John McLeod


Forty years have passed since the publication of Colin Macinnes's account of the Netting Hill riots in his novel Absolute Beginners (1959). Macinnes was a peculiar kind of Londoner. Born in South Kensington in August 1914, he moved to Australia with his family in 1919 and he scarcely remembered the London of his childhood. He returned to England briefly in the 1930s before seeing action in the Second World War, and eventually settled in Central London in the 1950s, spending most of his time in Soho, or in Tottenham Court Road and Cable Street.1 His enthusiasm for the changing faces of London in the 1950s, brought about by the birth of the 'teenager' and the vibrant new cultural 'scene' that arrived with postwar migrants from Africa and the Caribbean, was severely tested by the riots of August and September 1958, of which Absolute Beginners is perhaps the only novelistic representation. Through the eyes of an unnamed teenage narrator (Macinnes's finest fictional creation), we watch the new London - youthful, cosmopolitan, multicultural, tolerant of different sexualities- disintegrate under the pressure of older, less soluble divisions of 'race' and class. Set in the fictional enclave of 'Napoli' in West London, Macinnes's novel took a long hard look at the new demi-monde and was critical of what it saw. Macinnes seemed to lament that the Utopian possibilities promised by emerging, infant forms of cultural production (music, dance, poetry, film, radio) had failed to tackle, if not positively evaded, the enduring issues of 'race' and class bigotry which erupted with such violence in the late summer of 1958. The conflict seemed to defeat his belief that the London he knew could nurture new, tolerant forms of community, held together by their very racial and sexual diversity: the riots left this vista in ruins. Old problems still remained, and London's new youth culture either ignored them at their peril or thoughtlessly recapitulated familiar prejudices. Just as his narrator comes of age at the end of Absolute Beginners, Macinnes's optimistic vision ultimately had to confront a hostile world.



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