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Talks

The Laurence Sterne Memorial Lecture (otherwise known as the ‘Sterne Lecture’) used to take place annually. This has now been extended to many more talks during the year. They relate to the theme of the current project, some aspect of Laurence Sterne, Shandy Hall or its gardens, and have taken place at various venues, most frequently at The York Medical Society Rooms, Coxwold Village Hall and Shandy Hall itself.

As well as asking distinguished speakers to give lectures for an audience invited by the Laurence Sterne Trust, the Curator and others can visit your own organisations to give talks on Sterne, Shandy Hall and its gardens. Please contact us to arrange.

Rob Wyke - A Hall in the Head - Different Journeys series 2018

A Hall in the Head; or, what does Sterne imagine we imagine on our journeys in and around Shandy Hall?

Robert Wyke, chairman of the trustees of the Laurence Sterne Trust, used readings from Tristram Shandy to construct (tentatively) and tour Shandy Hall, its neighbours and its setting as Sterne (perhaps) wanted us to imagine them.

Jacobs Well, Trinity Lane, York 11th December 7.30

Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Peter Marren - Chasing the Ghost - Different Journeys series 2018

Peter Marren

Peter Marren

Peter Marren has been a devoted flower finder all his life. While the Ghost Orchid offers the toughest challenge of any wild plant, there were fifty more British species Peter had yet to see, having ticked off the first 1,400 rummaging in hedges, slipping down gullies and peering in peat bogs. But he set himself the goal of finding the remaining fifty in a single summer. As it turned out, the wettest summer in years.

Peter’s journey, described in his new book Chasing the Ghost, was to seek out the places where some of our rarest wild flowers grow. Setting out in the footsteps of his botanical hero, the Rev. Keble Martin, author of the best-selling Concise British Flora, it became a kind of floral treasure hunt as he seeks to understand why flowers grow where they do, and what, if anything, is being done to help them survive. In the process the quest for rarities also became a study of companionship in the field, of what wild flowers mean to people, and why botany is good for us. And flower-hunting even in Britain, has its adventurous side. At various points the Quest involved climbing, swimming, canoeing, slopping through bogs and a great deal of walking. He was once nearly struck by lightning, and also in fear of drowning. Without wishing to give the end away, the journey was haunted by our one impossible plant, the Ghost Orchid. Having flowered only once during the past thirty years, it mocks our hopes of ever completing the journey. And a good thing too. In botany, as in life, it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, for the journey is its own reward.

Talk in Shandy Hall Gallery

Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

James Harpur - Pilgrim Paths - Different Journeys series 2018

James Harpur

James Harpur

James Harpur talked about the rise, fall and decline of pilgrimage in the West, tracing its beginnings from earliest times to the present. Sterne himself mentions the Camino pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in his Sentimental Journey, and this famous trek was one of a number of pilgrim routes that developed during medieval times. Often fuelled by famous relics and glittering shrines, pilgrimages were a common part of daily Christian life until the Reformation, when a new era of puritanism and, later, scepticism, curtailed their popularity. James also considered the idea of inner pilgrimage, which developed during the Middle Ages, and also the revival of the pilgrimage tradition in modern times.

James Harpur is an award-winning poet with six collections published. His latest book, The White Silhouette (Carcanet), explores the numinous in a snowy pilgrimage from West Cork to Dorset, Russian icons, the Perseids meteor shower and the medieval Celtic art of the Book of Kells. His other books include The Gospel of Joseph of Arimathea (Wild Goose) and The Pilgrim Journey (Lion), a history of pilgrimage in the West.

Medical Society Rooms, Stonegate, York

Supported by Heritage Lottery Fund.

