One of the reasons I picked up Absolute Beginners again was because of historian Dominic Sandbrook's daft grudge against Colin Macinnes (in Never Had...moreOne of the reasons I picked up Absolute Beginners again was because of historian Dominic Sandbrook's daft grudge against Colin Macinnes (in Never Had It So Good). I last attempted it in my teens. It had been a slowish read – proved to be the same this time round – and was easy to give up on back then because the library copy was a horrible mouldy one.
Now, the vintage atmosphere and detail in the story was way more interesting so I hung around to savour that (when younger I'd filed this era as being 'before anything was cool'), noticing differences from the film musical, and processing the late 1950s slang. Plenty of 60s slang is still immediately familiar yet this stuff from only 5-10 years earlier, not immortalised in pop culture, can require a moment's thought to work out. These characters are the cool kids of my parents' generation, yet they are so different it reminded me how facile the idea of generation=social attitude can be. (One of the good points Sandbrook makes is that most people of this era, even the younger ones, weren't mods, hippies or their rock 'n' roll precursors, they were hardworking squares.)
There's something artificial about the way the main character loves the term “teenager” (as beloved of the media then as “hipster” has been for the last few years, though back then there was more fear and real disapproval, rather than the contemporary eye-rolling). He likes defining what it means to be a teenager – it's a culture at least as much as an age, squares aren't really teenagers – and it's not that different from The Who's 'My Generation', by the time of whose release the narrator and his mates might (if they weren't still pop-culture purveyors) be boring oldsters. The over-consciousness of cultural definitions works in a way because he's one of those entrepreneurial kids who's interested in talking to the media and getting noticed by the movers and shakers (in an 80s or 90s setting he'd be a DJ / party planner, here he's a photographer, proto-Blow-Up) but it's also a reminder that Absolute Beginners was written by a champagne socialist easily old enough to be the protagonist's dad. Some of the press evidently loved it (a quote on the back from Harpers & Queen says "Prose as sharp as a pair of Italian slacks and vivid as a pair of pink socks", The Sunday Times: "The cult novel of the year."). But I'd love to know what the real teenagers of the day thought of this book... Was everything in it so five years ago by the time they ever saw a copy? (By the 80s, presumably re-reviewing in the light of the film, the NME says "Macinnes caught it first - and best"; and Paul Weller, just born when it was published, "a book of inspiration.")
Some reviewers are critical of the way black, Jewish or gay people are described by the narrator. There's an element of positive stereotyping, complimentary or neutral description with frequent reference to some of the narrator's friends' background (how lively a friend's Jewish household is compared with his English one, there are white girls who fancy black men apparently because of sexual stereotypes, that sort of thing). But they have personalities too, and the narrator is way more inclusive and accepting than most of his contemporaries, even prepared to get injured defending his mates during the Notting Hill race riots. His way of speaking is what, over decades, evolved into the contemporary attitudes that mean it isn't okay to say the same things now. Such critics tend to dislike arguments for historical context, but if ever there was a good one for those people cutting a text some slack, it's with this book.
I'm kind of surprised to see so many reviews on here, and quite good ones, for Absolute Beginners; I'd had the impression its reputation was fading. Seems that inclusion in 1001 Books To Read Before You Die has boosted it a bit. For my part I'd recommend it mostly for people interested in the social & cultural history, and for those who like some background to their vintage clothes/film/music habit. (less)