The Flesh Failures

Underworlds, Otherworlds, Spades, Jumbles, The Human Mechanism, Tribal Fear, The Weight of Prejudice on Flesh, Liberatory Possibilities, Trouser Styles, Sperms and Chicklets, The Nameless Narrator, The Fascist Wizard, Pop as Magnificent Monster, The Ponce, The Copper, Oblique Ethics, Clouded Commitments, The Folkways of Vice, The Clinical Skin-Crawl, Hollywood Endings, Humanist Pieties, Multiculturalism Be Damned

The Flesh Failures

Devin McKinney
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

Two young black dancers, brightly dressed and outrageously queer, sashay down a dull London street. All tight crotch and flamboyant gesture, they are peacocks in a warren of plucked pigeons. For sheer perverse effect on the desexed locals, one dancer halts the sidewalk flow to bend and inspect his shoe—“so that the recalcitrant bowler-hatted or tweed-skirted natives found themselves curiously obstructed by an exotic, questioning behind.”

A boy and girl reunite in a London dance club. They are young and in love; misery and violence are elsewhere. The music plays just for them. And then: “The side window crashed, and a petrol bomb came in and rolled among the dancers and exploded, and the electrics all cut out, and there were shouts and screaming.”

Thus, a worldview: irrestistible arses, and bombs on the dance floor.

Colin MacInnes, the novelist, essayist, critic, experimentalist, and inveterate fringe-dweller whose three essential works—City of Spades (1957), Absolute Beginners (1959), and Mr Love and Justice (1960)—form “the London trilogy,” is not exactly unknown, but neither is he quite known. This despite Absolute Beginners having once meant to English teenagers approximately what The Catcher in the Rye meant to American ones; despite that novel having been made into a 1986 musical; and despite its being the inspiration for no less than two great pop songs (by the Jam and David Bowie). The trilogy has recently been reprinted by the English house Allison & Busby, so MacInnes’s fortunes may turn. Then again, they may not. He has been praised but seldom embraced by critics, perused but seldom pursued by readers. But MacInnes deserves a wider renown. He was a man of deep experience and a writer of marvelous resource, a chance-taker and an original, whose work even today appears vibrant and up-to-date.

Born in London in 1914, he was the second son of Angela Thirkell, author of the once enormously popular Barsetshire books (a vast novel sequence about English country life), and served in the British Army and Intelligence Corps, landing at Normandy and interrogating Nazis in the last brutal months preceding V-E Day. In 1955, MacInnes—then carving his niche as a BBC art critic and social commentator—took a lecture tour of Africa; a few months later he was arrested, among black friends in a gambling den, on drug charges. In the late ’60s he was one of several celebrity gullibles supportive of the black militant, ex-gangland enforcer, and future murderer Michael X. Friends say he was bisexual, irascible, and as monkish at home as he was profligate on the town. Stricken with esophageal cancer, MacInnes hemorrhaged fatally in 1976, and was—a voyager for eternity—buried at sea.[1] He was defined in his time as a “social observer.” The London novels are full of up-close humor and startling candor, and each issued from MacInnes’s immersion in the underworlds and otherworlds of London in the 1950s: hot and jumpy hinterlands peopled by immigrants, adolescents, musicians, criminals, and unclassed exotics. Each depicts a socially volatile, racially mixed, and sexually charged subculture that, if the author is to be trusted—and he is—actually existed between the stiff layers of official life in that place and time.

These are worlds both within and apart, and MacInnes knew their details too well and respected their rules too implicitly to impose on them a mandarin’s moral judgments. But he did bring an artist’s gravity to social issues and humanistic aspirations in which he had a vested and active interest. An explorer in realms of otherness most white Westerners have never touched, he cared deeply about integration as physical fact and cultural necessity: white society, he knew, would need to embrace cultural difference to survive, let alone grow, in a radically new, postwar world. But on some level he also knew that art’s demand for more troubling and intimate honesties would reduce such progressive doctrine to mere wholesome liberalism. So his London novels—beneath their crackle and profanity and submersion in twilight—are fascinating for the degree to which, in the service of upsetting both liberal cant and the complacent reader, they cloud the social visions and collapse the very hopes their creator held so dear.