Lucy Powell - "I can't get out, I can't get out": Sterne's Starling and the Song of Liberty - Different Journeys series 2018

Black cage Raverat

Black cage Raverat

Plato once defined a human being as ‘a featherless biped, capable of speech and reason.’ A rival Greek philosopher, Diogenes, retorted by plucking a hen, and declaring it a fully-fledged Platonic human. Sterne engages in much the same philosophical wrangling in A Sentimental Journey, from 1768. Our narrator, Yorick, hears the voice of what he takes to be a child, complaining: ‘I can’t get out, I can’t get out’. It transpires that this voice belongs to a caged starling, who has been taught to speak by its manservant owner. Like Plato and Diogenes, Sterne uses the starling to investigate what is and is not a human being, and also to ask how ‘real’ our emotional responses can be to artificial stimuli, and to investigate the concepts of freedom and ownership. This talk followed Yorick’s amiable, ticklish, and disturbing amblings into eighteenth-century ideas of the limits of humanness, sentimentality and the possibility of freedom. It traced Sterne’s starling back to the writings of John Locke and David Hume, forward to the novels of Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth, and looked at other eighteenth-century fictional birds, like the speaking parrot of Robinson Crusoe, in order to try to understand just what it is that the starling means – to Sterne, to Yorick, and to us.

Lucy Powell teaches English literature at University College, London. Her research focuses on expressions of subjectivity in the eighteenth century. She is currently completing her monograph on the eighteenth-century prison, which left her with an abiding fascination with cages and flight. Lucy is also a New Generation Thinker for the BBC, and has made broadcasts on a range of subjects, including the art and science of silence, and the history of dreams from Homer to Freud. In June 2018, she hosted a discussion between the author Helen Macdonald and Professor Tim Birkhead on the relationship between birds and humans as part of the Proms season. She was currently recording a series of episodes for Radio 3’s Time Travellers podcast.

Medical Society Rooms, Stonegate, York

Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Henry Eliot - The World is a Maze: How to Find the Way to Get Lost - Different Journeys series 2018

Henry Eliot

Henry Eliot

From prehistoric Sardinian fairy houses to laser-controlled mazes with moveable walls, humans have always been fascinated by the idea of mazes and labyrinths, and there are more mazes in the world today than there ever have been before. They infuse the stories we tell, from myths of Minotaurs to the plays of Shakespeare, the Alice in Wonderland books and Hollywood blockbusters. In different cultures around the world they represent birth, life, love and frequently death.

But who is making these complex, confusing structures, and how and why do they do it? An audience joined Henry Eliot, author of Follow This Thread, on a quest for the lost Maze King, and a surprising exploration of the history and psychology of these strange but seductive spaces.

Medical Society Rooms, Stonegate, York

Supported by The Heritage Lottery Fund

Paul Edmondson - Shakespeare on the Road - Different Journeys series 2018

Paul Edmundson

Paul Edmundson

Paul Edmondson talked about an astonishing road trip across the States: 14 Shakespeare festivals, 63 days, 20,000 miles. How had Shakespeare made his home in the hearts of the people of North America? What did we find there?

Rev Dr Paul Edmondson is Head of Research for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and a friend of Shandy Hall and all things Shandean. He has published articles and books about Shakespeare, and a collection of poems, Destination Shakespeare, has recently appeared (The publishers donate a pair of prescription spectacles to a child in India for each copy sold).

Medical Society Rooms, Stonegate, York
Supported by The Heritage Lottery Fund

Martin Rowson - Martin Rowson's Sentimental Journey - Different Journeys series 2018

Rowson ASJ

Rowson ASJ

2018 marked 250 years since the publication of A Sentimental Journey. In celebration of this anniversary, the Laurence Sterne Trust commissioned Martin Rowson to illustrate a new edition for the Shandy Hall Press.

Surrounded by his original drawings for this work in the gallery at Shandy Hall, the artist discussed literal, literary and graphic journeys – journeys through your mind and across the page – from Hogarth’s Progresses (which were always regressive, ironic and ended badly) via Sterne to the ‘journeying narrative’ of the strip cartoon or comic book.

Martin Rowson is one of our finest cartoonists, with work appearing regularly in The Guardian. He has published graphic novel versions of The Waste LandTristram Shandy and the Communist Manifesto.  He is chair of the British Cartoonists Association and in 2006 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Journalism from the University of Westminster. In 2014 he was appointed to an Honorary Fellowship by Goldsmiths, University of London. He is a vice-president of the Zoological Society of London.

