The imminent publication of Tony Gould’s biography of Colin MacInnes, Inside Outsider, is well timed. For MacInnes is an unfairly neglected figure, and it’s only in the 1980’s that we can see how ahead of his time he really was. His three London novels – City of Spades, Absolute Beginners and Mr Love and Justice – are usually portrayed as jolly romps with teenagers and blacks, pictures of a quaint underworld which can now be safely forgotten along with the other minor social documents of the late 1950’s.
And for the last twenty-five years, this may have been a fair assessment. After all, MacInnes wrote about youth culture before the advent of the Beatles; he looked at the nature of a multi-racial society long before it became a fashionable topic. You would assume, therefore, that he has been superseded. And yet he hasn’t. As Gould points out, MacInnes had such an instinctive sympathy for young people that he could foresee the ramifications of the new youth culture with total clarity. While most of the country was cooing over the Angry Young Men, he realised that future energy would not come from the articulate northern provincial, but from the immigrant and the teenager. And more than most, he saw that the power base of the old order was giving way to what we in the Eighties would call a ‘subculture’. But there was nothing underground about this movement; it was the dominant feature of the mid-twentieth century. From 1957 to 1960 in essays and especially in novels, he set out to portray it.
The three London books are carefully disguised didactic tracts. They reveal the different areas of the city as tribal encampments, often with uncertain relationships existing between the different communities. City of Spades (1957) is the story of Johnny Fortune, a young Nigerian who arrives in London as a student only