A book that certainly changed me was Albert Angelo by B.S. Johnson (1933-1973). This tale centres on the various frustrations of young male graduate, Albert Albert, having become a peripatetic supply teacher in schools near Highbury and the Angel, Islington. In the mid-1970s I holidayed with my girlfriend (later wife) away from our Leicester home in Whitby on the Yorkshire Coast. Early closing day found us dodging showers. We retreated into a bookshop in a narrow side-street, its shelves of paperbacks part of a front for an illicit back-room trade in pornography. There was the Johnson book, a nude on the cover, unpriced. Our determination to buy several novels surprised the proprietor.
Johnson wove into life’s mundanities striking experimental devices (a hole through two pages, double columns of narrative from different simultaneous perspectives), expressing his self-referential need to account for himself. I loved the class tensions, particularly the minor privileges and snobberies of others he detailed. A unique quality permeated Johnson’s quasi-autobiographical peregrinations, his profound and troubling vulnerability. I graduated, married, divorced and retreated to London in 1981 after nine years exile.
In 1983, not quite thirty, I lived at the Angel, Islington beside the Regent’s Canal. As a reluctant supply teacher I cycled daily along the towpath. Near my flat Albert is murdered by a gang of students at the end of Johnson’s book—doors away lies the final bedsit of Joe Orton (1933-1967), evoking my Leicester days. Bored one Easter, I rediscovered Albert’s professional and creative vicissitudes. The similarities to my own life seemed uncanny, including the sexual, romantic betrayals. I was inspired to research a doctorate on Johnson’s fiction (completed in 1997), subsequently becoming an academic for many years. In April 2014 the death of a Leicester friend, Sue Townsend (1946-2014), set me off writing my own fiction, rereading Johnson’s book for inspiration. I completed a second doctorate in Creative Writing. Much revised, Afterlives: A Novel (2019) would be published, featuring Sue as a character. From her I learnt that creatively one ought to persevere since time is finite. Plus, writing is its own reward. From Johnson I gleaned two key lessons: write from direct experience; and the essence of life is to be found amidst the everyday minutiae of our existence.
Philip Tew is a novelist and Professor Emeritus in English Literature and Creative Writing at Brunel University London. He spent nine years in Leicester in his late teens and twenties both as a student and school teacher. His forthcoming third novel, Heroes and Villains, will appear later in 2022.
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