B. S. Johnson: Albert Angelo
Johnson said that he wanted to tell the truth, not to tell stories. Not sure if he succeeds here but he certainly tries. Albert Albert is an architect or, rather, has qualified as an architect. He has not found a suitable job as an architect, though he does, somewhat desultorily, make plans, consider ideas and look at all buildings as an architect. To earn his living, however, he works as a supply teacher, which means he is shunted from school to school in some of London’s less savoury districts. Much of this book is about his efforts at being a teacher. Because of the suicide of one of the teachers, he spends rather more time than he would have liked in one rather unpleasant school. Indeed, some of the boys suggest that he might like to commit suicide, too. As for the truth of what happens in schools where the pupils are merely waiting till they are old enough to leave, Johnson may be close to the mark. Using his trademark differing styles – drama, essays by the pupils, parallel texts of what is happening and what Albert is thinking – Johnson shows us that from the pupils’, the teacher’s and the management’s point of view, nothing much is working. Violence, racism, virtual illiteracy and indifference by the teachers to their charges are the hallmarks of Albert’s day (and he is also guilty, calling his pupils peasants, hitting the boys on the head and ignoring the girls). Indeed, one of the most interesting features is the essays by the pupils, which are about him and show an appalling level of illiteracy but an interesting attitude towards Albert, which is generally not positive. One of them refers to him as like a fiery elephant, the title used by Jonathan Coe for his biography of Johnson.
His job is much of his life. He had a girlfriend – Jenny – with whom he had a good relationship till she left him for someone else. He now hangs out with Wally, in the same predicament, and they crawl around London, behaving not unlike fifteen-year old schoolboys. His flatmate and his parents make up the rest of the characters. You get the feeling that his attempts at being an architect are going to fail and he will be a supply teacher (and single) all his life. The final chapter is a comment from Johnson on how this is based on his own life and giving us, in some detail, where he made changes and, in general, commenting on his own work. Perhaps more authors should do the same.
First published 1964 by Constable