Article by Jonathan Coe first published in The Spectator, 24th August 1991
Interview by Alan Burns from The Imagination on Trial, British and American Writers Discuss their Working Methods, ed Alan Burns, Charles Sugnet, 1981
B.S. Johnson was born in 1933 at Hammersmith and, except for his evacuation
during the war, lived mainly in London until he took his own life in 1973.
He did his Honours English degree at King’s College, London University,
starting at the late age of twenty-three. He was the author of seven novels:
Travelling People (1963), Albert Angelo (1964), Trawl
(1966), The Unfortunates (1969), House Mother Normal (1971),
Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973) and See the Old Lady
Decently (1975). He also published two volumes of poetry, and two
collections of short fiction, Statements Against Corpses (1964)
and Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs? (1973).
He was a prolific writer, director, and producer of films and television;
his 1967 film, You’re Human Like the Rest of Them, won prizes at
two film festivals. He was poetry editor of the Transatlantic Review
for ten years, and wrote several theatre scripts, including One Sodding
Thing After Another for the Royal Court.
Johnson’s novels are carefully crafted and formally experimental without
being flashy. He was influenced by Beckett, as can be seen from his film,
radio, and television work as well as from his fiction. And he was a powerful
spokesman for the right of British writers, indeed the need for them,
to try whatever formal innovations they thought would prove interesting.
He himself published a novel (The Unfortunates) which consisted
of unbound gatherings of pages in a box, allowing the reader to choose
the order in which to read them. But, somehow typically, he hedged the
bet by designating two gatherings as the beginning and the ending, setting
a limit to his experiment, and a limit to how much control he would relinquish.
And the subject of The Unfortunates, a deeply moving book, is the
death of a friend, which has been an occasion for writing almost since
humans began writing. He was willing to try new things, but was also devoted
to the novel as high art, to being “a novelist of quality”.
JOHNSON: All my novels started from a moment – usually a very pleasant
moment – when I said: ” Ah! There is a novel! I can make a novel out of
that!” The process of writing is a confirmation of that moment of recognition,
and so far there’s never been a moment unconfirmed. Whether I make it
come true or it was true in the first place, I don’t know.
BURNS: Do you have to wait for these moments to occur? Are there periods
between novels, waiting for it to happen?
Since I started writing in 1959 I’ve had to earn part of my living in
other ways so there’s always been a backlog of novels, sometimes two or
three, waiting to be written. I’ve just finished a book, and now I’m working
on a trilogy.
Can you recall one of these initial moments?
Not precisely. With Travelling People, my first novel, it must
have happened in 1959 when I was working in a sort-of drinking club in
North Wales. When I returned to England in September of that year I’d
had the idea for the book, though it was another two and a half years
before I finished it. During that time I had ideas for two more novels
which became House Mother Normal and Christie Malry. In
between, three autobiographical novels, Albert Angelo, Trawl
and The Unfortunates forced their way in, demanded to be written
out of sheer personal need, psychotherapy if you like, though I call it
exorcism. I wrote those three books to get them out of my head. I wanted
to unburden my mind: “It’s not in my mind: it’s over there, in a book.”
Those books were written to relieve that kind of pressure.
I know The Unfortunates commemorates the death of a friend.
I can understand your need to exorcise that memory. Does each book have
a similarly tragic background?
Basically yes, but I hope they’re witty, moving and poignant nonetheless.
The Unfortunates is an extreme example. In Trawl I explored
my sense of isolation, my failure to make lasting relationships. I wanted
to define this isolation and thereby understand and ease it, in the classic
The memory or feeling you wish to exorcise: what form does it take?
A nagging thought? Recurring dream? A headache?
It’s a preoccupation. It takes up more time than I’d wish, more than
I can cope with. I know by experience that writing does the exorcism job
very well. I was looking at Trawl the other day, and there were
things in it I don’t remember having written, don’t remember having happened.
You write not to clarify a memory but to obliterate it? Or, by clarifying,
Obliterate is the wrong word. I want to change its form so I can refer
to it voluntarily. If I want to recall how I felt at the time I wrote
Trawl I can read Trawl, but I don’t have to carry it with
me, I don’t want that stuff popping up in my mind when I’ve got better
things to think about.
You want it on the shelf?
To distance it, not obliterate it.
Once you get the idea for a book, what’s the first thing that goes
down on paper?
I carry little notebooks around, about three inches by five. I buy them
in Paris actually, for sentimental reasons. I make notes about things
I think pertain. . . things I want to write about, things I think are
useful for these novels I have in mind. . . .
I bung these notebooks into a drawer and from time to time, when I’m
incapable of anything else, I do a filing job. I prefer to write, but
as you know, everyone has times when they can’t write and that’s when
I do the filing. I tear the pages out of the note- books and stick them
into folders marked with the names (or until they have names, the numbers)
of the novels I’m going to write. Some notes are indecipherable because
I was drunk at the time, or writing on a train or whatever. I always think
I’m going to transcribe the notes into a book within a few days, but it’s
Do you, like me, make notes almost in an absent-minded fashion, they
almost take you by surprise?
They do occur unexpectedly. I get them down in recognizable form as fast
as possible and then get on with whatever I was doing before I was interrupted.
They’re what Joyce called Epiphanies, sudden moments when one realizes
there’s something worth writing down. Something clicks in my mind and
I know I must do it. It’s a common experience. I’m pretending I’m not
Very rarely do I note down the words that actually go into the novel.
Often it will be a phrase that only has meaning for me, a personal shorthand
to recall what I saw or heard. What goes down in full is a rhythm, if
a particular rhythm takes me. There are all sorts of rhythms stuttering
away in my head, which I like to keep with me. Rhythm is the most important
thing to me.
It’s a musical thing rather than a meaningful thing?
I don’t go as far as you on that, they’re equally important. The balance
in English literature swings from one to the other. Dylan Thomas went
towards music and after him it went flat and concentrated on meaning.
Just as Bach combines sound of fantastic beauty with technical mastery,
I attempt a combination of form and content in which neither dominates
and both are in harmony. It’s arguable whether I’ve ever achieved it but
that’s my aim.
Do you note down images or ideas?
Essentially they are pictures.
Something seen? Or remembered? Or dreamt? Or imagined?
All of those, though I don’t dream much. I may see something, or something
comes into my mind that has passed the filter of memory , and thrust its
way to the surface, for reasons I’ve never understood. That’s what Trawl
is about. Trawl is an extended metaphor for the way the mind works.
The trawl goes down into the sea and you don’t know what’s happening as
it drags across the sea bed, or why it comes up, until it comes up.
Trawl has a physical shape that can be drawn on paper: Trawl
begins with a prologue, followed by exposition, then development, reaching
the highest point in the novel: then it explodes, disintegrates, falls
down into coda. The design is a line that climbs a steep incline, then
falls at a sudden point, then collapses. This was drawn on paper by a
Hungarian critic (the book was translated into Hungarian) called Georgy
Novak. The shape of the book’s construction is the shape of a trawl: it
drops quickly down, travels along the seabed and is slowly hauled to the
It’s also the shape of the keel of a ship?
It’s the shape of the first half of the book, the reminiscences.
It’s a fantastic theory. What do you think of it?
I don’t think about it at all. I feel it is there. I don’t know how significant
it is. The book has an inner consistency which I don’t remember putting
there consciously. I don’t know how the book happened. I just know it’s
right. The subconscious of the mind, all the myriad impressions one’s
ever had, is like a vast sea and this little net dives down and pulls
things up at random.
There is, down there, a mass of useless junk mixed up with things
of value: how do you distinguish the good stuff from the bad?
Empirically, by whether I use it or not. There’s some wastage. At the
end of each novel there’s always a pile of material, bits of paper not
used, which goes back in the files, available for future novels. I don’t
throw anything away. The house is overflowing with bits of paper .
Is the overall construction of the novel dictated by these early fragments,
rather like those pictures made of dots in kids’ comics? Do you join the
Yes, but they don’t dictate the overall structure, which is after all
a very simple thing: beginning, middle and end. I start by sorting the
bits of paper, seeing which bits go with other bits, exactly “dot-to-dot”,
it’s a good image. Accidents, like the order in which the bits got thrown
into the folder, often dictate juxtapositions which weren’t there by design.
I then sort the papers into a series of other folders which represent
the sections of the novel, according to a previously thought-out structure.
Some sections are quite long, others half a page, others a couple of lines
as in chapter twenty of Christie Malry.
The second stage I call starting to write the novel proper. It can take
two or three or six months or a year, but it’s relatively the easiest
part of the book. The exact timing is partly decided by economics. Even
as personal a book as The Unfortunates had to be written on time,
as the second book of a two-book contract with Secker. The key stage is
finding the form. That happens between the first idea (the “Ah!”) and
the filling-into-sections I’ve just described. Between those two points
I work out the form suitable to the material I have in my mind plus the
stuff I’ve got down on those bits of paper. It was at that stage I settled
on the book-in-a-box random form for The Unfortunates.
How do you find the right form?
I rarely sit down and work it out, it goes on in my mind. But having
“done” English literature at university, having read the work of many
modern writers tackling similar problems, I have a compendium of possible
forms and I select one, by a process of mental trial and error. The bits
of paper with notes on do not influence the choice of form. Each bit is
like a brick in a whole house: the house is built of bricks but they don’t
dictate its architectural form.
You’ve described your subconscious as the main source of images and
ideas. What part does your conscious mind, and your awareness of social
and political factors play in the making of a novel?
Outside writing I’m a very political animal. My novels have generally
been written from a political stance but the politics have been very much
in the background. The books have mostly been concerned with other things,
like the nature of writing itself, its relation to me, not to other people
Is there a split between your political and your writing self?
Definitely. I’ve wondered about it and been concerned about it, though
Christie Malry had a definite political viewpoint. I disagree with
socialist realism: “You must write things that people can understand and
you must write things that help towards socialism.” That I reject utterly,
not because I’m not a socialist but because I am. In England I don’t think
books can change anything. Here if you want to change things you’ve got
to throw bombs or work through Parliament. Three years ago I went to Hungary
and many Hungarian writers said, “We envy you your ability to write whatever
you like.” But when they wrote something their government didn’t like
they got thrown into jail. In England no one takes a blind bit of notice.
Writers are no threat to established British society.
And whatever you wrote you could not make yourself a threat?
I think those short films we made for ACTT had an effect, however tiny,
on the fight against the Industrial Relations Act. We helped a bit in
mobilizing the trade union movement.
Isn’t it tragic that you are unable to mobilize your most powerful
talents? The heart of you as a man goes into your best writing but you
cannot harness that power to the service of your fellow man?
It’s my fellow man’s tragedy as well as mine, because he’s not been brought
up to receive whatever I have to give in the form in which I’m best able
to give it. They don’t regard books as a way of changing the world. I’m
talking about our contemporaries, not the generation of, say, Welsh miners
who educated themselves in libraries, reading Marx and Lenin, nor of the
Left Book Club in the thirties. There’s nothing like the Left Book Club
today. So I don’t write for political reasons. Maybe I’m a writer because
I’m no good at anything else. I may be no good at writing either, but
I couldn’t do anything else. I have a simple need to express myself, not
a need to have what I write read by others.
