Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Colin MacInnes' London trilogy

Searching for New States of Being: the Cultural Energies and Contested Spaces of Colin MacInnes’ London

(this article is also available at

Colin MacInnes is, in several ways, a figure whose identity and existence embodies transience, liminality, marginality and transgression. Born in London in 1914, his early years were overshadowed by war; in 1917 his parents divorced, and his mother Angela married an Australian, George Thirkell. The family moved to Australia in 1920, and MacInnes lived there for ten formative years before moving to Brussels at the age of sixteen. It was only in 1935 that MacInnes, then aged twenty-one, returned to London. As the title of Tony Gould’s 1983 biography, Inside Outsider, indicates, MacInnes’ work—as both a journalist and novelist—is characterized by a simultaneous determination to document hidden socio-cultural worlds, and a sense of being apart from any particular group identity, be it hegemonic or subcultural. Gould’s title comes from a comment of MacInnes’ regarding his return from Australia: ‘Born in London, but not reared there for so many vital years, my feeling for the city has perforce become that of an inside-outsider: everything in London is familiar; yet everything in it seems to me as strange’ (quoted in McLeod 2004: 40).
This identity and perceptual position can help us to understand MacInnes’ distinctive relationship with the places and subcultures of 1950s London, and the particular character of his attempts to document them. Those early experiences of the wartime city, coupled with ten years of childhood and adolescence in Australia—a country that stood in marked environmental, social and cultural contrast—underpinned his perspective upon the city of his birth. Moreover, he was openly gay in a period when homosexuality was still illegal and taboo, and this consciousness is reflected in his work’s sympathy with minorities and marginalised groups of various kinds. In what follows, I argue that MacInnes’ London fictions combine a sense of journalistic distance, assisted by his outsider consciousness, with a portrayal of the city that is by turns sentimental, romantic, dreamlike and unapologetically subjective. He thus embodies two seemingly contradictory facets of outsider consciousness: a certain immunity or resistance to the prejudices and assumptions of the culture he describes, and a tendency to romanticise or idealise some elements of that culture. In MacInnes’ case, of course, those elements tend to be subcultural and, in Absolute Beginners, consciously countercultural.
In spite, or perhaps because of, his outsider’s view of 1950s London, MacInnes’ ‘London trilogy’ is seen as one of the definitive fictional documents of the capital in this transitional period. It is a time of volatility, instability and realignment in terms of class, generational grouping, gender, sexuality and ethnicity, and MacInnes’ trilogy addresses all of these identities. 1957’s City of Spades attempts to document the experiences of African and West Indian immigrants; 1959’s Absolute Beginners focuses upon the emergent archetype of the teenager, but also explores ethnic minority and queer subcultures; while 1960’s Mr Love and Justice presents a cosmopolitan underworld of pimps, prostitutes and corrupt vice squad police. Underlying all of this is what we now retrospectively recognise as the decline or fragmentation of what is sometimes called the ‘postwar settlement’, the period in which the Labour government of 1945-1951 established the NHS and other institutions of the Welfare State, and embarked upon a large-scale construction programme of modernist social housing. As Alan Sinfield notes, in this period

the promise of full employment, a health service, universal full-time secondary education, nearly universal pension rights and public responsibility for housing were established. These were the good things of life that, traditionally, the upper classes had secured for themselves. Now the state was proposing to make them available to everyone. All the people were to have a stake in society, an adequate share of its resources as of right. It was an alternative conception of the social order. (15)

Sinfield points out that what makes this conception unique, above all, is that this social order is secured by consent, rather than force. This is, therefore, a period of British history often seen as a ‘golden age’ by the left, as exemplified in Ken Loach’s 2013 documentary The Spirit of ’45, which presents itself as a celebration of a socialist current in British society that may—even in the current neoliberal climate—be summoned and revived. MacInnes’ protagonists and narrators often espouse a sceptical or pessimistic attitude towards the British state, and from a leftist perspective we might see this as an articulation of dismay at the gradual shift away from the idealism of the immediate postwar period. Sinfield, again, notes that

by the late 1950s, it was apparent that the postwar world was characterized not by a new fairness and dignity for most people, but by an economic system which J.K. Galbraith likened to a squirrel wheel, as people chased endlessly round a self-defeating circle of production and consumption. (21)

