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 states the social problems of London's Coloured population must not be allowed to obscure the fact that he has written not a sociological treatise but a first-rate novel, exciting, entertaining and often moving. People and places are observed with sharpness and economy. Few writers seem equally at home in a Soho nightclub or a court of law but Mr. MacInnes never lets a doubt creep into the reader's mind. So convincing is he that even his account of police brutality and corruption sounds unpleasantly authentic. In Johnny Macdonald Fortune, generous, caddish, affectionate and selfish, the author has achieved a truly heroic figure. Montgomery Pew, one feels, would be much more at home in one of Mr. Anthony Powell's novels, but he makes an admirable foil. There is not a dull line in the book.
"At Odds with Society," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1957; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2899, September 20, 1957, p. 557.∗
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...
(This entire section contains 291 words.)
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 out what all men are like.
Pamela Hansford Johnson, "New Novels: 'City of Spades'," in New Statesman (© 1957 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LIV, No. 1384, September 21, 1957, p. 362.
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 style is highly effective for putting across teenage attitudes. (pp. 283-84)
For most of the way this novel has no plot to speak of. It doesn't need one. The fresh look of things through these young eyes is enough. In the last forty pages, however, Mr MacInnes suddenly gets excited about the Notting Hill race riots and the failure of the authorities, or top cats, to make any firm stand. Here the book sags dangerously. It loses its strong contemporary touch and becomes merely newsy. The whole scene, in any case, would have been more at home in City of Spades. It is a bad ending to a good novel.
There is a lot of Holden Caulfield in Mr MacInnes's hero, as there must be in any accurately-described metropolitan adolescent. Inevitably, the novel will be compared with The Catcher in the Rye, and inevitably, it must come off second best. For all Mr MacInnes's observation and penetration, Absolute Beginners remains a novel written from the outside looking in. He gets into the teenage mind, but not into the teenage soul. But the important thing is that this novel is worth five hundred pamphlets, reports or summer-school proceedings on the subject of British youth. The other important thing is that it breezes like a waft of chlorophyll through the times we live in. It is a brilliant documentary, and nearly a brilliant novel. (p. 284)
Keith Waterhouse, "Cats among the Pigeons," in New Statesman (© 1959 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LVIII, No. 1486, September 5, 1959, pp. 283-84.
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.
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.
[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.
[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 qualities are missing in MacInnes; few books contain more devastating condemnations of police practices and attitudes. But the novels also reflect an insistent realization of the joy of life and the process of discovery that is its bloodstream, a trait that surfaces doggedly in MacInnes's characters even when they are struggling down there in the darker depths of adversity. The most surprising elements in stories set in such a milieu are their romanticism, their humor, and their warmth.
These qualities are perhaps most easily seen in City of Spades, certainly the best of the three novels. It captures the tempo and the texture not just of the language but of the lives of black men in postwar London. In Johnny Fortune from Lagos, MacInnes has created an unforgettable, indomitable character who breathes the affirmations of life from every pore….
If in City of Spades MacInnes's identification and sympathy with the new blacks and his understanding of them are little short of miraculous, his feat in Absolute Beginners of seeing the world as teen-agers do is no less astonishing. Only the totally undiscerning could read these two books without having his comprehension enlarged.
Mr. Love and Justice seems to me the least successful of the three novels. While it plays skillfully with the title themes and their interrelationships, it too often sounds like a textbook for the beginner in the vice world….
What finally gives real depth and dimension to the "outsiders" who people these novels is their other, large hero: The trilogy is essentially a sustained poem to London, "the ugly old indifferent capital" that "encourages the presence of such people" and, "by its very incoherent indifference, enables them to discover one another more freely and happily than elsewhere …"…
This reviewer has worked or lived in many of the areas of London that these novels describe. No novelist I know, and, for that matter, no newsman or sociologist more realistically captures the feel, the smell, the essence of that dirty, old, fascinating city and the impact it has on the people who live in it.
Eric Moon, "New Blacks in Notting Hill," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LII, No. 6, February 8, 1969, p. 25.
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 art) documentary would be a bore. MacInnes has turned his considerable gifts of observation into a highly intelligent, witty and enjoyable book….
