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B.S. Johnson, Brutalist

By Sukhdev Sandhu.

(cross-posted from telegraph.co.uk blogs)


You’re Human Like The Rest Of Them is the name of a rather special event taking place this evening at London’s National Film Theatre. Curated by Nigel Algar, it’s a celebration of the film works of one of the most intriguing English writers of the last half century: BS Johnson. A dynamic and compelling figure, an advocate of experimental and avant-garde literature at a time (the 1960s and early 1970s) when naturalism and social realism dominated British fiction, he produced a number of novels that raged with passion and invention.

Albert Angelo (1964), which is based on his experiences as a state-school teacher in north London, features a hole cut through two of its pages so that readers can see through to events that take place in the ‘future’. The Unfortunates (1969), provoked by a friend’s premature and seemingly random death of cancer, was issued as a box whose first and last sections are separated by 25 pamphlets, some a mere paragraph long, that can be read in any order. House Mother Normal (1971), set in an old people’s home, recounts a single event from ten different points of view.

Johnson’s fascination with typographical tricks and literary form – the demands he placed on it, his urge to deconstruct it, his desire to make merry with it – was, in some senses, a very traditional impulse whose roots go back at least as far as Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), a self-reflexive and bawdy novel tricked out with graphic squiggles as well as black and marbled pages. Equally though, it was an attempt to carry the torch for Modernism lit by the likes of James Joyce and his beloved Samuel Beckett.

Born in West London in 1933, Johnson was evacuated during World War Two (an upsetting experience he never forgot), and failed his eleven-plus exams. He went on to work as an account clerk at a building company and in the wages department of a bakery before, only as a mature student, enrolling at King’s College, London.

This sense of himself as an outsider, a personality at once rawer and more worldly than his Oxbridge-educated peers who occupied key positions within literary London, never totally left him. He worked prodigiously hard, issuing novels, poetry, short stories, as well as countless book reviews as if he was fighting against an invisible clock, and even spent Saturdays travelling across the country in order to report on football games for The Observer.

Johnson’s experience of working-class and lower-middle-class life, his first-hand knowledge of the rhythms and repressions of non-metropolitan Britain, his keen appreciation of how nearly his own creative energies had been snuffed out as a young man: all these inform his blackly comic novel, Christie-Malry’s Own Double Entry (1973) (later made into a film by Paul Tickell), whose bank-clerk anti-hero, applying the debit/ credit principles of double-entry bookkeeping, maintains a running tally of his life that he labels aggravation/ recompense, and proceeds to wreak vengeance on society by poisoning twenty thousand Londoners.

Towards the end of this book there is a chapter, ‘In which Christie and I have it All Out; and which You may care to Miss Out’, in which Johnson tells his protagonist that he’s running out of steam. “‘Don’t be sorry,” Christie replies, “The writing of a long novels is in itself an anachronistic act: it was relevant only to a society and a set of social conditions which no longer exist.'”

Many other writers in the 1960s and 1970s, writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Christine Brooke-Rose, shared this point of view, but few of them were able to offer counter fictions that felt anything other than cloistered and archly academic. By contrast, Johnson’s wrestling with literary form is intense, muscular, emotional. The penultimate section of ‘Albert Angelo’, entitled ‘Disintegration’, begins with an extraordinary disruption in which the author, dispensing with any pretense of fiction, declares: “-**** all this lying… Im trying to say something not tell a story telling stories is telling lies and I want to tell the truth about me about my experience about my truth”.

Johnson not only made the task of detonating tired literary structures seem urgent and fun, he tried to redefine the parameters and possibilities of the novel, fusing technical innovation with a visceral sense of locality and landscape in a manner that’s more common in British pop music – jungle, grime, dubstep – than in British fiction (prominent exceptions would include John Berger and Iain Sinclair).