However, any interpretation of MacInnes’ texts as critiques of the growth of consumerist free-market capitalism is complicated by the novels’ ambiguous attitudes towards the places and institutions of the Welfare State. For the marginalised groups and individuals who inhabit MacInnes’ London, the postwar settlement often appears to be little more than a patronizing and misguided intrusion; the passing of which need not be mourned, since it was never particularly helpful in the first place.
This refusal to adhere to a single explanation for the problems facing late-1950s Britain reflects MacInnes’ outsider identity. As his nameless teenage narrator explains in Absolute Beginners, with reference to the choice between Labour and the Conservatives, ‘“Whoever [...] is working out my destinies, you can be quite sure it’s not those parliamentary numbers”’ (252). Here, in 1958, the kind of disillusionment with Britain’s two-party democracy that has since become widespread is already evident. While the narrator has a healthy scepticism towards the nascent industries of teenage marketing and consumerism—which he dismisses as ‘“telly witch-doctors, and advertising pimps, and show business pop song pirates”’ who ‘“sell us cutprice sequins when we think we’re getting diamonds”’—he  tends to be equally dismissive of the institutions of consensus-based social democracy (1134). The places of this new London, such as new modernist housing estates, are seen as alienating in their scale: the narrator feels like ‘an ant upon a chessboard’ among high-rise buildings, which ‘towered all around like monsters’ (561, 552). This endowment of the new Britain with a monstrous life contrasts with a fading dignity attributed to London’s older districts: ‘in Pimlico’, we are told, ‘the old, old city raised her bashed grey head again, like she was ashamed of her modern daughter down by the river’ (565). The comparison with Pimlico, however, is telling; rather than choose one of London’s unarguably genteel districts, MacInnes focuses upon one that betrays the grime (literal and figurative) which accumulates in lower middle-class suburbs. Despite his parents’ insistence upon referring to the area as ‘Belgravia South’, in an attempt to escape the relatively deprived connotations of Pimlico, its unappealing qualities remain inescapable; as Jerry White notes, it was at the time ‘seedy, shabby-genteel at best, outright slummy at worst’. Our narrator describes its streets as ‘dark purple and vomit green, all set at angles like ham sandwiches’—a description which demonstrates the novel’s idiosyncratic combination of the sneering and the surreal—and his disdain for it undoubtedly reflects MacInnes’ own loathing for the small-minded, secretive and petty qualities of English suburban life (564).
The other texts in the trilogy also reveal an ambivalent attitude towards the institutions of the postwar state. Mr Love and Justice focuses on an underworld of characters united by ‘their total rejection alike of the left-ish Welfare State and the right-ish Property-owning democracy: a sort of Jacobean underground movement in the age of planned respectability from grave to cradle’ (106). And in City of Spades, the efforts of the state to provide spaces for colonial migrants are scathingly dismissed: a hostel for new arrivals ‘smelt high [...] with the odour of good intentions. The communal rooms were like those on ships—to be drifted in and out of, then abandoned. [...] And over the whole building there hung an aura of pared Welfare budgets, of tact restraining antipathies, and of a late attempt to right centuries of still unadmitted wrongs’ (42). The ship metaphor is apposite in a trilogy which portrays London at this time as a city characterised by transience and instability; docklands are one of the key narrative zones in the novels, synecdoches of globalisation, cosmopolitanism and crime. This is exemplified in places like the Pakistani cafe at the beginning of Mr Love and Justice, with its ‘smell of stale spices’ and ‘broken fruit-machine’ (8). For the novel’s ex-sailor protagonist Frankie Love, ‘the sea, certainly, came first—and far away so—if it would have him back. No woman and no fortune would hold him from that great and utterly dependable she’ (42).
As a journalist, MacInnes wanted to see himself as a dispassionate, objective and balanced recorder of events, and these wry, cynical observations reveal a narrative voice at pains not to be taken in by the rhetoric and ideology of welfare capitalism. This determination creates a narrative tone and attitude that can feel wilfully spiteful towards the institutions and practices of mainstream culture, on the one hand, and naive or romanticising towards subcultural groups on the other. His combination of a perceptive ability to debunk the myths that surround traditional English culture with a tendency to generate new myths regarding the era’s emergent subcultures is exemplified, for example, in City of Spades comparison of white, working-class pubs with those now frequented by Africans and West Indians. For Montgomery Pew (a socially liberal, awkward welfare officer in London’s colonial department), despite the ‘legend of the gaiety, the heart-warming homeliness’ of English pubs, ‘all a dispassionate eye can see in them is the grim spectacle of “regulars” at their belching back-slapping beside the counter or, as is more often, sitting morosely eyeing one another, in private silence, before their half-drained gassy pints’ (48). In contrast, a pub full of black immigrants has ‘a prodigious bubble and clatter of sound, and what is rare in purely English gatherings—a constant movement of person to person, and group to group, as though some great invisible spoon were perpetually stirring a hot human soup’ (49). This kind of vitality and sociability is central to MacInnes’ celebration of ethnic minority subcultures.
However, the ethical difficulties of any attempt to speak on behalf of marginalised groups, and the particular problems this raises for a narrative that aims (at least in certain respects) at a supposed journalistic objectivity, are evident throughout the novel. While City of Spades dismissals of traditional white British institutions are witty but tinged with bitterness, the novel’s portrayals of West Indian and African culture in London occasionally slide into a problematic exoticizing and primitivizing of these groups. Pew describes Africans as ‘wild’ at one point, arguing that ‘they bring an element of joy and fantasy and violence into our cautious, ordered lives’; while the dancefloor in the Moonbeam club is ‘sticky, promiscuous and cloying—a hot grass hut in the centre of our town’ (74, 77, 94). Most striking of all is Pew’s sustained epiphanic monologue towards the novel’s close, while watching black dancers in a theatre performance:

