Jonathan Coe, Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B. S. Johnson, Picador, London, £9.99
(the title of this review relates to Johnson's interruption of the narrative in Albert Angelo with this phrase)
It will serve to rid myself of the desire to communicate as widely as possible my belief that one of the worst fallacies of recent times is the argument which usually runs that B. S. Johnson would have languished in absolute (as opposed to relative) obscurity were it not for Jonathan Coe's (actually excellent) recent biography of said 'cult' writer (and this is in no way a reflection on the biographer but merely lazy reviewers). It is true that B. S. Johnson was never a household name (as Coe attests in his introduction to the most recent imprint of The Unfortunates), nor a safe bet for barcode scanning in chain stores, but to simply restate this barefaced lie over and over again (as has been the case of late) is plain offensive to those who have proven to be a dedicated readership of the great man's works for whatever reason it is that he appeals to us. Another oft-peddled misconception of the era is that Johnson was not known to anyone under 40 until the publicity surrounding Coe's biography took hold, which came as a surprise to myself as someone adequately acquainted with his work in my mid-20s prior to it all. Other absolute tosh abounds when tackling this very subject, not least restaurant reviewer Giles Coren's demonstrably laughable attempt at literary criticism in The Times when he argued:
"Don't go pretending you've read B. S. Johnson. It won't wash. Because nobody has. If you insist that you are a fan then I can tell you, like a guess-your-weight psychic at the county fair, that you are between 50 and 67, wish you hadn't wasted so much of your youth reading, and often lie in magazine lifestyle quizzes. Either that or you were married to him. But, frankly, I don't believe you've even heard of B. S. Johnson. You're thinking: 'Is he related to Boris, perhaps?'"
Indeed, as Nicholas Lezard rightly pointed out afterwards, it was "the kind of smirking philistinism that makes this country far more of a cultural desert than it needs to be, and may well have been one of the factors that drove Johnson to slit his wrists in a hot bath at the age of 40."
Johnson's works now serve as highly-prized artefacts among the youngest ranks of England's author classes -- Hari Kunzru reportedly gave Zadie Smith a first edition of The Unfortunates as a wedding present (she obviously already had a toaster). And Johnson's status (as Coe puts it) as "Britain's one man literary avant-garde of the 1960s" reflects something of his role as (ibid.) a "vigorous polemicist". Johnson may now sit within, by virtue of his recent revival, in what might pass for a counterculture these days, but in his lifetime and certainly his latter years before his untimely suicide aged 40, he was more in keeping with the Soho drinking dens and emerging satire than the prevailing counterculture of Oz and the libertarian socialists of that era. As Coe documents only too well, the era was that of worsening industrial and social unrest -- Johnson's role being to capture this through his own propaganda films against the Heath government and Christie Malry's own appropriation of the Angry Brigade's tactics in his novel of the same name. As Coe reveals, Johnson's almost inchoate yet consistent political beliefs resembled something akin to broad sympathy towards an idealised notion of a Labour left intelligentsia, though he later argued that it, as per the Labour Government of Harold Wilson, had lost its way and was a spent force. He also recalls how Johnson once argued that his brand of 'socialism' was merely a system whereby the state supported all writers financially on account of their benefit to society, no doubt for the most part due to his own precarious money situation as an often-struggling writer.
In terms of his approach, Jonathan Coe has done justice to not only Johnson's works but also his life and how the smallest of incidents later played themselves out in what were ostensibly highly personalised stories that Johnson, for reasons best known to himself (and not always apparent to Coe, it seems), consistently disregarded as 'lies'. It is a highly personalised biography too -- both of which, of course, are essential components in what a good biography should be about. Where Coe caps off the justice served is in the structure of the book, which avoids the more pedestrian pitfalls of the biographer that quite often render what should be a lively account into thoroughly dull reading. Instead, Johnson's inventiveness appears to have permeated Coe's own thoughtscape and steady pen and for a man so concerned with how the world perceived him and his place in history, it remains a shame that he was not able to bask in the approval he sought that is on offer here. Furthermore, the book's worth exists not only in the wide research undertaken over the course of almost one decade but also in the chapters that offer stand-alone assessments of each of Johnson's novels.
Like A Fiery Elephant rightly places almost equal emphasis on Johnson's 'other works', as opposed to simply his better known literary endeavours (Johnson actually listed his occupation as 'Poet' on his passport) and sets them against the social climate of the era. Coe's profile offers up the most salient of Johnson's life events and certainly places into context those which drove Johnson to commit it to literary endeavour, particularly those which fuelled the anger behind much of his best work. In doing so, he avoids applying too much judgement to a complex and often flawed subject's life choices, though he is not afraid to dole out criticism when confronted with a blemish, such as drawing attention to Johnson's thinly veiled homophobia against the (now) late Ted Heath in one of his propaganda films. We might wonder how Johnson would be received today, as while he would no doubt recognise the political landscape as it stands, whether or not our literary world recognise his talents is another matter entirely. On occasion, Coe himself quakes with the legendary application of pique that characterised much of Johnson's work, particularly when he writes in his introduction that:
"… [Johnson] remains one of my greatest literary heroes. And above all, I suppose, for the simple reason that he took himself, and his art -- or craft, vocation, call it what you will -- so seriously. Because, in spite of what he said, it's not the reactionaries or the old fogeys who pose the greatest threat to the novel. It's the dilettantes. The gentlemen (and -women) amateurs. The resting actors and the bored journalists and the ubiquitous media people hungry for kudos and the talented but directionless Oxbridge graduates who've all got agents queuing up to take them out to lunch. And because it's so easy for these people to get published, we end up with bookshops piled from floor to ceiling with novels that aren't really novels at all, written by people who haven't given the form and its possibilities a tenth of the thought that B. S. Johnson gave it before he even set pen to paper."
It's almost a manifesto in itself and one by which Johnson, the working-class outsider autodidact, would have probably approved. Ultimately, one might hope that this book and all the acclaim it has received since, could go some way towards destroying much of the fog of myths that have existed about Johnson and his status of late. Having done so, the reader can be left in no doubt as to the extent by which the biographer has taken his remit and pushed it that bit further by almost reinventing the biography altogether. Though given the subject concerned, anything less would merely be a waste of trees. We have much to be thankful for here, not least the knowledge that Johnson might now be known for something other than writing 'books in boxes' or 'books with holes in them', read only by the over 40s.
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