COLIN MACINNES was born in London and brought up in Australia. He is the author of Absolute Beginners and four other novels, and of England, Half English. His new novel, Angus, Bard will appear this year.
FOR YEARS, WE OLDER PEOPLE have been investigating the young, there have been Government reports, and Royal Commissions and novels by older people about younger people, but now at last the young are beginning to tell us, they are starting to write books and plays telling us, what we want to know from inside. It is rather as if the South Sea islanders are turning the tables on the anthropologists who have been investigating them, and investigating the anthropologists themselves.
One of the most remarkable of these books is Sum Total (Faber 18s,) by Ray Gosling. He is a young man of 22, who has already marked up a considerable achievement. He's from Northampton, a working-class background, taught by his mother, and later the Grammar School, worked for British Railways, as a signaller in the Signal Box, became a Roman Catholic while still in his 'teens and then went on to Leicester University, which he didn't like and left, and went to work in a factory in Northampton, and then started to write for the New Left Review, Tribune, for the Queen, and for radio and television, and he runs that very idiosyncratic column in Peace News.
But the writing of his which really brought him to the attention of the public first was Lady Albemarle's Boys — a young Fabian pamphlet, which is really a critique of the whole attitude of older people towards the young, and which is about the youth club, that Ray Gosling founded in Leicester. So Sum Total — this vision of the young by one of the young, is I would say the Odyssey of a very brave and intelligent and forceful, and very self-critical young man, who is trying to understand urban life in England, and make something of it, and help others of his generation to make something of their lives too. And the key event in Sum Total is Ray Gosling's efforts to found the Leicester experiment, the youth club in Leicester.
Now, he thought and I think rightly that the fallacy in the usual youth club is that it is authoritarian. In other words, the adults supply the money and supply the rules, and they say to the young people we do all this for you, now you must do something for us, you must be the kind of good citizen that we wish you to be.
Now, Ray Gosling believes that the young would be better citizens if they founded and ran their own club themselves. He didn't wish that they should refuse adult help or adult counsel, indeed, he and his friends took both, but he thought that the young should take their own responsibility in running the club and build up their own loyalties to it.
Now, what happened? Well, what happened was that everything went right, and yet everything went wrong. On the negative side, the bad side, the Press of course descended on the place and wrote sensational pieces about it, and a lot of the authorities were hostile, and many of the young men and women unfortunately were irresponsible, not only in their behaviour, but even more important in their own attitude to assuming day-to-day responsibilities for the grinding hard work of running the club itself. And they were continually short of money.
It began well, Ray Gosling said — it started as the cafe run by the lads, for the lads, grass roots, ground level, and he goes on to say of any club — it isn't ours unless we actually physically control it. Then it is ours, And he thought that what they could try to do — for just the few of us it was something that stood as a chance of breaking right across a whole tradition to stifle the authority's youth service. Well, that started well, but then came the crunch, the anti-climax, there were disturbances, there were troubles, and Ray Gosling found himself blamed by the authorities for not having exercised sufficient control, and blamed by the young for having sided, as they understood it with the authorities against them. And I think the moral of his adventure, of his experiment, is not so much that more authority of the old is needed in a youth club, but that the young did not learn sufficiently how to assume responsibility themselves.
However, Ray Gosling doesn't think his club failed. He says of it that it was an oasis in a dead city — speaking of Leicester. Now, certainly in this book Sum Total, Ray Gosling is on to a very important theme which is this — how the young are going to make a reality, out of the teenage dream of the last five or six years, which in many ways is an escape from life, is synthetic, commercialised, and is a kind of postponement of the day when the young must assume real adult responsibilities? For, I think that the young in spite of their money independence, and their physical maturity, have to a great extent contracted out of society, in an attitude of nihilism, and I think what Ray Gosling wants the youth to do is to contract in, not into the adult world but into a world — a changed world of their own making, and escape from, or reject the purely synthetic commercialised image of the teenager, that we read so much about in the papers.
Now, this book has very fine passages in it, indeed, descriptions of the youth club are excellent, factory life is vividly described, descriptions of his childhood are touching, tender and accurate, and most of all, as a writer he has an extraordinary gift for giving glamour and interest to English provisional cities. For him Leicester becomes a sort of Marrakech or Baghdad.
The style of the book — well it is rather like Henry Miller's novels, in which Henry Miller himself appears as the chief character, and yet one feels they are works of fiction. And in the same way although this is in a sense an autobiography of Ray Gosling, it is a fictional work as well.
The danger here of course, is that sometimes events and memories that interest Ray Gosling personally interests us less, are included, but on the whole, it is an extremely acute book, and its prose is incisive and has a wonderful exuberance and intoxication, and most of all I think this is a writer who loves England with passion, loves the English young, wants to do something for them, and does both with immense intelligence, and it is wonderful after all the volumes of writing by the old about the young, largely based on ignorance and misunderstanding to hear the authentic thing from one of the young themselves.