... they were clothed in what seemed the antique innocence and wisdom of humanity before the Fall—the ancient, simple splendour of the millennially distant days before thought began, and civilizations ... before the glories of conscious creation, and the horrors of conscious debasement, came into the world! In the theatre, they were savages again: but the savage is no barbarian—he is an entire man of a complete, forgotten world, intense and mindless for which we, with all our conquests, must feel a disturbing, deep nostalgia. These immensely adult children, who’d carried into a later age a precious vestige of our former life, could throw off all their twentieth-century garments, and all their ruthlessness and avarice and spleen, and radiate, on the stage, an atmosphere of goodness! of happiness! of love! And I thought I saw at last what was the mystery of the deep attraction to us of the Spades—the fact that they were still a mystery to themselves. (206)

Pew’s association of white European culture with consciousness, mindfulness and disenchantment, which are unfavourably contrasted with a kind of unthinking instinctiveness and negative capability in black cultures—an innocent lack of knowledge, even of ‘themselves’—recalls D.H. Lawrence in both its fevered insistence (particularly the use of exclamation marks), and its primitivist views on non-European civilizations. As Kate Houlden notes, Pew makes ‘the lazy assumption that the jungle has come to town’, and demonstrates ‘a worrying tendency to essentialise, recycling long-standing myths of black musicality, physicality and unreliability’. However we feel about the ethics of passages like this being expressed by a generally sympathetic narrator, it is indisputable that they reveal an author concerned with more than simple journalistic objectivity (even if that were attainable). Instead, at such points MacInnes reveals a consciousness driven by a intensely powerful imagination and an undercurrent of hedonistic, volatile desire—characteristics which perhaps explain his acerbic attacks on mainstream culture as much as his celebration of subcultures.
In this light, MacInnes’ efforts to provide a sense of objectivity in his narratives can be seen not as reflective of journalistic instincts, but rather as conscious attempts to check an imaginative and romantic consciousness. This provides one way of understanding the schematic and carefully-structured approaches to narrative he takes in the London trilogy, revealing different solutions to the problem of balance (although, of course, the very fact that MacInnes experiments with so many different narrative approaches only serves to highlight the fact that no ‘true’, unbiased perspective or structure is available to the novelist).          City of Spades uses a split first-person narrative, alternating between Pew and Johnny Fortune, a young Nigerian student of meteorology. These characters’ alternating sections are occasionally punctuated by sections called ‘interludes’, sometimes narrated in the third person. Here, then, MacInnes offers one possible solution to the problem of depicting the spaces of a huge city from differing perspectives. Although this kind of cinematic jump-cutting technique goes back at least as far as Joyce’s Ulysses, it is worth noting MacInnes’ use of such approaches in a period often seen as wary of narrative experimentation. Mr Love and Justice uses a similar approach, alternating between sections following the pimp Frankie Love and the vice-squad policeman Ted Justice. While the third person is used here, MacInnes often employs free indirect discourse to blur the line between the positions of narrator and protagonist.
These techniques are effective in creating a sense of cinematic tension and a kind of balance in the London of the novels, between black and white experience, and between characters on both sides of the law. Absolute Beginners features a structural approach similarly indebted to MacInnes’ journalistic mindset, with its nameless narrator and division into four sections. These are simply titled ‘In June’, ‘In July’, ‘In August’ and ‘In September’, with each one covering a single day of the month in question, as the summer of 1958 progresses. Again, a modernist innovation—the day-book of Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway—is developed here, apparently in the interests of journalistic balance and objectivity. Where modernism rejected realist aspirations as illusory, MacInnes investigates the ways in which the movement’s innovations can serve the more pragmatic literary aims of his time, to represent an increasingly cosmopolitan Britain. Nick Bentley explains that the novels represent ‘a hybrid form in 1950s writing that can best be described as an “experimental realism”’, driven by ‘the journalistic and sociological impulse behind the writing.’ As MacInnes knows, however, there are limits to the extent that a successful novel can maintain a supposedly objective perspective, since this aim tends to thwart or ignore the reader’s tendency to empathise with a protagonist; thus, it is in Absolute Beginners—the only novel to feature a single first-person narrator throughout—that he creates his most compelling character and narrative. With a tone that both echoes the defiant anti-authoritarianism of The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, and anticipates the invented teenspeak of Alex in A Clockwork Orange (published three years later), this figure describes the atmosphere of 1950s London in strikingly original, and often comic, imagery and neologisms:

The air was sweet as a cool bath, the stars were peeping noisily beyond the neons, and the citizens of the Queendom, in their jeans and separates, were floating down the Shaftesbury Avenue canals, like gondolas. [...] In fact, the capital was a night-horse dream. And I thought, ‘My lord, one thing is certain, and that’s that they’ll make musicals one day about the glamour-studded 1950s.’ (1103)

