Ever wondered who the lead character in Absolute Beginners was based on? According to the introduction of Baron’s Court All Change, it was Terry Taylor.
Baron’s Court All Change had been on my ‘wants’ list for years. It was a book I had heard about but never seen. I wasn’t alone. Rare copies that did hit the market disappeared just as quickly – and for serious money. It was cult reading and exclusive reading. Then came a reissue via New London Editions back in 2012.
But don’t get too excited as this and the other excellent fiction from this period appears to have been deleted once more. Copies are available, but not as cheap as they were a few years back.
It had become cult reading because it covers ground rarely touched upon in this era. The book was written in the late ’50s and released at the dawn of the 1960s, covering a drug subculture that was either unknown to or ignored by mainstream media at the time.
Not only that, it doesn’t seek to sensationalise the subject matter either. The book tells a tale and leaves you, the reader, to make up your own mind on the ethics.
Perhaps that’s because this is (at least, in part) Taylor’s own story, a tale of the early days of modernism, arguably bringing more realism to the table than the similar Absolute Beginners.
Taylor met MacInnes at the tail end of the 1950s when he was working as a photographer. In his ‘modernist’ gear, he must have been the ideal character study for ‘Beginners’. But whereas MacInnes made his lead character into some kind of ace face (to use a much later expression), Taylor’s portrayal of the lead character is far more rough around the edges. Which is why it feels more believable.
Like Absolute Beginners, the word ‘Mod’ is never uttered, you have to pick up the clues – the jazz clubs and records, the Cecil Gee suits and the ‘Crombie shortie’ for example, not to mention that desire to be out of the rat race and out of suburbia – to be where the action is. Over the 200+ pages, it gradually paints the picture if you follow the clues.
As for the story itself, it’s a tale of a teenager in London at the end of the 1950s. This one, just like Absolute Beginners, doesn’t have a name (or at least, it is rarely mentioned, if at all), working full time in a hat shop and hanging around jazz clubs out of hours.
He also has a strange obsession with spiritualism, which seems to hover around the periphery of the main story. Oh yes, our lead also lives at home in Middlesex, yearning for the time he can hit Baron’s Court station, which he views as the start of civilisation.
The spiritualism brings him into contact with an older woman (Bunty) who teaches his the ways of the world, while the jazz clubs bring him closer to the hipsters of the day. They also bring him into contact with ‘charge’, which becomes a fashionable addition to the jazz scene lifestyle.
That scene brings new friends too, including the shrewd Dusty and later girlfriend Miss Roach, both of whom are key to the tale. In fact, Dusty offers our hero a way out of the rat race – selling the highly illegal ‘charge’ to punters on the jazz scene. Our man cashes in his savings and goes into a joint venture, bringing with it riches, troubles, violence and a new and exciting life that is a long way from dreary suburbia.
As you may have got from that, it’s not all plain sailing, not with his family, his friends and the women in his life. There is also an ongoing test of the lead character’s morals – which goes right down to the final page.
If I’m being honest, the story does have the odd weakness and the occasional diversion (Bunty being the most obvious) that perhaps it doesn’t need. But it has two overriding strong points.
Firstly, it tackles ground that others would have run scared from in the late ’50s and secondly, it has Terry Taylor. Taylor paints a picture superbly. No surprise if he’s lived it. You get a feel for the era, the venues, the people and the style. In fact, I wish there was more of it – Baron’s Court All Change could have run for longer, ending rather abruptly for me. Although I obviously don’t want to give any of that away if you haven’t yet been acquainted with it.
Terry Taylor apparently lives in north Wales right now, a life lived for sure, judging by that introduction. One to track down for an interview I think.
In the meantime, if you love Absolute Beginners or interesting period literature, this is a book to own. In fairness, it could never live up to its hype, but it’s a seriously good read, all the same. Even if the price has jumped a little over the past few years.