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Colin MacInnes: The London Novels (Visions of London): City of Spades; Absolute Beginners; Mr. Love and Justice

The first novel in the trilogy is about race relations in England in the 1950s. West Indians are arriving en masse in England and the government realises there is a problem. A small branch of the Colonial department is given the task of dealing with the problem and Montgomery Pew is the officer entrusted with the task. His first client is Johnny Fortune, newly arrived from Nigeria, allegedly to study. Fortune’s friend, Hamilton, is already in London and introduces him to the black life of London. Pew soon gets involved in the London West Indian culture and also involves Theodora, who lives in the same building as he does and who works for the BBC. Most of the novel is MacInnes’ tribute to the black culture of London, with all its foibles (petty theft, drugs, etc.), and the unfair treatment it gets at the hands of the dominant white culture. While all this is now obvious, at the time it was revolutionary for a white writer to say such a thing. MacInnes brings in all aspects of black culture – African, West Indian and even USA, and shows the differences and rivalries between the different cultures.

Johnny takes up with Muriel who is the daughter of the (white) woman his father had an affair with many years ago but then gets set up by the police. Pew loses his job but doesn’t seem to care and he and Theodora work to get Johnny legal help to set him free. Of course, it all more or less works out in the end but the pleasure of this book is not the plot, it is the affectionate portrait of London’s black culture.

Absolute Beginners

This book is perhaps best known for the film made of the novel, starring David Bowie (who wrote and sang the title song), Patsy Kensit, Sade, Ray Davies (of the Kinks) and Mandy Rice-Davies. It was an excellent film and focused attention on MacInnes’ novel. Colin is a photographer and the first generation of independent teenagers in post-war England. One of the reasons why he is a photographer is because he values his independence so highly. However, he is in love with Suzette, his now ex-girlfriend who has taken up with and subsequently marries the rich old poof, Henley. Just as City of Spades is a tribute to black London, this novel is a tribute to pre-Beatle swinging London – from cockneys to teddy boys, from Soho and its coffee bars, clubs and soft-core porn to the Thames and its boats. And, of course, the race theme spills over from City of Spades, culminating in the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, which Colin witnesses. Does he get Suzette back? Who cares? This is a fun novel about being a teenager in 1950s London and should be enjoyed for its portrait of London.

Mr. Love and Justice

This is the least successful of the trilogy but moderately interesting nonetheless. Mr. Love is Frankie Love, ex-sailor and now pimp. Justice is Police Constable Edward Justice, newly promoted to the vice squad whose aim is to get pimps like Frankie. MacInnes pokes fun at the police for their rigid rules and staunch conservatism. We follow Frankie as he becomes a pimp (like PC Justice he has to learn his trade) and we follow PC Justice, a naïve young man, in love but unable to marry as his girlfriend is the daughter of a felon. This novel is the most didactic of the three, pointing out the hypocrisy of British laws on pimping (as it is so difficult to prove, the police frequently resort to framing suspects as they do here). While he does not overly glamourise prostitution and pimping, he seems to imply that it is a more noble calling than the vice squad. Will Justice catch Love? Will Justice see the light? Once again, plot is not MacInnes’ strong point and, as the vibrant background of the first two novels is missing here, you are likely to lose interest before the inevitable climax.

Publishing history

First published by MacGibbon & Kee (1958 City of Spades; 1959 Absolute Beginners; 1960 Mr. Love and Justice); first published as a collection 1969 (as Visions of London in the UK, as The London Novels in the USA)