The faintly surreal, dreamlike imagery here betrays a romantic sensibility underlying MacInnes’ ostensibly realist, journalistic approach. The personification of stars, the wry nod to London’s gay subcultures in the dual meaning of ‘Queendom’, and the evocation of Venice, all work to give the city the qualities of a fable or fairytale. Moreover, as MacInnes’ friend Francis Wyndham suggests, the narrator himself is a ‘fantasy figure, really, not a real character at all’; and while he is often seen as an archetypal teenager, the novel’s linguistic inventiveness demonstrates that MacInnes embraces the self-consciously creative possibilities of fiction in his creation, rather than striving for documentary realism (Vulliamy).
We can also, in fact, see this kind of mindset in the other novels’ structuring, characterization and narrative approach. A nameless narrator may suggest some kind of aspiration to objectivity, but it also carries the semiotic simplicity of a children’s morality tale. The same can be said of the alternate voicings of Mr Love and Justice and City of Spades, as well as the character names in those novels: Johnny Fortune’s surname an ironic acknowledgement of his difficulties in a new country, and Frankie Love and Edward Justice’s surnames denoting their respective professions. Similarly, the simple structural divisions of the novels betray a desire to capture this sprawling, cosmopolitan world within the parameters of something that is self-consciously a story, rather than a piece of fictionalised reportage. MacInnes’ narrative decisions in these texts are therefore more influenced by a romantic, lyrical and dramatic mindset than they initially appear.
These qualities of the London trilogy are also evident in the novels’ sense of mysterious chthonic energies at work beneath the veneer of everyday life. The different cultural and architectural currents that run through MacInnes’ London include the Victorian (characterised by a sense of drab, stubborn rationality, at times oppressive, lurid and shadowy); the African/West Indian, as discussed above; the teenage (irreverent, blasĂ© and streetwise); and the welfare-capitalist, manifested in the city’s new, modernist buildings and institutions. Characters like Edward Justice thrive on this sense of contested cultural energies swirling beneath the surface of things, being ‘something of an anarch: a lover of stress and strain and conflict, wherein he himself may operate behind that outward, visible order he admires’ (82–3). For Montgomery Pew, this ‘visible order’ is always in danger of being reclaimed by a latent, pre-human history of place, as on a night-time cab ride: ‘we drove home between rotting Georgian terraces, and the ominous green of the thick trees in Regent’s park which, when night falls, are reclaimed from man by a jealous, antique Nature’ (74). Here the sense of a ‘rotting’ city, like the decaying ‘Napoli’ district in which Absolute Beginners’ narrator resides, combines with a sense of an ancient, active and hostile nonhuman presence, ready to overwhelm London’s fragile built environment. Of course, this sense of fragility—of buildings, institutions, and of British culture itself—is common in novels of the wartime and immediate postwar periods: consider Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1948) and Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness (1950). It is perhaps intentional that Pew’s musings on a ‘jealous, antique Nature’ occur alongside his ‘wild Africans’ comment, suggesting some connection between the city’s new migrant population and this sense of a latent, primeval force that threatens to engulf London’s traditional buildings, institutions and cultures. In such ways, the different currents and energies MacInnes identifies within the city by turns entwine, separate and conflict.
The instinct for storytelling, then, is linked to MacInnes’ sensitivity to the histories of place in London, his awareness of the city as a palimpsest, which may in turn be connected to his youth in Australia, a period that preserved the atmosphere of the World War One-era capital in his imagination. If his novels often appear pessimistic regarding the ideals of welfare capitalism, this doesn’t only reflect a general cynicism towards the state; it is also a product of MacInnes’ intuitive feeling for the city’s past, how it lives on among sites of transience and progress. Fittingly, the hero of Absolute Beginners sees his W10 neighbourhood of Notting Dale as a district ‘left behind by the Welfare era and the Property-owning whatsit, both of them’ (599). The sense of the past is strong in this area between Kensal Green and Notting Hill, which the narrator calls ‘Napoli’: a name which, as White notes, ‘marks it out as at once lawless in the context of metropolitan authority but living to its own rules’; it signifies transgression of state legality and the presence of an older moral code, as well as the sense of Italian romance alluded to in the reference to Venice’s gondolas. In a tone that anticipates psychogeographical biographers of the city like Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair, MacInnes’ narrator revels in the murky histories suggested by the area’s street names:

A whole festoon of what I think must really be the sinisterest highways in our city, well, just listen to their names: Blechynden, Silchester, Walmer, Testerton and Bramley—can’t you just smell them, as you hurry to get through the cats-cradle of these blocks? In this part, the houses are old Victorian lower-middle tumble-down, built I dare say for grocers and bank clerks and horse-omnibus inspectors who’ve died and gone and their descendants evacuated to the outer suburbs, but these houses live on like shells. (599)