You write like Malone writes? It’s a kind of excreting and there’s
no point in explaining it, it just happens?
That’s the exact image. I just know it’s something I have to get rid
Forgive the question, but does writing help you resolve questions
Not for long: Travelling People gave me an identity in 1962 but
not in 1972.
Do you type or write?
I type at the very last stage. I work from those bits of paper in longhand
on to loose-leaf lined quarto sheets. Sometimes for shorter pieces I work
in manuscript books in pencil. One draft balloons into a second and is
worked over again and again and again. It gets interspersed with poems
that occur while I’m working on a novel. A novel gets so complicated,
with chunks of prose changing position, that I have to work on loose-leaf.
When I’ve done all I can in manuscript it’s ready for typing.
[Reads Mss] Pity anyone trying to type from that! It’s a fantastic
network of interpositions and interpolations, all arrows and re-jigs and
re-thinks and editings and crossings-out – all in very swift soft pencil.
Pencil keeps pace with the speed of your thought?
I like the graphic quality of pencil, I like the way it looks.
I do the editing job with scissors, cutting up the pages and spreading
out slivers of papers on a large table.
I haven’t the room for that here. I sometimes use scissors if Virginia’s
typed the stuff for me, but I usually type for myself. I learnt typing
at fourteen. I failed the eleven-plus and went to commercial school where
they taught me shorthand, typing and bookkeeping. Useful. While I’m typing
I can’t revise, I can’t think. The manuscript gets into such an involved
state because I have to do all the creative work before I start typing.
Typing a novel becomes more depressing and painful every time. With Christie
Malry, though it was short, I was bored stiff, not by reading it because
I wasn’t reading it, but by the mechanical act of typing.
When the typescript’s finished who do you show it to first?
My wife. I never show anything to anyone while I’m working on it, not
even to Virginia. I may ask her about the odd word, but it would be a
very minor thing. My marriage doesn’t work that way, Virginia’s never
set herself up as a literary critic. This started with Albert Angelo:
I showed her the manuscript and she didn’t know what to make of it. I
was very disappointed. It was the first time I’d shown her my work, and
that she didn’t see how good it was (in the way I thought it was good)
was a great disappointment.
Were you only seeking praise?
Confirmation that I’d done the right thing.
You didn’t want an informed critical reaction? Only confirmation,
That’s common in writers. But my showing the manuscript matters less
and less now. It was important that Christie Malry was finished
on time, for economic reasons, there was a feeling of relief about that.
Virginia didn’t read much of that book, it wasn’t the right time for her
to read it, though I wanted her to like it, I wanted very much for her
to find it funny.
Is there anyone else, publisher, editor or agent, whose early opinion
From an economic angle obviously one’s publisher’s editor is very important.
If he likes it and praises it, apart from agreeing to publish it, that’s
a bonus. My first editor, at Constable, was very good. He took Travelling
People. He spotted some weaknesses, though this was a year after I’d
written it and I could see them for myself. He was good for me, but he
was sacked not long after the book was published. As to critics, I have
to ignore the bad things people say about me, otherwise I wouldn’t write
any more. Some people are simply trying to stop writers writing. This
is a common thing with people who have no creative ability at all. It’s
an old cliché but that doesn’t make it less true. The thing they’d
like above all else would be to stop everyone writing because they can’t
do it. For myself I can’t allow either adverse criticism or praise to
change the way I write.
So there is no point at which the writing process is completed by
your obtaining a definable reaction?
There isn’t. There was with Travelling People and, to a lesser
extent, Albert Angelo. I used to rely on this man, Tony Tillinghurst.
He looked at the first two novels and improved them by his suggestions,
he acted as a rein on my self-indulgence. He died of cancer and it’s all
recounted in The Unfortunates. Since then I’ve never trusted anyone
enough, no one at all.
Have you tried to create a new relationship to supply this need, or
is it a need?
I find I get on all right without. The nearest thing was my editor at
Collins, Philip Ziegler, who talked a lot of sense. With Christie Malry
he made a few minor suggestions and one major one. In the book a group
of young revolutionaries discuss how to make war on society: “We could
attack the clubs!” one says. Another replies, “Yes. The Atheneum!” Then
in dialogue they named every club in England from the list in Whitaker’s
Almanac. Philip Ziegler said it was boring, he thought it didn’t work.
Now I have some sympathy with anyone who says that that was a piece of
self-indulgence. But I like lists and I think I have the right to be self-indulgent
sometimes. But I chopped up the list and made a few other jokes, about
Pratt’s Club, The Reform Club (which is a joke), and Bucks. . . .
I understand your feelings about lists, they have an absolute quality.
Yes, the totality of the list.
Why is one drawn in that direction? Were you wrong to give in? Did
you make the wrong kind of compromise? Was Ziegler’s rationality making
a quite proper interposition, telling you to stop when you should stop?
There are many historical examples of this thing about lists. This is
not something we have invented. There’s that enormous long list in The
Odyssey of all the ships that went there, all the places they came
from, just a bloody list.
Is there something of the ritual about it, something incantatory,
like a drum beat?
Yes. I like lists. It’s a poetic thing. A list implies that you are including
everything, it’s an absolute, an attempt to impose pattern on the chaos,
it’s all sorts of things. One’s following Beckett, he likes lists. There’s
a lot of it in Watt, and in Molloy where the guy on the
beach changes the pebbles over, he goes through all the possibilities.
And in Murphy, the guy with the biscuits, deciding in which
order he should eat them.
Yes, very funny. Sometimes Beckett plays a joke by making a deliberate
mistake to catch you out.
A list also makes a joke of or comment on traditional narrative: “Nothing’s
happening and it doesn’t matter.” A list in narrative terms may be said
to go sideways, or stay still, it makes no narrative progress at all.
In Albert Angelo the teacher calls the class register and I put
in the whole thing, with every bloody kid’s name. A straightforward novelist
would have written: “He called the register.”
And be glad to have left it at that. Very sensible. Whereas the complete
list drives the reader mad. Is that a good reason for doing it?
For me the act of writing is a way of not becoming insane. Life is chaos,
writing is a way of ordering the chaos.
Can’t writing reflect the chaos by becoming part of it? Disconnect
to the point of irrationality?
Even Babel, your book of chaos, is fixed, it is not chaos in its
own terms. The images you have juxtaposed in a particular sentence are
there for ever. You don’t reflect chaos, you use a metaphor for chaos,
because you create a new order, in a fixed pattern.
Are you ever deliberately inconsistent? In Celebrations I say
a man’s got blue eyes and two pages later they are brown. I’ve done It
purposely and I know it’s right, though I don’t quite know why. Do you
I would tend to use it as a comic device. I’ve done it with characters’
names. In a short story, “Instructions for the Use of Women”, I wanted
to tell what bloody happened to this girl but because of the laws of libel
I couldn’t name her. So each time she appears she has a different name.
That’s a naturalistic justification, but the purely arbitrary is not
I think it should be done, but not by me. Like many of your things, like
Babel, I’m glad you wrote it because it saved me having to do so.
My going so far out on a limb was partly made possible by the backing
I got from John Calder. I felt he respected my work and (consequently?)
I respected his judgement. That relationship was built up over many years,
but you have gone rather swiftly from publisher to publisher. Has that
had an adverse effect on your work?
The trouble is that one has to have an economic as well as a literary
relationship with an editor (what he thinks of your book means money)
and the two things don’t go well together. And however nice a guy the
editor is he never seems to have the power to put his judgements into
practice. Some money man, for irrelevant non-literary reasons, interferes
with the money or the publication. Ideally, in a small firm, a sympathetic
editor would also make the financial decisions.
What about other writers? For example, we’ve known each other for
years but this is the first time we’ve ever talked about writing.
As poetry editor of Transatlantic Review I know a number of poets
and I talk or write to them about their work. I went down to Port Talbot
recently to do a poetry reading with a poet called John Tripp. We talked
a lot about writing and hardly at all about money. He wrote me later saying
that unlike other English writers I cared enough about writing to help
a fellow poet. That happened in Wales. In England writers rarely help
each other; it’s a great pity. I don’t discuss the novel with other novelists
because I have strong notions about what the novel should be doing. Most
novelists disagree with me and I am not in the business of converting
them to my point of view.
Are you in the business of learning from their point of view?
No. I did that in university, studying The English Novel and reading
hundreds of them. I’ve done that bit and come to a position where I am
right. If they can’t see it then the strength of my case is such that
they haven’t properly understood.
You’re right for you, while they may be right for themselves?
Right. I was with Anthony Burgess and someone said, “Why don’t you talk
about the novel?” He said, “I don’t want to talk to Bryan about the novel:
he has views about it.” He had his own ideas and he didn’t want me upsetting
his apple cart. I have never found anyone to debate with on the subject.
When I sit down to write a bloody novel I’ve got to make certain assumptions
about the function of the novel now and in relation to every novel that’s
ever been written. No one can write the same after Ulysses. Ulysses
changed everything. But people do write as though Ulysses never
happened, let alone Beckett. These people simply imitate the act of being
a writer, a deliberately anachronistic act, like writing a five-act verse
drama in Shakespearean English. So there is nothing for me to discuss,
except with people like you who are vaguely on the same wavelength, though
the results of our work are very different.
Muriel Spark when asked, “How do you write a novel?” replied: “I write
down the title, and underneath that I write ‘A Novel by Muriel Spark’.
Then I put ‘Chapter One’ and I start writing.”
When she says that, she’s hiding from her questioner or from herself
a subconscious process she would prefer not to understand.
If that’s so she, like Beckett, should refuse to be interviewed. Beckett
says: “I don’t know how I write. I have nothing to add to what I’ve written.
If I had I’d have written it.” He won’t talk about his work. He’s about
the only writer in the world who won’t, so far as I know.
Except that so much of his work is writing about writing.
James Hanley, like many others, says, “Once I get to Chapter Three,
the characters take over.” I couldn’t write like that. I always know what
a novel’s going to be about, I know its structure well beforehand. If
I ever dry up, if there’s ever no longer three novels in my head, perhaps
I’ll sit down and write, “So-and-so, a novel by B.S. Johnson,” and off
Meanwhile you have your trilogy in hand. How’s it going? Will it be
your best work yet?
I don’t think of my books competing with each other. I haven’t got a
“best book” or anything like it. I very rarely go back and read my own
work. In moments of despair, and there are lots of those, I will pick
up a book to see how I did something in the past, or to confirm that I
have written some books worth writing.
This is a song featured on the 2006 album “Live a Little” by the American indie rock band Pernice Brothers
William Hoyland stars in this legendary, award-winning short film directed by BS Johnson. Although better-known as a ground-breaking writer, BS Johnson was also the director of a number of extraordinary and daring films. This new collection in a BFI Flipside Dual Format Edition makes his films available for the very first time.
Alan Burns, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1997
October 22-25 1973
Chapter: Fat Man on a Beach
VOICE: This is a film about a fat man on a beach.
VOICE: Did you hear what I said? This is a film about a fat man on a beach.
VOICE: Do you really want to sit there and watch it?
VOICE: Well don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The voice is unmistakeably Johnson’s. The mock-belligerent attention-grabber:
“Oi! You!” The statement of fact is “true,” yet undercut with self-doubt: “Do
you really want to–?”
