From blank pages to 13,000 word sentences: a brief history of British avant garde writing

In the 1960s, writers such as BJ Johnson, Ann Quin and Bob Cobbing were ripping up the rules of fiction, fighting the establishment - and each other. What, if anything, of their legacy lives on?

Of all the curious artefacts gathering dust in the BBC’s Sound Archive, one of the very weirdest dates from an evening in 1969. John Peel’s guest on his late-night radio show is the sound poet Bob Cobbing. Stationed alongside is the Scottish monologist Ivor Cutler. Urged on by his captivated host, Cobbing plays the tape of a recording made with his French collaborator François Dufrêne. What follows is a kind of aural collage from the very edge of language: repetitive pantings, groans, sighs, whispers and primal gibberish. After it judders to a halt, Peel turns to the somewhat nonplussed Cutler to inquire: has he ever tried anything similar? “You mean making a noise?” Cutler sceptically lobs back.

As the spectacle of Cobbing in full shamanistic flow on a Radio 1 pop show confirms, the literary 1960s was an era in which, for the first time in nearly 40 years, the avant garde veered dangerously close to the mainstream. It was an age in which (sometimes rather to their surprise) experimental writers found themselves contracted to major commercial publishers, in which novels could cheerfully be issued in random fragments under the cover of a cardboard box (BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates), and ambitious debutants embark on their careers with the assumption that, as Eva Figes once put it: “I and a few other writers with similar ideas could change the face of English fiction.”

Who were Britain’s 60s experimentalists, and what did they imagine that this “changing the face” of contemporary literature might involve? Leading lights of the novel included Johnson, Figes, Ann Quin, Alan Burns, Christine Brooke-Rose and such veterans of the prewar avant garde as Stefan Themerson and Rayner Heppenstall. (The blurb of Heppenstall’s Two Moons invited purchasers to read all the right-hand pages continuously, all the left-hand pages continuously or both narratives in parallel.) The poets brought together everyone from Cobbing, Rosemary Tonks and Tom Raworth to the young JH Prynne, whose 1968 collection Kitchen Poems opens with the thorny lines: “The whole thing it is, the difficult / matter: to shrink the confines / down.”

If the techniques they espoused ranged from collage and cut-and-paste to nonlinear narratives, fragmentation and words flung randomly about the page (as in Johnson’s novel House Mother Normal), then what united them was a conviction that the modernity they inhabited needed an equally newfangled response. “I’m not sure that there’s really an about for the novel to be about any more,” remarks the avant-garde writer in Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People Is Wrong (1959), which is not so very far from Figes’s famous line about the English social realist tradition not being able to contain the realities of her lifetime, “horrors which one might have called surreal if they had not actually happened”.

Words in motion… BS Johnson’s Travelling People
Words in motion… BS Johnson’s Travelling People Photograph: PR

In the context of postwar English literature, then dominated by figures such as Kingsley Amis, Iris Murdoch and Anthony Powell, this kind of stance was highly adversarial. If a second factor collectively enthused the titans of 60s avant garde, as they gnashed their teeth over the review pages of Sunday newspapers, it was a detestation of “the enemy”, variously located in “tradition” or “the literary establishment”. Fifties social realists such as Amis, William Cooper or CP Snow; movement poets Larkin, DJ Enright or Donald Davie; Bloomsbury biographers and dignified belletrists: all of them were seen as reactionary obstructions laid across the path of the avant garde’s forward march. As for up-and-coming but insufficiently committed contemporaries, the famously combative Johnson telephoned AS Byatt shortly after the publication of her well-received second novel, The Game (1967), to briskly inform her that she was “no competition”. David Lodge, too, in his recent volume of memoirs remembers the arrival of an anguished cri de coeur from Brooke-Rose, “a catalogue of complaints about being ignored by British academic and journalistic critics, her ideas borrowed without acknowledgment, her novels misunderstood, misrepresented or simply ignored”.

It is difficult to travel very far through the jungle of postwar British literature without wondering whether some of these oppositions aren’t violently overstated. The 60s experimentalists might, in certain circumstances, have regarded themselves as a collective unit but they never amounted to a “group” in the manner of some of their continental contemporaries, and one or two of them hated each other like poison. Neither were some of them as genuinely avant garde as they believed. Johnson’s critics, for example, regularly amused themselves by proposing that he was, at heart, a thoroughly conventional writer who wore his experimentalism as a kind of plumage. Meanwhile, from the other side of the fence, to write off 50s social realism as innately staid and conservative is to ignore the well-nigh Joycean wordplay of Amis’s early dialogue or the fact that Alan Sillitoe’s French translators regarded him not as a kitchen-sink merchant but as a homegrown existentialist, Nottingham’s very own Camus.

