I read some books. Roger Daltrey’s appearance on the fringes of the news this week made them faintly topical, due to their slight connection with the ancient topic of “Mod culture”. What they also have in common is that they are the only novels published by their authors, and have been hard-to-get for most of the past 50 years.
Baron’s Court, All Change (1961) by Terry Taylor, has 2 distinctions: it is the first British novel to mention LSD (Aldous Huxley mentioned it in the long essay Heaven And Hell in 1956), and its author is credited as the real-life counterpart of the young narrator in Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners. Terry is now in the National Portrait Gallery striking a characteristic pose.
There are on-line reproductions of the jacket of the first edition, which describe Terry thus (original typos and capitalisation included):
Terry Taylor was born in London in 1933. He was educated at Secondary Schools and Ealing Technical College and School of Art. Among others things he has been a palmist, wall of death rider, barrow boy, an actor and a photographer. This is his first novel.
I suppose this was the start of the era in which publishers and agents would boast of the range of low-rent jobs their authors had done, instead of their impeccable educational background. The world in which Colin Wilson was briefly lauded as the British working class wunderkind who could talk to Sartre as an equal, unburdened by the parochialism and insularity of his class-dominated native culture (his native culture soon rejected him as a cheap fake).
Baron’s Court, All Change describes about a year in the life of a teenager trying to find his way in London and its night time culture. It is divided in to 3 chapters, “Square”, “Triangle”, “Circle”, which are never explained or directly referred to in the text. They could be interpreted as developing from the jazz-hipster lingo he had already acquired at the start: he was a “square” initially, he was involved in a 3-sided relationship in the main course of the story, and in the end he has grown in to a more rounded individual, though not anything like a mature or conventional grown-up. The style is always conversational, often clumsy as he tries to gather too many thoughts at once whilst holding to a cheeky, matey tone of familiarity.
In the beginning he is working as a junior salesman in a hat shop in West London, travelling in every day from the suburbs and changing at Baron’s Court, the gateway to central London and everything he can’t find near home: jazz, and cool people to talk about it with. He’s also interested in spiritualism and all the other strange ideas that are a bit off the beaten track and not considered respectable.
What age is our hero, and what year is this? This is a problem: we might suppose he is 16/17 because there is no reference at all to being called up for National Service, or having either gone through it or at least being passed over as medically unfit. He doesn’t even mention it when his younger sister announces she’s joining the Army. But he also recollects going in to the family’s air-raid shelter in 1940, and seeing schoolfriends be evacuated to the country, and the celebrations of VE Day… which rather implies he’s the same age as Terry Taylor. In that case this would be set around 1949/50, which doesn’t fit with the detail that Soho tough guy Jumbo became a dealer “When the Charge hit the scene in a big way in ‘48”, which implies that was quite a few years ago. If he was the same age as Terry Taylor then he’d be in his mid 20s by the late 50s, and not really in a position to sneer at the old mummy’s boy still living with his mum down the road. I don’t think we can be earlier than 1956 in the final version of the novel. Perhaps our narrator was 16 when Terry starting writing him, and he didn’t get aged as the story advanced through the decade. Giving him a memory of the Blitz is a survival from an earlier draft that should have been excised, but it persists to haunt the published version like a memory of a past life, the sort of thing revealed in his Spiritualist meetings.
Let’s call the hero “Terry” to make it easier. Terry first heard a jazz record he liked during the annual family holiday.
It’s the only music that I’ve ever been enthusiastic about. Ever since I heard Tito Burns’ Bebop Spoken Here (which is now very unhip, but at least it was a start) on a jukebox in dear old Canvey Island. I decided that, at last, I was interested in music.
That is the pattern for initiates into “alternative music” over the decades: hooked in by something that they may be embarrassed about later. The earliest version of Bebop Spoken Here I can find is from 1949.
Hanging around with all the other hip young cats who dig the sounds at the Katz Kradle Jazz Club (run by a clueless old impresario who can be easily fooled in to booking made-up acts, for a giggle), Terry soon finds out about the special substances like “Charge” that are smoked at the coolest parties. He goes from being completely naïve about the topic, to a regular smoker, and after a few months his mate Dusty Miller hatches up the plan to invest their savings in a large quantity so the boys can get in to selling the stuff themselves. They aren’t going to bother with small quantities to waifs and strays, the plan is to sell to the musicians and other showbiz contacts met around the club circuit.
