Sometimes a book falls into your lap at just the right moment. Recommended to me by someone who found this book in their teens, at the height of its popularity, I wasn’t expecting it to speak to me as profoundly as it did to him (read about that here). But speak to me it did, absolutely, throwing my new beginning into sharp relief.
The absolute beginners referred to in the title are the teens of the late fifties; individuals ‘starting out’ in life, without the dependence of childhood nor the responsibility of adulthood. Our narrator sets this tribe apart from society, discussing the ills of the government and adult society at length, whilst simultaneously painting a glorious picture of the diversity of the teenage scene. If that sounds stuffy, let me reassure you – the dialogue is witty and the narration is super-stylish, demonstrating a fervour for the free life, a playfulness cut with ambition and an overwhelming sense of possibility. It is brilliance, printed. It’s also preternaturally relevant, in spite of being decades old, in capturing a youth disenfranchised from authority and the establishment.
The vitality of it is also the thing that pulls my pleasure up short (momentarily). My teenage years weren’t like that. Not even close. This is a work of fiction: I’m not reading to find things I already know, but I can’t help comparing what I’m reading to my own experience… and let me tell you, it wasn’t just me that was a dull lass, but most of the teenagers I knew were also exceedingly boring (sorry to various teenage boyfriends, friends that anyway I lost touch with, and to husband. Though I was only just still teenage when we met). What we lacked was a sense that anything was possible, a sense of confidence. But that appetite for life, so lavishly presented, is something that I definitely feel now. I am, at 32, an absolute beginner, and don’t even try to tell me what I’ve had thirteen years experience of.
Artfully drawing an enigmatic cast, our narrator also paints places in irresistible detail, bestowing names upon them that, like the names of his friends, give depth to his relationship with them. In this, MacInnes seduces me and seizes my new found love of London. I’m a Northerner, and until twelve months ago, the very idea of living in London seemed absurd. It’s so big, you see. And so many people think it’s great (I’m nothing if not anti-populist). But the sizeable thing about it, really, is the idea of it. A wise man at bookgroup last week said that London is just a load of villages, all butting up against each other – if you can find a village you like, or understand, then you’ll be happy. The narrator in Absolute Beginners tears around London like he owns it – it’s glorious. And it’s just a little bit of what I feel when I’m heading out, book in hand, to see some other new place in London Town. I now know why Dad, on learning that I was moving to London, asked if I’d ever leave. Because why would you?
The novel revels in the dissonant, dwelling in the margins – the space between childhood and adulthood, the edges of legality. It’s a place our narrator chooses to be, having weighed up the options. This presence of mind, this conviction, is what makes the narrator, and the novel, utterly compelling. It’s an aptitude that I crave: most of my life I’ve been aware of what I don’t know, which is both a cause for celebration (because there’s so much to learn) and a source of consternation (a difficulty in making decisions, because someone else probably knows better). But our narrator, he wilfully makes choices based on what he knows, and is not cowed by what he doesn’t know. He revels in being a beginner, and MacInnes plays with the narrators ignorance in language (boogewah = bourgeois; gattos = gateaux). It’s sublime, and leaves me feeling abashed: why should I be limited by what I don’t know?
What’s startling about this novel is the turn it takes as it hurtles headlong into the race riots of Notting Hill. It manages to maintain the narrator’s tone of passion even as he does battle with his ideologies. His faith in people is repeatedly shaken and restored as he tests himself and his convictions. The topic is close to my own teenage heart: Sheffield might not have been the most diverse place to grow up, but amongst my friends were people of colour until, when I was 14, we moved to neighbouring Rotherham. 10 miles up the road, into a sea of white faces and middle class kids. I hated it. I spent a good portion of my childhood being embarrassed to be white, and I was the militant racism police in the household*. These days, I don’t give a fig for collectives: I like, or dislike, people, not groups and there’s no way that people in either camps could be defined exclusively by race, gender, sexual orientation or class.
The novel also references the trouble in St Anns Well, Nottingham, as a precursor to the Notting Hill riots. I lived less than a mile from St Anns Well for eight years (all about me, see).
Though my teens are a distant, and not especially fond, memory, it feels like Absolute Beginners fell into my lap at just the right time. It’s not only an excellent novel, it’s a clarion call: to do battle with pessimism and doubt, to cultivate my appetite for culture and art, to stick with my principles, embracing all that I’ve known and carrying it with me, proudly, into the next adventure.
*Incidentally, I thought I’d done a good job of breeding tolerance in the family until five years ago, when I saw that my littlest sister had joined some anti-immigration, English pride group on facebook. It’s the reason I left facebook.