Medical Society Rooms, Stonegate, York

Supported by The Heritage Lottery Fund

Christina Patterson - Journeys in pain (and joy) -Different Journeys series 2018

Christina Patterson

Christina Patterson

What do you do when you feel you’ve messed it all up and your friends seem to be doing just fine? This is the theme of The Art of Not Falling Apart, a mix of memoir and interviews about how we cope when life goes wrong. Hailed by The Times as ‘a beautifully written and uplifting memoir’, and by the Mail on Sunday as ‘a manual on how to survive in the 21st-century’, it blends genres by intertwining stories of people who have coped with loss and disappointment with snippets from Christina’s own ‘journey’ from devastation to something like hope. Drawing on her background as a journalist, literary critic and former director of the Poetry Society, she talks about the challenge of finding, and subverting, forms to say the things we want to say. And how Sterne set us on a path we can all try to follow.

Christina Patterson is a journalist and broadcaster. A former columnist at the Independent, she now writes for The Sunday Times and The Guardian about society, culture, politics, books and the arts. She’s a regular commentator on radio and TV news programmes, and a regular guest on the Sky News press preview. Her first book, The Art of Not Falling Apart, was published by Atlantic in May. She has also contributed an essay to Body of Essays, published by Profile in September 2018.

Medical Society Rooms, Stonegate, York

Supported by The Heritage Lottery Fund

Professor Adam Smyth - Cutting Words: Laurence Sterne and Graffiti -Different Journeys series 2018

Adam Smyth

Adam Smyth

St Michael’s Church in Coxwold contains pews covered with eighteenth-century graffiti. In this talk, Adam Smyth discussed the significance of these names for Laurence Sterne’s writing, and will consider more generally the tradition of authors writing on walls, in wood, in glass, and on stone. This talk marked the opening of a small exhibition in St Michael’s Church, curated by Adam Smyth, on Sterne’s graffiti.

Adam Smyth is Professor of English Literature and the History of the Book at Balliol College, Oxford University. He is the author, most recently, of Material Texts in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2018), and is currently editing Shakespeare’s ‘Pericles’ for Arden. He writes regularly for the London Review of Books.

Supported by The Heritage Lottery Fund

Geoffrey Day - Thomas Coryate, indefatigable pedestrian - Different Journeys series 2018

 Thomas Coryate

Thomas Coryate

In May 1608 Tom Coryate gave up his role as unofficial court jester to the Prince of Wales and set off to tour Europe, a good deal of his journey being on foot. He visited 45 cities and on his return hung his shoes up in the parish church of Odcombe in Somerset where his father was the rector. These shoes hung there until the 1860s when they disappeared. He also published an account of his travels, which came with a host of preliminary verses by admiring (and occasionally sniping) friends and acquaintances, including Ben Jonson, Michael Drayton, John Donne, Inigo Jones, and Sir John Harington, the inventor of the flushing cistern for privies.

In October 1612 Coryate set off again, taking a boat to Constantinople, then walking eastwards. On that journey he walked over 3,300 miles.

This talk, by Geoffrey Day who has been involved with Shandy Hall since its official opening,  explored Coryate’s up-bringing and how it might have contributed to his wanderlust and looked at the details of his travels and the lasting contributions he made to the English language.

Medical Society Rooms, Stonegate, York

Supported by The Heritage Lottery Fund

Dr Roger S. Keyes - The Male Journey in Japanese Prints - Different Journeys series 2018

 

Roger S. Keyes

Roger S. Keyes

Dr. Roger S. Keyes lived in York with his wife Elizabeth Coombs. He has authored many publications, including pioneering studies on Osaka prints (The Theatrical World of Osaka Prints) with Keiko Mizushima (1973); Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Courage and Silence: A Study of the Life and Color Woodblock Prints of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1983); The Art of Surimono: Privately Published Japanese Woodblock Prints and Books (1985) and The Male Journey in Japanese Prints (1989). In 2007 he completed a catalogue raisonnee of Katsushika Hokusai’s 3000 single-sheet woodblock prints.

