Finding the Experimentalists

By | November 23, 2021

Guest post by Joseph Darlington

I was on of the first people to conceive of the British 1960s Experimentalists as a movement.

I can tell you this because when I first put the idea forward I was met with all sorts of denials and refusals.

Firstly, that there was no evidence they knew each other, or worked together. Their styles, I was told, were all different, and they were all trying to do different things.

Those that knew the writers’ work pointed out that they were all different ages, and wrote in different places and for different purposes.

A common refrain was also to question – “what is a movement anyway?” – and – “what is the benefit of us understanding them as a movement?”

I hope that, after ten years’ work, I have managed to answer some of these questions.

In that time, the Experimentalists have slowly become recognised as a movement. The term “Experimentalists”, that I coined to describe them, has also moved towards being the standard defining term.

In retrospect, it’s funny to think that there was even a problem.

After all, the American Beats – widely recognised as a consistent and cohesive movement – had three writers at their core – Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac – with almost nothing in common stylistically and very little, other than friendship, by way of a shared mission.

After pouring over dozens of conference papers and journal articles, public lectures, a PhD thesis, a Fellowship, and spending hundreds of hours in archives around the world, I carefully constructed the case for the Experimentalists not only being a movement but perhaps being one of the most important British literary movements of the twentieth century.

The forthcoming book, The Experimentalists, is an attempt to outline that movement

It does so using biographical information, contextual background and resonant anecdotes, mixed with insights from wider literary history and a critical approach that avoids theory in favour of a clear and direct engagement with the authors; their work and their respective literary missions.

A crucial starting point for understanding these authors, for example, is the Second World War.

For older writers like Anthony Burgess and Christine Brooke-Rose, the war meant serving their country. Burgess served in the Army Educational Corps, which took him to Gibraltar, and opened his eyes both to international travel (he would spend the majority of his life outside of England) and to the boredom and incompetency of British Imperial bureaucracy.

Brooke-Rose had a far more glamorous war, serving in the Bletchley Park codebreaking facility as a translator, marrying a handsome young officer before ditching him for an American. Her experience processing words as data has a clear impact on her later works.

For writers like B.S. Johnson, Maureen Duffy, Alan Burns, and Eva Figes, the war instead meant evacuation. Figes was a German-Jewish refugee, who experienced England as a “Little Eden”, while Johnson, a working class Londoner, saw his Telegraph-reading hosts as his first introduction to the class enemy.

Maureen Duffy
Maureen Duffy
Alan Burns
Alan Burns
Eva Figes
Eva Figes

Ann Quin, the youngest of the writers, was barely old enough to remember the war. She was a child of the new post-war welfare state; young, free, and bored. Most especially of the grim little 1950s Brighton she grew up in.

For Zulfikar Ghose, the end of the war meant a chance to study in Britain. He left the Indian subcontinent behind just as partition occurred. Coming from mixed Hindu-Muslim heritage, he could never return to the country he left behind – one irrevocably changed – and instead found new hope in the literature he discovered at Keele.

Despite this great variation in experience, each of these writers shared a common viewpoint on the function of literature; one that, consciously or not, was the logical conclusion to be drawn from literary education during these years.

The belief that literature had hit a dead end.

Whether it was the post-war school syllabus, the Leavisites in the Universities, or the material Burgess taught in the Army Educational Corps; the history of English literature was everywhere presented as a progression of innovations leading out of the eighteenth century’s early explorations, through nineteenth century realism and up to early twentieth century modernism.

Textbooks like The Pelican Guide to English Literature (1955) ended at Eliot, Joyce and Woolf. No mention is made of the 1930s realist turn, nor of the post-war realists like C.P. Snow, Angus Young or Kingsley Amis.

As a result, the Experimentalists all came to the same conclusion, aptly summarised by B.S. Johnson, that literature was “a relay race”, in which “the vast majority of British novelists [have] dropped the baton, stood still, turned back, or not even realised there’s a race at all”.

The Experimentalists is my attempt to trace this movement. The last great and sincere effort made by British novelists to move literature forwards.

The routes they took were manifold: cut-up texts, books in boxes, papier mache heads, obstacle courses in London buses, an intergalactic switchboard, books in six languages, books made entirely of newspaper headlines, painted over, generated at random, composed on a North Sea fishing boat and written under the influence of the Pill.

Some stories will be familiar to readers of Jonathan Coe’s A Fiery Elephant, Andrew Biswell’s The Real Life of Anthony Burgess, Barry Miles’ William Burroughs: A Life, or Jennifer Hodgson’s recent collection of Ann Quin’s work. Other stories are brand new.

These include Alan Burns and B.S. Johnson’s secret stash of terrorist literature, John Calder hiring Jeff Nuttall to spy on Alexander Trocchi, Maureen Duffy and Brigid Brophy’s campaign for Public Lending Right, and the crucial work of Giles Gordon anthologising and memorialising the movement.

Connections are drawn to Caribbean writers like Wilson Harris who first brought experiment back to Britain in the early 1960s. The French nouveau roman is also of great importance. The influence of the Pop Art scene is explored for the first time. New connections are made to the sci-fi New Wave, and to the opportunities provided by breakthroughs in print technology.

The book is aimed at a general audience – for intelligent people who like literature but may not have a detailed knowledge of these particular writers and their work.

I hope that it is entertaining and informative, and that you will enjoy reading it.

The Experimentalists cover

Joseph Darlington is the head of the animation degree at Futureworks Media School in Manchester, UK, where he specialises in writing across medias. He has published an academic monograph, British Terrorist Novels of the 1970s, and a number of creative works including short stories and a small-press novel.

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