently, his shrewd and...
(The entire section is 402 words.)
[In Three Years to Play Colin MacInnes] has attempted to bring off a major Shakespearean tour de force, and while there is certainly no harm in trying, his effort is crippled from the outset by MacInnes's apparently incurable tendency to fancy himself rather more clever by half than he actually is. It is hard to recall a novel in which the author's delusion of his own excellence is both so apparent and so widely at variance with reality; one gets the feeling that he is waving to himself from every page….
The setting is London, at the end of the sixteenth century, a period of religious turmoil when the air was thick with plot and counterplot, both real and imagined. In a virtuoso performance...
(The entire section is 294 words.)
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. Sympathetic to social underlings, he explores their worlds neither sentimentally nor sensationally; he is thoughtful, satirical, and imaginative—primarily a novelist in command of his fictions rather than a sociologist parading his data.
An act of...
(The entire section is 1009 words.)
The publication of [Out of the Way: Later Essays] by Colin MacInnes (1914–76) reflects a feeling that he may be remembered for his essays in the weekly journals no less than for his novels. He belongs, we like to think, in the tradition of London hacks, "critics of the arts and society", represented by Johnson and Hazlitt, Orwell and Connolly….
[The essays] deal with Gurkhas and Chinese in Britain, with going bail and getting "nicked", rape, gaming-houses and police harassment of blacks. MacInnes is always acting as defending counsel. He hates condemnatory generalizations….
In his essays MacInnes presents himself as a Standard Englishman trying to persuade his fellows...
(The entire section is 228 words.)
[In the essays collected in Out of the Way] there is no trace of 'middle-class prejudices',… [for] the generosity [Colin MacInnes] showed to anyone in difficulties shines through unconsciously….
MacInnes set high standards, and I was not surprised to read, in 'A Kind of Religion', that he was as close to being a Christian as makes no difference. Although he vaguely regarded himself as a Man of the Left, many of MacInnes's essays seem steeped in religious and also patriotic feeling….
[The] book gets off to a shaky start with a long essay on James Baldwin that is almost as turgid as that writer's prose. From then on, the essays improve slowly, until by the time the...
(The entire section is 380 words.)
With his three London novels [City of Spades, Mr Love and Justice, and Absolute Beginners] 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...
(The entire section is 1076 words.)
MacInnes, Colin (Vol. 4)
MacInnes, Colin 1914–
MacInnes is an English novelist and essayist. His mature fiction, eloquent and exuberant, is concerned with youth and racial problems in contemporary London.
Colin MacInnes is regarded as a sort of voice of the displaced, downtrodden, or misunderstood—the rebel (real or would-be) with a cause. 'Low life' may be regarded as the subject-matter of City of Spades, Mr. Love and Justice and Absolute Beginners, but there is no attempt to exploit the sensational in the manner of the popular novelist. City of Spades avoids showing Negroes as either brutish, innocent or quaint; it is moving and indignant in its presentation of racialism in the London of the fifties, but it is not merely propaganda. The aim of Mr. Love and Justice is to show what the world of the prostitute and the ponce is really like and to examine the conventional image of an incorrupt British police force. Absolute Beginners is sympathetic to the culture-patterns of teenagers. MacInnes knows the underside of London life, but, strangely, he does not seem to have a sharp ear for its language. Being unable to record faithfully the idioms of Negroes, small criminals and adolescents, he makes up dialects for them out of his head—at least, this is the impression one has when reading him. For all that, his work is psychologically accurate, very enlightening, and full of a real (and quite unsentimental) compassion.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; copyright © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 146-47.
[One] characteristic of [MacInnes's] fiction [is] the focus on outsiders—blacks, the suspect young, those outside the law, and police who twist the law to construct the cage of what they consider to be justice.
One reason for MacInnes's penchant for walks on the wild side is his ceaseless curiosity. He gets around. And it is especially a curiosity about how people spend rather than hoard their lives…. There is the thrust of anger in his work, particularly in his accounts of police practices. But coursing through each of the novels is a highly sensate appreciation of being alive, of being able to react spontaneously, whether with rage or tenderness. In writing of the 'curiously dancing quality' in MacInnes's work, a British critic adds that MacInnes 'can't help praising life.'