Johnson’s last complete creative work was a thirty minute film for Harlech TV.
Title: Fat Man on a Beach. Director: Michael Bakewell. In Bakewell’s
words, “The film managed to be, against all the odds, a complete summing up of
Bryan’s character and ideas. Given the events that followed, it’s Bryan’s
buoyancy and cheerfulness that come across. It was an extraordinarily happy
Bakewell had sent “a two line idea” to Aled Vaughan, Harlech’s controller of
programs. The commission that followed was “pure Bryan.” The writer who opened
his novel Trawl:
I … always with I … one starts from and ends with I
was invited to dump himself down in a place of his choice, to play himself, to
be writer, narrator, star. Vaughan had shrewdly perceived that Johnson would be
inspired by the commission’s arbitrary disciplines: “Take a film crew to a
beach in North Wales. Make a film of a single day. (In real time it was to be
shot in twenty hours spread over three days.) Bring nothing with you, take
nothing away.” Bakewell says there was some cheating, but not much: “The few
things we did bring, essential supplies, were mostly worked into the film: a
bunch of bananas, a few fireworks, some shells bought in a shop . . .”
The film’s style was well caught by Elkan Allen in The Sunday Times:
A poet of forty wanders about the beach, changes his clothes when he
feels like it, reads his poetry, reminisces engagingly, and reflects on life
… Looking rather like Max Bygraves gone to seed, he keeps up a patter full of
original jokes, interspersed with powerful verse about life and death.
Returning to the “El Dorado” of his first novel Travelling People,
Johnson chose Porth Ceiriad Bay, near Abersoch, in Lleyn.
Harlech commissioned the film in late August and by October 22 Johnson and
Bakewell were driving to North Wales to check out the locale. Leaving London at
four in the morning, Johnson’s mood was “exuberant” as the two old friends
talked about the script all the way down in the car. They took a look at the
Bay and worked out how they would get film crew and equipment into the
Following the route taken by the characters in Travelling People, the two
visited the country club where most of the novel is set. As in the novel, they
drove to Bettws-y-Coed and stopped at the turn leading to the Club:
He took me as far as Bettws-y-Coed, and he said: “I am going down there”
and I looked down there and it was a marvelously sunlit glacier valley.
(from Travelling People)
When the novel’s protagonist visits the Club later, it lives up to his
expectations. He writes to a friend in London:
Sorry to disappoint you, mate, but this place turns out not to be the
cesspool you hoped it would be: in fact it’s all and more the brochure
promised–the Garden of Gorgeous ‘ydrangeas is lovely, there is marvellous
scenery all round, and the Loggia is romantic … [ibid]
Bakewell says Lleyn had “romantic associations” for Johnson, and these are
underlined by many poems quoted through the film:
Young fellow from Lleyn, who’s the girl of your heart, You who wander so
late in the evening apart.
The lyric mood is undermined by a number of elements, first the narrator’s
tragi-comic bulk. The film’s most conspicuous feature, the fatness of Fat Man,
has been rather overlooked by critics and viewers. This is partly due to its
sheer obviousness, and is also the result of the film’s camera technique.
Johnson’s big body is often lost in the landscape, dwarfed by sand, sea,
cliffs, sky. Nevertheless the narrator’s person is insistently there throughout
the film, as this typical shot shows:
As late as September 24, a few days before shooting began, Harlech TV’s
correspondence referred to the working title, “The Lleyn Peninsular film.”
Johnson’s last minute title “made” the film, it dictated its downright mood and
tone. Whatever role Chance played in the film’s writing and production, the
title was deliberately chosen and deeply felt, the culmination of a lifetime’s
living with his own large body.
Three close friends and fellow writers give their impressions of the man and
their sense of how he saw himself:
Peter Buckman recalls: “Bryan claimed it wasn’t eating or drinking that made him
fat, it was `all in the genes.’ We had a long discussion about the different
types, big bones and little bones, long-headed and fat-headed. Bryan’s excuse
was that that was the way he was born, his size didn’t matter because it was
right for him.”
As Barry Cole saw it, “Bryan’s big worry was his weight. Naturally huge, he
cossetted his grossness with a gourmet’s self-indulgence. To his friends,
Bryan’s weight was normal, but to him it was a burden, usually borne with the
stoicism he publicly maintained. But he was huge. By the end he must have been
eighteen stone. He was a great trencherman, great beer drinker, wine drinker,
spirit drinker, social drinker. He loved going to pubs, but drinking with Bryan
could be difficult. There was me at ten and a half stone and Bryan at eighteen,
and in a pub you buy each other drinks … He was not particularly tall, but he
bulked large. He was broad, huge arms and thighs. Orson Welles had the same
bulk, similar features, and the same intensity too.”
Zulfikar Ghose writes: “When driving through France with Bryan, I noticed
something about him that I had not remarked earlier. For some reason (e.g.
going into different shops) we would part, and looking for him, I invariably
found him in the patisserie devouring considerable quantities of cakes. Even in
London, he had been a compulsive eater between meals. When we left pubs at
closing time, he would make for a fish and chips shop or, when in Soho, the
place in Great Windmill Street that sold salt beef sandwiches. But I had never
seen him eat so many sweets before. And when I received news of his death, one
of the images that came to my mind was seeing him in one of those patisseries,
gluttonously thrusting a large quantity of cream, sugar and pastry into his
mouth, almost as though his body were driving him to make up some obscure
chemical deficiency, and I have often wondered whether, instead of some mental
state, it was not some physical state, obscure but subtly malignant, the body
constantly making its insatiable demand, that drove him to his terrible end.”
The touch of cruelty in Ghose’s description may be due to its being written in
the aftermath of his friend’s death, and the mix of grief and anger that
greeted it. Johnson did not just guzzle his food, he enjoyed it, and shared his
pleasure with his friends. Ghose had countless happy meals with Johnson, Peter
Buckman also: “Bryan was always celebrating, always producing a bottle of wine.
We would go out together and get very merry.” Michael Bakewell and Diana Tyler
were Johnson’s trusted friends as well as his literary agents. When they speak
of him, the word they use most often is “celebration.” Another friend remembers
“the physical bulk that did not prevent a lightness of touch, a nimbleness on
his feet, as sprightly as Brendan Behan dancing an Irish jig, his body towering
over his twinkling feet.”
In his brilliant screenplay Not Counting the Savages, Johnson shows how
well he understood the temptations and miseries of gluttony. The protagonist of
this ferocious study of family hates is an “ugly, lumpish” fifty-year-old
Husband. He opens the play “getting down to his food piggishly.” He finishes
his main course and follows it with a whole Camembert before a word is spoken.
The play then explores the Husband’s crapulence with pitiless ingenuity:
feeding your face reverses the life-giving function of food. Sustenance becomes
its opposite, a means of self-destruction. When he published the play in the
Spring 1973 issue of Transatlantic Review, Johnson chose this drawing as
[illustration not available]
And this is the cover of the notebook in which Johnson wrote the script of Fat
Man on a Beach:
[illustration not available]
Johnson chose his stationery with unusual care:
I carry little notebooks, about three inches by five. I buy them in
Paris actually …
It was no accident that Fat Man came to be inscribed in this particular
pad. Johnson closely identified with his namesake, the more so since making the
TV film On Reflection: Sam Johnson in 1971. Apart from the attraction of
Dr. Johnson’s personality and inimitable writing style, those Johnsonian jowls
made B.S.’s own appearance more acceptable.
If Dr. Johnson ranked as exemplar and general inspiration, the other model for Fat
Man was Jarry’s Pere Ubu, as this pair of portraits suggests:
The two shared more than body weight.
FLUNKEY: Sir, there’s a bloke out there who wants a word with you. He’s
pulled the bell out with his ringing, and he’s broken three chairs trying to
sit down. (from Pere Ubu)
That could as well be Johnson as Ubu at the door.
He demonstrated that the beginning of wisdom lies where true stoicism meets
profound epicureanism. Said of Jarry, this applies equally to Johnson. If Jarry
was a twentieth-century Rabelais, Johnson’s identification was with Sam Johnson
Fat Man is as ego-centred as Ubu, but as ever “the opposite is also
true.” All films are to some extent collaborations, but Fat Man was the
product of a peculiarly intimate interweaving of talents. First was that
between Johnson and Michael Bakewell, his long-time co-worker and friend. The
previous year, the two had worked together on Hafod a Hendret, a TV film
also for Harlech. Its success had ensured the freewheeling commission for Fat
Man. This time, Bakewell says, “I did far more directing, because Bryan
was fully occupied with writing and acting.”
The collaboration extended to the whole of Fat Man’s film crew. They
dined together every night, and the film’s ideas evolved around the table.
Bakewell says, “The drinks bill was gigantic, expenses generally were
monumental. At one stage we had to conceal them under ‘Hire of boat.'”
Whatever others contributed, Johnson was the writer on the set. Bakewell says,
“When everyone else had tumbled into bed, Bryan would take a huge bottle of
wine up into his room, lock himself in, and steadily evolve the script. Next
morning he was always last to arrive, but then he would use his notes from the
night before to improvise that day’s shooting … For myself, I found working
with Bryan quite easy in a sense. I understood his mind, I knew his passions
and had heard his stories. It was just a matter of finding ways to embody
Telling old tales and experiences he had carried with him for half a lifetime
gave Johnson an ease and spontaneity before the camera that made Bakewell think
“this is the way Bryan might well have developed, talking direct to the TV
audience. He did it in his TV film on Dr. Johnson. Now the technique came into
Johnson’s engaging directness helped him get away with stories like the one
the girl being taken to the pictures by a man and he said: “We are going
to see a film about whales.” And she said: “I am not terribly keen on Taffies
as you know.” He said: “No, not that kind of Wales. The film is called Moby
Dick.” And she said, “I don’t like sex films either.”
Silly poems too:
Mary had a little lamb, She put it in a bucket And every time the lamb
got out, The bulldog tried to put it back again.
Followed by Johnson’s characteristic “Ho, ho, ho, ho.” This was all part of his
high-spirited attempt to dismantle the conventions of the serious TV
documentary. When the film was shown on the first anniversary of Johnson’s
death, The Sunday Times compared it to Peter Ustinov’s The Mighty
Continent, three and a half years in the making. Fat Man, shot
in less than a week, “will be remembered long after the other is forgotten.”
If this had been all there was, Fat Man would have been no more than
Goonery, or a souped-up Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film. Johnson’s
underlying seriousness is shown by his daring juxtaposition of these
jollifications with poetry of a high order, among them Porth Ceiriad Bay,
written years before on his first visit to Lleyn:
Descended to the shore,
odd how we left the young girl with us to herself,
and went straight to examine the stratified cliffs,
forgot her entirely in our interest.
You marvelled at the shapes the clockwork sea had worn the stone,
until the pace of this random sculpture recalled your age to you,
and then its anodynes.
And so you turned,
courting the girl as if you were a boy again,
leaving the wry cliffs to their erosion and me to my observant solitude.