This is one of the main areas of West Indian immigration in the 1950s, and the Notting Hill race riots of 1958 form the backdrop of the novel’s climax; the narrator is talking about the phenomenon of white middle-class residents leaving such areas. Yet his choice of evocative wartime language—the area has been ‘evacuated’, and the buildings are now mere ‘shells’—is significant. In MacInnes’ London, cosmopolitanism and social change are celebrated as opportunities to revive a decaying city, and the communities, subcultures and individuals that drive these processes are often found in districts still recovering from wartime bombing. The sense of liminality and transience that the novels explore partly evolves out of the interaction between these new communities and the histories of the war-damaged spaces they occupy, and this should go some way to explaining MacInnes’ apparent ambivalence towards postwar redevelopment. The attitude of the narrator in Mr Love and Justice to a modernist housing project is typical: it is ‘one of those countless anonymous 1950 blocks which, in spite of their proliferation, have as yet entirely failed to transform London from what it still after years of bombing essentially remains—a late-Victorian city. The block was tall and oblong-square, and bleak and thoroughly adequate’ (83). These traces or energies of Victorian London persist, despite postwar efforts to remodel the city according to the values of welfare capitalism, and the distinctive character of MacInnes’ London derives from the different ways in which the city’s diverse subcultures engage with that sense of the past.
The Victorian era thus forms the bedrock of this version of London, or at least one of the most prominent layers of the city’s palimpsest. Yet it is not a period for which MacInnes’ narrators express affection, so much as wariness or wry mockery. Victorian and Edwardian public toilets, for example, are described by the narrator of Mr Love and Justice as places of ‘ludicrous solemnity’:

For this simplest of acts, what one can only describe as temples, or shrines, have been erected [...] on an Egyptian scale. Each visitor is isolated from his neighbour, though so close to him and in such physical communion, as if in a sort of lay confessional. [...] All this seems to bear witness to a really sensational and alarming fear and hatred of the flesh, even in its most natural functions, that inspired the municipal Pharaohs who designed these places. (84)

This kind of Englishness is thus ridiculed, but it also holds a sinister sway over MacInnes’ characters as they seek to reinvent themselves and their locale in the postwar era. The aura of pre-First World War London lingers on in this new world of postcolonial cosmopolitanism and welfare capitalism. White middle-class culture, for MacInnes, is epitomized in Kilburn, described in Mr Love and Justice as an area of ‘straight-laced seediness’, a ‘primped-up exterior behind which lurks something dubious and occasionally horrifying [...] the peculiar English mixture of lunacy and violence’ (82). While such descriptions of place are very far from nostalgia, they nonetheless evince a grudging recognition of some of the hegemonic forces that have shaped London’s streets and buildings: forces which have not simply been swept away by a tide of postwar egalitarianism and social democracy.
In City of Spades, the influence of the new institutions of the Welfare State is dimly felt in comparison to this sense of older energies of place. Instead, the black subcultures of the novel are shaping a new London in a kind of dialogue with these currents, in places like the Moonbeam club. This is located in what Pew calls the ‘entrails’ of a ‘bombed site alive with awnings, naked lights, and throngs of coloured men’ (86). Upon entering and descending two floors, he wonders ‘Can London be so deep?’ (87). MacInnes’ fascination with depth, and the sense of this being related to London’s temporal palimpsest, the accessing of previously dormant energies that run through the city’s literal and figurative underworld, anticipates one strand of later psychogeographical writings on the city. Iain Sinclair has recently discussed how the inexorable spread of the forces of capital throughout London is now evident even at this subterranean level: ‘Underworld is the coming battleground’, he notes, citing the development of the Crossrail project and the growth of ‘the domestic mining fetish’, luxury underground extensions. In MacInnes’ London, these spaces are still contested: the hostility experienced by his ethnic minority characters in the city’s visible, above-ground mainstream drives the growth of these subcultures. For Pew, this is ‘a world where you’ve never set foot before, even though it’s always existed under your nose’ (85).
As MacInnes’ metaphor of depth suggests, his characters are engaging not only with a diversity in terms of currently existing subcultures, but also in terms of temporality: an awareness of the layers of history that comprise London’s subterranean worlds. This is indicated again later in the novel when Johnny Fortune is on a boat trip on the Thames with his girlfriend Muriel, and the tour guide informs them that ‘“beneath the boat and underneath the river bed [...] is the oldest of the numerous Thames tunnels, now disused, constructed between 1825 and 1843 by Sir Marc Isambard Brunel”’; the boat proceeds ‘between Venetian facades of eyeless warehouses, dropping into ancient Roman mud’ (115, 116). This new temporal and geographical perspective has a Hardyesque quality, focusing upon London’s Roman history; it makes Muriel see it as ‘a place quite unfamiliar’, just as it often seemed to the returning native MacInnes (116). As Houlden notes, Muriel’s words ‘indicate the confusion of native Londoners as they discover that the city of which they were so confidently in possession is perhaps not quite their own after all’. But MacInnes is also concerned with the more general impossibility of really knowing any city—demographic upheavals or not—given the layers of the past which inevitably accumulate, pervading the places of the present; and given the fragmentation of perspective and experience which is an intrinsic characteristic of all metropolitan life. In Mr Love and Justice, the City ‘still preserves its Roman quality of ending very abruptly at its ancient gates [...] so that gruesome Venetian financial palaces abut on to semi-slums’: again London’s spaces are haunted by their Roman past, and again Italian wealth and ostentatiousness is evoked in describing the capital’s disconcerting mixture of glamour and seediness (98).
To conclude I want to emphasize the importance, in understanding MacInnes’ position upon the relationships between postwar London’s places, politics and subcultures, of his sense of himself as an outsider, a marginal observer of events, who cannot be identified with any particular social group. His novels do not dismiss the achievements of postwar social democracy or the Welfare State outright: the conclusion of Mr Love and Justice, for example, sees its two protagonists overcoming their socially-constructed alienation when they find themselves sharing an NHS hospital room. Edward seems genuinely amazed by the existence of such instutitions; as he says, ‘“these hospitals are really terrific. [...] they treat you whoever you are—no questions asked—not even any money. Just so long as you’re sick you’re welcome. [...] People should know what goes on inside these places”’ (202). Yet in these novels, the creation of such institutions cannot simply brush the past aside. Instead, they must evolve and develop in tandem with an understanding of London’s complex, vibrant mix of diverse subcultures, and with the history of the places they occupy.
The quintessential centre of this fictional universe is perhaps Stepney as it is described in Mr Love and Justice: it ‘has a macabre, poetic beauty’, ‘one of those areas of London that is thoroughly confused about itself, being in transition from various ancient states of being to new ones it is still busy searching for’ (98). That amorphous identity is microcosmically symbolised in Spitalfields market, ‘with its vigorous dawn life and odour of veg, fruit, and flowers—like blended essences of the citizens’ duties, delights, and fantasies’ (98). Moreover, because of ‘the markets, seamen, and Commonwealth minorities, in Stepney you can eat and drink, as well as other things, at any hour you choose to; and thanks to the alternation of the Jewish sabbath with the Gentile, the shops and markets never close’ (99). Ultimately, for MacInnes, this sense of complexity, transition and instability is a sign of a healthy cosmopolitanism that should be valued above all other aspects of the city. Central to this is Stepney’s docklands location: not only because of the ocean’s association with ‘the castaways from Africa and the Caribbean’, who perform here ‘a perpetual, melancholy, wryly humorous ballet’; but also because at this point, the river is ‘lined with wharves and cranes’ and carries ‘great ocean-loving steamers’: ‘no longer the pretty, grubby playground of the higher reaches but already, by now, the sea’ (99). This thrilling sense of connection to the cultural energies of the world beyond Britain is part of Frankie Love’s romanticisation of the sea: it ‘“teaches you the scale of things: what matters and what really doesn’t”’, as another pimp remarks in conversation with him (70). Here, as in the minority subcultures that MacInnes celebrates, there is a sense of transition, liminality, and vital energy that is lacking in both London’s tired Victorian past, and its bureaucratic postwar present. In these novels, which neither cling with reactionary instincts to the Britain that preceded Commonwealth migration, nor celebrate unreservedly the top-down institutions of the ‘postwar consensus’, the most vital and creative energies emerge from collisions of past and present, culture and subculture, the surface and the subterranean.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Rose Macaulay, The World My Wilderness (1950)