In spite of the advocacy of Jonathan Coe (who wrote a terrific, award-winning 2004 biography ‘Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of BS Johnson’), academics such as Philip Tew (co-editor of a valuable essay collection ‘Re-Reading BS Johnson’), and some websites (this one is a very useful resource), it’s fair to say that Johnson’s work – like that of his fellow British experimentalists Alan Burns and Ann Quin – is still not as widely known as it might and ideally would be.

That’s even truer of the many films he wrote or directed, a broad cross-section of which the National Film Theatre will be showing tonight. Johnson was drawn to cinema and to movie-making for many reasons: to supplement what he regarded as the pittance he earned from publishing; its potential as a political and consciousness-raising tool (in 1971, in response to the Conservative Government’s Industrial Relations Bill, he made a couple of evocative if not very sophisticated pro-union shorts, ‘Unfair!’ and ‘March!’); the extent to which its modernist grammar of splices, jump cuts and montage informed his approach to literary narrative.

Johnson held strong opinions about film, and especially about the British film industry. He thought it was full of “stinking crap”: “fatuous stories about sexless lovers, quaint old trains, action pictures which move the stomach to retch and not the heart to feel, the class-riddled setpieces of a dead culture, desperately unfunny double-entendre comedies, all forming a Victoria Falls of cesspool effluent. Only the purer waters of the British documentary tradition prevents complete pollution of the environment.”

His own films, made for television as well as for cinema, were a decidedly mixed bag. ‘You’re Human Like The Rest of Them’ (1968), a verse-play about death and disintegration made with the financial assistance of the British Film Institute and the technical help of Bruce Beresford (best known for ‘Driving Miss Daisy’), won the Grand Prix at Tour Shorts Film Festival in 1968.

But ‘The Smithsons on Housing’ (1970), a portrait of New Brutalist architects Alison and Peter Smithson made for BBC2, was hated by many within the corporation. Not without good reason: intended as a showcase for the theories of a couple who proclaimed themselves the “best architects in the country”, and whose ‘streets in the sky’ aesthetics Johnson had already praised in print, it must rate as one of the most bizarre documentaries ever broadcast.

The husband-and-wife team are shot in unflattering close up. They seem sweaty, their make-up is patchily applied, and they keep shifting their gazes so that they resemble parents of a child that has gone missing under suspicious circumstances. Their outfits – Alison wears a strap-collared silver outfit of the kind better suited to an extraterrestrial canine – are eye-poppingly weird. It’s hard to focus on what they’re saying: Alison speaks with the same faux grandeur that Margaret Thatcher later refined; Peter struggles to complete most of his sentences.

As they discuss their plans for the Robin Hood Gardens housing complex in Poplar, East London, they drone in self-pitying fashion about vandals and local naysayers to such an extent that any traces of visionary utopianism are extinguished. The aerial footage of the buildings is not so much futuristic as queasy. The programme, broadcast a couple of year after the collapse of Ronan Point tower block in nearby Newham, would likely have made most viewers distrust rather than look up to modern architects. Indeed, after Robin Hood Gardens was completed, the Smithsons designed almost no further public buildings in the United Kingdom.

Johnson himself never made any more films for the BBC. His next programme, ‘On Reflection: Samuel Johnson’ (part of the You’re Human celebration), was shown on ITV in 1971. Shot on a very modest budget, and filmed for the most part in the great Doctor’s house in London, it’s a sharp, forceful tribute to his eighteenth-century namesake whose work abounded, in what’s also a great description of his own writing, with “the “fierce joy of creation”.

‘On Reflection’ works well because Johnson is informed and passionate about his subject. He’s not afraid to be critical, describing one of his plays as “very near terrible”. He clearly identifies with his subject, referring a few times to his size, unprepossessing looks, and constant battle against melancholia. As for the Doctor’s love of a drink: “Drinking is an occupational hazard for writers, rather like coal dust is for miners. There’s a very important correlation between the flow of thoughts on to paper and the flow of drink into a writer, so much so that it might be officially recognized and drink could be made available on the National Health Service – or perhaps through the Arts Council.”

