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 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.∗
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...
(The entire section is 6,810 words.)