Dr Keyes was the leading specialist on Hokusai working in English and most recently advised the British Museum on their major 2017 exhibition Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave. 

Medical Society Rooms, Stonegate, York.

Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Frances Spalding - Virginia Woolf and Tristram Shandy - Different Voices series 2016

 

Francis Spalding

Frances Spalding

Frances Spalding is a well-known art historian, critic and biographer with a special focus on twentieth-century British art. She studied art history at the University of Nottingham, taught at Sheffield Hallam University and has most recently held the position of Professor of Art History at Newcastle University.

She is the author of British Art since 1900 and has published notable biographies of Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, John and Myfanwy Piper, John Minton, Gwen Raverat and the poet Stevie Smith, as well as a centenary history of the Tate Gallery. She has organised several exhibitions including one on Piper’s work in the 1930s (Dulwich Picture Gallery) and the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2014. Frances was appointed a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for services to literature and is editor of The Burlington Magazine.

Virginia Woolf and Tristram Shandy

Frances talked about Laurence Sterne and Virginia Woolf – two writers who shared an interest in the fabric and fabrication of fiction and who reached out to their readers through the ‘talking voice’.

Supported by Arts Council England

Jon McGregor - Different Voices series 2016

Books written by the different voices speakers

Jon McGregor writes novels and short stories, and his experimental approach to capturing the passing of time in his work relates to Sterne’s writing style.

Jon read extracts from his novel-in-progress, Reservoir 13, and edited it during the evening according to the audience response.

His recent books include a short story collection, This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, and his third novel, Even the Dogs, which won the IMPAC Dublin Literature Award in 2012. He is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, where he edits The Letters Page, a literary journal in letters. The Guardian recently named him as one of the Top Ten writers to see live describing him, faintly, as ‘not the showiest or most showboating of authors.’ Jon lives in Nottingham, and divides his time.

Medical Society Rooms, Stonegate, York

Supported by Arts Council England

Francis Spufford - first talk in the Different Voices'series - 2015

Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford is a writer particularly interested in the tricky edges where different kinds of books meet and blend. For most of the past twenty years, he’s been principally an author of non-fiction (I May Be Some Time, The Child That Books Built, Red Plenty, Unapologetic) that plays around with the tools and techniques of different genres. He now describes himself as ‘a writer of non-fiction who is creeping up gradually on writing novels’. This year, his first novel Golden Hill came out, a book both set in the eighteenth century and deliberately influenced by the fluid, wide-open storytelling of the period when the novel began.

This evening he talked about what it’s like to wind the novel back to its starting-point, and about what he has learned from Fielding, Smollett, and (of course) Laurence Sterne.

Supported by Arts Council England

Tom Gauld - illustrated talk 2015

Tom Gauld talk poster

Tom Gauld talk poster

Tom Gauld is a cartoonist and illustrator. He draws a weekly cartoon for the Guardian newspaper and has devised a contemporary ‘myriorama’ inspired by the writings of Laurence Sterne.

Colin See-Paynton

Andrew Woods, Elinor Camille-Wood and Kate Compton - The Wit of York: The Good Humoured Doctor and the Origins of the Yorkshire Museum 2014

James Atkinson

James Atkinson

The Reading Room and Historic Library of the Yorkshire Museum
Talks at 2pm, 2.45pm, 3.30pm

Explore a cabinet of curiosities about James Atkinson (1759-1839): Good Humour Club member, medical man, natural philosopher, and founding member of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society.

Discover how this Good Humoured doctor helped to create the Yorkshire Museum.

Writing in 1897, Gordon Sharp summed up Atkinson as ‘surgeon, scholar, wit, of York’; the cabinet of curiosities on view in the Reading Room represented the many aspects and influences of James Atkinson’s life with an intriguing and eclectic display of objects from the collections of both The Laurence Sterne Trust and York Museums Trust.

