Thursday, August 26, 2004


I don't read anything like as much as I once did and nowhere near as much as I would like and on top of this my natural reading pace is pretty slow. So the books I do read can last me quite a while, particularly as I tend to have several on the go at a time. But once in a while there'll be something especially compelling that I just devour in a bit of a frenzy. The last time this happened was when a former bookshop colleague was kind enough to send me a spare proof copy of Jonathan Coe's The Closed Circle his brilliant sequel to The Rotters' Club. Like all of his books that I've read (everything from What A Carve Up! onwards plus The Dwarves of Death) I read it at speed in big juicy chunks ("ooh, well just one more chapter and then I'll get some work done..."). He's just one of those writers that you'll stay too long in the bath with (as it were).

Anyway, among the several books I'm currently reading (some of which I've been nibbling at for months and one of which, No Logo by Naomi Klein, has been picked at sporadically for a couple of years) the one I'm spending most time with is Coe's biography of B S Johnson.

Now I have to confess that I haven't read any of Johnson's novels (nor seen any of his short films for that matter) but I was aware enough of him to be interested (largely through newspaper articles written by Coe over the years) so I checked the book out of the library and gave it a go. And so far (100 pages in) it's fascinating.

But the reason I'm bothering to mention this is that I just got to a bit that surprised me. In among the details of unhappy love affairs and depression and the deeply serious views he held on the nature of writing ("telling stories is telling lies") is the less expected nugget of information that Johnson tried his hand for a while at writing (with a friend) radio comedy scripts.

Perhaps the most interesting is a proposed Goon Show script, which went through several drafts before ending up as 'The Great Welsh Harp Abduction Mystery'. Showing, I would say, that Johnson was still at the level of imitating his heroes rather than being creatively influenced by them, the script is a sharp, workmanlike pastiche of a Spike Milligan original, full of Goonishly inventive touches (like the notion of an underwater steamroller, invented to supply the growing demand for flat fish).
Can't help wondering if he might have led a happier life (he committed suicide at the age of 40) if he'd persevered with this sort of thing rather than the "serious" stuff. But then Milligan himself was a lifelong depressive I believe so probably not.

Haven't yet discovered why the biography is called Like A Fiery Elephant. Great title though.

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