The World My Wilderness was Rose Macaulay's penultimate novel. She was sixty-nine when it was published in 1950; and yet she chose to place an adolescent at the centre of her narrative. This anticipates Colin MacInnes' decision, in Absolute Beginners (1959), to explore a teenage perspective upon London, although if we examine the novels alongside each other, the gulf between them - in terms of characterization, atmosphere and cultural context - is striking. Where MacInnes portrays a late-fifties world in which the teenager represents a new Britain, consumerist, sexually liberated, scornful of traditional social divisions, and multicultural, Macaulay's heroine, Barbary, is burdened by the trauma of the war (the novel is set in 1946). She can be seen as an embodiment of fears that are characteristic of the wealthier classes she comes from: that the war has destroyed deferential social structures which previously maintained order; that the new 'postwar settlement' will give the working classes a far stronger voice and influence than ever before. Despite these obvious differences, however, it is noteworthy that in the postwar era, both MacInnes and Macaulay turn to adolescent perspectives. The divergences between the texts are, in part, a measure of the explosion of teenage identity between the end of the war and the late 1950s: while it is evidently a nascent phenomenon in Macaulay's story, MacInnes' novel documents the confidence and liberation with which young people are exploring this new London. Both novels gaze into the future, and try to imagine how the social, cultural and economic upheavals of their respective periods will be played out in the following decades, as their protagonists reach adulthood.

Barbary is a seventeen year-old transplanted from postwar southern France (where she has been living with her British mother, Helen, for seven years) to the London home of her father, Gulliver, and his new wife Pamela. Although born in Britain, Macaulay's heroine has been shaped by her wartime experiences as part of the French Resistance. Exploring the forests around Collioure, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Barbary (whose name is obviously symbolic of her 'uncivilized' nature, although the meanings of 'civilization' and 'barbarism' form the central ambiguity of the novel) has developed a system of values and beliefs reflective of the Resistance's guerrilla mindset. The protection of the region - the first of the novel's several 'wildernesses' - against alien interlopers is everything; defining the enemy, however, is not always simple. The Germans, of course; but also French collaborators (and the question of what counts as 'collaboration' is crucial). The Resistance's relationship with the latter is further complicated by the complex identities of the Resistance fighters, who do not see themselves as wholly French or Spanish, but as something in-between, with no allegiance to either. For Barbary's brother Richie - an affable but unashamedly reactionary student at Cambridge, who describes himself as 'go[ing] in for snobbism in a big way' (25) - the murky ambiguity of this region is unsettling:

