In this article from May 2013, Jim Morphy examines the life, legacy and movies of the mercurial BS Johnson.
In London if you should (unwary)
call yourself a writer they mostly
say: Yes, but what do you really do?
In Welsh society, however,
the writer has always had his place
accepted for himself: so was I.
Taken from Hafod a Hendref, by BS Johnson
Fans of BS Johnson have been well-treated over recent months. Four of his novels have been republished, Well Done God! Selected Prose and Drama of BS Johnson brought us an array of scripts, articles, bits and pieces, and now the BFI’s wonderful Flipside series has packaged together his short films in You’re Human Like the Rest of Them. After so long being described as ‘forgotten’, ‘unread’, ‘under-appreciated’ and the like, Johnson would now seem to be positively en-vogue.
These works (released to mark February’s 80th anniversary of Johnson’s birth) bring notice to the sheer range and quality of the Londoner’s creative output. Johnson’s efforts, we see, were far from confined to the innovative and autobiographical novels – such as the book-in-a-box, The Unfortunates, and the holes-in-its-pages, Albert Angelo – with which his name is most associated. Johnson worked across media – poetry, fiction, essays, theatre, film, documentary, journalism, sports-reporting et al. – bringing his unique sense of the avant-garde to each.
The You’re Human Like the Rest of Them collection shines the spotlight on Johnson’s often-neglected film endeavours. And its standout piece, Fat Man on a Beach, filmed on, and ostensibly about, the Llyn Peninsula, provides entry for a look at his love affair with Wales.
‘I consider film to offer potentially the widest scope to a writer as a pure form’, Johnson said in 1965. But that’s not to say he was particularly impressed with the period’s film scene. ‘One day very soon (next Wednesday?) it will become possible for the definitive history of British cinema to be written. It will become possible because British cinema will have ceased to exist in any meaningful sense’, Johnson wrote in 1971 in typically-polemical fashion. ‘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 set-pieces of a dead culture, desperately unfunny double-entendre comedies’ were not for him.
Johnson’s film-making was born from the same motivations as his writing: to find new forms, to find truth, of political intent, of seriousness, of humour – to have the revolutions of Joyce’s Ulysses and Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou all over again.
Despite this, the most charming film on You’re Human Like the Rest of Them is ‘high-art’ in only the most peculiar way. Fat Man on a Beach is a wonderful and wonderfully-amateurish piece. This forty minute TV programme sees Johnson wandering around Porth Ceiriad beach, delivering a discursive monologue to camera. Johnson’s unscripted chatter takes in local history and geography, his escapades in the area, car crashes, African documentaries, dirty jokes and cheese cutters. We also get readings from his own Welsh-themed poems ‘Porth Ceiriad Bay‘ and ‘Independence‘. And there are lots of shots of bananas. It’s wildly entertaining, even if, at times, that’s because we’re a little concerned about what nonsense Johnson might come up with next. The boyish Johnson’s intelligent mind races around, he stumbles over his words, he runs this direction and that, and the camera has intentions of its own. In parts, it’s a bit Charlie Chaplin. In parts, it’s a bit Benny Hill (minus the women). Clearly, everyone was having a whale of a time making it. It must surely rank as one of the strangest Tuesday night shows ever commissioned by HTV Wales.
The film was the closing chapter in Johnson’s creative relationship with Wales, which had begun some fifteen years before.
As he explains in Fat Man, soon after graduating in 1959, Johnson hitch-hiked to Holyhead while en-route to Dublin on a pilgrimage to modernist gods Beckett and Joyce. Johnson would spend two summers working at a Llyn Peninsula country club as a result of a conversation struck up with a kindly driver. His experiences at the Glyn Club are recorded in his first novel Travelling People (1963), with the author’s alter-ego being the smartly-named Henry Henry. The book uses eight different styles or conventions over its nine chapters, highlighting Johnson’s obsession with playing with form. The novel follows Henry’s adventures in North Wales, including his work at the club, his involvement in an awkward love triangle, his tribulations with rail transport, and his listening to the grumbles of Welsh people about those from over the border. Sadly, Travelling People is now long out of print (the Johnson estate upholding the author’s wish for the book to be suppressed).