After World War II, England saw a steadily rising wave of black immigration from northern Africa and the West Indies. City of Spades splashes, crisp and bracing, off the crest of that wave, and tingles with the nervous excitement of changing times. It’s a combination of urban picaresque and social study whose shared point of view pinballs between two narrators, one black, one white: Johnny Fortune, a young Nigerian newly arrived in London to study meteorology and nightlife; and Montgomery Pew, Colonial Department welfare worker and proud patron of the black race.

Montgomery loves “Spades”: “They bring an element of joy and fantasy and violence into our cautious, ordered lives.” Johnny, for his part, sees white Londoners as “people with glum clothes and shut-in faces,” and no doubt would concur with his countryman who describes the sympathetic “Jumbles” (whites) as “full-time professional admirers of the coloured peoples, who like us as you like pet animals.” Each of the protagonists becomes intimately involved in the life and society of the other; each emerges knowing more and understanding less of what lies behind the other’s eyes. But City of Spades is informed by the basic decency Johnny and Montgomery recognize in each other, a decency which MacInnes translates as a fundamental desire to comprehend alienness as well as luxuriate in it. Johnny begins as Montgomery’s client, but quickly the officer becomes the initiate, as Spade steers Jumble through the haunts, customs, and peculiarities of London’s black immigrant fringes.

The novel hums, vibrates, bangs the drum. It’s irresistibly physical: the human mechanism—how it moves and sounds, looks naked and clothed, defines and delimits us—is its secret, beleaguered hero. Characters are constantly noticing each other’s bodies, feasting on flesh textures and styles of locomotion; Johnny’s fortunes are recorded in Montgomery’s (often voyeuristic) observation of his physical manner. Johnny recalls “our tall English minister who used to walk as if his legs did not belong to him”; elsewhere he describes a friend’s “wobbling figure, his huge teeth in his pale pink gums… the celebrated frenzy dance of all his body when excited, that caused him to leap and break out in sharp cries of gasping joy.” Montgomery rhapsodizes on a black dance troupe in whose movements “the sweaty physical act of dancing became an efflorescence of the spirit!” Body consciousness is, in MacInnes, both a humanistic verity and a pop fixation on magnificent skin: his characters’ bodies are not temples but dance halls of the soul, physicality the necessary treatment needed to revive a dying culture.

MacInnes absorbs everything—setting, situation, personal and cultural motive. He notes distinctions between styles of blackness (“Nigerians, of course, are friendly folks, and Gold Coast boys respectable often, too. But Gambians!”), and fabricates bastard dialects out of linguistic crossover (a hustler from the African bush promises, “Anysing from G.I. stores you wants I gess you: sirts, soss, ties, jackix, nylons, overcoaks, socolates or any osser foots…”). But while observing, MacInnes is also moving and marking, the unifying intelligence and unjudging interpreter. The narrative momentum never slows, and race mixing inevitably becomes both metaphor and medium for life fully lived. The novel’s joy is infectious, its humor ticklish, its discoveries wide-eyed and wowing.

City of Spades spins on so jauntily, in fact, that it might devolve into mere fable, a dockside Finian’s Rainbow, in which social reality is shrugged off by wishful contrivance. But MacInnes has been quietly gathering an undercurrent of incomprehension and implacable difference, of desire awakening tribal fear: “If you stole some of their vitality,” Montgomery says of the Spades, “you found that the price was they began to invade your soul.” The honeymoon ends when difference reasserts itself: relationships are sabotaged not just by society but by the characters’ own conditioning. Montgomery sees Johnny, at the other end of the story’s experiential arc, as “a rather bitter and less kindly person, a disillusioned adult Fortune who no longer seemed to think—as Johnny always had—that everything in the world would one fine day be possible.”

The last pages are irretrievably desolate. Bodies rise from the wreckage, walk on or sail away, in opposite directions, old suspicions and new defenses in place. “What’s clear to me now,” says a white character near the end, “is that love, or even friendship, for those people is impossible—I mean as we understand it.”

