What we're reading: Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes

For the adventure issue, four of our writers shared reflections on books set in the very place they read them. Frances Ambler fell in love with London decades after Colin MacInnes did so in Absolute Beginners, but found very little had changed in the years since its publication--the city streets still paved with grime and gold.


Frances Ambler on Absolute Beginners

Written in 1958, and set over that year’s hot summer, Absolute Beginners shows London’s stiff upper lip and seedy underbelly through the eyes of a 19-year-old photographer. As a fresh arrival to the city, the book captures the thrill of experiencing London for the first time. 

Spending hours mentally cataloguing the style of those strutting the streets around me, I loved the book’s descriptions of “grey pointed alligator casuals” paired with a “pink neon pair of ankle crepe nylon-stretch”, and the city cool of its slang and its coffee bars. I escaped into music and I discovered that in the 1950s it was jazz clubs where “not a soul cares what your class is, or what your race is, or what your income, or if you’re boy, or girl, or bent or versatile, or what you are – so long as you dig the scene and can behave yourself, and have left all that crap behind you, too, when you come in the jazz club door”.

The city gave me space to be different. In Absolute Beginners, the unnamed narrator has left his family’s home in a run-down corner of Pimlico for an even more dilapidated bedsit in Notting Hill. His neighbours are those who are on the fringes of society in the 1950s – whether
for reasons of sexuality or race – who can find a relative liberty amid the poverty. Except, as violently demonstrated by the final section set in the Notting Hill race riots, London isn’t always that tolerant. 

I’m amazed how Absolute Beginners – at almost 60 years old – still captures London. It’s always shifting – like the narrator, I find myself marvelling at yet more “big new high blocks of glass-built flats” going up – fed by a constant influx of people. Even now, after over a decade of living in the city, I sometimes catch my breath at the cinerama of the Thames – where the “show’s never, never twice the same” – and the realisation that I call this place home. I’m with the narrator as he affirms, “My god, I love this city, horrible though it may be, and never ever want to leave it, come what it may send me”.


Image: Liz Seabrook, Words: Frances Ambler

To read about literary adventures from Canada to the Cairngorms (via Fitzgerald's French Riviera), and find out why on earth we were reading 50 Shades of Grey in 2016, grab a copy of Issue 31 here