Tag Archives: BS Johnson

Cockney Visions: Writing Britain at the British Library

The British Library’s new exhibition Writing Britain, which runs until 25 September 2012, has big ambitions. It aims to study place and landscape in British literature, looking at how writers and poets have been informed by the land around them, and how their writing has transformed the way we view these spaces.

Phew!

The exhibition is divided into different thematic sections, and includes one on Cockney Visions about London writing, and another on the suburbs, which also has considerable London content.

It’s a remarkably bold concept, but the BL does not shy from a challenge – its exhibition on Liberty a few years ago was one of the most intellectually intense I have ever seen, while the one on Language was similarly involved.

This time, it doesn’t quite pull it off. The problem is the same that blighted last year’s science fiction exhibition – too many books. Entering a BL exhibition is like visiting a first rate antiquarian bookshop, but one were you can’t touch the books and none of them are for sale. It’s great to see these rare and beautiful books, but it’s also incredibly frustrating that you can’t pick them up, feel the pages, smell the history.

Paradoxically perhaps, books are also an insufficient way of examining landscape in the way the exhibition intends. If we can’t actually sit there and read Wuthering Heights, immersing ourself in this extraordinary place the writer has created, we need other ways to make the journey. The most evocative part of the exhibition is the one on the Lake District and Highlands, purely because there are some wonderful paintings on display, which help crystallise our vision of what Wordsworth, Keats and Scott were describing. Conversely, the London section takes in the usual suspects on that well-trod wander from Blake and De Quincey to Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Will Self and Iain Sinclair  (and includes a wonderful copy of the London Psychogeographic Society newsletter from the early 90s), but fails to really plunge us into the city of our imagination.

Where the exhibition – and the BL itself – really does excel is when it can produce original manuscripts, diaries and photographs. These messy, scrappy, lovingly flawed items show the writing process in a way a beautifully bound finished book never can. And some of the best of these are to be found in the sections of the exhibition related to London. There’s a sketch by John Betjeman of Dalston Station; an unpublished poem by Evelyn Waugh about the Crystal Palace (complete with Waugh’s drawing of the building); a couple of pages from JG Ballard’s collection, including the heavily amended opening pages to Kingdom Come and Crash; and a lovely drawing by GK Chesterton to accompany his notes for The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Dalston Station by John Betjeman.

Kingdom Come manuscript

Notes for The Napoleon of Notting Hill by GK Chesterton

I loved also a letter by Conan Doyle sent to his mother from South Norwood, in which he carefully sketched the floorplan of a suburban house he was thinking of buying, and a copy of Pygmalion, which Shaw had phonetically annotated to show how he felt the cockney phrases should be pronounced.

a personal favourite was a draft of Albert Angelo by BS Johnson, showing how Johnson wished a section of one page to be cut out so it would reveal a sentence from later in the book, a brilliant way to create a  flash-forward or pre-cognition.

Best of all, though, was this photograph, which shows JM Barrie, GK Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw dressed as cowboys in 1914. For the full story, read this excellent blog post. It has very little to do with Writing Britain, but it’s bloody marvellous all the same.

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Gertcha to the British Library, for Viz, Austen and Evolving English

I’ve seen three new exhibitions since being bored senseless by the British Museum’s Book of the Dead, and all of them are vastly superior to that banal blockbuster.

While the British Museum takes a complacent Tesco-like approach of pile it high and intimidate people with sheer weight of history, the Imperial War Museum, Wellcome Collection and British Library all have to work a little harder to get any attention and the results are far more satisfying.

Take Evolving English at the British Library, a superb exhibition about the history of the English language that offers both intelligence, insight and, most tellingly, the cheerful sense of humour that is lacking from Great Russell Street.

There are showstopping exhibits here, such as manuscripts of Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ and Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’ and a copy of ‘Beowulf’, while the curators were ecstatic about a cabinet that featured side-by-side four historic bibles – the Wycliffe, Tyndale, Book of Common Prayer and King James.

But there are also wilder treats hidden in the margins.

One section on the differences between spoken and written English was illustrated by letters from schoolchildren to their teacher, my beloved BS Johnson, written in a glorious mixture of slang, formality and stream of consciousness that later found their way verbatim into his novel ‘Albert Angelo’. (‘Mr Johnson has a poor outlook towards us, calling us peasants and other insulting names of which we would like to contradict… Mr Johnson on the whole although he isn’t all there is a rotton teacher but not proffesionally for he teaches well… in school Mr Johnson is an authentic nit.’)

 

The section on profanity is illustrated with a copy of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and a copy of Viz, while you can explore London English by reading extracts from Charles Dickens or you can just listen to ‘Gertcha!’.

London English, we are reminded, adopts words from many different cultures and I was intrigued to learn about the history of the Black London idiom ‘aksed’ for ‘asked’. This apparently originated in south-west England and found its way to the Southern US states and the Caribbean through emigration, before returning to London via the West Indian diaspora. Take it away, Smiley Culture.

A punch up the bracket: BS Johnson and Anthony Aloysious St John Hancock

In a comment on my previous post about BS Johnson,  BB writes: ‘To issue a threat ending in “up the bracket” is so much of its time it made me laugh out loud. I had a couple of jobs that involved working with men in their late 50s and early 60s, real Londoners,  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 was a regular occurrence.’

I also love this phrase, and associate it with another of my heroes, Anthony Aloysious St John Hancock, the greatest British comedian of all time. (There’s a great piece about Hancock here, noting the similarities between Hancock and Seinfeld as well as Hancock’s use of ‘punch up the bracket’.)

Hancock and BS Johnson have much in common. Both were aspirational working-class/lower middle-class men defined by the 1950s who spoke in the language of outer-urban post-war London. Both were men of keen wit and sharp intellect who enjoyed – or couldn’t help – skewering their own occasional lapse into pomposity. Both were depressives with a gift for pointed, painful comedy. Both killed themselves. They even looked similar: thick, heavyset men with wounded eyes. And, most importantly, both referenced Chelsea in key texts (Hancock in ‘The Football Pools’ and Johnson in ‘Albert Angelo’).

 

I once interviewed Tim Lott – or was it Toby Litt? – who suggested that Hancock was London’s answer to the Angry Young Men of 1950s northern working-class fiction, and there’s something this, though I’m not sure Sillitoe or Wain ever came up with anything as dark as Galton and Simpson’s ‘The Poison Pen Letters’, in which Hancock is so consumed by self-loathing he starts sending himself hate mail in his sleep.

But this is something you can imagine BS Johnson writing, another angry, sad, brilliant man who went raging into the tragedy of premature death.

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.