On Saturday 5 April, the audience learned more about this important figure in York’s history and take a glimpse into life in York two hundred years ago. Laurence Sterne Trust staff Elinor Camille-Wood and Kate Compton spoke about Atkinson and his membership of The Good Humour Club, a gentleman’s society devoted to conviviality, good supper and copious amounts of punch. York Museums Trust curator Andrew Woods talked about Atkinson’s donations to the collection with an opportunity to handle some of the objects he gave to the Museum.

Professor Michael Eaton - The Good Humour Club: Imagining the Membership 2014

Good Humour Club

Good Humour Club

‘Tonight, for your delight, entertainment and edification, a number of gentlemen are gathering in Sunton’s Coffee-house for their weekly meeting of shared minds’…

In this lecture, playwright Michael Eaton will be discussing his recent drama ‘The Good Humour Club’, produced in collaboration with The Laurence Sterne Trust for Sterne’s tercentenary in 2013. The play is a richly evocative portrayal of an imagined meeting of a historic gentleman’s club in eighteenth-century York.

The meeting takes place on the day in 1759 that the first two volumes of Laurence Sterne’s controversial novel, Tristram Shandy, were published in that city. In his lecture, Michael Eaton described the stages of this exciting collaboration, from the Trust’s original commission to produce a radio play, through to casting and performance. The lecture addressed the challenges of turning an ongoing historical research project into a coherent, convincing, and entertaining historical fiction. How might you go about extrapolating character and dialogue from The Good Humour Club project’s primary source material: an eighteenth-century minute book.

LECTURE FREE TO ATTEND  7.00pm Kings Manor, K133 University of York

Those attending could listen to the play beforehand. It is available to listen to online on The Good Humour Club’s website:

Michael Eaton has a degree in anthropology from Cambridge. His work has been widely broadcast on Radio 4, from the afternoon play and serialised drama to dramatic documentaries on the Northern Ireland peace process and 9/11. Five short plays about Dickens and London, The Special Correspondent for Posterity, were broadcast in February 2012 for the Dickens bicentenary. In 2013, he wrote ‘The Good Humour Club’ in collaboration with The Laurence Sterne Trust for Sterne’s tercentenary. He is a visiting professor at Nottingham Trent University.

 

The Good Humour Club: A Sociable History of 18th century York - 2014

Detail from Francis Hayman, 'Portrait of a Group of Gentleman, with the Artist' (c.1740-45). Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Detail from Francis Hayman, ‘Portrait of a Group of Gentleman, with the Artist’ (c.1740-45). Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

A lunchtime talk at North Yorkshire County Record Office 12.30pm – 1.30pm

Tickets £2.00

Speakers: Dr Kate Compton, Good Humour Club Project intern and Elinor Camille-Wood, Collections and Education Officer, The Laurence Sterne Trust.

The Good Humour Club (c.1725-1800) was a York society that celebrated the twin virtues of companionship and conviviality. The members were men who belonged to polite, though not elite, trades and professions; clergymen and doctors rubbed elbows with mercers, apothecaries, and drapers at weekly meetings where a good supper and copious amounts of punch were consumed. The Good Humour Club’s meeting place was Sunton’s Coffee-House on Coney Street, a mere stone’s throw from many of the members’ places of business, such as John Hinxman, bookseller of Stonegate, or Thomas Spooner, a draper with a shop on Pavement. This talk shared some of the research about the Club that was carried out by The Laurence Sterne Trust as part of a Heritage Lottery funded project. The lives of some of the Good Humour Club’s key members from its seventy-five year history were examined for what they might tell us about York as a social and cultural centre during the eighteenth century.

The event also featured an object-handling session with Collections Officer Elinor Camille-Wood from The Laurence Sterne Trust. This session included a rare opportunity to view the 1743 minute book of the Good Humour Club from the Trust’s archive, as well as many other interesting eighteenth-century artefacts.

Image: Detail from Francis Hayman, ‘Portrait of a Group of Gentleman, with the Artist’ (c.1740-45). Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Robert Greenwood - Shandy's Physicians - 2014

 

Dr Slop - Bunbury

Dr Slop – Bunbury

Robert Greenwood, a librarian from the Royal Society of Medicine, came to York to share his knowledge of eighteenth-century medicine and Laurence Sterne as part of the RSM’s current exhibition, ‘Shandy’s Physicians’ (4 November 2013 – 25 January 2014).

