B.S.Johnson image © Bryan Wharton 1969
An iconic 1960’s novel that relates the observations of a football reporter wandering the streets of Nottingham is to be played out on those same streets in a mass community performance, 50 years after the book’s publication.
The Unfortunates was an unusual ‘book in a box’, written by B.S.Johnson in 1969. It portrays the internal monologue of a man who has been sent to report on a football match in a city that remains unnamed, but which is based on Nottingham.
Of the 27 separately bound chapters, only the first and last are titled, and the rest are designed to be shuffled, so can be read in any order as snapshots of life and landmarks in the city.
Now, the East Midlands-based community theatre company Excavate is staging a mass reading of the book with 100 local readers of all ages in 25 city centre locations. This marathon performance is called ‘But I Know This City!’ and will run from 10am to 10pm on Saturday 23rd November 2019 as part of the University of Nottingham’s Being Human Festival of Arts and Humanities.
Bryan Stanley Johnson was an experimental London-based writer, poet and film maker who tragically took his own life at the age of 40. His death in 1973 was said to be linked to depression after he received little public and commercial recognition of his work. He now has a more significant following thanks in part to a prize-winning biography written by Jonathan Coe in 2004. In 2001, the novelist John Lanchester wrote: ‘Let’s hope the world is more ready for B.S. Johnson than it was in his lifetime’.
The new Nottingham-based staging and performance of The Unfortunates will take place in bookshops, pubs, churches, homes and other intriguing nooks and crannies in the city. Audiences will be given a map and can navigate their own journey through the city and the novel. In a highly flexible and immersive way, people can hear the first chapter being read every half an hour from 10am to 3pm at Broadway Cinema Lounge and the final chapter from 3.30pm to 10pm.
Andy Barrett, Artistic Director of Excavate, said: “To have 100 readers ready to share what is at heart a meticulous and at times rather gruelling novel is a rather wonderful thing. The intimacy of the text and the manner of its sharing make this a truly unique and moving experience.
“The readers are a real cross-section of the Nottingham community, although what unites them all is a genuine interest in literature and the city that they live in. The venues have all been chosen to connect as much as possible to the chapters either thematically or geographically, such as the wonderful chapter about the infamous Nottingham watering hole Yates’s (now a Slug and Lettuce). One chapter is read in a car, another in a darkened porch of St. Mary’s Church, and the tenderest chapter will be heard in a living room next to a roaring fire.”
Professor James Moran, from the University of Nottingham’s School of English, said: “This is a wonderful project, which helps to recover and celebrate Nottingham’s place in the development of the avant-garde novel. There are not many places where the local football ground helped to inspire Beckettian work, but Johnson felt moved by his memories of Nottingham Forest’s City ground – and various other locations in the city – to create some of his best and most original writing. Using site-specific performance is a tremendous way of encouraging a new generation of readers to engage with this relatively unsung writer”.
Sandeep Mahal, Director of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature, added: “This project aims to push the boundaries and unleash what a UNESCO Creative City can do with literature, with reading, with bringing people from diverse backgrounds together into public spaces to experience the remarkable qualities of a legendary reading and writing experiment. A delightful celebration of the avant-garde novel, But I Know This City, will not only bring to life a book with a strong connection to Nottingham, but also introduce people to experience one of the most powerful explorations of human memory and grief I’ve come across.”
The Being Human Festival’s ‘But I Know This City!’ community performance by Excavate is free to attend. The map and timetable for the readings is available online at excavate.org.uk and leaflets are available at Broadway and other venues in Nottingham.
Full details of all the Being Human Festival 2019 events organised by the University of Nottingham are available here.
This production of ‘The Unfortunates’ is performed by kind permission of the Estate of B S Johnson. The book is published by Picador and available from book retailers everywhere.