Ethel Mannin, Colin MacInnes & others Explorations

Ethel Mannin Colin MacInnes Young Adult Novel in fifites Britain ya book blast

A BookBlast Explorations feature by Sharif Gemie shining a spotlight on forgotten woman writer, Ethel Mannin, her contemporaries and her world.

How many of you have heard of Ethel Mannin (1900-84), a contemporary of Colin MacInnes? She wrote over a hundred books, including novels, political reflections, autobiographical memoirs and travel-writing, but she has received precious little attention since her death. To my knowledge, in the past fifteen  years, writing about her has been limited to two short studies, a publication of an extract, and the posting of two PDFs. Why hasn’t some post-grad seized the opportunity to study Mannin? Too much reading already? She seems perfect for an independent publisher like Persephone Books to pick up and reissue. But perhaps she is too radical, or there are myriad complex copyright issues to be resolved.

Women and Revolution

John Newsinger is probably right when he claims Mannin as one of the great British left-wing thinkers of the 1930s, seeing her Women and Revolution (1938) as a book to be compared with C.L.R. James’ Black Jacobins (1938) and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1937).

Mannin came from a left-wing family. She started writing books in the 1920s: according to her own account, she wrote to make money. Her third novel, Sounding Brass (1925), had some success, and after that she never looked back. In the 1930s she saw anti-fascism as her political priority. She joined the Independent Labour Party in 1933. Initially sympathetic to the Soviet Union, she grew disillusioned and more criticalethel-mannin-sounding-brass-cover following two visits in 1934 and 1936. She was then inspired by anarchist activism in Spain in 1936, and became friends with Emma Goldman (1869-1940), the pioneering American anarchist and feminist.

In 1939, her thinking changed, possibly under the influence of her new partner, Reg Reynolds, a British supporter of Gandhi. Mannin decided that nothing was more evil than war, and so refused to support the war effort, although eventually she accepted a post as a fire-watcher. She remained a pacifist throughout the war and after: a political stance which, curiously, led her to make friends with some British fascists, for fascists and pacifists experienced the same police persecution and surveillance. After the war, she searched for ‘the ancient wisdom of the East,’ and adopted some Buddhist principles.

One reason for her rapid posthumous eclipse is clear: she adopted some unpopular political views, and did not ally herself with any major political or cultural organization. There was no one left to carry her legacy after her death. But alongside her political eccentricity, she was a gifted writer who closely studied social trends in twentieth-century Britain, and so is worth remembering.

ethel mannin blue eyed boyIn this feature, I explore Mannin’s writing by comparing one of her best novels, Blue-Eyed Boy, with a better-known contemporary work, Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners. The similarities between the two works are remarkable: both were published in 1959. Both are spirited attempts to imagine and explore the new world of the teenager (a term invented by American market research at the end of the war). Both have male teenage heroes and freely use teenage slang. Both feature extended descriptions of cafes and clubs in Soho. Both link their heroes to new teenage fashions: MacInnes studies what we would now call mods, although this term was not current in 1959. Mannin’s ‘Len’ has thick black hair greased back over his head and likes rock’n’roll: he is referred to as a Ted.

Blue-Eyed Boy

In both works, the hero is good-looking: stylish and fashionable in Absolute Beginners, a Bellini-like Christ child in Blue-Eyed Boy. Both books are concerned with look, in every sense of the word: Absolute Beginners because the hero is a stylista photographer, Blue-Eyed Boy in a more old-fashioned way: one lead character is an artist, and she paints Len’s portrait. In both works, there’s a powerful sub-theme of threatening violence: the potential revenge by a violent, wife-beating father in Blue-Eyed Boy, an impending race riot in Absolute Beginners.

There are sexual surprises in both books. In Absolute Beginners, the hero is a sexual agnostic who sells pornographic pictures, mixes with gay men and women (without comment) and remains on good terms with his ex-girlfriend. The surprise lies in the hero’s cool asexuality, which seems to imply that, whatever the media stereotypes, sex just isn’t that interesting for modern teenagers. In Blue-Eyed Boy, the reader is given a surprisingly frank (but not explicit) account of working-class sexuality in the last decade before easily available and effective contraception. Len teeters on the brink of becoming a rent-boy, and there is a superb description of a gay bar and pick-up joint in 1950s Soho. Mannin distinguishes carefully between the sexuality of an older gay man and Len’s dalliances: ‘What is natural for him isn’t natural for you. For you it’s merely a wilful perversion—done for what you can get out of it; presents, money.’ Both books end with the hero leaving Britain: in Absolute Beginners, for Brazil, which the hero believes is the least racist country in the world, in Blue-Eyed Boy for Canada, which Len associates with wide open spaces.