The talk  explored the many medical books and authors referred to in Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy as well as in the writings of some of Sterne’s contemporaries. It also examined medical texts written in a Shandean spirit, such as A Medical Bibliography by Good Humour Club member James Atkinson.

Talk at York Medical Society

An extract from The Good Humour Club play by Michael Eaton

Patrick Wildgust - National Portrait Gallery Lecture - The Life and Opinions of Laurence Sterne 2013

Curator of Shandy Hall, Patrick Wildgust, takes a closer look at the life of Laurence Sterne and discusses his reputation 300 years after his birth. Most famous for Tristram Shandy, Sterne was a writer of international importance and Wildgust reappraises his impact and character.

Martin Rowson York Theatre Royal Studio Talks - 2013

 

Rowson Pause on the Landing

Rowson Pause on the Landing

York Theatre Royal and York St John University, in association with The Laurence Sterne Trust, present a series of engaging talks and discussions with leading artists and thinkers.

Martin Rowson is the political cartoonist of The Guardian.

A unique opportunity to hear about Martin’s graphic novel of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Made up of over 100 drawings, all now in the collection at Shandy Hall, he took the spirit of the book and gave it a new interpretation.

29th April 2013
7.00pm

 

Jonathan Meades - Annual Sterne Lecture and book launch 2012

Jonathan Meades

Jonathan Meades

‘Museum Without Walls’  Book launch with Jonathan Meades at Shandy Hall with Walking tour of Coxwold.

See more here.

Free tickets in advance only.

29 September 2012 – 11.00am

 

Gabriel Josipovici - 'Not Waving but Drowning' - 2011

Gabriel Josipovici

Gabriel Josipovici

Gabriel Josipovici was born in Nice in 1940 of Russo-Italian, Romano-Levantine parents. He lived in Egypt from 1945 to 1956, when he came to Britain. He read English at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, graduating with a First in 1961. From 1963 to 1998 he taught at the University of Sussex. He has published over a dozen novels, three volumes of short stories and a number of critical books. His plays have been performed throughout Britain and on radio in Britain, France and Germany, and his work has been translated into the major European languages and Arabic. In 2001 he published A Life, a biographical memoir of his mother, the translator and poet Sacha Rabinovitch (London Magazine editions). His most recent works are Two Novels: ‘After’ and ‘Making Mistakes’ (Carcanet), What Ever Happened to Modernism? (Yale University Press) and Heart’s Wings (Carcanet, 2010)

 

Bob Carr - The Life and Work of J.L.Carr - 2009

Carr map Herts

J.L.Carr map Herts

Bob Carr talked about the life of his father J.L. Carr, as author, teacher, artist, map-maker, publisher, and ‘The Last Englishman

Coxwold Village Hall

Adam Thirlwell - The End of the Birthday* Annual Sterne Lecture 2009

 

Adam Thirlwell

Adam Thirlwell

Adam Thirlwell talk

Adam Thirlwell talk

John Lawrence -Lawrence on Laurence and Lawrence - 2008

Lawrence Folio Toby Walter

Lawrence Folio Toby Walter

John Lawrence Folio Tristram Shandy

John Lawrence Folio Tristram Shandy

John Lawrence talked about his work as a wood engraver and print maker, with particular reference to the Folio edition of Tristram Shandy.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce - Cock and Bull Stories - 2006

Frank Cottrell-Boyce & Patrick Wildgust

Frank Cottrell-Boyce & Patrick Wildgust

Frank Cottrell- Boyce spoke about his involvement as screenwriter for Michael Winterbottom’s Cock and Bull Story.

Jonathan Coe 'Great Spunky Unflincher - Laurence Sterne, B.S. Johnson and me - 2004

Jonathan Coe gave the Laurence Sterne Annual Memorial Lecture on Friday June 11th 2004 at the King’s Manor, York.

The lecture, ‘Great Spunky Unflincher – Laurence Sterne, B.S. Johnson and me – coincided with the publication of Coe’s book, Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S.Johnson.