Johnson was much taken by his time in this corner of Wales, saying, ‘Llyn is a very special and a very curious and a very strange place’. A series of disagreements with the owner would end Johnson’s employment at the Glyn Club, but he returned in 1961 to spend a third consecutive summer on the peninsula, working as a farmhand and spending time searching for shipwreck treasure (no joke).
Johnson was on the peninsula again in 1963, on holiday, when an odd incident that he recounts in Fat Man on a Beach took place. As Jonathan Coe (author of the book that kick-started the Johnson reappraisal, the magnificent biography Like a Fiery Elephant (2004)) has said, the book that had the greatest influence on Johnson was Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, which is drawn from the mythology and poetry of Wales and Ireland. The White Goddess herself served as Johnson’s muse. This spiritual influence shouldn’t be scoffed at or under-stated, as it seems to have been very ‘real’ for Johnson. In Fat Man, Johnson says: ‘There’s a mountain called Garn Fadryn on Llyn … I found myself one morning at dawn on top of that mountain, almost not of my own volition and stripping off all my clothes and making what I can only think of as religious gesture – worshipping some sort of female deity. Now I am not a religious person. I can’t explain how that happened or why I felt the need to do it. That’s the sort of place Llyn is.’
Johnson returned to Wales in 1970 for six months as writer-in-residence at Gregynog Hall, the University of Wales’s residential retreat. This period is well explored in Johnson’s essay ‘The Gregynog Press and the Gregynog Fellowship’ (found in Selected Prose). Johnson relished the opportunity to immerse himself in Welsh academic and cultural life, enjoying the cut and thrust of debate with students and staff visiting the centre. In Like a Fiery Elephant, Coe quotes Gregynog warden Glyn Tegai Hughes saying of Johnson: ‘That was one of the things that appealed to him most strongly: there was a feeling that the writer here had a community, a background.’
As ever, Johnson would hold strong views on the culture he saw around him. Writing in Poetry Wales in 1971, Johnson would say of the country’s scene: ‘You see, while your material is marvellous, and while you have admirable causes to spur you to write, the ways all of you have tackled it so far, the forms you have used, have been completely (and sometimes deafeningly) traditional … Simply, your forms do not do your material justice.’ Although, this is a comment that would seem to fit Johnson’s view of near-enough any artist working in any medium at any time.
Johnson’s time at Gregynog allowed him to do a great deal of work, such as piecing together much of what would surface in the collection Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs? (found in Selected Prose). This collection includes a wonderful introduction (written in 1973), which reads like Johnson’s manifesto for what great art – including his own – should be. In here, we find Johnson’s often-quoted statement that ‘Life does not tell stories. Life is chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily. Writers can extract a story from life only by strict, close selection, and this must mean falsification. Telling stories really is telling lies … I am not interested in telling lies in my own novels.’ This sentiment also appears in Fat Man on a Beach, Albert Angelo and other works.
The Gregynog spell would result in Johnson making a number of direct contributions to Welsh literary culture. Not least, he worked with Ned Thomas on translations of the work of Welsh language poet David James Jones (Gwenallt), which were published in Planet magazine. Johnson’s appreciation of Gwenallt displays the degree to which he was sympathetic to the cause of Welsh nationalism, which was prevalent in the work of many poets he would have come into contact with at the time, such as Harri Webb and Meic Stephens.
Welsh characters Sioned Bowen and Rosetta Stanton are present in Johnson’s study of old age, House Mother Normal (1971) (re-released by Picador this year, alongside Johnson’s other magnificent novels Albert Angelo (1964), Trawl (1966) and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973). The Welsh-speaking, senile Rosetta is a particularly key figure for both the emotional centre and the form of the book, with her desperate mutterings being spread out randomly across the pages.