Interracialism fails, then. But City of Spades is not so self-important that you’re meant to take this as a universal verdict: it is simply what happened here, in this time, to these lives. In fact this may be the sincerest, eagerest ode to miscegenation ever composed. Yet the failure matters, and gives pain, because MacInnes has shown us the desire in these lives—for escape, crossover, metamorphosis. Everyone has been accorded a voice, a heart, and a body. So it makes sense, given the novel’s bodily preoccupation, that the outcome pivots on an interracial affair ending in nervous breakdown, imprisonment, and the miscarriage of a mixed-race child. Bodies have met and grown intimate; only the mind, that self-subverting product of tribal culture, poisons intimacy and forces bodies apart. As the body expresses freedom, so it incarnates failure. The weight of prejudice on flesh produces a small death.


But the great promise of the thriving, integrated popular culture MacInnes envisions is that everything dead will rise again, liberatory possibilities as much as musical genres or trouser styles. A new generation arrives, its memory clean, ready to learn for itself what is possible or not. So Absolute Beginners does not begin where City of Spades ended, with isolation and emptiness. It picks up in a shopping mall.

Which is essentially what the novel makes of midcentury London. Our guide is a eighteen-year-old scenester and amateur photographer (“street, holiday park, studio, artistic poses [and] pornographic”) who is also that familiar focus of postwar existentialist fiction, the Nameless Narrator. Among the allies, enemies, and affiliates of N. N. who hurl their cries and carcasses into the London arcade are Crepe Suzette (hero’s “Spade-crazy” love interest), Wizard (pimp, petty thief, protofascist), Hoplite (gay blade and eventual defender of the weak), Big Jill (cynical lesbian procurer), and Mr. Cool (black intellectual and weather vane of coming trouble). Around them rotate slumming sophisticates and predatory Teddy boys, exotic foreigners and fascist creeps: the phantom cliques and human traffic of a society on the verge of enormous changes.

The novel sings, dances, screams Pop. As much as any prose ever written, it is Pop. It has the gleam of chrome fenders, the action of clubland after dark, the slang and verve of the radio. But its attitude is bitch and bitterness, so full of articulated acid the lines fairly burn. N. N., a snarky fashionista, is forever noting someone’s “floppy dung-colored garments” or “shoes like tin-openers.” N. N. on the London roads: “Streets of dark purple and vomit green, all set at angles like ham sandwiches.” N. N. on flashy drivers: “I get so tired of characters in motor vehicles behaving like duchesses, when usually the car’s not even their own, but part-paid on the never-never, or borrowed from the firm without the board of management’s permission, and all they really are is human animals travelling much too fast with their arses suspended six inches above the asphalt.”

This MacInnes-mouthing hero also bemoans the co-optation of postwar youth (“absolute beginners,” or “teenage products,” or “sperms and chicklets”) as an economic class with money to spend, and recalls the days “before the newspapers and telly got hold of this teenage fable and prostituted it as conscripts [read: adults] seem to do to everything they touch.” That’s the novel’s nourishing tension: MacInnes is wild about pop culture, its novelty and irreverence and raunch, but he deplores its other reality as a buffoon’s buffet of plastic commodities—not to mention a recruiting field for racists.

Episodic for its first three sections, the novel reaches unified climax and cataclysm with a full-scale race riot smack on the narrator’s own streets. Here MacInnes conducts a present-tense postmortem of actual events—events he had, in fact, foreseen. In the essay “Pop Songs and Teenagers,” published in February 1958, MacInnes warned of how easily the adolescent “instinct for enjoyment” could become a “kind of happy mindlessness—the raw material for crypto-fascisms of the worst kind.” Warning became prophecy in August of that year when, on the same night, a race riot broke out in Nottingham, and nine bludgeon-swinging Teds attacked five black victims in the Notting Dale section of London. Racing back and forth between rioting outskirts and oblivious town, N. N. feels his metropolis collapsing into “a prison, or a concentration camp: inside, blue murder, outside, buses and evening papers and hurrying home to sausages and mash and tea.” That offhand conflation of a teenage race riot with Auschwitz and Belsen may be the first recognition anywhere of what would one day, on the far side of the 1960s, be called the thanatology of pop—and later become the provocation of punk. The devil roams the arcade: “I certainly believe in Satan after tonight,” says our stunned narrator in the aftermath.