 Coe described his approach;

“My strategy will be this. Many of the people picking up this book will not (regrettably) have read anything by B. S. Johnson before. Revered though he is by a few, he is unknown nowadays to most British readers under forty. So I shall begin by explaining, in a little more detail, what it was that he wrote and that I think he achieved. After that, pace Milan Kundera, I shall have to bring myself to knock down the walls of his house and we shall take a wander through the rubble, perhaps shaking our heads in awe and wonderment at the melancholy grandeur of the ruins we find there. Then, by way of interlude, we shall listen to some different people talking about B. S. Johnson, arguing amongst themselves even though these are – in most cases – people who have never actually met each other. And last of all, a short coda. In which I shall attempt to put forward my own, highly personal – and, yes, speculative – thoughts about the forces that may have been driving him in his last few days and hours: a ‘transcursion into his mind’ – to use Johnsonian language – or even (the phrase is from his fifth novel, House Mother Normal) ‘a diagram of certain aspects of the inside of his skull’, as he gets ready to compose his final message to the world; to write his very last word.

Before we get that far, however, I hope there will be plenty to enjoy along the way. We’re talking about novels, after all, and novels, even gloomy ones, are supposed to cheer us up, to provide recompense, when life isn’t all that it should be. Supposed, in short, to give us pleasure.

Aren’t they?

In his heyday, during the 1960s and early 1970s, B. S. Johnson was one of the best-known young novelists in Britain. A passionate advocate for the avant-garde in both literature and film, he gained notoriety for his forthright views on the future of the novel and for his idiosyncratic ways of putting them into practice. His innovations included a book with holes cut through the pages, and a novel published in a box so that its unbound chapters could be read in any order. But in November 1973 Johnson’s lifelong depression got the better of him, and he was found dead at his north London home. He had taken his own life at the age of forty.”

Jonathan Coe was born in Birmingham in 1961. His novels include What a Carve Up!, The House of Sleep and The Rotters’ Club. He lives in London.

Read the full transcript of Jonathan Coe’s 2004 Laurence Sterne Annual Memorial Lecture

The transcript has an introduction by Martyn Bedford:

“I have a hazy recollection of a short-lived TV series in the 1960s, or possibly early 70s, in which boxing matches were staged between fighters from different eras, their roles enacted by pugilistic lookalikes. Muhammad Ali versus Rocky Marciano is one such bout that sticks in my mind. The idea was that the boxers’ relative strengths and weaknesses were fed into a computer and the two body-doubles would act out the predicted outcome of the contest. It has occurred to me, especially during several years’ involvement with the Ilkley Literature Festival, that the concept would lend itself neatly to staged pairings of non-contemporaneous writers. Joyce versus Dickens, for example. Or Kelman versus Kafka. Non-violent, naturally (the idea of Woolf and Austen engaged in topless mud-wrestling holds little appeal, though no doubt a website exists.) I’m thinking more along the lines of invigorating mental sparring on writerly themes and the fiction-making process, scripted by experts and played by actors. As far as I’m aware nothing of this sort has been tried. However, we had the next best thing when the novelist and literary biographer Jonathan Coe delivered a talk on B.S. Johnson at the Laurence Sterne Trust’s annual lecture. For there, in spirit, were Sterne and Johnson – duelling intellectually, as it were, through the medium of a modern writer who (as the text of his lecture demonstrates) has captured the creative tensions and affinities that resonate between these two dead souls. Among the one hundred people who packed the Huntingdon Room of the King’s Manor, in York, I suspect there were more Sterne fans than Johnsonites. Yet, by the end of a fascinating, entertaining and well-received talk, it was apparent that B.S. Johnson left the arena with his held held high, if a little battered and bruised. Much as he did in life.”

Martin Rowson - A comic book version of Tristram Shandy - 2003

Rowson Walter Shandy and Dr Slop asterisks

Rowson – Walter Shandy and Dr Slop

Martin Rowson talked about his graphic novel version of Tristram Shandy for the annual Sterne Lecture in 2003

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