Reading 1959: Absolute Beginners

Absolute Beginners

Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners is an invigorating virtual reality experience – a hot London summer spent swimming in the primordial soup of a teenager’s head.

If No Love for Johnnie was about a generation struggling to break free from Victorian tradition, the misery of slum-life and the trauma war, then Absolute Beginners presents what is left when the cocoon is finally shed.

The nameless 18-year-old protagonist didn’t fight in the war, though he is a ‘Blitz baby’, and doesn’t care for the ‘sad, gloomy and un-contemporary’.

He successfully presents himself as cynical for the first half of the book, professing to care about nothing, not even the ever-present threat of atomic war. He seems to despise his pathetic cuckold of a father, his promiscuous mother, and his hopeless half brother. At one point, just when the reader might be warming to him, he exploits a girl’s heroin problem for his own ends.

But a steady tap, tap, tap of optimism and enthusiasm begins to shine through: he loves his on-off girlfriend, Crepe Suzette, wholeheartedly.

He loves jazz, too. Really loves it, not for show, but in his bones: it ‘sends him’.

He takes pornographic photos to pay the rent but all the time he is slowly turning into a real photographer – into an unashamed artist.

When he is really tested, when he is asked to prove his humanity as race riots turn West London into a warzone, he cannot pretend to be other than an idealist. He sides with the underdogs, against the racists, and risks his neck to do the right thing in a pocket civil war.

Ultimately he can’t even conceal the love he feels for his parents. “Don’t be a c–t,” says his his mother at one point, but we, and he, know what she really means.

Almost everyone in this book behaves surprisingly, from the proto-hippy pimp who turns out to be a bright-eyed fascist, to the retired Admiral who refuses to be homophobic for the TV cameras. These characters are hard to grasp and all the more real for it.

But Absolute Beginners was written in the late 1950s, and so perhaps Crepe Suzette is lacking a dimension or two – a manic pixie dream girl with the sex dial turned up. On the whole, the female characters aren’t as convincing or as interesting as the male characters, even Big Jill the lesbian pimp.

After a stretch where it seems black characters might be treated merely as a background mass, individuals emerge, though still primarily as non-player-characters for the white protagonist to react against or move towards. Some of his best friends are black, and all that.

(But, come on, let’s be fair: compare this with the grimmer, greyer angry young man novels where there are hardly any non-white characters, and in which women are generally either fantasy figures or ambition-crushing marriage traps.)

Quibbles aside, spat out of the far end of Absolute Beginners, my heart was beating fast. I could still see the colours, hear the beat, and the roar of the Vespa. I felt 20 again. I wanted to go out on to the streets and do something to make things better. (And, very badly, to see my Dad for a pint.)

Reading 1959: No Love for Johnnie

No Love for Johnnie.

This felt like a good week to be reading a drama about the underlying loneliness and emotional frailty of a Westminster big shot, written by a serving MP.

No Love for Johnnie is really a 1958 novel but its publication was delayed due the death of the author, Wilfred Fienburgh, in a car crash at Mill Hill in north London in February that year.

Is the depiction of the handsome, sexually inexperienced, unhappy, arrogant, insecure, vain Johnnie Byrne MP actually Fienburgh laying himself bare?

Byrne was brought up in the fictional Yorkshire town of Bradley, Fienburgh in Bradford. Byrne served in World War II, reaching the rank of captain from the ranks, while Fienburgh was demobbed as a major. Byrne became an MP in 1950, Fienburgh in 1951.

Perhaps we can conclude that Fienburgh was getting something off his chest in depicting the collapse of Johnnie Byrne’s left wing idealism, and the mid-life crisis brought on by his passionless marriage. Or maybe he was just wargaming the worst-case scenario — picturing at 37 where he might be in five years time.

As someone who didn’t grow up embroiled in Labour party politics, this was a fascinating crash course for me: the battle between the left and right of the party, the philosophical debates over whether it is acceptable to compromise on left wing values for the sake of gaining and retaining power, and the need to switch between modes in Westminster on Wednesday and the constituency clinic on Friday morning.

One glimpse into the moment when this book was written is that Byrne owes his career in large part to his good looks and a strong performance on television in the run up to the general election. This really was something Labour was focused on at the end of the 1950s, even sending selected MPs on training courses to learn how to work the camera. (I’m delighted to find that the newspapers and books from 1959 I’m reading echo each other so clearly.)

Byrne lives on edge, constantly judging whether to flatten his vowels and speak plainly, or slip into an affected officers’ mess drawl, or use the neutral high register he has cultivated for conspiring with fellow MPs. Ignore the political plot and this is yet another story about a man cast adrift by social mobility, confused about his place in the world, able to fit in anywhere but really belonging nowhere. (See also Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy, 1957.)

