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What's All This Then?

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Absolute Beginners
by Colin MacInnes

Field-Tested by Bryan Bedell

in a muddy field in Ontario, Canada

In 1995, at age 25, I bought my first motor vehicle, a beat-up 1971 Vespa, for $850. I was aware of the scooter culture populated by Mods and skinheads, but I wasn't interested in that; I just wanted to get around Chicago quickly and affordably without the burdens of car ownership. Despite my pledge to not become a ‘scooter dork,’ within a couple months I was drunkenly stumbling around a campground at my first scooter rally. With Jamaican ska and two-stroke exhaust fumes filling the late-summer air, I swore allegiance to Vespa and all for which she stands.

With a fever that would embarrass a Harley-Davidson devotee, a Vespa owner is obligated to collect anything and everything marginally related to scooters. Absolute Beginners — the book, film, and soundtrack — were all out of print in the mid-nineties, but I managed to find all three, a pre-eBay challenge. Julien Temple's 1986 musical and its soundtrack, are not totally without merits (Ray Davies and David Bowie among them), but they do little justice to Colin MacInnes' 1959 book.

MacInnes deftly captures late-fifties London from the perspective of Colin, a Vespa-GS-riding teenage photographer. Youth culture in England was a new phenomenon. Colin's older stepbrother, a bitter WWII vet, missed out on the glamour, fashion, and disposable income that Colin and his friends enjoy. As London changes, gentrification and racism result in street violence, and Colin finds himself unsure who to trust. Youth rebellion stories are a dime a dozen, but MacInnes movingly captures the conflict of cultures, the rarely-seen forces that fuel them, and the time and place in which they exist.

Julien Temple filmed Absolute Beginners as a stylized, musical love story, but underneath, there's a much more exciting socio-political story about the first generation of empowered English teenagers. Later, even by the time of the Mod/Rocker riots in the mid-sixties, Mods had become a parody of their original selves, and Mods today are just plain silly. Yet, I love my Mod and skinhead friends, and I spend most of my summer weekends drinking with them in various muddy North American fields, trying to pretend that what we do is any more respectable than collecting Highlander swords or re-enacting Civil War battles.

Bryan Bedell designs things at Coudal Partners in Chicago and blogs about motorscooters at 2strokebuzz.

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