The supplier of the material for the plan is Ayo, one of the Africans and West Indians on the jazz scene who are treated with varying degrees of respect and hesitation by the white daytrippers. As well as its use of the full range of obscenities, this novel also features many “racial epithets” as well as some casual homophobia. However these characters do believe that explicit racist attitudes are definitely uncool. When Ruby, the druggy girlfriend of a musician, makes an outburst against a black woman at a party, everyone is clear that she’s outside the group. On her next encounter she gets told:
There was a knock on the door and it turned out to be no less than the thing that tries to kid everyone she’s human: Ruby. She hadn’t seen Dusty and myself before she’d said, “Shall I go home and wait for you there, Bill?” Then she spotted us and her face dropped. “Hello, how’s things?” she asked us awkwardly.
Dusty was in just the right mood for her. “Things are fine with us, thanks. How are you? I hear the Fascists are getting themselves really set up down Ladbroke Grove way – have you joined them yet?”
That’s a reference to Oswald Mosley’s attempt to make a post-war comeback exploiting the Notting Hill riots, which would also place this story in 1958/9.
How much Terry understands about non-European culture may be gauged by the imagery he uses when sneering at the narrow-mindedness of the suburban world.
There was a rumour once that one old girl down the road didn’t have a television set but still displayed an aerial on top of her roof all the same. When the local witch-doctor found out about this it was bashed out on the tom-toms until every native in the district had heard about it. The poor old dear was sent to Coventry, or whatever they call it, and she had to leave the district in the end.
When the 2 lads are having a big session they drift off in to a fantasy about being rich and established drug lords, which involves taking over their own country.
Africa would soon get their independence if we were there, and when they did, who’d be in Government? Right, first time!… We’d soon deport the die-hard British imperialists and set up the friendliest government the world has ever known.
There are limits to empathy, but Terry goes as far as he can.
It must be a real drag being a woman. All kinds of male specimens making passes at you all the time, and you having to sort them out like a card index, deciding who to give the red light to, or the amber one, or green.
Unexpected pregnancy, and an abortion performed at home by an amateur, also appear in this story. Terry and Dusty’s actions have consequences for themselves and friends they make use of. As well as working class boys on the make, the scene has plenty of tourists and rich girls for whom it’s all a bit of fun, paid for by cheques from remote parents who also fund their amateurish art careers. Some other odd people are hovering around in search of inspiration.
Then I found myself chatting to this bearded cat who told me he lived for music. It was everything, he told me, and he was having a fix at the same time because a Chico Hamilton disc had found its way to the gram, quite by mistake, I can assure you. He was gone on Ravel and brought out a heap of scores from the briefcase he produced from somewhere to prove it, because there was Ravel’s name written all over them. He wanted to compose. This cat, I mean. Writing some weird symphony, he was, for symphony orchestra, Jazz band and comb and paper, or something like that. I couldn’t understand a word he was talking about but he didn’t realise this as it was obvious he was having a ball telling me all about the great composers like this cat Ravel I was talking about and another one called Bartok and he thought Johnny Hodges was the greatest horn ever. That was plain enough but he didn’t leave it at that. He went through the whole history of music every time he wanted to prove a point. I didn’t mind though. He was serious about his ideas and I like serious people. Let’s get some drama into life, for goodness sake!
Colin MacInnes might be hanging around the scene as well. Is this him? Maybe not, his stuff isn’t as exciting as this description.
…Algernon Fliewright, a writer who could never get anything published because it was too far out, so because of this, and the fact that he chewed benzadrine tablets like sweets, he was always brought down, and never failed to tell you so.
We’re not in the psychedelic 60s yet, but already there are different spiritual pathways on offer to young minds.
She paused to light a cigarette, then: “But don’t despair, there is escape, simply because, thank God or the Devil, there’s other people in this world that think like us, and together, like a secret society, we make our own world… There’s a hundred different paths to travel that have nothing to do with crying babies, football pools, watching the tele, and Saturday night at the local.”
I sat back taking in these words like wine. It was like a sermon that hit right at the truth, or a head shrinker that had really got to the bottom of your problem, because he’d found out the cause of your madness, but even more important, was offering you a cure as well.
