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Famous After Death - B.S. Johnson

B.S. Johnson, writer, poet and teacher decided in 1973 at the age of forty to slip into a warm bath at the family home while his wife and two children were away, and slit his wrists.

Why did he do it? He had six novels published in the early sixties to early seventies; two collections of poetry and had directed a bunch of short films for the BBC.

Unlike most British writers before or since, Brian was born into a working class family. It’s always made a difference and he certainly felt it. Yet he was smart. He could match wits with any of those stuffy, secular bores. In fact, he could surpass them. His work would not be mainstream or even left of field. His work would be ground-breaking. He would be lauded as a pioneer. He believed a writer should have lived the life that is being written about (unlike many who believe a little second hand research is enough. Times haven’t changed). For his novel, Trawl, Brian joined a fishing expedition on a small boat to the icy Scandinavian waters for three weeks. He paid a price for authenticity. He was horribly sea sick for the entire voyage. The fact that he persevered demonstrates his commitment to his art.

His novel The Unfortunates was based on his dear friend Tony who died of cancer before the age of 30. The death troubled him. His vibrant equal, reduced to a pasty 'pastiche' of a human being. Brian was devastated. 

The novel was presented in a box with the pages in sections, with the notion that it could be read in any order. Thirty years later, others thought they were being original with similar approaches.

Yet he struggled to find an audience. Early reviews were good, but sales low. He thought the public stupid (a thought reiterated by many creative talents for centuries) and the literary circles conservative and elitist. He could not find a foot into any other territories, a fact which caused many arguments with agents and publishers, often ‘firing’ them or creating conflict to vent. He did have a temper, (it often seems born out of frustration) and he could be harsh. 

He found one appreciative soul in Hungary. His talents were recognised and he was invited to Budapest to meet other writers and intellectuals. He went, more than once, and even spent an afternoon discussing film and literature with students, one of the highlights of his professional life. Before he turned to full time writing, he was a teacher and in fact spent a year in Wales later in life in University residence, teaching only a couple of classes a day so that he could write, with agreement from the university, demonstrating their recognition of his ability. His wife Virginia went with him too. He enjoyed his time there, yet it was quite isolating. He loved the outdoors, but it was not enough. He did not wish to hide forever. He wanted the recognition he felt he deserved. The family returned to London. In many ways, nothing was ever the same again.

Brian forever felt like the outsider and never received the recognition he felt he deserved. As he became older, he would pick fights with those in the literary world, often people who were influential, showing no shame or fear. He struggled with it all, though he loved his wife and two children, (it took him years to get over an early relationship). Brian was overly sensitive, which the best ones are, as its their sensitivity to people and life that provides those unique insights. He loved Virginia but believed (perhaps rightly so?) that she had fallen out of love with him. 

Certainly sensitivity comes at a cost, in an almost Faustian way. Their soul is sold to the Devil at birth, it seems, without their consent. There’s an inbuilt compulsion which drives them. It’s not a choice. However they do want to be accepted. And in a world driven by sales (majority rules), that’s never going to happen to true originals like Brian Johnson. Like many with artistic abilities, their gifts are not recognised, (aside from a scant few) until years, sometimes decades later.

Brian knew that his time as a filmmaker and writer was limited, certainly in the style within which he worked. To change is to sell out. To sell out is to be open for success, yet personally it means failure. Some do sell out. Some are able to balance the mainstream and the art. Actors and filmmakers in particularly, (study their filmography and you’ll detect their dance) yet its much harder with artists and novelists. And Brian was no sellout. 

It must be noted that alcohol contributed to his growing bitterness and to his ultimate decision. A coping mechanism for many, alcohol (and drugs) takes more than it gives. A double edged sword is at least fair.

A still from his last film for the BBC Fat Man on a Beach released after his death in 1974

There’s a wonderful, in-depth biography written about him by Jonathan Coe in 2003 called Like a Fiery Elephant, the title coming from a line of one of his poems.

To be in the world is hard enough.

To have talent in the world, the same that comprehends the truth of human beings and of art and not to be recognised accordingly can be insulting to the point where it becomes a soul eating disease. For some, only self-punishment relieves the pain. Yet do not assume suicide is all about misery. It’s also a highly emotional form of protest… and revenge.

Again, sadly the actions and words are wasted on ‘them'. It's only understood, years too late.

RIP Mr Johnson