Those “stratified cliffs” are maybe a too obvious reminder of times past, but
they underline the film’s various levels of action and meaning. In Travelling
People’s prose version of the scene described in the poem, the
protagonist looks out to the sea that laps the Bay and calls it “the snotgreen
gannetsbath (syzygy of Ulysses in mind).” Earlier in the film, Johnson
says he is “besotted with Beckett and Joyce.” So the girl observed on the beach
surely recalls Gertie MacDowell “on the weedgrown rocks along Sandymount shore”
in Joyce’s Ulysses.
The film’s basic “wanderer” theme also derives from Joyce. The day spent
mooching around a beach is grounded in Bloom’s day in and around Dublin.
Starting with reminders of Travelling People, the “wanderer” appears in
the film in many forms. Johnson’s chance meeting with a friendly dog suggests
Odysseus greeting his old friend. There are signs of Sinbad, Childe Harold
also, Robinson Crusoe is there, complete with footprint in the sand. Fat Man
is engaged on an “uncertain quest in search for peace” with a bunch of bananas
in place of the Holy Grail. All through, Joshua Rifkin plays Scott Joplin, with
a hint of stride piano, at an appropriate jog trot.
Porth Ceiriad Bay’s last line leaves the narrator to his “observant solitude”
and Johnson clings to that, as he wanders across the beach, whatever his
excursions and distractions. He is amused and interested but undeterred by
screaming seagulls, exploding light bulbs, a child’s umbrella stuck in the
sand, bunches of bananas, a broken altar candle, a dead sheep, footprints in
the sand, changing weather, changing clothes, two blue toy inflatable rubber
whales, frying sausages, shop-bought shells, exploding fireworks, breaking
waves, skullcap, brass tack, an outsize paperclip, a Labrador dog, the remains
of two sandals, a Schweik doll, a mirror found in the sand.
The succession of random events and lucky finds is not as haphazard as it seems.
Johnson’s constant changes of clothes, jump-cutting from brown sweater to
green, pink-striped shirt to white, are not only designed to give away the
tricks of the film maker’s trade, they are fine sideswipes at those costume
epics whose wardrobe budgets would have paid for Fat Man five times
over. The sequence of constant shifts comments on time passing, role playing,
the futility of everyday living.
For Johnson “art by accident” was a serious matter. Like Eisenstein leaving a
door open on the set “for the unexpected to come in,” or Flaherty letting the
unaimed cameras run in Man from Aran, Johnson revelled in the paradox of
“deliberate uncertainty.” The whole film was a “found object,” but the accident
was just sufficiently contrived. Johnson and Bakewell set things up so things
Being able to trust their instincts and one another, produced in the two film
makers an exhilaration that was shared by the camera crew. The collaboration
already mentioned fed its own arbitrary element into the chance process.
Cameraman Mike Reynolds had the idea of “treating the camera as if it were a
dog.” Johnson instantly knelt down, “patted it”:
Come along. This way … Not so fast. Down boy. Down. That’s a good boy.
Sit. Camera “sits.”
Spontaneity and Chance work together to disarm the writer. His unconscious
acceptance of “anything that comes along” can lead him into dangerous waters. Fat
Man’s plethora of death images–the more striking for their
juxtaposition with moments of exuberance and celebration–are sadly prophetic.
Johnson relishes these morbid scenes:
At the foot of the cliff he finds a dead sheep. Zoom in to close shot of
its bloodied head.
He recalls a road accident seen nearby years ago, remembered with utter clarity:
There had been a crash between two cars and a motor cycle … the rider
of the motor cycle had been thrown across the road and had hit a wire fence …
and the wires had gone through him like a cheese cutter through cheese …
Less gruesome but equally telling is the aimless violence: he throws stones at
piles of stones, “stamps on a bunch of bananas,” smashes a light bulb, explodes
fireworks in a cave to scare the screaming gulls. These are the actions of a
disturbed child. They bear out Michael Bakewell’s prescient words: “Bryan could
pass from incredible jollity to total belligerence to incredible pain within
five minutes. We shared a room while making the earlier film Hendret, and Bryan
was always moaning and shouting in his sleep. He was obviously deeply disturbed
in his dreams. One got the impression of a terrible restless spirit going on
In this context, visual jokes worthy of Buster Keaton or Beckett seem somehow
grim, as when Johnson responds to the old philisophical questions:
I’ll have to go away and think about it. He paces back and forward …
As he paces he wears a deep trench in the sand–and falls into it.
Digging his own grave, but it is done with a chuckle. He explores his private
dreads, but with lugubrious glee. Suicidal maybe, po-faced never. Each image
has its other side. Building a column of stones then pelting it with stones is
futile, but it is also a way of coping with the tedium of “a day by the sea,”
and it brings back those seaside holidays spent with Mum and Dad “before the
war.” Exploding fireworks are violent, but they make a lovely bang. (That the
rockets produce their spermatozoic fizzle inside a womblike cave only makes the
equation more interesting.)
Johnson’s “high spirits in hard times” were partly due to the delight he always
felt at being back in Wales. After the trip that produced Travelling People,
Johnson returned for the next three summers to work in Lleyn. In 1970 he had a
wonderful six months as Gregynog Writing Fellow at the University of Wales,
In Fat Man, a “Welsh Voice” calls out: “What can an Englishman know about
Wales?” Johnson replies with his fine translation from “the great Welsh poet
David ap Gwilim.” The first stanza of Seagull:
Gull all grace on the flood tide
Mailed hand of sea salt.
Moonlight white, reflected snow.
Perfect lily of the wave’s valley.
Fish fattened, cork-like coaster, shining piece of paper.
But the poem that most clearly, even tenderly, conveys Johnson’s connection with
Wales, is the one he wrote for his Welsh film Hafod a Hendret (Winter home,
Once at Gregynog, not long after arriving, we walked across a field
maculate with snow and lambing blood and amongst the scattered animals came
upon a lamb so newly born it had not yet laid eyes on its dam:
some instinct set it unsteadily towards us as though we must have caused
the monstrous expulse it had suffered … it parallels the raw helplessness
I feel in moving towards your so much benigner and more properly valued
a feeling I have hardly had since bribing glass in hand outside a pub I
was a child waiting for parents.
Michael Bakewell describes how the two of them went about filming the sequence
that went with the poem: “It wasn’t easy to find a new born lamb actually
staggering about. Bryan got to know an old shepherd by playing cribbage with
him in a pub, night after night, and eventually he led us to the lamb…”
Making the film was fun, but being in Wales brought back memories of Johnson’s
separation from his parents–for Johnson the seminal experience, even in the
trivial context of waiting for them outside a pub. Johnson’s overwhelming love
for his mother had recently been intensified by his close attendance at her
agonising death from cancer. To connect waiting for his mother with “moving
towards” Wales was an indication of his love for what had become his mother
In Fat Man, the Welsh Mother Goddess appears to Johnson on “a mountain
called Carn Fadrun on Lleyn.” He tells how he found himself one morning “at
dawn on top of that mountain, almost not of my own volition and stripping off
all my clothes and making what I can only think of as religious
gestures–worshipping some sort of female deity.”
That surrender to impulse, that acceptance of the instinctive self, was in line
with the spirit and content of Fat Man on a Beach. The man’s integrity
gives him dignity, as he alternately ambles about and skips around, playing
games, confiding secrets, being himself to the bitter end.
The film’s conclusion is prefigured by the couplet that ends “Young Fellow from
Dark, dark is my lover and dark-haired is she And white shines her body
like foam on the sea.
Only months before, Johnson’s friend, the novelist Ann Quin, had walked into the
sea at Brighton, and drowned. Michael Bakewell describes the film’s final scene
as “a reenactment of Ann Quin’s death.” The script states simply:
BSJ walks determinedly towards the sea … He goes on walking until he
is lost beneath the waves.
Bakewell says “Bryan was determined that he would not suffer from the simulated
suicide, so we made enormous preparations for bringing him back from death,
pouring brandy down his throat, rubbing him down with hot towels. As Bryan
would only do it once, we had to get it right first time, so we rehearsed it
over and over again.”
October 26-November 13 1973
Chapter: Home. Means Her
Home. Means her. . . . . . . . . . . Good, for a start, that I think of
her, Ginnie, in connection with home, home not in the sense of my
home, I have no home: there are the flat I rent and my parents’
home: but neither of these is truly my home. I can form the
concept of my home, though, I can see the desirability of having a
home. Which means her, in that home, making that home: with me.
I’ll rest there.
Back home, Johnson tried to get to grips with the work that had piled up while
he was in Wales. There was plenty to do. Michael Bakewell says, “Bryan was
doing too much! The Matrix Trilogy was a full-time occupation in itself.
To do that, and Fat Man, and edit two books, and to do the other
teleplays, and the Writers’ Union stuff, and everything else, meant he was
incredibly fully extended.”
“Everything else” included six scripts for Thames TV’s schools’ programs,
publicity interviews for the publication of Aren’t You Rather Young to Be
Writing Your Memoirs?, decisions to be made about the Danish and
Swedish translations of Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry,
correspondence with his US publisher Dick Seaver, work on a new book of
Welsh/English poetry, selection and revision of his own poems for Penguin Modern
Bakewell wanted to start work on editing Fat Man, but two things
prevented Johnson from meeting him to discuss this. First was the priority
Johnson gave to The Matrix Trilogy. This ambitious project was begun
soon after his mother’s death in 1971. Johnson’s Notes on the Trilogy record
its “Three interlinked themes”:
1) the death of my mother 2) the decay of the mother country 3) the
renewal aspect of motherhood paralleling the cancer she died of with the
decline of Britain over the last forty years.
See the Old Lady Decently, the first of the three novels, had been
delivered to Hutchinsons on October 1, 1973. Charles Clark, managing director,
and Johnson’s editor, had some fundamental reservations about the book (though
he published it unaltered in 1975). Johnson was preoccupied with Clark’s
critique. At the same time, he was mapping out the second novel, provisionally
titled Buried Although. See the Old Lady ends with the
author/protagonist’s birth in 1933. Extant notes for the second novel take the
story through to 1945.
The Trilogy was Johnson’s most complex and challenging work to date. Given this,
and its close connections with mourning his mother, he was determined to give
it priority over his mass of other commitments, as this Note to himself makes
Further work on the Trilogy, on Fat Man, or anything else, was soon to be
out of the question. Something happened to incapacitate Johnson entirely. It
was to do with his wife Virginia.
Diana Tyler, Johnson’s trusted friend and indefatigable literary agent, recalls:
“When Bryan came back from Wales, obviously something had been simmering. The
first I knew that anything was wrong was when he telephoned me at home at about
eight o’clock on Sunday morning. I was in bed asleep. He was very distraught.
He said, `You know Virginia is thinking of leaving me?’ I said, `Don’t be so
ridiculous, what are you talking about?” I thought he was overreacting to a
minor matrimonial problem. He came over to the house and spent the day with me.
He was clearly upset, but by the end of the day he seemed OK. He was listing
how much work he had on, he would talk things over with Virginia, they would go
back to counselling.”
Sunday with Diana must have done Johnson some good because on Monday he was able
to attend to one of his lighter chores: commissioning contributions to You
Always Remember the First Time, the book he was editing for Quartet.
Michael Bakewell says that the collection “added considerable zest, dynamism
and embarrassment to the year, with Bryan dashing off letters to the most
improbable people, asking them about their first sexual experience.”