[This first book in The London Novels of Colin MacInnes] does look forward in different ways to the other two. The basic theme of City of Spades is color, and the hero of Absolute Beginners approaches the threshold of adulthood through the experience of the Notting Hill race riots of the late fifties. Absolute Beginners is a celebration of the teenage thing, but there is about it none of that rosy tinted allure that always creeps in when middle-aged writers try vicariously to recapture their youth. MacInnes's teenagers include a 16-year-old pimp, a 19-year-old pornographic photographer, a narcissistic homosexual and some totally repellant thugs. Not, on the surface, the best raw material for a literary celebration of those key figures of the fifties, discovered alike by parasitic journalists, who wrote about them and foisted on them their own mythology, and cold-eyed businessmen who recognized in them not their own youth, lost or otherwise, but their role as the big spenders in the "you've never had it so good" society.
The race riots are superbly described, not in terms of blood and guts, but in terms of frightened individuals, of bullying groups filled with bravado when in the majority, but incapable of fighting when equal; in terms of groups of Negro professional men, born in England, turned in upon themselves and terrified for their property and their lives…. At a lighter level, MacInnes has caught the way the young, or at least the young of the fifties, think, speak and dress, with an accurate affection, untinged by irony or patronage…. And the anonymous hero, the absolute beginner, preserves, amidst his pornographic photographs and his contact with the cynical adults who patronize him, his own integrity, so that, in MacInnes's eyes, he represents the lively, alert part of England against the grey, bourgeois mediocrity with which he is surrounded.
While City of Spades and Absolute Beginners are written with serious intent, they are full of wit and humor. Mr. Love and Justice, on the other hand is the heavyweight of the trio. (p. 24)
In part, this is a novel of betrayal…. Or, rather, it is a novel about the refusal to betray and the prices exacted for that refusal. MacInnes is, in this book at least, a stern moralist but nothing is black and white. The pimp is leading a sordid and wholly parasitic existence, yet he is, by any standards worth having, honest, decent, brave and loyal. The policeman is also brave, honest and loyal, at the same time, he is quite prepared, in order to raise some quick cash, to follow suspected homosexuals, get them to importune him and then blackmail them. Both Love and Justice are betrayed by, respectively, a fellow pimp and a fellow-bent detective. There is no honor among thieves.
Again, in this novel, MacInnes shows a formidable expertise; this time in the techniques of both pimps and policemen, brilliantly exploring the shadowy line that only barely divides criminal from detective. Any good detective would make a good criminal, and vice-versa, since they are the only sections of the community that wholly understand each other. If one has to say which of the three books is the best then, undoubtedly, it is the third.
All three are not only different in quality, but radically different in kind. Yet all three are linked by their common location, a location which is more than a matter of geography. From Mayfair to the East End docks, from West Indian drinking clubs to all night cafés run by Pakistanis, from the roofs of big department stores, with panoramic views over the whole city, to dingy alleys in Notting Hill with no view at all, MacInnes knows and loves London's life and topography and, with great cunning and literary skill, has woven them into the fabric of these three novels. (pp. 24-5)
T. G. Rosenthal, "A Sense of the Great City," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1969 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 160, No. 7, February 15, 1969, pp. 23-5.
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, to seek his sex and his fortune among the punks of the stews and their masters…. Intrigue, plot and counterplot, treason, coney-catching and murder are all there, in a wild, swashbuckling romance which, in its anxiety to miss nothing, far exceeds the lengths to which an ingenious pastiche of this kind was worth taking.
Mr. MacInnes has spared himself no pains to catch the bawdy essence of this world. His Elizabethan prose, under Aubrey's pen, is robustly convincing most of the time and, at its best, terse and colourful in the manner of his masters. His people are a faithful gallery of rogues and sweet cheats. But the energetic contrivance leads him on, and on, to a point where one asks whether all this invention was worth it after all. Violence is never lacking, but tenderness and understanding are, and the outcome is a novel where intelligence is strangely squandered on pointless ingenuity.
"The Bawdy Limit," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3556, April 23, 1970, p. 456.
[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 botched performance, or one so ridiculously inferior to the sources of its inspiration; and, as a bit of self-indulgence, it is perfectly intolerable.
L. J. Davis, "Less Than Bardic," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1971 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), January 17, 1971, p. 2.
