The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Friday, July 21, 2006
BS JOHNSON VERSUS BS JOHNSON

During his lifetime he did assemble a compilation of bits and pieces he’d written about religion for the stage and entitle it BS Johnson Versus God, and that seems to have been the writer’s self-defeating mission for most of his life. Reading the preface to Jonathan Coe’s BSJ biog Like A Fiery Elephant, I was ready for a predictable and weary assault on the concept of “experimentation” and “modernism” in contemporary British writing – “by turning its back on modernist elitism and rediscovering the pleasures of humour, storytelling, demotic, and so on” is a typical passage – and therefore entirely unsurprised by the endorsements of the Hornbys and Zadies of their world.

But as both Coe and the reader delve deeper into Johnson’s story, the more complicated and unwanted truth is gradually revealed, namely that BSJ was patently a person impossible to love, and his schtick of “the novel as glorified memoir” does appear to have been a dead end, not least for himself. Time and time again we see how BSJ is presented with workable escape routes from his self-dug tunnel of despair, only to reject them, either out of stupid and not especially admirable stubbornness or because he treats everyone capable of helping him in such a horrible way; and it may be that, like Welles (but minus the latter’s cunning escapology skills and genuine charm), he had to hang on to his “loneness” as his distinguishing mark.

BSJ certainly seemed a humourless person, in the worst possible way; extracts from his attempts at scripted “comedy” betray his complete absence of understanding of humour. No wonder he railed against Steptoe And Son (“the writing I think objectionable almost to the point of disgust”) and not simply because he had submitted several unusable pilot scripts to the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse producers; in their gentle modification of Beckett (and thus revealing the hidden link between Sam and Stan and Ollie), Galton and Simpson actually did achieve something which it was simply not in BSJ’s nature even to envisage; thus did 20 million people tune in for twelve straight years to watch what was essentially Endgame: The Sitcom. Being a crusty old Fabian of the immediate post-war variety he had no time for populism, despite ostensibly being anchored spiritually to his beloved working class (though how many working class folk have ever been raised in Barnes?), he despises what they love. When, in the late sixties, he is scouting around for funding for yet another unstageable piece of only-he-knew-what, he remarks on how he has been “reduced” to applying to the Beatles for a grant. The fact that his letter opened, “Dear Paul MacCartney” (sic) probably indicates why he never got a reply.

The incrementally depressing story Coe tells (more or less as he finds it out; the book is set out as a kind of detective novel) necessarily begs the question of how good a novelist BSJ really was. Reading The Unfortunates now reveals how (a) the unbound random order chapter scheme masks a rather conventionally narrated, if heartfelt, story; and (b) how the now almost obligatory Tardis leaps we find in nearly all contemporary British novels have made the original concept rather quaint. Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry is a shaggy dog slapstick story which, like so much else of BSJ’s work, peters out and kills off the character abruptly, not being bothered to work out what else to do with him. Trawl is his best book, straightforward and refreshingly honest in its genuine autobiographical musings; ideal reading for eight-hour National Express coach journeys in early winter. Albert Angelo is a rigmarole of non-sequiturs which, as several commentators of the time pointed out (and are quoted as such in Coe’s book), makes a hash of its central theme by elevating the titular character’s not very interesting despondency above the far more promising (and potentially breakthrough) theme of dealing with the substandard education being offered to several strata of schoolchildren at the time, or indeed with the changing attitudes of children towards their schooling. This was reasonably criticised as self-indulgent, and also reveals several unwanted similarities with the character of the late Ian MacDonald; the confluence of confusing his inner pain with the perceived pain of the world. Meanwhile the sixties went on without BSJ, and plenty of people DID attempt to “bloody do something about it” – and over there sulking in the corner with (or despite) his hapless wife and kids throughout is BS Johnson, still sobbing and screaming internally over some crappy non-affair he had in the early ‘50s.