The menace of Spain crept down from the mountains: this was Roussillon, ancient home of wild Visigoths fleeing over the mountains from Saracens, ancient fief of Barcelona counts, later a province of the kings of Aragon, a prey to Spanish armies, to French invaders, to the trampling of the nations and the kings at war. It was still more Spanish than French; its swarthy peasants talked Catalan, smuggled contraband over the mountain passes, had brothers, cousins, parents, sons, across the frontier. (148-9)
In a way that is characteristic of Macaulay's third-person narrative, this passage blurs the distinction between Richie's interior monologue and the musings of the omniscient narrator. Macaulay plays with the ambiguity of free indirect discourse: while the narrative voice always feels sympathetic to the particular character in focus (usually Barbary), it also often betrays a depth of knowledge that transcends them.

This technique allows Macaulay to weave a narrative which feels sympathetic, at different points, to all of its major characters - despite them displaying, by turns, selfishness, neglect, and jealousy to unusual degrees - while also maintaining an overarching expository voice. This perspective thematically connects the novel's geographically contrasting locations (Collioure, bombed ruins within the City of London, and Arshaig in the Scottish Highlands, where Gulliver's brother and his family live). In the passage following Richie quoted above, the narrative continues to drift further away from identification with the character, towards speculative musings upon human nature and the cultural legacy of the war:

The peace that shrouded land and sea was a mask, lying thinly over terror, over hate, over cruel deeds done. Barbarism prowled and padded, lurking in the hot sunshine, in the warm scents of the maquis, in the deep shadows of the forest. Visigoths, Franks, Catalans, Spanish, French, Germans, Anglo-American armies, savageries without number, the Gestapo torturing captured French patriots, rounding up fleeing Jews, the Resistance murdering, derailing trains full of people, lurking in the shadows to kill, collaborators betraying Jews and escaped prisoners, working together with the victors, being in their turn killed and mauled, hunted down by mobs hot with rage; everywhere cruelty, everywhere vengeance, everywhere the barbarian on the march. (149)
As noted above, 'barbarism' and 'civilization' are the novel's central themes, with the former being associated with 'wilderness'; but the particular places and behaviours with which these concepts are associated vary. In this example, Macaulay draws symbolic connections between the murderous chaos and confusion of the war and the wild, mountainous landscape itself. In a style typical of the novel's more formally adventurous passages, the third sentence here uses a long chain of descriptions separated only by commas (aside from a single semicolon, providing a dramatic pause), conveying the sense of an overwhelming, incessant sequence of incomprehensible and violent events. The effect recalls Lawrence or Hemingway in its drama and fluidity; but it also anticipates Sebald, in the way that the landscape is interwoven with a sense of collective internecine trauma, impossible to grasp or understand, yet everywhere present.

Relocated to London, Barbary retains the martial, mistrustful consciousness that has evolved during the war, and finds a new 'wilderness' to defend: the apocalyptic landscape of shattered streets, offices and churches in and around Fore Street and Cripplegate in the City. Macaulay evokes Eliot's poem - also quoted as one of the novel's epigraphs - in her descriptions of this new wasteland:

this is the maquis that lies about the margins of the wrecked world, and here your feet are set; here you find the irremediable barbarism that comes up from the depth of the earth, and that you have known elsewhere. 'Where are the roots that clutch, what branches grow, out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, you cannot say, or guess....' But you can say, you can guess, that it is you yourself, your own roots, that clutch the stony rubbish, the branches of your own being that grow from it and from nowhere else. (129)
The Waste Land acquires a disturbingly prophetic quality as Macaulay uses it: once a metaphor for the moral desolation of post-World War One Europe, the poem now also anticipates the literal 'stony rubbish' to which Europe's cities have been reduced. This passage demonstrates, again, Macaulay's willingness to gradually but inexorably pull her narrative perspective away from the ostensible perceiving subject. While Barbary is the character who explores this 'wrecked world', the second-person narrative voice is not hers; she certainly is not familiar with The Waste Land, being 'so ignorant, she can barely read' (25); and Macaulay's use of this device here therefore feels like a direct address to the reader from a shadowy, omniscient narrator. We seem complicit, ethically implicated, in the moral collapse the passage describes, or at least unable to escape it, since this 'stony rubbish' forms the foundations of the postwar world.