Contributors included Brian Aldiss, Larry Adler, Peter Buckman, Barry Cole,
Giles Gordon, Ruth Fainlight, Michael Moorcock, Jeff Nuttall, Philip Oakes,
Giles Playfair and Emma Tennant. Replies from those who could or would not
contribute are often as revealing as those who appeared in the book.
Dame Sybil Thorndike’s secretary wrote:
Dame Sybil could not possibly write what you ask. She is far too busy,
and does not find the subject very interesting.
Malcom Muggeridge pleaded “pressure of work,” Sean Connery regretted that he
“did not have anything worth contributing to the book.” Rayner Heppenstall
recalled Johnson’s previous anthology All Bull and suggested the new one be
titled All Cock. Germaine Greer felt she must
resist the temptation to tell the story (which is droll and dull and
ghastly) … Besides, he and I are still friends and sometimes even lovers …
I wouldn’t dream of retelling the story without the connivance of both him and
his wife, who is one of my best friends.
Johnson’s last commissioning letter reads:
is it 29th or 30th Oct 1973
I can’t sleep anyway Dear Delicious Ingrid Pit:
I was delighted, as I said, that you were interested in doing the piece for You
Always Remember the First Time; and so sorry that you had so much trouble
reaching me. As I told you, I have been in the middle of an absurd but deadly
serious marital disaster since I returned from filming in Wales last Saturday;
and god knows what happened before that.
But that is not the point, anyway.
I’m especially pleased to hear that your piece will be hilarious . . . You don’t
know how much I’m looking forward to reading what you write …
And thanks for the consolation about the universality of the marital condition,
Johnson spent much of the rest of the week with Diana Tyler at MBA Agency’s
offices in Tottenham Court Road, or on the phone to her at home: “Bryan was
very unhappy. Whatever had been talked about in counselling had obviously upset
him. I told him Virginia just wanted a break, which was perfectly normal. But
Bryan took it that she wanted out. I said that was an overreaction, but Bryan
remained extremely disturbed about the whole thing. He had a very narrow view
of marriage: everybody had to be faithful. He would not acknowledge that there
could be other loves in people’s lives. He thought there may have been somebody
else in Virginia’s, but he could not accept that it could ever happen.”
Johnson’s puritanical view of marriage is duplicated in Zulfikar Ghose’s
experience of his concept of friendship:
Bryan’s demand for unquestioning devotion was a measure of his love.
The extraordinary intensity of Johnson’s need for undeviating loyalty was
matched by his terror of abandonment. His first great betrayal (as he saw it)
had happened in 1939 when he was six, and evacuated at the start of the war.
This italicised cry from Trawl he reprinted as part of his contribution
to The Evacuees:
Why am I parted from my mother and sent away to live with strangers?
He worries about the reason, the causes, the extent of his rejection:
The worst would be that my mother had had enough of me and was glad I was off her
hands and did not wish to see me back again …
Barry Cole believes “that that separation damaged Bryan irreparably. His
references to it were constant and maintained the tone of dismal pessimism
which invariably marked his depressions.” Certainly, the idealisation of Mother
and certain women able to play that role, and fear of betrayal by them, is a
recurrent theme in Johnson’s fiction.
Johnson’s study of mother love in See the Old Lady Decently was based on
his study of Erich Neumann’s The Great Mother, which is quoted
throughout the novel. This illustration is taken from the comprehensive
collection of artworks that forms an appendix to the book.
The weekend of November 3 and 4, the Johnson family spent with the Buckmans at
their cottage in the Oxfordshire village of Little Tew. This was a regular
jaunt for them and was usually a happy time. With marital tension in the air,
the prospects were not good, but Rosie Buckman recalls: “Bryan and Virginia
were very civilised, there was no sniping between them, just maybe a shared
sadness. The men went for long walks with lots of pub sessions. Virginia and I
were left with the kids. Virginia just said things weren’t going too well. She
didn’t want to talk about it. Anyway, with Steve and Katie, and our two, it was
impossible to have a conversation with little kids rushing around.”
Johnson’s dismissal of the children was not like him, and a sure sign of
something wrong. Normally, as Peter Buckman recalls: “Bryan was very good with
children. He’d draw them into the conversation. It was never ,adults sitting
here and discussing important matters,’ with the kids scrabbling around on the
floor being ignored.” This is confirmed by countless references in Johnson’s
fiction. The narrative of See the Old Lady is interrupted from time to
time, “as in life,” by the advent of the author’s daughter:
During the above my daughter came up into my room, practising her
writing before going to bed. BOOTS and SNOW are the words she likes best …
Now she is drawing round her hand, one at a time, with my red pens, one after
the other. Do you like this? She is fluttering the paper at my elbow, demanding
attention. I give it her, telling her to put it where I can find an envelope
for it in the morning. Suddenly she leaves the room, not saying Night Night,
and the loss is noticeable. I call her, she does not return. The loss is
The Johnsons were driving back on Sunday afternoon. They had packed up all their
things, and the children were running into the car. Johnson came downstairs and
he stood at the bottom of the stairs. Rosie Buckman: “Bryan stood there with
this face, his face was always very expressive, and he had this hangdog look,
that’s the only expression, everything slightly drooped, his eyes terribly sad.
He gave this funny smile and said, ‘Well, maybe we’re going to laugh about this
one day.’ Apart from goodbye, that’s the last thing I remember Bryan saying.”
A few days later the Buckmans received through the mail a copy of Aren’t You
Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs? inscribed
For Peter and Rosemarie with much love and such thanks on this unhappiest of
As an indication of his mood swings, or at least his ability to present
different faces to different friends, Johnson sent this matter of fact note to
Barry Cole on November 3:
Dear Barry: Here’s the letter I mentioned on the phone today. Hope it
leads to something of mutual benefit–if it’s any good I’d recommend Quartet as
the first place to try it. Yrs B
Over the years, Johnson had sent hundreds of similar bits of advice to fellow
writers. At a difficult time, it was typical of him to find time for this one.
That week, Johnson also sent f5 to his Union strike fund, to aid ACTT members
locked out in the long-running Kodak Hemel Hempstead dispute. Like the note to
Barry Cole, this seems a minor act of generosity. But, as personal chaos
threatened, both actions were also tapping in to sources of strength in
Johnson’s life. His comradeship with other writers empowered him as well as
them. His trade union activism was part of his allegiance to the working class:
The class war is being fought as viciously and destructively of the human spirit
as it ever has been in England: I was born on my side, and I cannot and will
not desert: I became an enlisted man consciously but not voluntarily at the age
of about seven.
These old loyalties were threads that bound him to life. The marriage bond was
breaking, and resulting tensions made work impossible. Johnson turned to the
lifelines still there for him, friendship and habit. The two brought him
naturally to the “Quartet” pub on Friday evening, where as usual he met John
Booth of Quartet, and Diana Tyler, his trusted friend in good times and in bad.
Johnson had in his arms a great bunch of red roses, to take back to Virginia.
He left his friends in cheerful mood: “It’s all going to be lovely now, tonight
we’re going to make love, and everything’s going to be fine.”
On the morning of Saturday November 11, Johnson phoned Diana at home. He asked
her to come over to the house in Dagmar Terrace, the home he and Virginia had
bought together in 1970. Diana found Johnson alone. He had no idea where
Virginia was, she had left the day before and taken the children. “Bryan told
me what he had done. He said he had become violent. At the time, it did not
sound much to me, but clearly it had been enough to frighten Virginia. He told
me to stay, he wanted somebody there, he did not want to be on his own, so I
spent the day with him.”
Although she had been there many times before, Johnson took Diana through the
house. It was part of a modest terrace, but well designed and made, nicely
furnished, with a cheerful aspect from the late autumn sun pouring through the
windows. “Bryan showed me all his work, in his tiny attic study, on his desk,
in the drawers. I thought, he’s in a strange mood, he wants me to see
everything he’s written.” Then he got on the phone to Samuel Beckett:
who of all living is the man I believe most worth reading and listening to
“Bryan rang nobody else that day. He kept trying to get through to Beckett.
“For lunch we went to the pub and had a drink. Bryan said, `I think it would be
nice to start again with somebody,’ but he did not say who. He said he needed
`order’ but whatever had happened on Friday night had been `disorder.’ I don’t
know, I could not work it out. He was quite dangerous that weekend, in a funny
kind of way I sensed danger. Yet I did not think of getting help. I thought he
was in control.
“In the early afternoon, Bryan said he was having dinner that night with an old
friend he’d known in Paris: `Before that I’m going up to have a sleep, will you
wake me at four o’clock?’ He put an alarm clock in front of me. I thought,
`Well, here I am, sitting here . . .’ I read a book and woke him at four. Bryan
came down and said `I have to be at Ladbroke Grove by six.’ I said, `Well
that’s good, I will drop you off.’ He said he would be staying the night. I was
relieved to hear that because I did not want him to be on his own. As we left
the house, he said, `Wait a moment,’ and he went back and put all the lights
on. In the car he said he wanted to leave the house as if there were people in
it, as if Virginia and the kids were still there. He did not want to get back
on Monday to a darkened house.”
Six years earlier, when he and Virginia were living in a flat in Myddelton
Square, and they had one child only, Johnson had written, in The Unfortunates:
Steven will be in bed, but I can still look at him sleeping, my son, the
warmth of returning, to Ginnie, to our son, the flat will be lit as I come
across the Square, always stands out, as we do not have curtains, being on the
second floor, and warm, Ginnie perhaps sewing, how oldfashioned a picture it
seems, warmth, I can enjoy this for now, must, it is all there is.
That Sunday night, Johnson rang Diana from Ladbroke Grove to say he was OK. “For
weeks he had been ringing me whenever he went anywhere or saw anyone. He seemed
to be ringing every half hour. I said to my husband Bill: `It’s a good sign
he’s doing that.’ Bill was the most understanding of people, but he did not
quite know what was going on. Such things are not unusual in an agent’s life,
but this was extreme. Michael (Bakewell) was busy and unable to help, and
anyway Bryan was asking for me not Michael, as if I had to be the one who was
Diana was watching over Johnson, but she did not think in terms of suicide. She
trusted him, she trusted him to get through it. She knew where he was staying
on Sunday night, and she had arranged to meet him at her office on Monday at
four. She assumed they would have a drink after, as usual. He had to deliver a
script to Thames TV beforehand, and he would not miss that deadline.
Unknown to Johnson, his wife had gone with the children to the Buckmans at
Little Tew. She arrived on Saturday, towards the end of the day. She said there
had been a bad scene between her and Bryan, he had been violent, he had “shown
her a side she had never seen before.” When the kids were playing together, she
took Rosie to one side and said, “Look, I don”t want to alarm you, but
don”t–don”t open the door to anyone, and don”t let the children out in the
garden for the time being.” She made sure all the doors were properly locked.
Peter Buckman: “We were frightened for the kids, and for ourselves, because of
that vein of violence in Bryan that was always there, running just beneath the
surface. I had seen it before, but never worried about it. That was the only
time, because I was afraid he would come here with an axe.”
A feature of Johnson”s social life was the way his various groups of friends
were kept separate, one lot being barely aware of the other”s existence. So it
happened that while Diana Tyler watched over Johnson during these difficult
days, Barry Cole and another of Johnson”s most loyal friends, the painter John
Furse, were keeping an eye on him at night. The two shifts never overlapped,
and neither knew what the other was doing.