But another reason for the frequency of outsiders in his fiction is a moral concern. Most who are not outsiders acquire considerable skills in what the American social critic Joseph Lyford calls auto-anesthesia—the ability to exclude from all but the most surface levels of consciousness those who are not like themselves…. Around them seethes a great flux of bizarre social groupings through which they proceed, like tourists traversing the casbah, unseeing and unaware….
Oh, they read and see some of what's 'really happening', but with the paper thrown away and the television set switched off, their world is still all they really know. One of MacInnes's purposes, then, is to inform. But if he were to use only documentary techniques, he too could be quickly switched off. By getting inside diverse outsiders through an act of the imagination, however, MacInnes makes it much more difficult for his readers to engage in auto-anesthesia….
As a novelist, not a documentator, he created characters who, I expect, kept surprising him, for they are more than social indicators. Strongly rooted in a particular time and place, they took on their own lives.
I am not claiming a position for Colin MacInnes in the pantheon of novelists, but I do submit that he has created a vivid trilogy of London life [City of Spades, Absolute Beginners, and Mr. Love and Justice] that transcends documentary and all other categories. Zestful and tough, it is self-sustaining in that 'perennial battle between life and living death.'
Nat Hentoff, "Introduction" (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1969 by Nat Hentoff) to The London Novels of Colin MacInnes, Farrar, Straus, 1969, pp. vii-xii.
Colin MacInnes, assiduous annotator of contemporary scenes, has always been determined not to be constrained by the frustrations of real documentation. But exciting as is the licence to make cases you don't have to keep fuelled by hard evidence, it's a dangerous freedom to claim for any form of writing, even the novel. So, though Out of the Garden is a heady concoction that actually confirms some of one's worst fears and prejudices about trends in current English politics, its own tendentiousness can be perturbing….
The political emphases of the … theme [of Out of the Garden] come across with admirable clarity. Alas, however, the novelist isn't happy with this abundant explicitness. The characters' names must join forces with the title to spell things out more loudly. It's just tolerable, I suppose, that the Adamses' juvenile delinquent offspring should be nicknamed Kik and Mas, after the Kikuyu and Masai peoples (their father fought in Kenya) to underscore the observation about Britain becoming the last colony.
But the novel's point about a class-ridden displeasure garden, in which the ex-officer still needs and exploits his exsergeant is not just clear but overstated….
Still, this is an occasionally riveting read, with incidental sharp exposures of modish foibles and follies liberally dolloped in for good measure. And it's also—given the necessary caveat about tendentiousness—a set of serious reflections on the relationship of the military to social order in Great Britain.
Valentine Cunningham, "Displeasure Garden," in The Listener, March 7, 1974, p. 311.
Out of the Garden, Colin MacInnes's new novel, is a brilliant treatise on the role of the military in our post-colonial period, using the analytical techniques of Marxism to draw reverse political conclusions. It is enjoyable, intellectually stimulating and almost a good novel to boot. MacInnes's social analysis is appealing not so much for its inherent plausibility as for the logical charm that fresh concepts have when they are cogently but slightly perversely systematised. He is perhaps less perceptive about people.
This failing is compounded by the method of approach. The novel is cast almost entirely in conversation, which at its most extreme becomes Socratic, just a chance for the author to pour his own effervescent ideas through the mouths of his characters. There is, however, such an imperative rhythm to the dialogue that even those most resistant to the novel of ideas will find themselves carried along. This is all the more remarkable considering that the tiny fraction of the writing that is not speech is just sophisticated stage direction.
As well as being a repository of ideas the tale doubles as an extended biblical metaphor: the garden of original guilt being Otranto Towers, the ruined stately home that aristocratic Captain Rattler and his beautiful platonic companion Aspen plan to open as cover for a military putsch and general gun-running. Playing proletarian innocents against these hissing class enemies are Rattler's former Sergeant, Adams, his wife Evie and their two wayward, engaging sons. And, as a thumping afterthought, Evie's card-carrying, mechanical hard-liner of a father is called Angell. There the metaphor should have withered. One salutes the author for working within the discipline of a form but it is a pity that his rather endearing characters should have become trapped in the structure without a chance of growth…. Fortunately, the metaphor becomes obtrusive only at the end. Before that a parade of theorems dressed up as witticisms enchants and convinces.
Timothy Mo, in New Statesman, March 15, 1974, p. 370.