By revealing the pubertal hustler Wizard (“the dark side of the teenage dream,” in Tony Gould’s phrase) as a fist-pumping fascist, and equating pop commerce throughout with complacency and exploitation, MacInnes makes it clear that these riots constitute a uniquely pop-fed hysteria. In a lighter vein, he parodies all the most glaring absurdities of pop culture, ones that remain operative to this day. Like a Marxist who “seeks to prove that all folk music is an art of protest, which, fair enough, and also… that this art is somehow latched on to the achievements of the USSR, i.e., Mississippi jail songs are in praise of sputniks.” Or N. N.’s canny realization, despite his own romance with Vespas and jukeboxes, that “We’re all too much set on gadgets, and let the dam things rule us.” Or how actual singing stars of the British ’50s like Vince Eager, Cuddly Duddly, and Billy Fury are made, with merely a quarter-turn of the satirical screw, into “Strides Vandal,” “Limply Leslie,” and “Rape Hunger.”[2] N. N. avers early on that “youth has power, a kind of divine power straight from mother nature.” By the end of Absolute Beginners, this faith has become fear, even folly. That end comes with N. N., disgusted, disillusioned, and facing his last year before adulthood, finally embracing his fate as an active integrationist, a man of social conscience. The last scene, a forced yet nonetheless plangent cry of affirmation, finds him at the airport, greeting African émigrés while thunderheads crack and a deluge begins. The rainstorm resonates with the narrator’s desire, stated previously, “to know what’s up there in the sky: Just up above you, like the blue over the umbrella, and [to] find out whatever’s phoney about our culture, and anything in it that may be glorious and real.”

The novel’s encompassing theme, past even race, is Pop itself as socio-cultural spiderweb and tar baby of irresolvables. Dumb machinery and Rape Hunger, Marxist folkies and flying duchesses, fascism and floppy dung-colored garments: all part of Satan’s bargain. Absolute Beginners electrifies the crosscurrents of a culture whose logic assumes integration and liberation, but that always lets the bigots in too. A culture molded in plastic in which authenticity is a cardinal virtue, a business based on dollars wherein exploitation is considered a signal evil. Some part of Pop is always thumping into another; look in any direction, and its fundaments stand utterly opposed. Yet it still stands, and never stands still. How can anyone with a taste for the joyous and perverse not fall back before this magnificent monster—or the novel that so vividly voices it?


“In come the prowlers and the gropers and the cops and narks and whores and kinky exhibition numbers, and the thick air is filled with hundreds of suspicious, peering pairs of eyes.”

So N. N. describes a London park after dark. In Mr Love and Justice, last and by far most louche of the London novels, that teeming degeneracy is not margin but milieu. The first two novels occur in netherworlds, but they are never truly sordid. They’re too playful, and despite red streaks of violence, they never stick around to stare at a wound or gag at infestation. The characters are zesty and hyperbolic grandchildren of Dickens, but withal lack the Dickens capacity for genuine depravity—just as the MacInnes social view generally lacks the squalor that eats into even the Dickens mansion. But Mr Love and Justice is Dickensian in exactly that dank, final sense. It occurs in a semiofficial, semisecret world whose characters can scarcely trust themselves, let alone each other, and is imbued with the twisted scarlet ambience of a Victorian spanking parlor.

“Mr. Love” is Frankie, an unemployed seaman and novice pimp, or ponce; “Mr. Justice” is Edward, a London beat cop newly promoted to plainclothes vice duty in a particularly unsavory precinct. Both are twenty-six, unmoored from family and home, and pursuing troubled affairs. Virgins in the vice trade, both have mentors (Frankie his unnamed whore, Edward his detective-sergeant) and scheming competitors (“the star ponce” and “the star sleuth”). Sections of the novel alternate and interweave the progress of one with that of the other, and the protagonists, per Dickens, are paralleled perfectly throughout. One might almost say too perfectly—except that this is a grim, didactic novel driven by some deep and ambiguous bitterness, whose mounting strength accrues precisely from its being overdetermined and pitiless.

