Colin MacInnes Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Pamela Hansford Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Keith Waterhouse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Richard Sullivan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

John G. Fuller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Anthony Boucher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.)

Eric Moon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.)

T. G. Rosenthal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 924 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

L. J. Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.)

Harriet Blodgett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

D.A.N. Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Roy Kerridge

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.)

Michael Mason

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)