Peter Robins

New word order | 3 December 2015

Peter Robins reports on a site-specific transformation of The Unfortunates by the literary innovator B.S. Johnson

In the basement of a busy café in Hockley, Nottingham, which may not have known exactly what it was letting itself in for, a young woman is loudly dissecting an unsatisfactory lunch: ‘Deep in my heart I know I love chips.’ In another basement a few hundred yards away, lit by a single floor lamp, another woman is detailing the process of a man’s decline with tear-jerking, understated tenderness. For today only, both women are going by the name Bryan. They are among 60 volunteer performers in But I Know This City!, a unique adaptation of B.S. Johnson’s strange and sometimes wonderful 1969 novel The Unfortunates.

You might remember The Unfortunates as ‘the book in a box’ — 27 separately bound sections of varying length, one labelled ‘First’ and another ‘Last’ and the rest to be read in any order. They trace the wanderings of a football reporter remarkably like Bryan Stanley Johnson around a city remarkably like Nottingham, as he recalls a friend, Tony, who had lived there and died young, of cancer.

Like many works that seem impossible to adapt, The Unfortunates has attracted repeated attempts at adaptation. Johnson himself shot a short film from it — the kind of thing that might now be called a book trailer — for the BBC in 1969, with extracts read in a stentorian manner by his favourite actor, William Hoyland, over street footage from Nottingham and animations of human decay that are all the creepier for their apparent crudeness. A version with Martin Freeman as the narrator went out on Radio 3 five years ago, with sections from a ‘very orderly recording’ randomised before broadcast.

This latest adaptation, however, found a more satisfying way to bring Johnson’s randomness to life. On a chilly Saturday last month, those 60 volunteer readers — a minimum of two for each section — were stationed at 25 venues around Nottingham, ready to tell their fragment of the story to anyone who asked between 10 a.m.

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