Frankie and Edward are men of oblique ethics and clouded commitments: each is ready to lie, steal, plant, plot, coerce, and corrupt, just to address some vague inner absence. (“A proper little scheming bastard,” Edward’s prospective father-in-law calls him, but it could apply to both characters.) Neither is touched by a conventional feeling. For Frankie, pimping is a means of making money and having an identity, and secondarily of mimicking domesticity with his prostitute; but when he gradually recognizes something like love growing over his loneliness, he welcomes it as he might a benign tumor. For Edward, policing is no holy mission zealously pursued, but an imperative of destiny dourly submitted to. The section-house is his church, the Force (not the Law) his Lord; but the Lord fills him only with stolid righteousness, not peace. For these two searchers without a quest there is no peace, only loneliness; no real yearning, only a persistent emptiness.

MacInnes biographer Tony Gould believes that this emptiness diminishes the novel: the dual protagonists, he writes, “both lack a human dimension—they have attributes, not souls.” But soullessness is itself a human dimension, and can carry its own subversive substance. Again, the most powerful subversion MacInnes performs is on himself; that is, on his own ideology. As enthused as he was with racial integration and pop culture, in Spades and Beginners he worked himself into narratives that were complex and conflicted rather than simplistically affirmative of their subjects. Likewise in Mr Love and Justice, where the essential liberal values of the title are compromised, outraged, sold out, and finally—though arguably, depending on how literally we read things—defeated.

The soullessness of Mr. Love and Mr. Justice serves another rhetorical, self-subverting function, which is to make the novel’s strongest presence that of its faceless, Godlike narrator. This third person’s omniscience, dispassion, and limitless knowledge of the folkways of vice shape and shadow the novel’s every intrigue, classify its every act. The narration opposes the avid first-personism of Spades and Beginners, their sense that the narrators were discovering the events and characters along with the reader. In Mr Love and Justice, the pedantic descriptions of place and procedure, psychology of ponce and copper, make the characters arbitrary inhabitants of an impersonal reality preexisting and far outliving them: “A nark-copper relationship is, in a way, like that of lovers… A nark must be personally wooed and won: or rather, he and the copper must discover each other, just as lovers do…” To this narrator there are no surprises, no action or idea that cannot be explained in terms of human duplicity, pure survivalism, or “the almost voluptuous instinct that exists in certain human beings, to betray.”

In their climactic confrontation in an interrogation cell, it’s Edward, Mr. Justice, who states that “the law isn’t perfect and entire like love can be”; and Frankie, Mr. Love, who declares that if the law is just and moral, “why! then it’s really something! A thing you can respect and live for.” Finally, Edward and Frankie each stand revealed as his own opposite: Love believes in Justice, Justice believes in Love. Each sees through the other’s deceptive role to what is real within. Upon which the two men, in a rite of bonding absolutely fitting to this novel, share the sacramental intimacy of urinating in the same pan.

The parallel stories advance from there to parallel provisional endings. Edward, disgraced and defrocked, is no longer an appendage of the Force but another lowly body massed among “long-suffering wedges of impatient and resigned humanity.” Frankie “was relaxed, resigned, and saddened as only those born innocent can be when by folly or misjudgment they have behaved in some way that violates this quality of their natures.” But the dramatic nature of the novel itself is to be unsurprised by anything bad: nature exists to be violated, and human relationships are simply one variety or another of crime, of deception, of plain lie—until violence strips the last veneer and liars stand exposed before one another.

“Superficially this is a realistic portrait of the worlds of the police and prostitution,” MacInnes wrote. “But my true intention was to write a morality, or religious allegory.” This is not to say the novel judges Frankie and Edward. But it does systematically ruin them. Frankie, honoring Love, elects to leave the life and go straight with his girl; Edward, fulfilling Justice, leaves the Force rather than lie to imprison an innocent. The novel’s complex plot and “almost mathematical precision” (in Gould’s phrase) maneuver Frankie and Edward so that each must sacrifice livelihood and very nearly life to prove his character to the other. We’re meant to take these as moral stances freely chosen.

As in Spades and Beginners, only far more crudely, a Hollywood ending is appended—here, the dialogue of two strangers holding out theoretical (church-derived) hope for our protagonists’ redemption. And again we’re justified in reading this more as a token of hope than as hope itself. The sustained tone of observational loathing has assured us from the beginning that only fools are saddened, only näifs disillusioned; and we can pertinently ask whether there is, in fact, anything in Frankie or Edward that merits the combined physical and spiritual forces required to affect either one’s redemption. Even as the characters attempt connection by reaching past their sordid humiliations and grievous injuries to touch hands, a pallor hangs over the gesture, as if the author has not convinced himself of its worth.