Two novels into #Reading1959 certain themes are beginning to emerge. First, everyone is miserable because they can’t have sex until they’re married, so they end up marrying the first person they even slightly fancy, blind to their incompatibilities. In the case of Johnnie Byrne, it’s a Bradley lass, Alice, who is busy with her own political career as a leading light in the Communist Party of Great Britain. Not only is she emotionally cold but, Johnnie later discovers, her politics are the cause of the stalling of his career — the Prime Minister can’t give him a Cabinet role while she is in the picture, with her connections to Moscow.

Secondly, there’s the war, of course. Naive young men forced to grow up observing atrocities, reeducated in the brothels of Belgium, and turned into gentlemen by accident as pips appear on their tunics. For Byrne, the war isn’t about trauma, it’s about guilt. He wasn’t an effective leader of men, he was a coward, and he knows it, even if the world believes otherwise. A flashback to the taking of a French farmhouse sometime after D-Day reads like a Commando comic (“Bren gun…. Pass a Bren.”) until the moment when Byrne’s entire platoon is cut down by machine gun fire while he hides, vomiting, in a hayloft.

There are stretches where this book reads like pure pulp — titillation, cheap drama, obvious words and stock phrases dumped on the page — but where it works is in the honesty with which it depicts the unravelling of the male brain. When Byrne fails to get a Cabinet job, his wife leaves him, and he immediately becomes obsessed with getting a young girlfriend to make up for the lost years. His fling with Pauline, a self-assured 20-year-old he meets at a party, is passionate but brief, and then becomes merely sad: he stalks her to her family’s home in Yorkshire after she tries to get away from him, where he ends up dressed in one of her Dad’s too-small spare suits, while she refuses to play the part in his fantasy he demands.

At the end of the book, he still has nobody to love, and nobody to love him back, but he knows who he is: a grasping, arrogant, ambitious coward who would rather accept the job of Deputy Postmaster General, and the rather remote prospect of a Cabinet job when he’s proved his worth, than change.

Reading My Way Through 1959

The cover of Free Fall by William Golding,

I’m planning to spend 2019 reading only novels from 1959, with some extra homework on the side.

Why? Because in 2017, I set myself a similar reading challenge – only books by women – and it helped me focus. I read more, and more widely, and more books that were new to me. I discovered some new favourite writers (such as Edna O’Brien) and the habit stuck: I continued to read more books by women in 2018, and feel better for it.

But in 2018, with no specific challenge, I read less overall, and caught myself lazily returning to old favourites out of which I have already chewed all the flavour.

So, for this year, I needed a challenge, and focusing on a specific time period seemed like a good idea. The mid-20th century happens to be where my head is at a lot of the time anyway. It also happens to be when the Big Novel I’m working on is mostly set, so this also doubles as research.

I landed on 1959 specifically by asking my handful of discerning Twitter followers to choose between 80 years ago, 70, 60, and 50. (It was close – 1969 nearly won.)

As of this morning, I’ve started reading Free Fall by William Golding, which I found on Wikipedia’s list of British novels published in 1959, and then happened to stumble across in a secondhand bookshop in Osterley on Sunday. “Perhaps you found this book on a stall fifty years hence which is another now”, he writes eight pages in, bending my mind somewhat, despite being ten years out. It’s not quite my usual thing – very self-consciously literary, prose verging on Joycean – but it seems to have hooks in me already.

A low resolution image of streaks of light on a curving road.
From the front page of the Manchester Guardian for 1 January 1959: ‘The lights of south-bound vehicles on the Preston Motorway’.

On the side, though, I’m also going to try to do something I’ve been thinking about for years: reading a daily newspaper for each day of 1959.

This has never been easier than today with local libraries offering access to The Times and the Guardian, and the incredible British Newspaper Archive providing scans of all kinds of local and national titles.

On 1 January 1959 the Manchester Guardian was declaring A PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR with “Industrial shares index at highest level ever”. It reported that actor Alec Guinness had been awarded a knighthood, and that the West had rejected Nikita Khruschev’s suggestion that Berlin be made a “free city”. Meanwhile, in Cyprus, EOKA issued a defiant new year message for the British government: “We will emerge from our present peaceful attitude as FULLY armed avengers to return the blows.”

Postcard of Coventry Cathedral.

Given my interest in post-war architecture, I was also interested to read this:

To-day, for the first time, hymns and prayers have sounded in Coventry’s new cathedral. They came not from the choice and chapter but from the unaccustomed voices of the masons and labourers, tilers and glaziers and plumbers, whose hands are raising the walls of what to-oday we heard called “This great fortress of God in Coventry.”

Unfortunately, an opinion piece on racial tension, and a surge in white nationalist tendencies, suggests that there’s little shelter from the problems of 2019 to be found in desk-bound time travel.

I’ll also be making a point of listening to music from 1959, and watching films and TV from the same year, without being exclusive about it. I’m looking forward to rewatching Room at the Top for starters, which I last saw as a teenager in Steven Bennison’s media studies class at Bridgwater College.

If anyone feels like joining in, or borrowing this idea but wallowing in a different year, go for it – I always enjoy company on these expeditions.