If this book had been filmed around 1967 then the trip to Battersea Fun Fair would certainly have provided a psychedelic sequence. Straight after it we go to the long come down of the scene in The Liggery in Soho, where Terry chats with the old junkie Popper and they discuss what a load of nonsense is written in these sensational new bestsellers “exposing” the world of dope fiends. Popper gets his supply from his GP and over the counter from high street pharmacies, just like Anna Kavan and other long-term addicts before the mid 60s.
Still, there’s fun to be had sitting sharing a spliff in the cinema, where none of the squares know what the weird smell is coming from.
Then I lost track of the story of the cartoon because I couldn’t focus on anything but colour. Colour that you imagine is only in heaven – but that’s where we were. If heaven were anything like this and I manage to make it, I’ll never complain to the authorities, I promise. We cut out when the newsreel came on because we knew we would have to go through a load of shitty propaganda about them bad Russians. And one day, when we’re not much older, they’ll have a go at smashing us to smithereens with bombs and missiles and all that Jazz.
Other people were keen on Jazz and the avoidance of nuclear war in the early 60s, amongst them Jeff Nuttall and all the mates he wrote about in Bomb Culture at the end of the decade. One of the others was Peter Currell Brown, who wrote the other novel I read recently. Smallcreep’s Day (1965) gives us another disaffected member of mainstream society. But this one doesn’t live in a suburb or work in a shop – he’s Pinquean Smallcreep, who travels in to a vast factory every morning at 7am to put in a day’s work creating pulleys that then disappear away down the assembly line. He has no rebellious feelings about his life in this country, which is stated to be modern Britain, apparently contemporary to publication time. All that Smallcreep wishes to know is what exactly his labour achieves, what it contributes to the greater whole and the greater good – and so he sets off journeying down the line, hoping to find someone who can answer his simple question. He has a simple faith:
“It is my conviction that everything has a rational explanation,” I heard myself say.
Rather like Candide, this naivete is contrasted with the saga of absurd scenes and actions that Smallcreep voyages through, being variously victim or spectator of desperate injustice or unmotivated aggression. Kafka’s Trial is an obvious model, and there are some structural and tonal similarities with The Bed Sitting Room.
Some of the scenes may be taken as rather obvious satire of the problems of Britain in the 60s. For example, the chapter in which the angry striking workforce confront the room full of directors, only to be diverted in to a capitulation by the prancing phoney “Brother Knarf”, who sells them out for a feeble pay-rise and a knighthood for himself, is a very condensed version of every Play For Today in which Trevor Griffiths condemned the failures of reformism and centrism. It’s more entertaining though, and so is the meeting with Walpole the sewage worker: satisfied with his position at the bottom of the scale and not in favour of his own Union getting him better wages, because of the impact on differentials.
“Unions exist to create and preserve order and syntax in our society, not to back up the haphazard fancies of greedy and irresponsible minorities and individuals.”
We also find that the factory is employing a lot of West Indian workers, but keeping them with little to do; their portrayal is not much more detailed than it was in Terry Taylor’s party scenes, but at least Smallcreep is more careful and gentle in his language, timidly avoiding obscenity of any kind or too much description of indecencies when he encounters them. Even when threatened with by a lynch mob who think he’s a homosexual, he hardly has the words to describe what is going on.
The world of the factory is a world of mysterious and overpowering machines, and Brown’s experience of working in a world like it shows in his ability to name and distinguish the catalogue of armatures and gears that hold the lives around them in their grip. The way that humans have adapted to become like their tools, and to fit in to lives of mechanical purpose themselves, is a recurring theme. It becomes clear near the start that we are not following any rules of conventional “realism” – human beings can have eyes on the sides or the top of the head, or eyes may just seem to be lurking in odd-numbered sets at the periphery of awareness. Are these mere touches of fantasy, or the blurry edges of what can become normal under mechanical degradation? The detail that sometimes human skeletons can be discovered under layers of rubbish when they are finally cleared, may be only a slight exaggeration of the truth that nasty accidents can happen and pass unnoticed and unreported. The scene in which Smallcreep discovers that pigs are employed to operate some machinery, includes the revelation that the noticeboard nearby has a copy of the “Factories Act 1961 – Notes on the Employment of Pigs”. Of course it does.
