Sign up for our weekly newsletter

UNESCO City of Literature: Bryan Stanley Johnson

17 November 15 words: David Belbin
Our bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature is almost drawing to a close. But not before we dive into the world of Mr. BSJ
alt text
Bryan Stanley Johnson

“But I know this city,” begins BS Johnson’s (BSJ) book in a box, The Unfortunates, which is to be performed in its entirety at multiple locations at multiple times. In Nottingham, because ours is the unnamed city that he describes in the book. “The moment at which The Unfortunates occurred to me”, Johnson wrote, “was on the main railway station at Nottingham. I had been sent there to report on a soccer match for The Observer, a quite routine League match, nothing special. I had hardly thought about where I was going, specifically… 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 great friend of mine, one who had helped me with my work when no one else was interested, had lived until his tragic death from cancer some two years before.”

I read the above in an anthology while I was a student at University of Nottingham in the late seventies. I fell on BSJ’s work, which I loved for its bravado, verve, experimentation and naked honesty. Over the years, I read most of his work. For a long time, however, The Unfortunates eluded me. You couldn’t order it from the library. Nottingham Trent University’s archived copy had been stolen.

Eventually, it was reissued, in a new box with an introduction by Jonathan Coe, who wrote a fine biography of BSJ, Like A Fiery Elephant. I then found out what the fuss was all about. The memoir has 27 sections. All but the first and last are bound separately and assembled in random order. The idea was to show how “memories of Tony and the routine football reporting, the past and the present, interwove in a completely random manner, without chronology… the novel was to be as nearly as possible a re-created transcript of how my mind worked during eight hours of this particular Saturday.”

By anonymising Nottingham (even Forest becomes City), BSJ meant to make his book more universal. For similar reasons, Stanley Middleton (who met Johnson) called his Nottingham ‘Beechnall’. Nottingham doesn’t like to boast about itself: fair enough. But, as we bid for recognition as a UNESCO City of Literature, we’re celebrating the great work set here. On the weekend of the 21 - 22 November, across 26 city centre locations, playwright Andy Barrett and his theatre company Excavate have organised a mass reading of The Unfortunates, beginning and ending at Broadway Cinema.

After they have seen one of several performances of the opening section, starting from 10am and then running at half-hourly intervals until 3pm, audience members can spend as much time as they like visiting 26 locations (it isn’t compulsory to visit them all) – some of which, like the train station, are in The Unfortunates – and watch performed readings from the book. All of these locations will be marked on a map so that the listener can navigate their way through the city and the novel in whatever order they wish. The last chapter will then be read, back in Broadway, at half-hourly intervals from 3.30pm until the final reading at 10pm.

alt text
illustration: Christine Dilks

The list of venues includes a host of iconic locations, as well as some less obvious nooks and crannies, all of which have some kind of connection to the chapter to be read there. Expect to visit pubs, cafes, bookshops, common rooms, living rooms and the inside of a car. And all of the readers will be in some form of BSJ attire – probably a dark mac and hat. Each performance starts when an audience member arrives. None will exceed ten minutes; many are much shorter. Volunteers from both universities will help guide people.

There will be at least two performers splitting the duties at each venue. I’m going to be with Sue Dymoke and Michael Eaton at Yates’s, reading the section set there. BSJ used Yates’s in a short promo film for the novel, featuring the famous trio that used to play upstairs. You can see it on YouTube, or at a special evening of Johnson shorts that Broadway is putting on the night before, introduced by Jonathan Coe.

Coe’s preoccupation with Johnson began when, as a child, he saw the quirky 1973 TV film Fat Man On A Beach (also part of the Broadway evening), set on a Welsh beach where Jonathan’s family used to holiday. The film concludes with BSJ walking into the sea, Reggie Perrin style. Sadly, the same year, Johnson – plagued by marital problems and career difficulties – took his own life, aged forty. His body was found by poet and novelist, Barry Cole. The suicide haunted Barry profoundly and contributed to a long retreat from writing which lasted until the nineties. That was when John Lucas – a friend of BSJ’s who published some of his poetry – brought Barry back into print. On a memorable afternoon in 2009, Barry took me round his and BSJ’s old haunts.

Barry died last year. John has edited a gedenkschrift - a memorial publication - to celebrate what would have been his 79th birthday. It will be launched at Bookmarks, in Bloomsbury, London, on 13 November at 7pm. There will be many readers, and all are welcome.

“This novel which cost me so much pain,” Johnson wrote in the copy of The Unfortunates that he dedicated to his old collaborator, Zulfikar Ghose. The book’s power is partly to do with how naked Johnson stands before us, reflecting on the untimely death of a friend he loved. But don’t get the impression that the novel is unremitting gloom. Far from it. BSJ has a zest for life and language and literary form. In the tradition of one of our earliest novelists, Lawrence Sterne, who BSJ called “the great spunky unflincher”, he likes to play with form and tease the reader. One book has a hole cut in it so that the reader can see what’s coming. Another is laid out as book-keeper’s double entries, a third composed entirely of case-notes. Most of all, perhaps, BSJ resisted the novel itself. In an early one, Albert Angelo, he suddenly interjects, “OH FUCK ALL THIS LYING!”. “Telling stories is telling lies” he says elsewhere. Perhaps to describe The Unfortunates as a novel, as BSJ did, is misdirection. It is a memoir and, had he lived longer, that might have been the form that BSJ excelled in. He also wrote several scripts and two memorable poetry collections.

“But what about the football match”, I hear you ask? The original match report is pasted to the back of the box (Forest won). Sadly, there will be no reading at the Forest ground – Fellows Morton and Clayton will host the football report chapter – it’s too far from the city centre and too busy. Forest will be playing at home, just as they were that Saturday afternoon in 1966 when Johnson visited this city, and his head filled with memories.

But I Know This City! is a collaboration with the University of Nottingham as part of Being Human: A Festival of the Humanities, various venues, Thursday 12 – Sunday 22 November.  
Dead of Night film screening with introduction by Jonathan Coe is at Broadway Cinema, Friday 20 November, 5.35pm.

But I Know This City!, is on at 27 different venues across the city, and runs between Saturday 21 - Sunday 22 November.

Nottingham City of Literature website

We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now