At about six o”clock on the evening of November 12, Johnson phoned Barry Cole,
as he did several times a week. They were near neighbors, and they went for a
drink at Dirty Dick”s around the comer. As usual, they played electronic bar
football. Johnson was a fanatic player who hated to be beaten. He played with
ferocity that night, pulling the little plastic levers, up to kick forward,
down to bring the ball back. One lever had lost its plastic cover, so a little
piece of steel jutted out. At about 9:30 Barry noticed his friend”s left hand
was bleeding. He suggested they call it a day, but Johnson, who was losing,
played on. He wrapped his hand in a dirty handkerchief which was soon dyed
bright red, and continued the game until closing time.
Barry Cole continues: “I went home with Bryan and stayed the night, to make sure
he didn”t do anything. For weeks John Furse and I had taken it in turns to
watch over him, because Bryan had told us he planned to kill himself. I
realised `you can”t stop someone taking his life” but I waited around while
Bryan dressed his hand. I made coffee, and while we were drinking it I told
him, `People love you Bryan, they admire your writing.” But his eyes were
blank, as if he hadn”t heard a word, and I left about 2 AM.”
For the next hours Johnson was alone in the house. He does not seem to have
tried to find out where Virginia and the children had gone. The Buckmans were
an obvious refuge, but he did not phone them. The weight of inertia and
exhaustion counteracted any desire to go in search of his family. He could not
pursue Virginia, he could only wait for her. In despair, home was the only
place for him. It was the end of his wandering, the completion of The Great
The Great Round
(from The Great Mother)
On November 13, Michael Bakewell and Diana Tyler were having lunch at an Italian
restaurant in Tottenham Court Road, when Diana was called to the phone. She
recalls: “It was Ginny. I said, `Well, where are you?” I was slightly cross in
a way. I did not know where she was. She said she was back from the country,
not at home but close by, and somebody should go into the house. I said, `Oh,
Bryan”s fine. He said he”d be at the office at four.” She said, `Well I think
we should get someone. . .”She had obviously seen something, she had been in
part of the house, or someone had, I don”t know. I went back and told Michael
and everybody brought us brandies.”
Virginia had previously phoned Barry Cole, and while she was talking to Diana,
he arrived. Barry went into the house and found the body. He dashed over to
MBA”s offices and told Michael and Diana. They took him to the restaurant where
they had been eating, and Michael said, “Get this man a large brandy.” Barry
drank it, then left alone for his own home.
Shortly before he died, Johnson broke in half a painting by John Furse which had
hung in his study for several years. Among the notes he left behind was one
which explained the damage to the painting as “an accident.” There was no will.
Only a note stuck to a half-empty bottle of brandy: “Barry, finish this.” Barry
drank the brandy, then smashed the bottle.
When the Buckmans heard the news, they took some china plates into the garden
and smashed them.
Mike Moorcock”s response was a volley of curses: “That fucking man! That fucking
man! That fucking sodding bloody bloody bloody man!”
Zulfikar Ghose was in Austin, Texas. He wrote later: “When I received the cable
BRYAN DIED SUICIDE I said Fuck you Bryan and went out to the garden and found
things to do muttering Fuck you Bryan I could not look at his books again gave
away his letters to the university could not phone Virginia did not see her on
subsequent visits to London because I did not want to see him not there and
remain pissed off with him for ten years always muttering Fuck you Bryan and
then writing this going to the library to look at his letters again ten years
later the sight of them the humour the passion the rage ten years later taking
down his books from the shelf and then writing suddenly at last I am crying
like a bleeding child Fuck you Bryan.”
Michael Bakewell remembered the change that followed the making of Fat Man:
“When the film was finished Bryan suddenly cut himself off … everything kind
of submerged after that. I felt a bit deserted, but so did everybody.”
Samuel Beckett wrote to Michael Bakewell:
Thanks for yours of 14.
I learnt the shocking grievous news at end of last week.
I have had a brief card from Virginia.
I missed T.C. in Paris.
It wd be good to see you again, here or anywhere.
Johnson left another note. It lay on his desk, in his study. Barry saw it but
did not touch it. Virginia read it. It was handwritten in neat pencil, on a
card about four by two. It had been composed with characteristic deliberation:
This is my last word
Earlier that year, Johnson had written in See the Old Lady Decently:
I shall never buy a new pencil again.
And a few pages on:
The close of his life was infinitely sad … that short period was
enough to prove to him that his high hopes were futile.
Earlier still, in Trawl:
It is too far to see faces: he must tell by their coats: fawn, blue,
red, another blue, the red just like the coat that Ginnie has–Ginnie? Can it
be her? She could not know what time I was due in, nor even which ship I was
on, for I would not tell her. But she could have found out, if she had tried
hard enough, of her own accord she might have tried to break my isolation in
the only way it could be broken. Ginnie! But is it she? My eyes narrow, strain
to see through the early-morning light, the mist, the shadows on the quay, to
the face of that figure in red.
© 1997 Review of Contemporary Fiction
It is a fact of crucial significance in the history of the novel this century that James Joyce opened the first cinema in Dublin in 1909. Joyce saw very early on that film must usurp some of the prerogatives which until then had belonged almost exclusively to the novelist. Film could tell a story more directly, in less time and with more concrete detail than a novel; certain
aspects of character could be more easily delineated and kept constantly before
the audience (for example, physical characteristics like a limp, a scar,
particular ugliness or beauty) ; no novelist”s description of a battle squadron
at sea in a gale could really hope to compete with that in a well-shot film;
and why should anyone who simply wanted to be told a story spend all his spare
time for a week or weeks reading a book when he could experience the same thing
in a version in some ways superior at his local cinema in only one evening?
It was not the first time that storytelling had passed from one medium to
another. Originally it had been the chief concern of poetry, and long narrative
poems were bestsellers right up to the works of Walter Scott and Byron. The
latter supplanted the former in the favours of the public, and Scott adroitly
turned from narrative poems to narrative novels and continued to be a
bestseller. You will agree it would be perversely anachronistic to write a long
narrative poem today? People still do, of course; but such works are rarely
published, and, if they are, the writer is thought of as a literary
flatearther. But poetry did not die when storytelling moved on. It concentrated
on the things it was still best able to do: the short, economical lyric, the
intense emotional statement, depth rather than scale, the exploitation of
rhythms which made their optimum impact at short lengths but which would have
become monotonous and unreadable if maintained longer than a few pages. In the
same way, the novel may not only survive but evolve to greater achievements by
concentrating on those things it can still do best: the precise use of
language, exploitation of the technological fact of the book, the explication
of thought. Film is an excellent medium for showing things, but it is very poor
at taking an audience inside characters” minds, at telling it what people are
thinking. Again, Joyce saw this at once, and developed the technique of
interior monologue within a few years of the appearance of the cinema. In some
ways the history of the novel in the twentieth century has seen large areas of
the old territory of the novelist increasingly taken over by other media, until
the only thing the novelist can with any certainty call exclusively his own is
the inside of his own skull: and that is what he should be exploring, rather
than anachronistically fighting a battle he is bound to lose.
Joyce is the Einstein of the novel. His subject-matter in Ulysses was
available to anyone, the events of one day in one place; but by means of form,
style and technique in language he made it into something very much more, a
novel, not a story about anything. What happens is nothing like as important as
how it is written, as the medium of the words and form through which it is made
to happen to the reader. And for style alone Ulysses
would have been a revolution. Or, rather, styles. For Joyce saw that such a
huge range of subject matter could not be conveyed in one style, and
accordingly used many. Just in this one innovation (and there are many others)
lie a great advance and freedom offered to subsequent generations of writers.
But how many have seen it, have followed him? Very few. It is not a question of
influence, of writing like Joyce. It is a matter of realising that the novel is
an evolving form, not a static one, of accepting that for practical purposes
where Joyce left off should ever since have been regarded as the starting
point. As Sterne said a long time ago :
“Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by
pouring only out of one vessel into another? Are we for ever to be twisting,
and untwisting the same rope ? For ever in the same track-for ever at the same
The last thirty years have seen the storytelling function pass on yet again. Now
anyone who wants simply to be told a story has the need satisfied by
television; serials like Coronation Street and so on do very little more than answer the question “What happens next?” All other writing possibilities are subjugated to narrative. If a writer”s chief interest is in telling stories (even remembering that telling stories is a
euphemism for telling lies; and I shall come to that) then the best place to do
it now is in television, which is technically better equipped and will reach
more people than a novel can today. And the most aware film-makers have
realised this, and directors such as Godard, Resnais, and Antonioni no longer
make the chief point of their films a story; their work concentrates on those
things film can do solely and those things it can do best.
Literary forms do become exhausted, clapped out, as well. Look what had
happened to five-act blank verse drama by the beginning of the nineteenth
century. Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and Tennyson all wrote blank-verse,
quasi-Elizabethan plays; and all of them, without exception, are resounding
failures. They are so not because the men who wrote them were inferior poets,
but because the form was finished, worn out, exhausted, and everything that
could be done with it had been done too many times already. That is what seems
to have happened to the nineteenth century narrative novel, too, by the
outbreak of the First World War. No matter how good the writers are who now
attempt it, it cannot be made to work for our time, and the writing of it is
anachronistic, invalid, irrelevant, and perverse.
Life does not tell stories. Life is chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of
ends untied, untidily. Writers can extract a story from life only by strict,
close selection, and this must mean falsification. Telling stories really is
telling lies. Philip Pacey took me up on this to express it thus:
“Telling stories is telling
lies is telling
lies about people is creating or
hardening prejudices is
alternative to real communication not a stimulus
to communication and/or communication itself
is an escape from the challenge
to terms with real people”
I am not interested in telling lies in my own novels. A useful distinction
between literature and other writing for me is that the former teaches one
something true about life: and how can you convey truth in a vehicle of
fiction? The two terms, truth and fiction, are opposites, and it must logically
The two terms novel and fiction are not, incidentally, synonymous, as many seem
to suppose in the way they use them interchangeably. The publisher of Trawl
wished to classify it as autobiography, not as a novel. It is a novel, I
insisted and could prove; what it is not is fiction. The novel is a form in the
same sense that the sonnet is a form; within that form, one may write truth or
fiction. I choose to write truth in the form of a novel.
In any case, surely it must be a confession of failure on the part of any
novelist to rely on that primitive, vulgar and idle curiosity of the reader to
know “what happens next” (however banal or hackneyed it may be) to hold his
interest? Can he not face the fact that it is his choice of words, his style.
which ought to keep the reader reading? Have such novelists no pride? The drunk
who tells you the story of his troubles in a pub relies on the same curiosity.
And when they consider the other arts, are they not ashamed? Imagine the
reception of someone producing a nineteenth-century symphony or a
Pre-Raphaelite painting today! The avant garde of even ten years ago is now
accepted in music and painting, is the establishment in these arts in some
cases. But today the neo-Dickensian novel not only receives great praise,
review space and sales but also acts as a qualification to elevate its authors
to chairs at universities. On reflection. perhaps the latter is not so
surprising; let the dead live with the dead.
