Absolute Beginners

Released in 1959 Colin Macinnes’s novel (part of a trilogy on London street life) was one of the first to lift the lid on the emerging teenage scene. Set across sweltering, summer months at the tail end of the fifties the story follows a young photographer through the city’s streets describing a new world of coffee bars, modern jazz, continental fashions and the chasm opened up between the old (post war) and new worlds. New worlds into which stepped….the teenager – youngsters free of the old constraints (national service, war, expectation to marry), able to pick and choose in an era of near full employment which trade would fill there pockets with (for the first time in their lives) their own money. It’s a fantastic book, a celebration of youth set in a time post-teddy-boy and pre-modernist and revelling in the differences. Not only was Macinnes the first to write coherently on this newly emerging lifestyle, he also understood from early on  – indeed on page 1 – how the thrill and optimism of the new era would be played out. Whilst the adult world struggled with notions of fear and confusion at the emergence of this new generation with their alien mannerisms and flamboyant wardrobes the straight world would quickly welcome them as …consumers.

‘It’s been a two-way twist, this teenage party. Exploitation of the kiddos by the conscripts, and exploitation of themselves by the crafty little absolute beginners. The net result? “Teenage”‘s become a dirty word or, at any rate, a square one.’…….What the Wiz said was at any rate partially true. This teenage ball had had a real splendour in the days when kids discovered that, for the first time since centuries of kingdom-com, they’d money, which hitherto had always been denied to us at the best time in life to use it, namely when you’re young and strong, and also before the newspapers and telly got hold of this teenage fable and prostituted it as conscripts seem to do to everything they touch. Yes, I tell you, it had a real savage spledour in the days when we found that no one couldn’t sit on our faces any more because we’d loot to spend at last, and our world was to be our world, the one we wanted and not standing on the doorstep of somebody else’s waiting for honey, perhaps.

The optimism and excitement of new freedoms versus the dominant cultures desire to remain in control. At the very start of it, at the dawn of this new era Macinnes revealed all and for this reason (along with its sharp, lean prose, authentic feel and finely observed cast of characters) Absolute Beginners remains one of the hippest reads around.

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