But very strange were the men. Watching a group of them through a gap in the stacks, each one at his machine, I was reminded more than anything of ballet dancers on television. I thought then that if they had the time they could have looked quite graceful – yes, that was it, they looked like ballet dancers speeded up on a film, speeded up so that they looked ridiculous and undignified, or a bit insane. Each one repeated the pattern of his actions strictly and accurately, with not a finger or a hair moving unnecessarily. They moved quickly but not quite jerkily, with each movement blended into the next, the momentum of each movement carried over into the next, so that the minimum of effort was wasted in braking or reversing any part of the body. They displayed not so much ambidexterity as polydexterity, so that while one hand was occupied in lifting or shifting the component and the other perhaps in preparing a clamp to receive it, a foot might be used to raise or lower the table, or the nose might press a stop or start button. I could see one man who was moving his eyes independently of each other, keeping one on the machine while using the other in preparation for the next component… But whatever possessed these men that they should work like this, I wondered?
Later he encounters Ovine Fudge, the lift operator who is often chatting to his lift.
He went on, “It’s not as if the machines have become the masters or anything like that. It’s much more subtle, it’s somehow as if the machines have joined themselves on to us through long intercourse, so that sometimes you aren’t sure if it’s you moving the machine or the machine moving you to move it. If you come to work in the morning in a bad mood, you find the machine behaving badly too. All the time it reflects you. They all do it, not only lifts.”
Smallcreep does finally meet the great man at the top of the industrial hierarchy – he is of course a pompous, obese self-doubting Caesar, scornful of his worker’s belief in “the freedom we fought for” and instead playing an old tune on the necessity for mass-deception in any advanced society, not just modern industrial society.
”Smallcreep, do you not agree,” he said carefully, after a pause, “that all this talk of freedom of speech and freedom of thought is just so much hogwash and fiddle-faddle if it is not accompanied by freedom of action. Now you cannot have freedom of action because – “ Again I interrupted, protesting that of course we have freedom of action. “This is a free country,” I said, “everybody knows that.” At this he turned on me, clenching his fists and roaring, “Then what the devil am I here for? The tourists?” “But with the greatest possible respect, sir,” I said, determined to make my point, “It is the freely chosen aim of all of us to avoid behaviour which would prejudice the well-being of the community. Most of us are hard working law abiding respectable citizens and wouldn’t wish to be otherwise.”
He turned to me with an unpleasant sarcastic sort of smile on his face. “You see, my dear Smallcreep, the product is always the same. That is just what the average dictator would require you to be, for all his brass bands and uniforms.”
Smallcreep’s Day also has similarities with the (unpublished at the time) Joe Orton novel Head To Toe, which is also an episodic journey around a vast, fantastic organism, featuring moments of social and political satire. An earlier and finer example of the genre would be Nathanel West’s first novel The Dream Life Of Balso Snell, which really was surrealism of its first wave in the 1920s, mixing scatological humour and lampoons of high cultural seriousness. A few years earlier Orton also wrote the very different The Boy Hairdresser, which is close to Terry Taylor’s world. A post-war London that still had plenty of bomb-sites to hide bodies in, where paranoid gangsters are twitching close by young wannabe intellectuals who think Colin Wilson himself might drop by on their party.
13 years ago I read the MacInnes Omnibus in a quick burst over a week. All I can remember of Absolute Beginners is finding the narrator terribly unconvincing – very much a Concerned outsider’s attempt to paint an idealistic youngster in resolutely positive colours, with no shadows or difficult patches. Terry makes a better impression speaking for himself, and being honest about some of his attitudes. However the main thing I remember about that novel is just the fact that I finished reading it at night in a hospital, where I’d been called in for urgent tests for what turned out to be leukaemia. Long stretches of boredom interspersed with unexplained journeys to other departments, down empty echoing corridors and being put up to strange machines for examination. The next morning a very nice and important man told me in a serious voice that I was very ill and things were very bad. I had to stay in for the rest of the day, as they wanted me to finish a saline drip, so I got through Mr Love And Justice, and the bleakness of it finally got MacInnes convincing me he really cared what he was writing about. For the world of corridors, and being an unknown problem pushed around in them, Smallcreep’s Day is more realism than Absolute Beginners.
The picture in the banner is one of several mod badges you can buy from here. No actual uses of the word “Mod” appear in either of the books mentioned here, but they are nearer to the spirit of it all than any 90s revivalists. Leukaemia is a very bad thing, please think about it.