Eva Figes.
Eva Figes. Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian

The same lack of any clear cut distinctions applies to the movement’s forebears, who can seem heterodox to the point of randomness. Figes’s starting point was Kafka. Johnson, a fan and friend of Beckett, seriously endangered his relationship with the author of Waiting for Godot by quoting some private compliments on one of his book jackets. Burns looked westward to William S Burroughs and the horrors of American consumerism (see his Dreamerika!, 1972). Quin, often thought to be the most Europeanised of the gang, left a series of notebooks that, as Jennifer Hodgson, the editor of Quin’s recent posthumous collection The Unmapped Country points out, are full of ruminations on the classics of the English canon. To a high modernist brought up on the Joyce of Finnegans Wake, all this could look horribly timid – pallid amateurs in England mucking about while the really serious action went on elsewhere.

And if the 60s avant garde lacked coherence as a literary unit, then it also lacked staying power. Johnson and Quin killed themselves within a few months of each other in 1973. A discouraged Burns simply stopped writing. Brooke-Rose, who later complained about “the stifling of fiction by non-fiction on the part of the critical establishment”, retreated into a series of elliptical novels with prepositional titles such as Between and Thru. On one level, this running out of steam was chronological, a matter of 60s avant-garde fiction and poetry being tied up with the tenor of a time in which anything went – even the Beatles could employ sound collage techniques on best-selling recordings such as The White Album. At the same time, at least part of it was down to a critical hostility that brought together not only conservative pundits but the new “establishment” of the decade that followed. In retrospect, it seems significant that Giles Gordon’s anthology Beyond the Words: Eleven Writers in Search of a New Fiction (1975) should have been trashed by Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Peter Ackroyd.

Nearly five decades later, what remains? Jonathan Coe’s biography Like a Fiery Elephant (2004) established Johnson as a major if somewhat lonely figure, and also one of the most irascible self-obsessives ever to pick up a pen. (“You ignorant unliterary Americans make me puke,” begins a letter to a US publisher who had dared to turn him down.) To read House Mother Normal (1971), which explores the mental chaos of an old people’s home, is to be struck not simply by its formal trickery – several of the pages are left blank – but by an odd, fleeting lyricism. “Jesus will come for my end,” muses 85-year-old Gloria. “He will lift me up into his heavenly boudoir and I will sing with the angels all night long. The stars will shine down on me when he comes, his Milky Stout.”

Quin’s debut Berg (1964) still seems an extraordinary piece of work. Spiky and constricted, it’s like a detective novel from which someone has removed the plot; or, to extend the analogy, like watching Match of the Day when someone has removed the ball and the studio-bound pundits are wearing blindfolds. “A Double Room”’, one of the pieces collected in The Unmapped Country and apparently written in the mid-60s, has the same seedy hotel setting and the same end-of-tether terseness. (“After all. She took a dress down. No best to put the same one on. They’ll know. They.”) Meanwhile, the sound of Cobbing in excelsis (watch the rendition of “Alphabet of Fishes”, on YouTube) strikes a note rarely heard in British poetry – guttural, improvisatory, full of unexpected detonations and occluded wordplay.

Jonathan Coe enlivened part of The Rotters’ Club with a single 13,955 word Johnsonian sentence.
Jonathan Coe enlivened part of The Rotters’ Club with a single 13,955 word Johnsonian sentence. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

As for the question of wider influence, the trail of the 60s mad lads and lasses (“Uncle Bob Cobbing and all,” as Larkin once sniffed) runs through acres of 21st-century literature. One can see it in the techniques of contemporary novelists such as Deborah Levy, Nicola Barker (winner of last year’s Goldsmiths prize for experimental writing) and Coe himself, who enlivened part of The Rotters’ Club with a single 13,955 word Johnsonian sentence. The current issue of the Quietus carries a sheaf of tributes to Quin from acolytes as various as Stewart Home and Lara Pawson. And the avant garde’s shadow hangs all over the kind of Scottish novel that began to take shape in the late 1970s and 80s, with its streams of consciousness, its fractured narratives and spiky demotic. As AL Kennedy observes: “Authors like Alasdair Gray, John Byrne and Jim Kelman were working with an awareness of the experimentation going on in the 60s. It laid the foundations for what became the Scottish Renaissance.” According to Coe: “If the experimental novelists of the 60s were able to see what’s happening at the moment, I think they would feel vindicated.”

A traditionalist might think that, like some of Johnson’s special effects, or Brooke-Rose’s ellipses (“ – Two flies on my knee are making love. / – Flies don’t make love. They have sexual intercourse. / – On the contrary.”), this may be slightly overdoing it. On the other hand, in his study of contemporary British fiction, The Novel Now, Richard Bradford identifies a school of writing he christens “domesticated post-novelists”. Bradford’s exemplars are Ali Smith and David Mitchell, writers who, he maintains, combine a hankering for experimental playfulness with – something the 60s avant garde occasionally disdained – a determination to emerge with the reader on their side. Perhaps in the end Johnson, who went to his carefully choreographed death (a card left by the side of the bath read “This is my last word”) almost exulting in his neglect, had the last laugh •

  • The Advance Guard of the Avant Garde will be broadcast on Radio 4 on 10 March.


DJ Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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