Other Johnson works with Welsh references include the essay ‘Sheela Na Gig‘ and the poems ‘Madryn Castle‘ and ‘Cwm Pennant’. But Johnson’s most explicit comment on Wales and Welshness is his long poetic work ‘Hafod a Hendref’ (first published in Planet in 1972). In this, Johnson records his feelings on his time at Gregynog, Wales’s deep artistic tradition and the country’s community-spirit. The nationalist cause is, again, to the fore. No doubt, Johnson’s words display a romanticised view of Wales and the place of the poet in the country’s heart, but his affection for the nation was genuine. A section of ‘Hafod a Hendref’ reads:
O my Welsh, waelisce, foreigners
friends: are you certain you know from which
direction the enemy now comes?
Can you in turn understand that how
you feel about the bastard English
I feel about the Americans?
For perhaps our time has come to start
the resistance, learn how to survive,
burrow in, prepare for the long siege!
the confusion here of images,
impressions, unsureness typifies
this latest experience of Wales,
attempt at involvement with the Welsh:
but what I think I want is to move
from the West westward to live in Wales,
and though I must always be a sais
there seems a chance my children’s children
(if they should come) might be nearly Welsh.
The thought of writing in a language
understood by little more than half
a million people I find welcome:
from that you may judge the strength of my
desire to move on and back to you.
But at the moment, Welsh, as much out
of respect I stay outside, return
only as a visitor, tourist,
hope at most to be a guest again.
The title piece of the You’re Human Like the Rest of Them DVD collection sees Johnson’s favourite actor William Hoyland playing a teacher who goes from hospital lecture to staffroom to classroom coming to terms with and, in turn, holding court about, the inevitably of ageing, decay and death. This dark, experimental (a term Johnson disliked) film won the Grand Prix at the Tours short film festival. An even odder film is Paradigm. In this, an at-first young and naked, and then an aged and clothed, Hoyland delivers an incomprehensible monologue directly to camera. Nothing else happens. It works, somehow. Certainly, Hoyland’s performance is utterly mesmerising. Critic David Quantick (writing in the neat booklet that accompanies the DVD collection), sees it as ‘a film which tries to convey a point of view about the impossibility of conveying a point of view … one of the best short films of that or any other era.’ However, the short was not well received at the time and the fallout seems to have all but stopped Johnson’s film career in its tracks.
The collection’s straightest piece is a television documentary on Dr Johnson. BS Johnson plays the earnest front-man for an informative and entertaining exploration into the work of his predecessor, with Bryan Stanley’s admiration for the intelligence, language and humour of Samuel shining through. BS seems to invite comparisons between the two.
The Unfortunates is a BBC adaptation of Johnson’s brilliant book. We get readings from the novel as well as Johnson himself discussing its themes and acting out scenes from it. Famously, the book is published unbound so all chapters (bar the first and last) can be read in whichever order the reader wishes. Like many of Johnson’s novels, The Unfortunates (1969) is often described as a difficult book but is actually a pretty accessible read. The ‘story’ revolves around Johnson’s experience as a football reporter wandering around Nottingham on the day of a game, with memories flooding back to him of a now-dead friend who lived in the area. The book is a stunning meditation on friendship, love, mortality and loss, with its form lending itself to a study of the random nature of how memories are recalled.
Not Counting the Savages is a BBC2 melodrama written by Johnson and directed by a young Mike Newell (Johnson was not happy with the results). Up Yours Too Guillaume Apollinaire! is a two-minute animated film commemorating fifty years since the death of the French artist and writer. Poem is an even shorter piece, with Hoyland reading from the work of Johnson’s hero, Samuel Beckett. Also present on the DVD are two short films Johnson wrote and directed (unpaid) for the TUC in opposition to the Conservative government’s anti-union Industrial Relations Bill, highlighting Johnson’s political leanings.
The You’re Human Like the Rest of Them collection is a very welcome addition to the BS Johnson catalogue. The re-appraisal would seem near-complete. As Jonathan Coe has said, BS Johnson was ‘Britain’s one-man literary avant-garde’. Now we can also see him as Britain’s short-film madcap genius. And much, much more besides.
Less than three weeks after filming finished on Fat Man on a Beach, Johnson wrote a five-word note:
This is my last
He then stepped into a hot bath and slit his wrists. He bled to death.