It is noticeable that the name of Dennis Potter is never mentioned in Coe’s book, for his career seems to me the optimal argument against BSJ, by dint of the fact that Potter used exactly the same modes (though in a different medium) and was able to demonstrate that three decades or so of creative and forward-thinking art could be drawn out of his own life and experiences. Compare, come to think of it, their respective attitudes to death – Potter cheerfully fagging it and swigging from his satchel of morphine brandy, exchanging one-liners with Bragg in the LWT studio (and remember, this was a man essentially dying from the consequences of something he had been genetically burdened with from the point of his conception – and also that his wife was dying of cancer at exactly the same time; so no one needed to tell him about “pain”); and BSJ, a plump, boozed-up and washed-up forty-year-old wifebeating wreck, in the bath (“He had decided to do it the Roman way, like Petronius,” says Coe diplomatically), his death setting no examples to anyone…

…much like Duncan Thaw in Lanark. Now then, Alasdair Gray, who also is not mentioned in Coe’s book, presumably because of the cardinal sin of being Scottish and happy to have lived in Glasgow all his life. But Lanark does seem to me over the years to be the genre/sense-busting novel BSJ could have achieved if only…well, if only…even if he had grasped the nettle, given London the two fingers and moved to Wales or Hungary, where he was demonstrably happy, with people who understood and respected him (but no, that would have abolished the “loneness” that was his unfortunate muse)…but note how Lanark moves effortlessly through its schema of displaced book orders, even through the cameo appearance by the author and long lists of “difplags” and “blockplags,” between a sober but noble account of post-war Glasgow young adulthood and sci-fi (even if the cities of Unthank and Provan, with their Elite Cafes, mirror almost precisely the Glasgow of the ‘50s in which my own father grew up, along with Gray, and Alex Harvey, and Bobby Wellins, and all the rest of them)…because Gray has the generosity of spirit and self-deflating humour which BSJ so sorely lacked. And note also how his Glaswegian counterpart James Kelman has succeeded in making a fuller and more articulate picture of BSJ’s grievances (BSJ fancied himself as Eng Lit’s Marx, but ended up seeing everybody else as a potential Proudhon) using exactly the same techniques of inner monologue, etc.; Patrick Doyle, the anti-teaching teacher of Kelman’s A Disaffection, is a fully rounded fuck-up of a character, whereas Albert Angelo was merely round, in the Bunter sense. Doyle needs no uppity Cypriot schoolboys to assist in his own suicide; and the poverty of the limited expectations offered Doyle’s pupils is far more starkly spelled out than anything BSJ could ever muster. Whereas the nursing home Rashomon of BSJ’s House Mother Normal is entirely ruined by the superfluous appearance of the House Mother herself at the end; and yes it’s all a game and it’s really the inside of BSJ’s skull, oh Bryan tell us something we didn’t already know…if only he’d had the strength to go with Rosetta Stanton’s ominous and truly moving pages of silence (after passages of what seem like random grunts, but were in fact Welsh words, she sums up a last light bulb flash of articulacy, and then expires). When hustling for grants, there is a gallows humour about his repeated references to the one good Sunday Times review he received, and the one Irish Times review which compared him to Joyce and Beckett – over the years these take on a similar (ir)relevance to Pinter’s caretaker and his papers in Sidcup. Indeed, he corresponded with Beckett and occasionally met up with him for a drink in Paris, but Beckett wisely kept his distance; in Damned To Fame, James Knowlson’s comprehensive and thorough 872-page biography of Beckett, Johnson is not mentioned once. His ambitions overwhelmed his capabilities, and his temper and arrogance overrode both, and the physical resemblance to Hancock was, in the end, apt; he is the man doggedly plucking that blue bottom string on his toy Sooty guitar who thinks that Derek Bailey should be looking up to him, but forgetting that DB never made a habit of looking up, or down, or back at anyone or anything.