All I have said about the history of the novel so far seems to me logical, and
to have been available and obvious to anyone starting seriously to write in the
form today. Why then do so many novelists still write as though the revolution
that was Ulysses had never happened, still rely on the crutch of storytelling? Why, more
damningly for my case you might think, do hundreds of thousands of readers
still gorge the stuff to surfeit?
I do not know. I can only assume that just as there seem to be so many writers
imitating the act of being nineteenth-century novelists, so there must be large
numbers imitating the act of being nineteenth-century readers, too. But it does
not affect the logic of my case, nor the practice of my own work in the novel
form. It may simply be a matter of education, or of communication; when I
proposed this book to my publisher and outlined its thesis, he said it would be
necessary for me to speak very clearly and very loudly. Perhaps the din of the
marketplace vendors in pap and propaganda is so high that even doing that will
not be enough.
The architects can teach us something: their aesthetic problems are combined
with functional ones in a way that dramatises the crucial nature of their final
actions. Form follows function said Louis Sullivan, mentor of Frank Lloyd
Wright, and just listen to Mies van der Rohe :
To create form out of the nature of our tasks with the methods of our time-this is our task.
We must make clear, step by step, what things
are possible, necessary, and significant.
Only an architecture honestly arrived at by the
explicit use of available building materials can
be justified in moral terms.
Subject matter is everywhere, general, is brick, concrete, plastic; the ways of
putting it together are particular, are crucial. But I recognise that there are
not simply problems of form, but problems of writing. Form is not the aim, but
the result. If form were the aim then one would have formalism; and I reject
The novelist cannot legitimately or successfully embody present-day reality in
exhausted forms. If he is serious, he will be making a statement which attempts
to change society towards a condition he conceives to be better, and he will be
making at least implicitly a statement of faith in the evolution of the form in
which he is working. Both these aspects of making are radical; this is
inescapable unless he chooses escapism.
Present-day reality is changing rapidly; it always has done, but for each
generation it appears to be speeding up. Novelists must evolve (by inventing,
borrowing, stealing or cobbling from other media) forms which will more or less
satisfactorily contain an ever-changing reality, their own reality and not
Dickens” reality or Hardy”s reality or even James Joyce”s reality. Present-day
reality is markedly different from say nineteenth-century reality. Then it was
possible to believe in pattern and eternity, but today what characterises our
reality is the probability that chaos is the most likely explanation; while at
the same time recognising that even to seek an explanation represents a denial
of chaos. Samuel Beckett, who of all living is the man I believe most worth
reading and listening to, is reported thus:
“What I am saying does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art.
It only means that there will be new form, and that this form will be of such a
type that it admits the chaos, and does not try to say that the chaos is really
something else. The forms and the chaos remain separate. . . to find a form
that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.”
Whether or not it can be demonstrated that all is chaos, certainly all is
change: the very process of life itself is growth and decay at an enormous
variety of rates. Change is a condition of life. Rather than deplore this, or
hunt the chimaerae of stability or reversal, one should perhaps embrace change
as all there is. Or might be. For change is never for the better or for the
worse; change simply is. No sooner is a style or technique established than the
reasons for its adoption have vanished or become irrelevant. We have to make
allowances and imaginative, lying leaps for Shakespeare, for even Noel Coward,
to try to understand how they must have seemed to their contemporaries. I feel
myself fortunate sometimes that I can laugh at the joke that just as I was
beginning to think I knew something about how to write a novel it is no longer
of any use to me in attempting the next one. Even in this introduction I am
trying to make patterns, to impose patterns on the chaos, in the doubtful
interest of helping you (and myself) to understand what I am saying. When
lecturing on the same material I ought to drop my notes, refer to them in any
chaotic order. Order and chaos are opposites, too.
This (and other things I have said) must appear paradoxical. But why should
novelists be expected to avoid paradox any more than philosophers ?
While I believe (as far as I believe anything) that there may be (how can I
know?) chaos underlying it all, another paradox is that I still go on behaving
as though pattern could exist, as though day will follow night will follow
breakfast. Or whatever the order should be.
I do not really know why I write. Sometimes I think it is simply because I can
do nothing better. Certainly there is no single reason, but many. I can, and
will, enumerate some of them; but in general I prefer not to think about them.
I think I write because I have something to say that I fail to say
satisfactorily in conversation, in person. Then there are things like conceit,
stubbornness, a desire to retaliate on those who have hurt me paralleled by a
desire to repay those who have helped me, a need to try to create something
which may live after me (which I take to be the detritus of the religious
feeling), the sheer technical joy of forcing almost intractable words into
patterns of meaning and form that are uniquely (for the moment at least) mine,
a need to make people laugh with me in case they laugh at me, a desire to
codify experience, to come to terms with things that have happened to me, and
to try to tell the truth (to discover what is the truth) about them. And I
write especially to exorcise, to remove from myself, from my mind, the burden
having to bear some pain, the hurt of some experience: in order that it may be
over there, in a book, and not in here in my mind.
The following tries to grope towards it, in another way:
I have a (vision) of something that (happened) to mesomething which (affected) me
something which meant (something) to me
and I (wrote) (filmed) it
I wanted it to be fixed
so that I could refer to it
so that I could build on it
so that I would not have to repeat it
Such a hostage to fortune!
What I have been trying to do in the novel form has been too much refracted
through the conservativeness of reviewers and others; the reasons why I have
written in the ways that I have done have become lost, have never reached as
many people, nor in anything like a definitive form. “Experimental” to most
reviewers is almost always a synonym for “unsuccessful”. I object to the word
experimental being applied to my own work. Certainly I make experiments, but
the unsuccessful ones are quietly hidden away and what I choose to publish is
in my terms successful: that is, it has been the best way I could find of
solving particular writing problems. Where I depart from convention, it is
because the convention has failed, is inadequate for conveying what I have to
say. The relevant questions are surely whether each device works or not,
whether it achieves what it set out to achieve, and how less good were the
alternatives. So for every device I have used there is a literary rationale and
a technical justification; anyone who cannot accept this has simply not
understood the problem which had to be solved.
I do not propose to go through the reasons for all the devices, not least
because the novels should speak for themselves; and they are clear enough to a
reader who will think about them, let alone be open and sympathetic towards
them. But I will mention some of them, and deal in detail with The Unfortunates
, since its form seems perhaps the most extreme.
Travelling People (published 1963) had an explanatory prelude which summed up much of my thinking on the novel at that point, as follows :
“Seated comfortably in a wood and wickerwork chair of eighteenth-century
Chinese manufacture, I began seriously to meditate upon the form of my
allegedly full-time literary sublimations. Rapidly, I recalled the conclusions
reached in previous meditations on the same subject: my rejection of
stage-drama as having too many limitations, of verse as being unacceptable at
the present time on the scale I wished to attempt, and of radio and television
as requiring too many entrepreneurs between the writer and the audience; and my
resultant choice of the novel as the form possessing fewest limitations, and
closest contact with the greatest audience.
But, now, what kind of novel? After comparatively little consideration, I
decided that one style for one novel was a convention that I resented most
strongly: it was perhaps comparable to eating a meal in which each course had
been cooked in the same manner. The style of each chapter should spring
naturally from its subject matter. Furthermore, I meditated, at ease in far
eastern luxury, Dr. Johnson”s remarks about each member of an audience always
being aware that he is in a theatre could with complete relevance be applied
also to the novel reader, who surely always knows that he is reading a book and
not, for instance, taking part in a punitive raid on the curiously-shaped
inhabitants of another planet. From this I concluded that it was not only
permissible to expose the mechanism of a novel, but by so doing I should come
nearer to reality and truth: adapting to refute, in fact, the ancients: Artis est monstrare artem
Pursuing this thought, I realised that it would be desirable to have interludes
between my chapters in which I could stand back, so to speak, from my novel,
and talk about it with the reader, or with those parts of myself which might
hold differing opinions, if necessary; and in which technical questions could
be considered, and quotations from other writers included, where relevant,
without any question of destroying the reader”s suspension of disbelief, since
such suspension was not to be attempted.
I should be determined not to lead my reader into believing that he was doing
anything but reading a novel, having noted with abhorrence the shabby chicanery
practised on their readers by many novelists, particularly of the popular
class. This applied especially to digression, where the reader is led, wilfully
and wantonly, astray; my novel would have clear notice, one way or another, of
digressions, so that the reader might have complete freedom of choice in
whether or not he would read them. Thus, having decided in a general way upon
the construction of my novel I thought about actually rising to commence its
composition; but persuaded by oriental comfort that I was nearer the Good Life
engaged in meditation, I turned my mind to the deep consideration of such other
matters as I deemed worthy of my attention, and, after a short while thus
engaged, fell asleep.”
Travelling People employed eight separate styles or conventions for nine chapters; the first and
last chapters sharing one style in order to give the book cyclical unity within
the motif announced by its title and epigraph. These styles included interior
monologue, a letter, extracts from a journal, and a film script. This latter
illustrates the method of the novel typically. The subject-matter was a gala
evening at a country club, with a large number of characters involved both
individually and in small groups. A film technique, cutting quickly from group
to group and incidentally counterpointing the stagey artificiality of the
occasion, seemed natural and apt. It is not, of course, a film; but the way it
is written is intended to evoke what the reader knows as film technique.
The passage quoted above was deliberately a pastiche of eighteenth-century
English, for I had found that it was necessary to return to the very beginnings
of the novel in England in order to try to re-think it and re-justify it for
myself. Most obvious of my debts was to the black pages of Tristram Shandy
, but I extended the device beyond Sterne”s simple use of it to indicate a
character”s death. The section concerned is the interior monologue of an old
man prone to heart attacks; when he becomes unconscious he obviously cannot
indicate this in words representing thought, but a modified form of Sterne”s
black pages solves the problem. First I used random- pattern grey to indicate
unconsciousness after a heart attack, then a regular-pattern grey to indicate
sleep or recuperative unconsciousness; and subsequently black when he dies.
Since Travelling People is part truth and part fiction it now embarrasses me and I will not allow it to be reprinted; though I am still pleased that its devices work. And I learnt a
certain amount through it; not least that there was a lot of the writing I
could do in my head without having to amass a pile of paper three feet high to
see if something worked.
But I really discovered what I should be doing with Albert Angelo
(1964) where I broke through the English disease of the objective correlative
to speak truth directly if solipsistically in the novel form, and heard my own
small voice. And again there were devices used to solve problems which I felt
could not be dealt with in other ways. Thus a specially-designed type-character
draws attention to physical descriptions which I believe tend to be skipped, do
not usually penetrate. To convey what a particular lesson is like, the thoughts
of a teacher are given on the righthand side of a page in italic, with his and
his pupils” speech on the left in roman, so that, though the reader obviously
cannot read both at once, when he has read both he will have seen that they are
simultaneous and have enacted such simultaneity for himself. When Albert finds
a fortuneteller”s card in the street it is further from the truth to describe
it than simply to reproduce it. And when a future event must be revealed, I
could (and can; can you ?) think of no way nearer to the truth and more
effective than to cut a section through those pages intervening so that the
event may be read in its place but before the reader reaches that place.
