Keywords: Biography, modern fiction, literature

Title: Like A Fiery Elephant - The Story of B. S. Johnson

Author: Jonathan Coe

Publisher: Picador

Media: Book

Reviewer: Paul Taylor

For all these years of absence, he has been a presence. I saw the legendary film on ITV, Fat Man on a Beach, as a youngster in 1974, struck by the smiles and jokes, the poetry, and that chilling walk into the tide, not realizing he'd died the year before.

I became then a collector, an appreciator, one of an invisible fraternity. I didn't write poetry then, not seeing how, but kept a particular space for his poems, kept a peculiar faith over the years. And enjoyed the adventure of his novels.

Once knowing someone who knew the wife who found Johnson dead in the bathwater, I knew nothing. But here now is a great trunkful of documents and wonders, and with glee and latent trepidation, I have felt the heat of his personality, his long-lost gift to an unseeing world.

This book is a clear treasure, a windfall of enlightenment. Finally I know what happened to that "one-man literary avant-garde", a film-maker and author of Travelling People, Trawl, Albert Angelo, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry, House Mother Normal, The Unfortunates, and Aren't You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?, a poet proud of Joyce and Beckett, a working-class hard worker.

I can only be glad for Johnson, that this honest, industrious writer, himself a novelist, thought that he mattered enough to assemble from myths and pieces a portrait of a difficult man who toiled, triumphed, failed and feared and cancelled his own life at 40.

And now the tale of raising a family on rejection slips is capped by an award to his biographer, and we can congratulate Coe for his thirty-grand bounty, and imagine Bryan Johnson's rueful laughter rattling the saloon bars of Soho. B. S. Johnson is back.

© Paul Taylor 2005

A tribute to B. S. Johnson - a poem called Beach Head - can be found at

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