Johnson is keen to show the Doctor not as the grand and distinguished writer he appears in history books, but as the struggling hack he was for much of his life, someone forced to commit to projects for money rather than for art. He refers at one point to Edward Cave, a publisher “who paid very badly but who would always give his writers a meal if they could prove they were starving, a tradition continued to this day by publishers who think the miserable percentage they allow authors can in some way be excused by taking an author out to lunch.” At this point, the film cuts to a simple message: “Publishers are parasites.”

There are other devices that lively up the programme and make it more than a televised lecture. Sometimes, when Johnson recites the Doctor’s most famous sayings – “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”, for instance – his voice is suddenly and melodramatically dubbed. The Doctor’s interactions with the people around him, in his banter with Boswell or with his wife Tetty, are scored: “Johnson 1 Boswell 0”, “Johnson O, Wife 1”.

A section of the poem ‘London’ is accompanied by atmospheric footage of the modern-day capital: Routemaster buses, misty-windowed Wimpy bars, wrecking balls tearing into old buildings. As soon as the word “malice” is sounded, the camera zooms in on the national flag flying above the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square.

BS Johnson’s best film though, and the one that most effectively translates into the visual realm his beliefs about mortality, the chaos of human existence and narrative itself, is ‘Fat Man On A Beach’ (1974). Directed by Michael Bakewell and broadcast on HTV Wales, it features Johnson, wearing an array of coloured shirts, roaming about Port Ceiriad bay in Gwynedd, north Wales.

At the start, he asks: “Do you really want to sit there and watch it? Well don’t say I didn’t warn you!” Then, over the course of nearly forty minutes, he goes about taking Polaroids of a cameraman, discoursing about bananas, reciting poems by Welsh Nationalists, and leaping across the sand. The film is as eccentric as the documentaries of John Samson, as absurdist as Buster Keaton and Samuel Beckett’s collaboration ‘Film’ (1965), intellectually spry like John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ (1972), as unlikely a programme to be screened on commercial television as Norman Cohen’s ‘The London Nobody Knows’ (1967).

‘Fat Man On A Beach’ is a film about Wales that it’s hard to imagine the Welsh Tourist Board embracing. In it Johnson revisits a part of the country he’d first visited and fallen in love with as a young hitchhiker. He punctuates his memories of that time, and of other times he’s spent there since, with various sight gags, jokes about bananas, a dark story about seeing a motorcyclist thrown off his bike and his body flying onto a wire fence that cuts through him “like a cheese cutter cutting through cheese”

At one point he defends this randomness, and even his willingness to include double takes and verbal fluffs: “Why can’t a film be a celebration of the accidental? Do you have to be a told a story? Telling stories is a child’s euphemism for telling lies.” ‘Fat Man On A Beach’ is, if one knows Johnson’s work, a compendium of authorial tics and obsessions: his pushy humour (“Everything reminds me of a joke – if I’m lucky”); his need to expose the mechanisms of his own narratives (jump cuts, he explains, are “little deceits of filmmakers”); his interest in the process of disintegration (there is a close-up of a blood-spattered dead sheep); his captivating childishness (in one sequence he treats the camera as a dog, telling it what to do and calling out “That’s a good boy. Sit!”)

If it’s not always easy to get a full grasp on what Johnson is saying or doing in ‘Fat Man On A Beach’, it’s even less easy to look away. It’s complex and ludic, touching and haunting. And yet were it to be pitched to a commissioning editor at ITV today, there’s not a hope in hell that it would ever get the green light: its presenter would be dismissed as excessively clever and insufficiently famous.

For myself, watching it today, it’s the closing moments of ‘Fat Man On A Beach’ that burn most intensely. Shot from a helicopter, Johnson is shown walking out across the sand and into the sea, the water climbing up his ankles, knees, waist. He seems to disappear from view. On 13 November 1973, barely a fortnight after that he recorded that scene, BS Johnson committed suicide at his family home in Islington, and in so doing largely disappearing from the public view too. Tonight’s celebration is long overdue.

First posted: Tuesday, June 16th, 2009.

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