Book Review

Travelling People by B. S. Johnson

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Today I have returned to the British Library in order to read more out of print books by Bryan Stanley Johnson. Beginning with Travelling People, his first novel, published in 1963.

The 1967 paperback edition I had was signed by the author, which of course made me tingle with excitement when I first peeled open the cover. After being quite disappointed by See The Old Lady Decently (his last novel, review here), my expectations for Johnson’s other difficult-to-locate novel were not as high as they had been. However, I enjoyed Travelling People much more than I had expected to, despite it boasting all the negative features traditionally associated with debut novels.

The narrative is the story of Henry Henry, a 26-year-old who has just completed a Philosophy degree at the University of London. The book opens with him hitchhiking through Wales, on his way to Dublin. One of the people he gains a lift with is Trevor, a youngish widower who spontaneously offers Henry a job as a bartender at a luxury resort and club he is managing for a friend over the Summer. The reader next sees Henry after his trip to Dublin as he travels from London to the Stromboli Club, where Trevor introduces the agéd Maurie (the owner), Kim (the onsite cook and Maurie’s twenty-something mistress who never allows him penetrative sex), Mira (a rather misogynistically drawn “evil woman” type character), as well as the other members of staff and the club’s regular clientele. The rest of the book covers the rest of the Summer, as Henry becomes romantically and sexually involved with Kim, and Maurie’s angina becomes problematic due to his refusal to act his age. It’s fun, it’s silly, there’s a lot of sex, a lot of jokes, a lot of bawdy 1960s humour and the definite presence of B. S. Johnson’s strong authorial voice.

Where Travelling People becomes more than just a typical farce is through its use of varying styles: parts of the novel are letters, some are journal entries, some bits stream of consciousness, one chapter is written as a screenplay, and pages covered up to the border in patterned print are used to indicate Maurie’s heart attacks. Johnson jumps in and out of various characters’ personalities – sometimes he is an omniscient voice, narrating the characters as if real, at other times he draws attention to the artifice of the novel… he includes quotations from other writers relevant to the text, he addresses the reader; his experimental, literary style is clearly established. It is definitely a B. S. Johnson novel, but it is also very clearly a B. S. Johnson novel written by a young man.

Henry Henry is semi-autobiographical. Johnson worked two Summers (not just one) in a very similar club to the Stromboli in North Wales, and he too met his manager whilst hitchhiking. Many of the characters in the book are based, heavily, on real people, but there is a clear use of wish-fulfilment rewriting of the past. Particularly as regards Kim’s relationship with Henry. She never has sex with Maurie, yet when she and Henry have a passionate twenty-four hours, she is hugely satisfied in every way by Henry’s excellent powers of lovemaking. During this period there is a line where the narrator (not Henry himself) states: “not only was he stronger and more intelligent but now he had the best girl as well.” Pretty arrogant. And this does permeate throughout. Johnson has not yet set upon his decision to make his works as personal and as accurate as possible – he is no Casanova in his later novels, this macho posturing is something he did not later feel a need to lie about.

However, when the personal voice of Johnson does appear (seen through the fiction by my critical eye), he reveals personal truths that he was not otherwise able to explore for quite a while. When Henry goes swimming with Kim and Maurie, he writes in his journal that he is scared of getting changed because “[I] do not like my body–it’s not worthy of me” (italics Johnson’s). This fear of the physical self, the limitations of physicality and Johnson’s feelings of ugliness due to his weight (which he would later draw explicit attention to, for example with the title of Fat Man On A Beach), is not developed here, but strikes a definite chord with the non-casual reader of Johnson.

Elsewhere in this text is the line: ‘hardly anything was ever after the war as good as it had been promised to be.’ This statement, here, unimportant, in his first novel, is a sentiment that echoes throughout Bryan’s writing, and was a factor in his suicide – it was the past he wanted to write about, his family’s past, his own past, his country’s past. Mentally unable to “get over” the hardships of life by writing about them, he nevertheless tried to, and focusing on his mother and Tony Tillinghast’s deaths and his early heartbreaks was quite possibly a contributing factor leading to his early death.

In Travelling People Johnson rewrites, dishonestly, his past, and though the novel is fresh, inventive and funny and uses phrases like “denticured hands”, it is not the powerhouse of explorative and deeply moving personal reflection that Albert Angelo, Trawl and The Unfortunates are. I’m glad I’ve read it, I enjoyed it, and I feel I understand Johnson much better for it, but this is not the place to start with this writer, though it is also not somewhere to avoid.

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