The World My Wilderness, then, uses Eliot's poem to signify both physical and cultural desolation, the apparent triumph of 'barbarism' over 'civilization'. Its pessimism discloses anxieties about the postwar British landscape, literal and figurative, common among the wealthier classes following the 1945 Labour victory: fears that economic redistribution and class levelling will lead to the irrevocable loss of some essential English aestheticism, delicacy or civility; and that modernist urban planning will destroy the character of towns and cities. Although Barbary's 'anarchist' (25) temperament is ostensibly a product of her time in France, she functions as a manifestation of such fears, of the belief that the postwar generation will refuse to accept the social norms, hierarchies, and aesthetic values of the past. Yet Macaulay's narrative position is characteristically complex and ambiguous on such questions. When Barbary's father tells her 'you'll have to learn sometime to fit into the society about you', she wonders 'what society he meant' (135). British society has been revealed as multiplicity; previously invisible social groups, like the working-class adolescents Barbary befriends among the ruins, are demanding a stake in this new world. Rather than being forced into the upper middle-class role her father envisions for her, Barbary will be able to forge new social connections and negotiate her own existence. This spontaneous adaptation to the 'wilderness' in which she finds herself is mirrored in the fauna of the ruins: 'dense forests of bracken and bramble, golden ragwort and coltsfoot, fennel and foxglove and vetch, all the wild rambling shrubs that spring from ruin' (128). To be a weed rather than a flower is not an essential quality, but an externally imposed definition; and the same can be said of human values and behaviours. Macaulay suggests that Barbary's growth amid the wilderness will ultimately lead to a strong and distinctive social identity. Moreover, she will be part of a society that, through gradual progress towards democratization and cultural diversity, reflects the biodiversity, spontaneity and adaptability of the ruins.

The 'society' that Gulliver seeks to force Barbary into, then, is 'a solid, improbable world [...] less real, less natural than the waste land' (74). Macaulay's unusual pairing of adjectives captures the sense of paradox that permeates the novel: how can hegemonic values and norms be simultaneously 'solid' and 'improbable'? The answer is that, while these ideas appear to be still dominant, they are really revenants of a declining social order. Barbary's experiences have taught her to mistrust authority, and the seeds that will eventually result in Colin MacInnes' confident and independent teenager have been sown. When Gulliver questions Barbary about her rebellious behaviour, she recalls her experiences of interrogation during the war: 'Her mind flinched at the familiar words. I want an answer; I mean to have an answer; you had better speak at once, before we make you' (132). In one sense, Barbary is delusional, confusing the genuine threat to her safety during the war with adults' attempts to socialize her. But in another sense, she is making a connection between all forms of authority, all attempts to control and regulate behaviour, which cannot be stifled by appeals to a defunct rationality. The supposed legitimacy of older generations has been undermined by the catastrophe of the war. Barbary finds herself in an existential crisis: she must create her own values, since she instinctively recognizes that nobody can do it for her. Indeed, the novel's older characters themselves no longer really have faith in the ideas which they half-heartedly attempt to impart, as Helen acknowledges: 'The crook in all of us is bursting out and taking possession [...] We shall all go down and down into catastrophe and the abyss' (93-4).

At the heart of this theme is religion and spirituality. If Western culture is viewed in dualistic terms, as a struggle between 'civilization' and 'barbarism', then where do religious beliefs and values - which cannot be reduced to the kind of rationalist, Enlightenment assumptions that the former suggests - fit in? To the abbé in Collioure who visits Helen, the Catholic church is surrounded by 'the wilderness outside'; to leave it 'is to be lost indeed. And that, alas, is what so many of the sons and daughters of the Resistance are now doing' (144). But what Barbary is really doing in her explorations of wildernesses, literal and figurative, is negotiating a new relationship with spirituality. Significantly, the buildings within the bombed area that have proved most stable, and that now provide the safest refuge, are the churches. Barbary and her friends play jazz records, drink beer and paint in these spaces, repurposing them towards bohemian and deviant ends; but she is fascinated by their atmosphere, and evolves her own unorthodox relationship with religion. Exploring St. Giles' church at night, she 'make[s] her placatory devotions before the phantom altar, lest death should come for her tonight and hell yawn', before 'reciting lines from the torn hymn-book pages that she kept in a niche in the wall' (185). After sleeping in the church that night, the morning light reveals St. Paul's, the overseeing guardian of the wilderness:

Waking, cramped and chilly, in the faint beginnings of dawn, she looked out from her terrace over the cold grey tumbled waste, the cratered landscape of the moon, and saw the great dome riding beyond it, pale curve of dove grey against a dove's breast sky. Mighty symbol dominating ruin; formidable, insoluble riddle; stronghold, refuge and menace, or mirage and gigantic hoax? Accepting it as the former, Barbary saluted it with a deprecatory sign of the cross. (186)
Barbary accepts the cathedral's spiritual authenticity, but it is in fact all of these things. The building is a representation of the hegemonic social, political and economic powers deeply entwined with the Church of England, a 'gigantic hoax' which has been part of the ruling classes' ideological apparatus for centuries. Yet in her liberated and idiosyncratic relationship with such spaces, Barbary is learning to create her own form of spirituality, which might be reconciled with the new socio-cultural landscape of Britain. As Helen thinks to herself: 'the maquis is within us, we take our wilderness where we go' (210). What Macaulay suggests is that the wilderness within Barbary does not signal the opposite of 'civilization', but rather a critical renegotiation of this concept.