Trawl (1966) is all interior monologue, a representation of the inside of my mind but
at one stage removed; the closest one can come in writing. The only real
technical problem was the representation of breaks in the mind”s workings; I
finally decided on a stylized scheme of 3 em, 6 em and 9 em spaces. In order
not to have a break which ran-on at the end of a line looking like a paragraph,
these spaces were punctuated by dots at decimal point level. I now doubt
whether these dots were necessary. To make up for the absence of those
paragraph breaks which give the reader”s eye rest and location on the page, the
line length was deliberately shortened; this gave the book a long, narrow
The rhythms of the language of Trawl attempted to parallel those of the sea, while much use was made of the trawl itself as a metaphor for the way the subconscious mind may appear to work.
With each of my novels there has always been a certain point when what has been
until then just a mass of subject-matter, the material of living, of my life,
comes to have a shape, a form that I recognise as a novel. This crucial
interaction between the material and myself has always been reduced to a single
point in time: obviously a very exciting moment for me, and a moment of great
relief, too, that I am able to write another novel.
The moment at which The Unfortunates (1969) occurred was on the main
railway station at Nottingham. I had been sent there to report a soccer match
for the Observer, a quite routine League match, nothing special. I had hardly thought about
where I was going, specifically: when you are going away to report soccer in a
different city each Saturday you get the mechanics of travelling to and finding
your way about in a strange place to an almost automatic state. But when I came
up the stairs from the platform into the entrance hall, it hit me: I knew this
city, I knew it very well. It was the city in which a very great friend of
mine, one who had helped me with my work when no one else was interested, had
lived until his tragic early death from cancer some two years before.
It was the first time I had been back since his death, and all the afternoon I
was there the things we had done together kept coming back to me as I was going
about this routine job of reporting a soccer match: the dead past and the
living present interacted and transposed themselves in my mind. I realised that
afternoon that I had to write a novel about this man, Tony, and his tragic and
pointless death and its effect on me and the other people who knew him and whom
he had left behind. The following passage from The Unfortunates
explains his importance to me :
“To Tony, the criticism of literature was a study, a pursuit, a discipline of
the highest kind in itself: to me, I told him, the only use of criticism was if
it helped people to write better books. This he took as a challenge, this he
accepted. Or perhaps I made the challenge, said that I would show him the novel
as I wrote it, the novel I had in mind or was writing: and that he would
therefore have a chance of influencing, of making better, a piece of what set
out to be literature, for the sake of argument, rather than expend himself on
dead men”s work.”
The main technical problem with The Unfortunates was the randomness of the material. That is, the memories of Tony and theroutine football reporting, the past and the present, interwove in a completely random manner, without chronology. This is the way the mind works, my mind
anyway, and for reasons given the novel was to be as nearly as possible a
re-created transcript of how my mind worked during eight hours on this
This randomness was directly in conflict with the technological fact of the
bound book: for the bound book imposes an order, a fixed page order, on the
material. I think I went some way towards solving this problem by writing the
book in sections and having those sections not bound together but loose in a
box. The sections are of different lengths, of course: some are only a third of
a page long, others are as long as twelve pages. The longer ones were bound in
themselves as sections, or signatures, as printers call them.
The point of this device was that, apart from the first and last sections which
were marked as such, the other sections arrived in the reader”s hands in a
random order : he could read them in any order he liked. And if he imagined the
printer, or some previous reader, had selected a special order, then he could
shuffle them about and achieve his own random order. In this way the whole
novel reflected the randomness of the material: it was itself a physical
tangible metaphor for randomness and the nature of cancer.
Now I did not think then, and do not think now, that this solved the problem
completely. The lengths of the sections were really arbitrary again; even
separate sentences or separate words would be arbitrary in the same sense. But
I continue to believe that my solution was nearer; and even if it was only
marginally nearer, then it was still a better solution to the problem of
conveying the mind”s randomness than the imposed order of a bound book.
What matters most to me about The Unfortunates is that I have on recall as accurately as possible what happened, that I do not have to carry it around in my mind any more, that I have done Tony as much justice as I could at the time; that the need to communicate with myself then,
and with such older selves as I might be allowed, on something about which I
cared and care deeply may also mean that the novel will communicate that
experience to readers, too.
I shall return shortly to readers and communicating with them. But first there
are two other novels, and they represent a change (again!) of direction, an
elbow joint in the arm, still part of the same but perhaps going another way.
Perhaps I shall come to the body, sooner or later. The ideas for both House
Mother Normal (1971 ) and Christie Malry”s Own Double-Entry (1973)
came to me whilst writing Travelling People (indeed, I discussed them
with Tony) but the subsequent three personal novels interposed themselves,
demanded to be written first. I also balked at House Mother Normal
since it seemed technically so difficult. What I wanted to do was to take an
evening in an old people”s home, and see a single set of events through the
eyes of not less than eight old people. Due to the various deformities and
deficiencies of the inmates, these events would seem to be progressively
“abnormal” to the reader. At the end, there would be the viewpoint of the House
Mother, an apparently “normal” person, and the events themselves would then be
seen to be so bizarre that everything that had come before would seem “normal”
by comparison. The idea was to say something about the things we call “normal”
and “abnormal” and the technical difficulty was to make the same thing
interesting nine times over since that was the number of times the events would
have to be described. By 1970 I thought that if I did not attempt the idea soon
then I never would; and so sat down to it. I was relieved to find that the
novel did work, on its own terms, while not asking it to do anything it clearly
should not be trying to do. Each of the old people was allotted a space of
twenty-one pages, and each line on each page represented the same moment in
each of the other accounts; this meant an unjustified right-hand margin and led
more than one reviewer to imagine the book was in verse. House Mother”s account
has an extra page in which she is shown to be
the puppet or concoction of a writer (youalways knew there was a writer behind it all?
Ah, there”s no fooling you readers !)
Nor should there be.
The reader is made very much aware that he is reading a book and being addressed
by the author in Christie Malry”s Own Double-Entry, too. The idea was that a young man who had learned the double-entry system of book-keeping started applying his knowledge to society and life; when society did him down, he did society down in order to balance the books. Form following
function, the book is divided into five parts each ended bya page of accounts
in which Christie attempts to draw a balance with life.
I do not really relish any more description of my work; it is there to be read,
and in writing so much about technique and form I am diverting you from what
the novels are about, what they are trying to say, and things like the nature
of the language used, and the fact that all of them have something comic in
them and three are intended to be very funny indeed. When I depart from what
may mistakenly be extracted from the above as rigid principles it is invariably
for the sake of the comic, for I find Sterne”s reasons all-persuasive :
“. . . .tis wrote, an” please your worships, against the spleen! in order, by a
more frequent and a more convulsive elevation and depression of the diaphragm,
and the succussations of the inter-costal and abdominal muscles in laughter, to
drive the gall and other bitter juices from the gall-bladder, liver, and
sweet-bread of his majesty”s subjects, with all the inimicitious passions which
belong to them, down into their duodenums.”
For readers it is often said that they will go on reading the novel because it
enables them, unlike film or television, to exercise their imaginations, that
that is one of its chief attractions for them, that they may imagine the
characters and so on for themselves. Not with my novels; it follows from what I
have said earlier that I want my ideas to be expressed so precisely that the
very minimum of room for interpretation is left. Indeed I would go further and
say that to the extent that a reader can impose his own imagination on my
words, then that piece of writing is a failure. I want him to see my (vision),
not something conjured out of his own imagination. How is he supposed to grow
unless he will admit others” ideas? If he wants to impose his imagination, let
him write his own books. That may be thought to be anti-reader; but think a
little further, and what I am really doing is challenging the reader to prove
his own existence as palpably as I am proving mine by the act of writing.
Language, admittedly, is an imprecise tool with which to try to achieve
precision; the same word will have slightly different meanings for every
person. But that is outside me; I cannot control it. I can only use words to
mean something to me, and there is simply the hope (not even the expectation)
that they will mean the same thing to anyone else.
Which brings us to the question of for whom I write. I am always sceptical
about writers who claim to be writing for an identifiable public. How many
letters and phone calls do they receive from this public that they can know it
so well as to write for it? Precious few, in my experience, when I have
questioned them about it. I think I (after publishing some dozen books) have
personally had about five letters from “ordinary readers”, people I did not
know already that is; and three of those upbraided me viciously because I had
just published the book that they were going to have written.
No, apart from the disaster of Travelling People, I write perforce for myself, and the satisfaction has to be almost all for myself; and I can only hope there are some few people like me who will see what I am doing, and understand what I am saying, and use it for their own devious
Yet it should not have to be so. I think I do have a right to expect that most
readers should be open to new work, that there should be an audience in this
country willing to try to understand and be sympathetic to what those few
writers not shackled by tradition are trying to do and are doing. Only when one
has some contact with a continental European tradition of the avant garde does
one realise just how stultifyingly philistine is the general book culture of
this country. Compared with the writers of romances, thrillers, and the bent
but so-called straight novel, there are not many who are writing as though it
mattered, as though they meant it, as though they meant it to matter.
Perhaps I should nod here to Samuel Beckett (of course), John Berger, Christine
Brooke-Rose, Brigid Brophy, Anthony Burgess, Alan Burns, Angela Carter, Eva
Figes, Giles Gordon, Wilson Harris, Rayner Heppenstall, even hasty, muddled
Robert Nye, Ann Quin, Penelope Shuttle, Alan Sillitoe (for his last book only,
Raw Material indeed), Stefan Themerson, and (coming) John Wheway; (stand by):
and if only Heathcote Williams would write a novel. . . .
Anyone who imagines himself or herself slighted by not being included above can
fill in his or her name here :
It would be a courtesy, however, to let me know his or her qualifications for
Are we concerned with courtesy ?
Nathalie Sarraute once described literature as a relay race, the baton of
innovation passing from one generation to another. The vast majority of British
novelists has dropped the baton, stood still, turned back, or not even realised
that there is a race. Most of what I have said has been said before, of course;
none of it is new, except possibly in context and combination. What I do not
understand is why British writers have not accepted it and acted upon it.
The pieces of prose (you will understand my avoidance of the term short story)
which follow were written in the interstices of novels and poems and other work
between 1960 and 1973; the dates given in the Contents are those of the year of
completion. None of them seem to me like each other, though some have links and
cross-references; neither can I really see either progession or retrogression.
The order is that which seemed least bad late on one particular May evening;
perhaps I shall regret it as soon as I see it fixed.
Make of them what you will. I offer them to you despite my experience that the
incomprehension and weight of prejudice which faces anyone trying to do
anything new in writing is enormous, sometimes disquieting, occasionally
laughable. A national daily newspaper (admittedly one known for its reactionary
opinions) returned a review copy of Travelling People with the complaint
that it must be a faulty copy for some of the pages were black; the Australian
Customs seized Albert Angelo (which had holes justifiably cut in some
pages, you will remember) and would not release it until they had been shown
the obscenities which (they were convinced) had been excised; and in one of our
biggest booksellers Trawl
was found in the Angling section. . .
This is the new version of the bsjohnson.info website. It is currently a work in progress, as we upload our archive of images, articles, reviews etc. Hopefully it should eventually provide a useful resource for anyone interested in B.S. Johnson and his works.
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David Quantick discussed Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry on the BBC Radio 4 show, along with Sue MacGregor and Jo Brand. First broadcast 25 January 2005.