“NOWNESS”

All of which brings us to this “nowness” which DB kept on stressing throughout his life; as an improviser, you would expect nothing less of him. But we make a major and probably fatal mistake if we confuse “nowness” with “keeping up.” As someone who wishes to continue living, I have to be open to new perspectives and new angles on pretty much everything which comes extraneously into my life. But I have absolutely no wish to induce a trip to the cardiac tent in an effort to Keep Up with every piece of bombarding media. All these stallholders, every one of them frantically barking through their virtual megaphones, competing for our attention and (they hope, for it is their aim) our money; and even as a spectator it is a tiring and unfulfilling sight. Consider for instance the Lily Allen and Pipettes albums, both of which came out this week, and neither of which, I have decided, I need at this precise moment – give me six months, or six years, and I’ll come back to you with a mind that’s made up. But the Precise Moment is the media’s oxygen substitute; without it, they insist, you will expire. Already there are rumblings about “oh, it’s not as good as the limited edition seven-inch single which was on sale for five minutes in Shitface Records in Shoreditch if you’d been AWAKE and WITH IT,” even though we already know that all copies were instantly snapped up by David Bellamy lookalikes who will never play them, never laugh or cry at them and will flog them on ebay before the mouse droppings get to them; and it actually makes me think that LIMITED EDITION is the cancer of all art right now (not to mention that it’s usually a lie; musicians who are genuinely too skint to put out more than 200 or so copies of a single generally don’t make a fuss about exclusivity), i.e. you must listen to this NOW and love it NOW or else you are DOOMED and KEEP UP AT THE BACK. Of such flotsam is hell composed; all those Merzbow 200-CD box sets floating around the planet, using up otherwise useful resources…

…and to an extent you do end up thinking that the old days were better, of 40- or 30-minute albums which you turned up to record in strict six-hour shifts, regulation suit and tie, and everything was edited to leave only what MATTERED…possibly the greatest single depressing factor in evaluating albums today is when you slide the CD into the tray and the total time flashes up; if it’s 75 minutes or thereabouts I more often than not groan instantly (yes, OK, The Drift was 68 minutes long, but my God, Walker NEEDED those 68 minutes – and I don’t choose my noun associations randomly), but yet you plod through them diligently and dully, because you CANNOT AFFORD to miss that ONE TRANSCENDENT MOMENT which could CHANGE YOUR LIFE even though you know that such a moment rarely occurs…

…or, more to my point, occurs exactly when you’re not expecting them…in a seemingly tacky ‘70s hit you haven’t heard in thirty years, or something you’d never noticed before halfway through the clavinet solo on side two, or a record which is imbued with new meaning by what has happened in one’s own life. Thus something like “I’ll Say Forever My Love” becomes MY “now” as surely and warmly as anything on the Broken Social Scene album, because there are multiple “now”s where it’s simply a case of, this was the time, these were the circumstances where I had to be exposed to, say, Mama Cass’ “Make Your Own Kind Of Music” or recognise Sellers and Milligan’s busk through “Unchained Melody” as Duchamp futurism flushed through Tommy Handley’s past, or be totally caught out by seeing an Atari Teenage Riot greatest hits compilation on display RIGHT AT THE FRONT of HMV in Oxford Circus…and yes, I bought it immediately and played it immediately when I got back home, and damned if I don’t say that Alec Empire’s idea of a pop group is EXACTLY what’s needed now, if “Sick To Death” and “Delete Yourself” aren’t PRECISELY what all those lily-livered Lily Allens should be aspiring to match or surpass, instead of keeping one wary eye on getting a crappy slot on fucking Later With Jools Holland…though ATR disbanded in 2000, and one of them (Carl Crack) is gone for good, it reaches out to my 2006 idea(tion) of what pop could and should be; it is so NOW that it’s criminal (thankfully). This does not rule out the possibility that while walking down Kingsland High Street on a summer midday in 2012, I might suddenly “get” Lily Allen or the Pipettes, that either might eventually mean something to me; but I resent the shrill insistence that I am required to make them mean something to me RIGHT NOW OR ELSE. Or else what? Live?

(Or would my modest proposal of not reviewing records until they have been available for at least six months, so that we actually have time to come to a useful and inspiring opinion on them, necessitate the full-scale collapse of capitalism? Of course, LIMITED EDITIONS make that impossible, as they do living if we allow ourselves to be shackled under their leathery Camden reins).


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