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B. S. Johnson: Travelling People

This work is now sadly out of print, despite B S Johnson’s reviving reputation and Jonathan Coe‘s biography of him. On the face of it, as least as far as the story goes, it is Kingsley Amis for the smart people, though it is much better and much funnier than Amis père. However, there is one other key difference from Amis and that is that Johnson uses postmodernist techniques before the word postmodern was really known, at least outside academic circles. While much of the work is narrated by the hero, the wittily named Henry Henry (there is also a character named Evan Evans, to keep up the joke), Johnson throws in other styles. There is a chapter written as a film script, a newspaper report, a letter and a disjointed first person narrative by another character in his last few minutes of life, with the page painted black as he dies. Johnson also inserts what he calls interludes, which are a mixture of quotes from old books and authorial asides, commenting on the characters and the action. Indeed, Johnson frequently throws in his point of view during the narrative. This has, of course, been done many times before (and since) and is often boring and even ridiculous but, thanks to his wit and erudition, it works in this novel.

The plot is relatively simple. Henry Henry has just obtained a first class degree in philosophy, which even he realises is of limited use. At the beginning of the novel he is hitchhiking from London to Holyhead, en route to Dublin, where he is to spend a holiday. He is given a lift by Trevor Tuckerson who, on the strength of their short acquaintance, offers him a job in the club he is managing in Pwllheli. Henry has his holiday and then takes up the job offer at the Stromboli Club. When he arrives, he finds two camps. On one side, there are Trevor and the piano player, Mira, who are having an affair. On the other side are Maurie Bunde, the club owner, Kim, the cook and Maurie’s lover (Maurie is, of course, married) and Gwendy, a local woman who is waitress and general help. Henry soon allies himself with the owner, as he is realistic enough to know that that is best for him. He also likes Maurie, Kim and Gwendy more.

Not a great deal happens at the club, except for two major social events, with the usual chaos (collapsing statues, people falling the pool) and Henry’s trying to do his job and not upset the others. The ongoing feud, of course, takes up much of the plot and, of course, we wonder when and, indeed, which of the younger women will bed Henry. Maurie’s convenient heart attack solves that one. It could all have been very boring but Johnson, with his wit, his authorial asides, his clear support of Henry and Co. against Trevor and Mira, keeps the story moving along nicely, leaving us with no obvious happy ending (but no great tragedy, either). It is all in the great spirit of English tongue-in-cheek, mild social satire, with the postmodern bit thrown in for good measure. Pity it’s out of print.

Publishing history

First published 1963 by Constable