Arts feature

Nottingham resuscitates a classic of the 60s literary avant-garde

Peter Robins reports on a site-specific transformation of The Unfortunates by the literary innovator B.S. Johnson

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

In the basement of a busy café in Hockley, Nottingham, which may not have known exactly what it was letting itself in for, a young woman is loudly dissecting an unsatisfactory lunch: ‘Deep in my heart I know I love chips.’ In another basement a few hundred yards away, lit by a single floor lamp, another woman is detailing the process of a man’s decline with tear-jerking, understated tenderness. For today only, both women are going by the name Bryan. They are among 60 volunteer performers in But I Know This City!, a unique adaptation of B.S. Johnson’s strange and sometimes wonderful 1969 novel The Unfortunates.

You might remember The Unfortunates as ‘the book in a box’ — 27 separately bound sections of varying length, one labelled ‘First’ and another ‘Last’ and the rest to be read in any order. They trace the wanderings of a football reporter remarkably like Bryan Stanley Johnson around a city remarkably like Nottingham, as he recalls a friend, Tony, who had lived there and died young, of cancer.

Like many works that seem impossible to adapt, The Unfortunates has attracted repeated attempts at adaptation. Johnson himself shot a short film from it — the kind of thing that might now be called a book trailer — for the BBC in 1969, with extracts read in a stentorian manner by his favourite actor, William Hoyland, over street footage from Nottingham and animations of human decay that are all the creepier for their apparent crudeness. A version with Martin Freeman as the narrator went out on Radio 3 five years ago, with sections from a ‘very orderly recording’ randomised before broadcast.

This latest adaptation, however, found a more satisfying way to bring Johnson’s randomness to life. On a chilly Saturday last month, those 60 volunteer readers — a minimum of two for each section — were stationed at 25 venues around Nottingham, ready to tell their fragment of the story to anyone who asked between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. You were meant to set out from the city’s art cinema, the Broadway, where a back room had been transformed into a 1960s lounge for the opening and closing chapters, but otherwise you were free to wander.

You could find Bryan writing and then mentally crossing out his matchday copy in a busy football pub near the railway station, beneath a screen blasting Sky Sports News. You could find him recalling undergraduate days with Tony in the pleasantly student-bar-ish café of the Rough Trade record shop. Quite often he was female. Sometimes there was more than one of him, bickering amiably over whose turn it was to read. Standards varied, sometimes wildly, and events would intervene. One reader professed to have been put off by the risk that he might reveal the nonexistence of Santa to a small girl at the next table; a reading in the back of an Alfa Romeo in a market car park, recalling drives out to Southwell Minster, was interrupted by shoppers knocking on the window to check when we might vacate the parking space.

But the rough edges and the variation gave more than they took. The differing voices brought out aspects of the novel’s character in a way that would be very hard for a single reader, while retaining the intensity and intimacy of a single interior monologue in a way that would have been impossible for a conventional dramatisation.

I had expected the highlights to be sections read at precise locations identifiable in the narrator’s wanderings: the railway station; the Yates’s Wine Lodge in Old Market Square; Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, the city’s most mythologised pub, its rooms carved into the sandstone beneath the castle. And the section at the Trip really was evocative, with the cravat-wearing reader appropriately out of place in the corner of a busy back room. But other such venues brought out the tensions between Johnson’s Nottingham and today’s — the balcony bar at Yates’s no longer has oil paintings, nor a resident string trio, although the reader, happily, could remember when it did — or between randomness and the real shape of the city.

‘I was always aware that there was the potential of a narrative being created by geography,’ says the playwright Andy Barrett, who masterminded the project, ‘which is why we tried to locate many of the chapters as near to each other as possible. We absolutely wanted people to experience the novel and the readings in different orders.’ So although Barrett reckons ‘wandering through the cold’ to find remoter venues was ‘a key part of the experience’, there were limits: he didn’t try to include a football ground, or the Park Estate, the posh inner-city enclave in which Tony and his wife once had a flat, let alone the university or the suburbs.

Barrett is artistic director of Excavate, a company with a long record of site-specific theatre around Nottingham (it has its origins in an attempt, in 1997, to stage an alien invasion of a north Notts mining village). He had been trying to put together something based on The Unfortunates since being introduced to it by a friend two years ago, although some of his initial ideas had to be abandoned (‘Originally I wanted to do the project only with readers who were called Bryan Johnson but that, of course, was ridiculous’). His success this time was due in part to an institutional alignment of the stars: he had funding from the University of Nottingham, as part of two larger projects: a national ‘festival of the humanities’ called ‘Being Human’ and a bid to have Unesco declare Nottingham a ‘city of literature’.

It may also have come about at a propitious moment for the reputation of B.S. Johnson, which went into almost total eclipse following his suicide in 1973. His work was uncompromisingly avant-garde and dogmatically autobiographical (he was withering about the sort of obsolete novelists who still insisted on ‘making things up’), while remaining breezily readable and often funny to the verge of silliness — a tricky combination to market even when, as in the 1960s, fashion was with him. It’s also demanding to reproduce; besides the multiple sections of The Unfortunates, he wrote novels that require holes in pages and multi-column layouts (Albert Angelo), extracts from an accountant’s ledger (Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry) and precise typographical echoes from chapter to chapter (House Mother Normal).

In the past decade and a half, Johnson’s novels have come steadily back into print — and his films, which share their spiky charm, are now available on a BFI DVD. The novelist Jonathan Coe, whose 2005 biography Like A Fiery Elephant played a significant role in the BSJ revival, and who contributed a recorded reading to But I Know This City!, reckons that Johnson is ‘now firmly established as one of the most important British novelists of the 1960s’. His use of autobiography no longer seems so outré in the age of Lena Dunham, Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner. And as Coe points out, there’s now a major literary award — the Goldsmiths prize — designed specifically for the sort of experimental writing Johnson championed.

He’s still obscure enough, however, that Barrett reckons only ‘one or two’ of his volunteers had read The Unfortunates before becoming involved in the project. That has changed, and not only among the volunteers: Nottingham’s bookshops had stocked up on The Unfortunates for But I Know This City!, and they sold out on the day. There were about 750 readings given, to groups from one to a dozen. Many of the readers are keen to try it again, perhaps — with luck — to celebrate Nottingham getting that Unesco status. And then even more people could discover a new way to get lost in a good book.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Fraser Bailey

    i have read most of B.S. Johnson’s work (including The Unfortunates) and the biography by Jonathan Coe. I can never quite make up my mind about his writing – he is somewhat self obsessed in my view – but I would recommend that you seek it out. He is at least he is trying to do something different in terms of structure etc.

  • Gilbert White

    Room for a flop, on Saturday Night, Kes?

  • ArchiePonsonby

    Always willing to give the Arts a fair go, but I am seriously thinking of sending this to Pseud’s Corner!