Are there no differences? One important divergence is sociological: MacInnes’ hero buys into the idea of classlessness, and his interest in jazz opens a window on to black culture. Blue-Eyed Boy refers constantly to class: Len works in a garage, and is obviously working-class. Mannin carefully documents changes within working-class culture: she notes the appearances of cars, televisions and washing-machines. While there is a tension between American and British cultures, and while one leading character is a daughter of White Russians, there is no reference to minority-ethnic cultures in Blue-Eyed Boy.

Mannin takes us inside the working-class family. There are some extremely skilful vignettes: for example, the highest aspiration of Lily, Len’s long-suffering mother, is that someone bring her a cup of tea in bed on Sunday. One day she dares to suggest this to her brutish husband: he’s amazed and responds by asking ‘who in hell she thought she was—a duchess?’

Another important difference is literary technique. Blue-Eyed Boy resembles the great sociological novels of the nineteenth-century, by the likes of Balzac, Dickens and Tolstoy. There are four main characters, and Mannin invariably keeps one step away from their emotions and viewpoints. At times, the narrative wears a little thin, and the sociologist’s or psychologist’s voice almost overpowers that of the novelist.

Absolute Beginners is a first-person narrative. MacInnes is astonishingly successful in capturing a teenager’s tone of voice and attitude. ‘You don’t go into Soho to see films, because Soho is a film.’ There’s a deftness and sure-footedness which Mannin’s narrative sometimes lacks. (MacInnes’ portrayal sounds and feels authentic regardless of how accurate it is in fact.)

Perhaps the most important difference between the two novelists is attitude. MacInnes likes his hero: he takes his jazz seriously, and can drop the right names in the right places. Mannin sympathizes with her hero, but doesn’t like him. In a grudging, condescending manner, she can understand youth fashions and cultures: ‘The young were driven by some curious compulsion of mass-psychology to put on these hideous garments; they had to assert themselves; it was a uniform of defiance.’ But she sees them as empty rituals. ‘Rock-a-bye, baby . . . rock, rock, rock’ sings the ‘hollow voice from the juke-box’. (In fairness, most British rock’n’roll in the late 1950s was pretty awful.)

Both Absolute Beginners and Blue-Eyed Boy take us on journeys into teenage London. Absolute Beginners ends on a modestly optimistic note: yes, there are problems with racism and hooliganism, but the hero is a well-balanced, clear-thinking, humane young man and so, the kids are alright. Blue-Eyed Boy is more pessimistic. At the end of the book, Len is still a confused man-boy, selfish, fickle and untrustworthy, blind to the brutality of his own father, easily won over by flattery. The ‘fantastic Welfare State’ and ten years of compulsory schooling have left him semi-literate and with only the most rudimentary sense of morality.

There are few countervailing tendencies: surprisingly, no reference to the possibility that trade unions, socialism or the Labour Party might inspire a different ethic, no reference to working-class religious cultures or to basic good neighbourliness. In Blue-Eyed Boy, the working-class characters generally have limited visions and limited ethics: Pam, Len’s sister, is the only one who seems capable of getting on and getting out. The middle-class artist, Anna Shernikov, is the one character who combines sound thinking and humanitarian generosity. While Blue-Eyed Boy has a sound grasp of social change in late 1950s Britain, Absolute Beginners tells a happier tale.

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About Sharif Gemie 12 Articles
Formerly a Professor in Modern & Contemporary History, Sharif Gemie now lives in South Wales. He co-authored 'The Hippie Trail: A History' with Brian Ireland, (Manchester University Press). His first novel, 'The Displaced', is about a British couple who volunteer to work with refugees in Germany during World War Two (Abergavenny Small Press, March 2024). Some short stories were published in 'Cerasus Magazine,' issue 10, and 'Muleskinner Journal' (July 2023).