“Now, deep down,” Frankie says, “we English, let me tell you, are a cruel and violent race.” In Spades and Beginners the wildness is all up front and on top. Here madness is submerged beneath exteriors and codes, and far more malignant for its suppression. The “particular English mixture of lunacy and violence,” the narrator calls it: “The facades of the houses hinted, somehow, that all was not as it seemed behind those faded doors and walls. This straitlaced seediness, this primped-up exterior behind which lurks something dubious and occasionally horrifying, is the chief feature of whole chunks of mid-twentieth-century London.” The novel functions much the same way. Its social-realist, liberal-humanist agenda is to chronicle the symbiosis of ponce and copper, bringing both to a point of common redemption. But down deep it is cruel and violent, its real drama focused on degradation, corruption, the collapse of values. And it’s the facade—a voice and gaze so clinical they make your skin crawl—that both obscures and opens up the drama.

Here is where Mr Love and Justice undoes itself and achieves its stature: the novel can’t make us believe what it would appear to believe. Because it defines itself in style and construction as a maze leading inward, toward darkness and fated endings, it has left its characters none but the foreordained, “moral” choice—and the disaster that follows upon it—which is to say, no choice at all. The novel has the peculiar retrospective power of art that undermines its own rosier resolutions, whose pessimism is so deeply set that it won’t be uprooted by plot mechanics or humanist pieties. Life may grant a reprieve, but it offers no road back or way out. Now, MacInnes has shown in City of Spades and Absolute Beginners that this is a squalid, defeatist, romantic lie—one that he, in his better and larger part, could never believe. But a novel needn’t tell the truth to be truthful. It need only shake things loose sufficient for truth to fall out with the flotsam and fairy tales. Whereupon someone other than the author, who has done his job, reaches down to search for that truth on the ground.


Each of the London novels concerns an attempt at integration: of races, mentalities, moralities. And in each the attempt falls short, despite final scenes that, convincingly or not, claim hope, or at least try to leave an end open. At the same time, one never senses that MacInnes is sour on integration in any form, or that he’d opt for any world in which liberation through synthesis was not an ongoing project and activist faith.

That’s the kind of helpless self-contradiction that distinguishes the novelist from the social observer. It’s the pain of a writer driven to dramatize, with all the momentum of inevitability, just the outcome he most fears and least desires. In an essay contemporary with City of Spades, MacInnes, speaking for himself, asserted that interracial friendship was possible, “given goodwill and fortune”—in obvious contradiction of his own white character’s firm conclusion that it was “impossible.” The dramatic logic and novelistic needs of the London books, though, made it necessary for him to enable different, more ambiguous conclusions. The novelist’s task is not the manufacture of hope but the apprehension of fear; his mission is not to schematize a passionate personal wish but to honor the complexity of human affairs.

He does that by molding bodies and giving them voices. “I chose a language for ‘coloured people,’” MacInnes wrote, “or for teenagers, that was almost entirely an invented one; though true, so far as I could make it, to the minds and spirits of the characters I was describing.” He had a vision of the society he wanted, out of which he produced a trilogy that is bounding, poetic, soul-affirming—and finally more disturbing than those qualities can explain or contain. These novels follow obstinate paths through thickets of ignorance and lust, brave the sparks of crossed wires, follow fates where they lead, so that they may tell their own joyful, despairing stories—multiculturalism, not to mention political correctness, be damned. From there, we can make our own conclusions: search for truth on the ground, or upon the body, or in the cultural air we breathe. For MacInnes’s principle as a social observer was not an observer’s at all, but a dreamer’s, an artist’s. “If our world is not interesting enough,” he wrote, “one must try and invent one that is.”

More Reads

Sentences of the Year

“And so it happened again, the daily miracle whereby interiority opens out and brings to bloom the million-petalled flower of being here, in the world, with other ...


A Dream of a Small but Unlost Town

Izzy Grinspan

New York Underground

Alec Wilkinson