My London Library: No 4 – Street Children

  • Title Street Children by BS Johnson (text) and Julia Trevelyan Oman (photographs) (Hodder & Stoughton, 1964)
  • Cost £120 (yes, £120!)
  • Bought from Maggs Books, Berkeley Square
  • Genre Photographs

I became fascinated by BS Johnson after seeing the under-rated film adaptation of Christy Malry’s Own Double-Entry and then reading Jonathan Coe’s splendid biography, Like A Fiery Elephant.

Johnson was a London novelist and suicidal Chelsea fan who believed all fiction was lies and killed himself in 1973 after producing a number of extraordinary books, such as The Unfortunates (adapted for radio this week), in which all the chapters were individually bound so they could be read in any order, or Albert Angelo, a semi-autobiographical, superbly located, London-set novel in which the narrator declares mid-sentence towards the end ‘OH FUCK ALL THIS LYING’ before launching into an extraordinary stream of consciousness about all the pent-up shit that was swirling around Johson’s head as he was writing it. 

It sounds heavy, but it isn’t. Johnson is funny and smart and his books are short and punchy. Read them all.

In 1964, Johnson was asked to write the captions for a book of photographs of kids at play in the streets of South London. He did so in a typically original way that utterly perplexed the publishers.

Johnson places himself inside the heads of the children and then imagines what they might be thinking, using typographical tricks to get the point across. It’s an extraordinary conceit and one that is typical of Johnson.

  • Best bit It’s all good. The photos of kids playing on carless streets are lovely, and the bizarre captions from Johnson must have given the publisher kittens when he first handed them over. Johnson is an exquisite and brutally honest writer, and the text is strange but very funny.
  • Verdict This was bought for me as a leaving present from Time Out. It is the most expensive book I own, and for both these reasons I treasure it. I also like the fact I found this small card inside that had once been used as a bookmark.

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3 responses to “My London Library: No 4 – Street Children

  1. Great piece. What a great book that looks.

    To issue a threat ending in “up the bracket” is so much of its time it made me laugh out loud. Back in the 80’s I had a couple of jobs that involved working with men in their late 50’s and early 60’s, real Londoners, some who had served in Malaya and the like for their national service and they had a particular argot and mode of expression, which was always making me laugh. Enquiring as to whether you wanted a punch up the bracket (or sometimes in the bracket if I remeber rightly) was a regular occurrence.

    One character regularly enquired on a Monday as to whether you’d been to any parties over the weekend. On being told you had, he would ask “Was there a punch up? A party’s no good wiv’ out a punch up.”

    You once put up a cracking quote of Johnson’s on Chelseablog and I keep meaning to get on and read him. I will now. I’ve got a £5 voucher from the LRB and what better way to spend it.

  2. Pingback: A punch up the bracket: BS Johnson and Anthony Aloysious St John Hancock | The Great Wen

  3. Hi Peter. I do not know how to contact you directly so I thought that writing on your blog could be one possibility to reach you. The point is that I’ve recently bought a copy of this beautiful “Street Children”. It is an ex-library copy that has been treated quite badly, the dust cover in particular shows several stains and a missing corner at the front top. I’m writing to you to ask if you could be so kind in taking the time to do a scan of the full dust cover and send it on to me so I can gave a better look to this lovely book. I’ll appreciate very much if you can do it and I do very much hope not to be a nuisance for you. If I’ve disturbed you I apologize. Kind regards. Pier

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