miércoles, 31 de marzo de 2010

City Of Spades by Colin MacInnes

Colin MacInnes wrote City Of Spades over fifty years ago. At the time its depiction of London from an African immigrant’s point of view both shocked and revealed. I wondered whether a contemporary reader might now find its perspective hackneyed, its impact diminished by changes in attitudes towards race that we assume have happened in the intervening years.

Half a century ago, the bones of Johnny Fortune’s story might have shocked. Somehow, at least for those anywhere near the issues, I doubt it. He arrives in London from Nigeria to study meteorology, an activity that, for a whole host of reasons, he manages singularly to avoid. A newly-appointed welfare officer is charged with the task of easing the exigencies of life for youngsters from the warmer parts of the Commonwealth who come to be weaned by the mother of the Empire. He is appointed to care for Johnny’s file. But before long, while Johnny designs his own curriculum, it is our young civil servant who is receiving the education, an education about the nature of his own society, or at least a side of it that he might previously have been totally and blissfully unaware.

Perhaps paradoxically, Johnny meets people who regularly do things that are less than legal. He encounters substances with their associated informal retail trade, dubious service-sector occupations with their associated facilitators, activities behind closed doors that would be unseemly at the street corner. In short, opportunities in several shapes and sizes appear at almost every step. And then, of course, the police turn up and try to call a halt to the party. Suffice it to say that Johnny Fortune’s fortunes lead to various encounters, some of which are within the law, and some with the law. Invariably, they involve little prosperity and even less formal learning.

If the plot’s content might have shocked residents of areas outside inner London in the late 1950s, then today it would not. Times certainly have changed. But then shock was not the book’s intent, even fifty years ago. Shock would have encouraged exaggeration which Colin MacInnes only ever suggests to create comedy. What City of Spades tries to do, in my opinion, is question those assumptions we all make about the nature of our society, our identity, our ideas of culture, nationality and history. And the book still manages to achieve this, because those themes, if not their settings, are eternal.

I was reminded, on this reading, of The Rake’s Progress. When we follow the exploits of Tom Rakewell, we make allowances that accommodate differences between eighteenth century life and its contemporary manifestation in order to see through to the principles and ideas. We do not, for instance, need to believe that Nick Shadow is actually the embodiment of The Devil, as advertised, to understand the folly of Tom’s decision to seek personal aggrandisement in London rather than a slower-paced but perhaps more sincere provincial predictability. We do, however, have to understand a certain moral landscape in order to interpret the schemes that Tom pursues, despite the fact that they now seem strange and a tad unlikely. It’s in this spirit, I believe, that we should approach City Of Spades in order to identify, experience and understand much in the work that clearly transcends merely historical significance.

Also like The Rake’s Progress, City Of Spades is a highly witty and humorous look at some aspects of its contemporary society. In the latter’s case, it reveals double standards relating to race, class difference and a host of societal characteristics whose existence received middle class sentiment might seek to deny. Nowadays, we might see many of these revelations as highly unremarkable, despite the fact that, for many, they remain not quite mundane. Colin MacInnes’s City Of Spades still retains the ability to make its point in its original, apparently durable terms.

In the 1950s, a stereotypical view of Britishness might have included claims to trust, honesty, integrity in public life, a police force that was the toast of the earth and a society that both cared for the vulnerable and had time to love animals. In City Of Spades, Johnny Fortune had drugs planted on him, was beaten up in custody and lived ordinarily in layer of society whose existence the polite either denied or ignored. But then he has African. Times don’t change. But the title might have.

View this book on amazon
City of Spades

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