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, less socially conscious novels, wanted the London ones to be about "life and England here and now" because it seemed to him in the fifties that too little English art was doing anything except cater to the proclivity of the Englishman for playing the ostrich…. If he himself intends to give us some sense of what life is like in a few social subworlds, each of his novels also includes an exposure of a social wrong: the racial prejudice of the police and courts in City of Spades, and then of Englishmen themselves—very sorry they ever allowed unrestricted immigration—in Absolute Beginners; police corruption in Mr. Love and Justice. Fortunately, only in Absolute Beginners does that more militant purpose significantly weaken the book's structure.
Although each novel has topical concerns to pursue, MacInnes has sufficient command of incident, characterization, and dialogue (at which he is especially good; one character's speech will not be confused with another's) to realize his "information" dramatically. Although accused by some reviewers of being merely a sociologist in the house of fiction, MacInnes thrives on his intimate knowledge of locale. The mediocrity of his non-London novels suggests that his feeling for the "here and now" of London life released his creative powers. Each London novel undoubtedly belongs to its particular time and little place, but also pursues a timeless theme; and the representative characters at the same time are individualized beings, whose own quirks determine their responses in a situation. We may be picking up knowledge of how it goes in London neighborhoods; his characters are discovering, or rediscovering, themselves. No doubt Mr. Love and Justice includes more set speeches and outright villains than is healthy for a novel, although it has compensatory strengths. City of Spades, with its memorably ebullient Johnny Fortune, generous and selfish, wise and foolish, and its firmly controlled indignation over social injustice, cannot be faulted. (pp. 106-07)
Johnny's forthright philosophy of "Our blood's the same colour…. Everything that comes out of all human body is the same colour" … is difficult not to admire—and is ultimately MacInnes's plea for human brotherhood. MacInnes obviously does not blink at the practical realities of encounters between people of such differing cultures as the Africans (or West Indians, who figure much less in the narrative) and the English. (p. 111)
Absolute Beginners returns to the subject of racial prejudice, though its central social topic is the teenage phenomenon of the fifties, and its prevailing milieu is that of London's independent, money-earning teenagers of the less respectable sort. The second London novel is a coming-of-age tale, whose climactic incident is the Notting Hill race riots of 1958. For the unnamed narrator who turns nineteen on that day, the shock of the riots' viciousness and of Englishmen's passive acceptance of them is an ordeal by disillusionment which initiates him into manhood. (p. 112)
In the quasi-allegorical Mr. Love and Justice, only the two twenty-six-year-old main characters have names: Frankie Love, merchant seaman, just turned ponce, and Edward Justice, policeman, now a probationer on the vice squad. Their names identify their social functions as purveyors of debased goods, not their convictions or existential values…. Frankie believes in the reality of a justice which transcends men's fumbling efforts. Edward Justine, however, believes only in the reality of love which can be "perfect and entire."… As the novel progresses, the antagonists merge into each other as Mr. Love and Justice, each, when their paths crossed, having revealed his capacity for living by both principles. (p. 115)
The minor issue in City of Spades of police honor now becomes a major one, and the vice officers play the Vice. While MacInnes has no illusions about poncing, he has less use for the clay-footed national idol of respectability—"an Englishman's most cherished possession"—or for the translation of respectability into laws intended as "the licensed keeper of our own bad conscience."… The ponce becomes the societal scapegoat for whose situation, if not calling, MacInnes has sympathy. (pp. 115-16)
In all of MacInnes's London novels, social forces and issues come second to the individual person defining himself; he refuses to let us be deceived by classes and categories because they cannot quite contain the human. Though he knows much about cultural change and social inequity, he prefers to inform us as a novelist: by setting distinctively individual characters in motion in sharply painted particular settings. His London novels—and certainly the clear-sighted City of Spades—are likely to tell us more about mid-century English subworlds than would any documentaries. Being well-realized fictions, they may also make us more conscious of contemporary life elsewhere. (p. 118)
Harriet Blodgett, "City of Other Worlds: The London Novels of Colin MacInnes," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1976), Vol. XVIII, No. 1, 1976, pp. 105-18.
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 Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4011, February 8, 1980, p. 132.
[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 pleased to know that I regard him as a fiction writer first and foremost, and not a 'documentary novelist', a term he hated. His better 'documentary' essays read like snippets of fiction, and I think that the reason his novel Absolute Beginners made such an impact on me as a teenager was because its youth-about-town hero spoke in a 'persiflage' style that evoked the dream worlds of my childhood hero, P. G. Wodehouse….
