B. S. Johnson

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B. S. Johnson
BornBryan Stanley Johnson
(1933-02-05)5 February 1933
Died13 November 1973(1973-11-13) (aged 40)
London, England
OccupationNovelist, poet and director
PeriodEarly 1960s to early 1970s
GenreFictional prose
Literary movementModernism
Notable worksAlbert Angelo, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry

Bryan Stanley Johnson (5 February 1933 – 13 November 1973) was an English experimental novelist, poet and literary critic. He also produced television programmes and made films.

Early life[edit]

Born into a working class family, Johnson was evacuated from London during World War II and left school at sixteen to work variously as an accounting clerk, bank junior and clerk at Standard Oil Company. However, he taught himself Latin in the evenings, attended a year's pre-university course at Birkbeck College and, with this preparation, managed to pass the university entrance exam for King's College London.[citation needed]


After he graduated with a 2:2,[1] Johnson wrote a series of increasingly experimental and often acutely personal novels that would now be considered visual writing. In his early years he collaborated on several projects with a close friend and fellow writer, Zulfikar Ghose, with whom he produced a joint collection of stories, Statement Against Corpses. Like Johnson's early stories (at least superficially) his first two novels, Travelling People (1963) and Albert Angelo (1964), at first appear relatively conventional in plot terms. However, the first novel uses several innovative devices and includes a section set out as a filmscript. The second includes famously cut-through pages to enable the reader to skip forward. His work became progressively even more experimental. The Unfortunates (1969) was published in a box with no binding (readers could assemble the book any way they liked, apart from the chapters marked 'First' and 'Last' which did indicate preferred terminal points) and House Mother Normal (1971) was written in purely chronological order such that the various characters' thoughts and experiences would cross each other and become intertwined, not just page by page, but sentence by sentence.[citation needed] He won the Eric Gregory Award in 1962.

Johnson led and associated with a loosely constituted circle of "experimental" authors in Sixties Britain, which included Alan Burns, Eva Figes, Rayner Heppenstall, Ann Quin, Stefan Themerson, and Wilson Harris among others. Many of these figures contributed to London Consequences, a novel consisting of a palimpsest of chapters passed between a range of participating authors and set in London, edited by Margaret Drabble and Johnson. Johnson also made numerous experimental films, published poetry, and wrote reviews, short stories and plays. For many years he was the poetry editor of Transatlantic Review.[citation needed]

He is mentioned several times in Paul Theroux's account of his friendship with V. S. Naipaul, Sir Vidia's Shadow.[2]

Death and legacy[edit]

At the age of 40, increasingly depressed by his failure to succeed commercially, and beset by family problems, Johnson committed suicide by slitting his wrists.[3]

Johnson was largely unknown to the wider reading public at the time of his death, but has a growing cult following. A critically acclaimed film adaptation of his last novel to appear while he was alive, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry (1973), was released in 2000.[4] Singer-songwriter Joe Pernice paid tribute to Johnson on the 2006 Pernice Brothers album Live a Little. Jonathan Coe's 2004 biography Like a Fiery Elephant (winner of the 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize) has already led to a renewal of interest in Johnson's work. Coe himself is now a president of the B. S. Johnson Society[5], which aims "to bring closer Johnson scholars, readers and aficionados alike in their various approaches to the author’s life and work."[6]

In April 2013, the British Film Institute released You're Human Like the Rest of Them, a collection of Johnson's films, as part of the BFI Flipside DVD series.[7]

In 2015, Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham held an event called "But I Know This City!" based around Johnson's novel The Unfortunates, set in Nottingham, which allowed participants to travel around the city and listen to live readings of the novel's sections in whichever order they chose.

Indie pop band Los Campesinos! cites the literature of B. S. Johnson among their non-musical influences.[8]

There is a large collection of B. S. Johnson's literary papers and correspondence in the British Library (Add MS 89001).



Poetry and anthologies, including those edited by Johnson[edit]

  • Poems (1964)
  • The Evacuees (1968)
  • London Consequences: A Novel (1972). A novel with each chapter composed by a different author including Johnson, Margaret Drabble, Paul Ableman and others
  • All Bull: The National Servicemen (1973)
  • Aren't You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs? (1973). A collection of Johnson's shorter prose written between 1960 and 1973
  • You Always Remember the First Time (1975)

Selected filmography[edit]

  • You're Human Like the Rest of Them (1967)
  • The Unfortunates (1969)
  • The Smithsons on Housing (1970)[9]
  • Paradigm (1969)
  • B. S. Johnson on Dr. Samuel Johnson (1971)
  • Unfair! (1970)
  • Fat Man On A Beach (1973)


  • Jonathan Coe. (2004) Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson. Picador

Academic studies[edit]

  • Philip Tew. (2001) B. S. Johnson: A Critical Reading. Manchester University Press, ISBN 978-0719056260
  • Krystyna Stamirowska, (2006) B. S. Johnson's Novels: A Paradigm of Truth. Kraków: Universitas, ISBN 8324207457
  • Philip Tew, Glyn White. (2007) Re-reading B.S. Johnson. Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-0230524927
  • Vanessa Guignery. (2009) Ceci n’est pas une fiction. Les romans vrais de B.S. Johnson. Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, ISBN 978-2840506430
  • Nicolas Tredell, (2010) Fighting Fictions: The Novels of B.S.Johnson. Paupers' Press, ISBN 978-0946650996
  • Vanessa Guignery, ed.. (2015)The B.S. Johnson / Zulfikar Ghose Correspondence. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN 978-1443872669


  1. ^ The usual degree grades in British universities are 1st, 2:1, 2:2, 3rd, pass, fail.
  2. ^ Sir Vidia's Shadow.
  3. ^ Coe, Jonathan (2004). Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson. London: Picador. p. 480. ISBN 033035048X.
  4. ^ "Reviews of "Christie Malry's Own Double Entry"". Archived from the original on 2011-07-21. Retrieved 2007-04-20.
  5. ^ "About | The B. S. Johnson Society". Retrieved 2019-03-01.
  6. ^ "About | The B. S. Johnson Society". Retrieved 2019-03-01.
  7. ^ Citation required
  8. ^ "Los Campesinos!". Myspace.
  9. ^ Sukhdev Sandhu "You're Human Like The Rest Of Them – the NFT's celebration of BS Johnson", telegraph.co.uk, 16 June 2009

External links[edit]