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 Times Literary Supplement
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...
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Pamela Hansford Johnson
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 against Johnny? Probably yes. Do we believe in Miss Pace and Mr Pew of the BBC? Well—in a Miss Pace and a Mr Pew. Are we refreshed by optimism in the thought that we have only to be kind and understanding and full of brotherhood for the problem of an increasing coloured population to sort itself out? No, we are not: and that is the strength of the book. Mr MacInnes sets out to show that understanding, in any deep and valuable sense, is pretty hard to come by, and that there are no cosy answers. He is not directing his book at Virginian Colonels, Dr Malan, or bridling landladies afraid of the contamination of the lavatory: he is directing it at those people who, having accepted the proposition that all men are created equal, have now to find...
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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 phenomenon that has become as established a London sight as the pigeons in Trafalgar Square—the Roman-suited, Spartan-shorn 'cats' who roam the jazz cellars and the Soho coffee bars, consuming gherkin-and-cream-cheese sandwiches and making derisive observations upon the world around them. Like City of Spades before it, Absolute Beginners is a first-class reporting job. Mr MacInnes has made an intense study of a generation that has more money, leisure and independence than any of its predecessors. The story is told by an 18-year-old boy in a riotous espresso patois that has beatnik, jazz slang, underworld jargon, Cockney, Yiddish, Charing Cross Road American, a lot of Salinger and a little of Gwyn Thomas among its ingredients. The...
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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 critical. (p. 34)
The central character is at once himself and his own limited but urgent critic. The double role splits him, as it splits the novel, which tries both to get at an individual and to comment, critically, upon a problem, through the individual. The intent is honorable, but the critical comment is weakened by the very character who is designed to make it. The ultimate effect is dubious, ambiguous—and admirably ambitious. (p. 35)
Richard Sullivan, "On Maturity's Doorsill, a Double Vision," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1960 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 13, 1960, pp. 34-5.
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John G. Fuller
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 strange and unpredictable moods and mores of a collection of adolescent Beats competently and sometimes wondrously. His wit is profuse and his satire biting. It's simply that you never really warm up to the blue-jeaned crowd of the protagonist and his friends….
If Mr. Macinnes were not so talented, the bothersome qualities of the book might not even be noticeable. As it is, one's expectations lunge far ahead of his fulfilment—and the net result is frustrating disappointment.
John G. Fuller, "Off-Beats," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1960 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLIII, No. 18, April 30, 1960, p. 37....
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[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 surprise and even shock many readers, but recent scandals have indicated that fiction's standard concept of the punctiliously honorable English policeman is largely fictional. MacInnes' thesis that all police, everywhere, are a sort of extra-legal secret society is extreme—but it makes a strong novelistic theme.
Anthony Boucher, "A Policeman's Lot," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 23, 1961, p. 36.
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[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 appearance. They speak so vividly to today's concerns—concerns that are as real in New York or Chicago as in London—and with so much more balance and understanding than most writers have brought to the kind of territory MacInnes explores that one cannot but marvel that they were all written ten or more years ago.
Each of the novels is set in the rumbling subworld—not really the murky depths of the underworld, nor yet the manufactured veneer of so-called swinging London—and each focuses on the lives of the big city's "outsiders."…
What raises these novels far above many of today's excursions on the wild side is that they are not simply elemental explosions of anger or social protest. Not that these...
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T. G. Rosenthal
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)
City of Spades is a beautifully worked out analysis of the racial conflict and its apparent insolubility. There are things that strike one as unsatisfactory on rereading the book in 1969, such as the inevitably dated references to monsters from the past, like Dr. Malan. MacInnes has, I think, an unfortunate tendency to give his characters facetious names: the wicked policeman, Inspector Purity, and the slightly shyster lawyer, Mr. Zuss Amor. But these are minor points. What makes this novel most readable is, apart from its stylistic felicity, the creation of London's Negro subculture…. MacInnes is highly expert about African food, clubs, landlords. But City of Spades, were it merely a sociological tract or a black (in terms of both color and...
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The Times Literary Supplement
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 zestful observation and engaging, farcical humour succeed in passing off the whole thing as truth and insight. Such an impression is surely a mistake. This virtuoso display of unknown worlds is sheer romantic fiction. The weight of minutely bizarre particulars, conjured up in Three Years to Play as racily as before, should strain the credulity of the reader who thinks twice. Mr. MacInnes has also extended elaborate but insubstantial plots at no inconsiderable length, and when something very like boredom intervenes, as in his new novel, the doubts begin to assemble menacingly.
Young Aubrey, just fourteen, is the son of an Epping Forest whore married to a besotted scholar. When his mother dies he ups and goes to London,...
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L. J. Davis
[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 of turning gold into lead, MacInnes proceeds to assemble a cast of remarkably promising characters, the vast majority of whom turn out to be crashing bores….
MacInnes appears to believe that it is possible to endow a character with qualities (shrewdness, mercy, intellect, etc.) simply by stating repeatedly that he has them, that humor is written by telling the reader how funny something is, and that to postulate a relationship between people is the same thing as proving it. The only logic the book possesses is imposed arbitrarily by the author from without, and although the characters are made to talk interminably in a kind of historical novelese, they completely fail to come alive. It is difficult to imagine a more...
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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 imaginative identification has stimulated the composing of these particular fictions by a journalist who has been plentifully around London and writes out of a felt sense of the peripheral lives encountered there. MacInnes has said that he has imagined his books out of the suggestibility of his experiences, not made a "factual survey" of a social theme in order to disguise it later as fiction. (p. 105)
Beside his personal involvement with his material, however, behind his London novels lies MacInnes's conviction that art should hold a mirror up to the circumambient reality, when a nation is going through such evident social change as England did in the fifties. (p. 106)
MacInnes, who has written other,...
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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 to see the other point of view, to be less prejudiced towards the outsiders, the deviants, the aliens and inferiors. All the unpopular groups must be tolerated or, at least, understood—teenagers, crooks, drug-takers, blacks, corrupt policemen, gays and rapists. The trouble is that one feels a need for more discrimination here. To "tolerate" or "try to understand" someone is to imply that there is something wrong with him—and there is obviously nothing wrong with being young or foreign or black. Sometimes MacInnes seems to be arguing with an imaginary fool.
D.A.N. Jones, "A Boy Scout in Bohemia," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The...
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[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 section on 'Crime and the Law' is reached, MacInnes is in sparkling form. He takes a dip with 'Sex and Love', but picks up again on the final 'Miscellaneous'. To my mind MacInnes felt most at home in London and the world during the 1950s. The later Fifties persisted, in atmosphere, until 1963, after which date MacInnes's genius falters. His previous book of essays, England, Half English is the better stuff.
As MacInnes chronicles every new development in English life, what stands out is his optimism…. Perhaps it was as well for MacInnes that he died when he did, for it would have been painful to see him recanting. His lyrical picture of a new London is a pleasure to read for itself alone, and MacInnes would perhaps be...
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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 of City of Spades and the sententious, schematic narrative of Mr Love and 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...
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