MacInnes never realised how unusual he was and, although the reader would do better to open City of Spades or one of the other novels, to read these essays is to gain an insight into a most curious and original mind.
Roy Kerridge, "London, Half Londoner," in The Spectator (© 1980 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 244, No. 7921, May 3, 1980, p. 16.
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 on to the confident, consistent grotesque of his model. MacInnes often seemed no more comfortable in these exotic idioms than in the Standard English he had retreated from.
Another point of difference from Dickens is of course that in MacInnes's fiction eccentric languages tend to invade the text at large—an effect comparable to making Major Bagstock the narrator of Dombey and Son….
MacInnes insisted that the idioms of City of Spades and Absolute Beginners were his own invention, which makes them additionally cipher-like. It is not hard to see why his readers might have assumed otherwise—that is, that the real speech of black Africans and West Indians, and of teenagers, was being copied. All three London novels seem to be extremely concerned to transmit various kinds of information. The Absolute Beginner is continually 'explaining about' such things as jazz clubs. Montgomery Pew's story is, in a very downright way, a series of lessons about London life. The documentary intention, though MacInnes rejected the adjective, is certain. And the idioms, while imaginary, were meant to be appropriate for an existing section of the community….
Two different kinds of writer, journalist and fantasist, co-existed in MacInnes and the London novels were, in varying degrees, an attempt to gratify the needs of both. The journalist in him contributed one of the great strengths of these books: their understanding of the beastliness of the British national character. MacInnes saw through the clichés about British individuality and good sense to the abiding reality that Britons are at once peculiarly aggressive and peculiarly deferential to authority….
MacInnes was proud of his insights about British life, and he worked them into formulations which he liked to repeat. Reading around in MacInnes tends to be like having a drink once too often with a man whose epigrams you had hitherto thought were unstudied. The sententious side of MacInnes came out increasingly in the London novels, in inverse ratio to the imaginary idioms of MacInnes the fantasist. The last of them, Mr Love and Justice, is full of philosophising….
Mr Love and Justice also confirms what the first two novels might suggest: that the emphasis of MacInnes's interest in blacks, teenagers and so forth fell very oddly and restrictively. He was fascinated by the practical workings of the criminal law, by coppers and courtrooms, but not in proportion to the importance of these things in the life of the city. Mr Love and Justice reads in places like a manual on dealing with the police and repeats at greater length, more solemnly, advice on such matters as lying in court already offered in City of Spades. Wherever his eye rested he looked for the illicit and forbidden (and the idioms he invented are mainly slangs of various sorts). It is no exaggeration to say that he was obsessed by the notion of the pimp. The motif first took the form of black men running white prostitutes, but it was the pimping—traditionally one of the most disapproved of occupations—that interested MacInnes, not the blackness. The theme detached itself from that of race and became the central topic of Mr Love and Justice. It was still cropping up in the last novel MacInnes published before his death, Out of the Garden. Pimps tend to be the only males in his fiction whose sex life is dealt with. Heterosexuality is thus transformed into a version of homosexuality, permitting what was clearly an important displacement of feeling.
MacInnes might have created more satisfying novels if he had gone further down the road which his instinct for the forbidden opened to him. He should have been more thoroughly an outsider, in the phraseology of the period. Unfortunately he hankered after the cool, reasonable, Orwellian subversiveness, and he wasn't at ease with it—any more than he was at ease with Orwell's plain English. City of Spades, in which exotic languages are most vigorous and consistent, is by far the best of the London novels. In the end, it may not 'explain' that much about London life, but it communicates something just as interesting in its naughty, amoral fantasy (and it has the power of a dream) of BBC editors and civil servants being turned on to sex, drink and brawling by black acquaintances. Naughtiness is just what is missing in Absolute Beginners. The hero makes a living from pornographic photographs and mixes with lesbians, crooks and, inevitably, pimps, but he is still Esther Summerson: teetotal and opposed to drugs (sounding on this subject like a trendy parson—'the big kick you should try to get by how you live life sober'), and virginal. The characters in Mr Love and Justice are naughtier, but by now without much relish. The order in which MacInnes wrote these novels is in some respects the opposite of that which might be guessed. Although he became increasingly famous as they were published, he seems in the process to have lost his nerve.
Michael Mason, "MacInnes's London" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, October 16 to November 5, 1980, p. 14.