3 MAY 1975, Page 17



Peter Ackroyd

See The Old Lady Decently B. S. Johnson (Hutchinson £3.25) Snipe's SpinsterJeff Nuttall (Calder and Boyars £2.95) I know that it's very fashionable to read and even to enjoy B. S. Johnson, and somehow he manages to please everybody. The more robust and Anglo-Saxon critics can forgive him his lamentably archaic 'experimentation' on the grounds that, deep down, he is yet another pawky humourist in the tradition of Sterne; the more effete but no less conventional experimentalists (although the English critics, to a man and woman, wouldn't know a modern • novel if it got up and stuffed its words down their throats — which one day it will) can forgive him the earthy humour for the sake of his cut-ups, his word games and his preoccupation with the processes of his own invention. I do not myself think that these qualities are interesting or significant on their own terms, especially when they are exhibited — as they are in this posthumous novel — without props, scenery or characters.

The most noticeable quality of the book is the way in which the publisher; the writer of the preface and Mr Johnson himself have managed to whip themselves up into a frenzy about its supposed novelty. There, on the jacket, is the slogan of a bright, new world of fiction: "If you' do not like this part, or the other, then skip ahead or back to a part you did enjoy. It is no part of my intention to provide a continuous narrative. . . '!" This of course is a technique that reaches as far back as poor Sterne himself (he is being blamed for a great deal of second-rate writing nowadays) but, more importantly, it has been a creaking convention

among novelists ever since the late 'fifties; it is a little late to pick out Mr Johnson's words in gilt, and then to fall down and worship them. The problem with the whole book, in fact, is that it is actually an anachronism masquerading as something different and new.

A great many tricks have been employed to that end. .There are a number of disparate sections a la carte; extracts from a thesis, fictional dialogue, autobiography are all labelled with a series of letters to denote their status: "The extracts from Neumann are

marked by the sign N . . ." and so on. I shall mark my own copy of the book with VBW,

which may mean Very Bad Writing, and also with IOHHAOI, which will mean If Only He Had An Original Idea. The central problem is that Mr Johnson has set himself a 'serious theme,' and there is no easier way of ruining the language than to write about something which already exists as a complete idea. Here, in what was meant to be the first of a trilogy, Mr Johnson intended to interweave the

death of his mother, who had recently died of cancer, with the history of our nation which is,

• presumably, meant to be suffering a less painful but no less inevitable death.

So there are passages of documentary history, in which for some reason the nouns have been misplaced (the way John Ashbery' used to do back in 1962), there are celebrations of 'place' (the way Carlos Williams did it in

1951), there are letters, straight biography and even passages of personal reminiscence — these last, incidentally, written with a sort of innocent inventiveness which suggests that Mr Johnson is more capable than he appears —

shall take this pad with* me. The next sentence you read will have been written on location in Chester Square." But once the dazzling fact has been established that different types of language — whether history, biography or histor

iography — are merely different types of fiction there is not much else for Mr Johnson to do. He aspired to being a modern and ,became merely contemporary. .

But this is at least one notch above Jeff Nuttall, whose Snipe's. Spinster must have

turned yellow with age even as it was being

written. Its first paragraph contains all of the detritus of a false culture: -Happenings,

lightshows, electronic music, '68 and '69 busking and talking to local anarchist youth groups up and down the land. Edinburgh in 1970 for the Festival ... The closure of the Arts Lab." And the closure of everything else as well — life, imagination and intelligence being merely the first qualities to spring to mind. There are so many old-timers in the book saying "Man" and "motherfucker" that I would

have sworn that the book was written by a faded and ageing hipster, but the photograph on the dust-jacket shows Mr Nuttall to be a rather ordinary, middle-aged man wearing a cheeky hat.

The novel would be a cute find for lovers of nostalgia, if only Mr Nuttall were an intelligent or an interesting writer. But the mindless recital of cheap values leads to tackiness — "The wayward and magical formulations described by real proletarian culture. Bob Dylan, who knew at that time just exactly what was 'blowing in the wind' . . ." and to a stale and derivative prose—"The anguish of despair became the vision of possibility." When a writer is duped by ccimmercial values and fashionable trends — there is a great deal in this

book about something known as a 'protest march' — his imagination will seize up and his

writing will atrophy. Snipe's Spinster is a worthless and self-indulgent book, which might conceivably be helped by the occasional misprint but which can only be harmed by a

blurb so foolish ("We feel this is an important book . . . for the possibilities it opens for the novel . . . Jeff Nuttall has given the novel a whole new voice to work with") that I am forced to doubt if there is anyone left at Calder and Boyars who can read or write. But, then, trendiness has always been a fickle companion.