Saluting Colin Macinnes

I pity you, scum. You think you invented life. You believe you are the first people to learn how to dress. You are the first to flirt with the lowlife; the first middle-class loser to get their kicks digging round in the underworld. The first to realise that ‘the great thing about London is that it’s all mixed-up and crazy and so ethnic’.

The London Trilogy of Colin Macinnes (Allison & Busby, £10.99) has just been reprinted. It’s a puzzling disgrace that it’s been unavailable for the last few years: not only are the three novels – Absolute Beginners, Mr. Love and Justice and City of Spades (yes, it is called that, and we’ll come back to Macinnes and race in a second) – among the greatest books about mid-century London, but he’s a writer with an obsessive fanbase

Macinnes was primarily a journalist. He appears to have been an annoying man who liked drinking in Soho and Anarchism. In his declining years, he regularly wrote ‘Captain Jockstrap’s Diary’ for Gay News. He died in 1976, and is probably in heaven, trying to touch Jesus for a fiver.

Absolute Beginners is a stunning book, one of the great hymns to London and Youth. It’s a world; characters with crazy names (The Fabulous Hoplite, The Ex-Deb-of-last-year, The Misery Kid) from a dozen different underground scenes and youth tribes. It has amazing energy: Macinnes has a sharp eye – he’s an astonishing journalist too – and he thrills off getting this London down for the first time. It’s a dizzying read – such a smart book, but one with real feeling, and a dark climax set in the Notting Hill Race riots.

At this juncture, it is traditional to make a joke about Absolute Beginners, the film-musical adaptation that helped ruin the British movie industry in the 80s. But you know what? It isn’t that bad.

City of Spades is nearly as good. There are two narrators, Montgomery Pew, who starts a civil servant, but clearly has too great a taste for the fast life to stay settled, and Johnny Fortune, a Kenyan over to study in London. That title, I can see, might put you off, but MacInnes is the least racist white writer of Fifties England; he went out, paid attention to the Caribbean and African bars and clubs, watching racist locals, patronising liberals, corrupt cops and the woes of the ponce’s life.

Mr. Love and Justice is an education is police corruption and poncing (for some reason we’ve all switched to the word pimp now.)

Even if all this sounds too London, and even if you don’t care about checking out the best stories and high strangeness of a decade people ignore, and finding out how we ended up with this messy, fun sprawl of a city, there’s one unignorable virtue of MacInnes. He paid attention to the world; he watched closely, and thought for himself. There are no cliches, no poses taken from the papers, just attention and invention. It’s good to have him back.