BS Johnson photographed in 1968
with death and fear of rejection haunted this literary heavyweight
writes John Horder
wordsmith who was set on self-destruct
Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of BS Johnson by Jonathan Coe
B S Johnson’s emotional illiteracy and obsession with death
went hand in glove.
He was also for ever spoiling for a fight whenever he got even the
smallest chance. When I first met him him, he was already fast getting
himself established as a poet, experimental novelist, sports journalist
for The Observer newspaper and television film-maker of great talent.
The time was the mid1960s; the place that hothouse of cultural ferment
then as now the ICA in the Mall.
Bryan moved towards me pugilistically, like the fiery elephant of
this authorised biography’s title. “You think you’re
a more amazing poet than I am, you f****** swine”, was his opening
gambit. “Yes, I do”, I replied, with all the arrogance
that I could muster.
Unlike the bellicose Anthony Thwaite, the poet, who reputedly fought
at least twice with Bryan, I was unskilled at the time in the art
of any kind of literary or physical combat.
The background of this typical story, not included by Jonathan Coe
in this exquisitely written and researched biography, is that I had
reviewed Bryan’s first book of poems unfavourably in ‘Ambit’,
a small magazine which has nurtured Carol Ann Duffy and other now
famous writers. Knowing he was right in the way a three-year-old omnipotent
boy knows he’s right about everything, he felt it was his duty
to correct me.
What I didn’t know until reading this 476 long page-turner was
the extent to which he took any kind of rejection badly, however slight.
He never stopped challenging publishers in particular, whom he was
convinced had always done him less than justice all his life. In fact
this was the theme of my poem, ‘Unsatisfied Author’, which
Coe has included in its entirety:
He went around all the publishers
Asking for more money
When what he really wanted was more tit (at birth)
And the publishers just hadn’t got any.
He was thought (by the publishers) to be
A most awkward specimen of humanity.
Convinced in himself of his own genius,
He demanded that the world recognise him for what he was.
But the world just
hadn’t got any.
Tit, of course.
He hadn’t recognised that it was just far, far too late in
Bryan Stanley Johnson was born in Hammersmith in 1933 the son of
a mother who never stopped adoring him, and an emotionally illiterate
(ie non hugging) father.
Describing his home life in his novel about supply teaching, ‘Albert
Angelo’, just re-issued by Picador as one third of a trilogy,
he said with insight that went straight to the heart of the matter:
“In this house, in my parents‚ house, my parents‚
home, all affection is channelled through the dog. No one is affectionate
to anyone else except through the dog.”
“His childhood”, said Coe, already searching for clues
why Bryan killed himself at the tragically early age of 40, “was
defined by the trauma of wartime evacuation and his failure to pass
the Eleven Plus”.
Both were at the heart of the obsession with death which haunted
every day and every minute of his life. The first, why he was ever
separated from his mother so brutally, remains a mystery to this
day. Even Coe, the most resourceful and painstaking of literary
detectives, fails to come up with any solution.
Bryan set himself brutally-high and exacting standards throughout
his highflying literary career. He was the most scrupulous writer
with deadlines any editor could have hoped for.
Paradoxically it may have been the rave reviews that ‘Albert
Angelo’ attracted that may have contained the seeds of own
destruction. When Val Mulkerns in the Irish Times wrote that he
had written “a masterpiece” and Adrian Mitchell in The
Sunday Times concluded: “Value this man. His writing sings.
He writes like a fiery elephant”, his three-year-old omnipotent
boy believed that they were stating nothing less than the empirical
truth. Unfortunately as some of us equally highflying writers learn
as soon as we grow up, there are no empirical truths of this sort
cast in stone any more.
Bryan’s strength and weakness – it became more and more
a weakness the more he drank towards the very end of his life –
was that he believed he had to be a literary genius as great as
James Joyce or Samuel Beckett. Otherwise he felt he was nothing
and he had no right to exist in reality.
When he fell out with Beckett after using an endorsement on the
dustjacket of Christie Malry’s Double-Entry without first
asking his permission, he felt his whole world had gone up in flames.
If he had taken himself even slightly less seriously, he might still
be alive today.
Jonathan Coe is the most compassionate and self-forgiving novelist
of his generation. ‘The House of Sleep’ and ‘The
Rotters‚ Club’, about is his schooldays in Birmingham
in the 1970s, are both evidence of his genius.
The latter is acknowledged in France, as is Julian Barnes’
genius, while taken for granted here.
It has taken him eight years to write a biography, which is literally
like no other I have ever read.
In ‘Like A Fiery Elephant’ he is constantly amazing
himself and taking enormous risks. I cherish my memories of Bryan,
not least when I visited him at his home near the Angel, Islington,
and he accepted my poem ‘Crazy Jane and Yeats’ for publication
in The Transatlantic Review.
At the time he had the demeanour of an elderly student. This aspect
never ever left him.
He remained at student at heart till he day he chose to quit this