Terror and the Individual in B.S. Johnson’s Last Two Novels


B.S. Johnson (1933–73) remains a marginalised figure in 20th century British literature. Both as a novelist and documentary filmmaker, his working-class background and socialist convictions made him a constant thorn in the side of the political and cultural establishment. He always had great difficulties getting his books published and after his death his novels went quickly out of print. He belongs therefore to a tradition of revolutionary writers whose work has to be continually recovered from the selective memory of literary history. The recent revival of critical interest in his experimental fiction has, for example, been made at the expense of his commitment to a socialist aesthetic. This essay is in part an attempt to redress that political imbalance and reassert the radical significance of Johnson’s writing.

In Trawl (1966), Johnson’s combined wartime memoir and workplace reportage on the fishing industry, he recalls not only his own difficult working-class childhood and youth, but also how this social background and experience influenced his view of society, creating a tangible awareness of class and the class struggle:

I now realise the point at which I became aware of class distinction, of differences between people which were nothing to do with age or size, aware in fact of the class war, which is not an out-dated concept, as those of the upper classes who are not completely dim would con everyone else into believing it is. The class war is being fought as viciously and destructively of human spirit as it has ever been in England: I was born on my side, and I cannot and will not desert. I became an enlisted man consciously but not voluntarily at the age of about seven. (Johnson 2004: 53)

This commitment to the cause of the working class is something that lies at the heart of Johnson’s life and work. It was the social and political starting-point from which he defined himself both as a person and as an author. In particular, it is this nexus of class, politics and literature that informs the radical aesthetic of his novels.

Despite Johnson’s reputation as a postmodern writer, he stands out more significantly today as a politically oriented novelist, one who viewed his work in a wider context of the struggle for socialism. As he himself declared in Trawl: “The class war again. They made me their enemy. I am satisfied that they did. They will have cause to remember me: have had” (2004: 73). The impact this radical engagement had on the direction of his own work he made abundantly clear: “[If the writer] is serious he will be making a statement which attempts to change society towards a condition he conceives to be better” (quoted in Mackrell 1985: 43). It is this fundamentally political aspect of his writing that I want to examine in more detail, in particular as it is expressed in his two thematically connected novels, House Mother Normal (1971) and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973).1 My aim is to show in what ways these texts can be seen as a critique of both individual left- and right-wing terrorism and a reassertion of the collective need for socialist liberation.

These political preoccupations of Johnson’s fiction have been generally downplayed by previous critics. For example, in the first full-length biography of Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant (2005), Jonathan Coe is at pains to promote the formalistic aspects of Johnson’s writing to the detriment of his socialism, transforming his ideological engagement into a gesture of radical experimentation within the novel genre itself. Coe’s basic view of Johnson is that of an outsider figure – “Britain’s one-man literary avant-garde of the 1960s” (Coe 2004: 3). Despite the fact that Johnson’s last two published works deal with overtly political and social themes – terrorism and the brutal treatment of the elderly – Coe remains nevertheless reluctant to make any integral connection between Johnson’s class and aesthetic consciousness.

In a similar vein, despite the combative title of his comprehensive study of Johnson’s writing, Fighting Fictions (2000), Nicolas Tredell also tends to underestimate the influence Johnson’s politics had on his work. Thus, Tredell explains his characterisation of the novels as “fighting fictions” in primarily literary terms, challenging only in the way “they contest conventional realism and… question whether fiction has any value at all” (2000: 6). In a recent collection of critical essays on his life and work, Re-Reading B.S. Johnson (Tew & White 2007), there is certainly more of a mixed assessment of Johnson, both as an early postmodern but also postcolonial writer, something I will return to later.


When it comes to Johnson’s depiction of terrorism in Christie Malry, critics have also tended to obscure the politics by reverting to more existential readings of the text. Tredell, for example, even though he admits that Christy Malry is in fact a “case-study of a ‘criminal-terrorist’ mentality” (Tredell 2000: 130), quickly sidetracks this ideological dimension of the novel. Coe’s treatment of Christie Malry’s politics is even more cursory. While recommending the novel as “a brilliant, fast-paced black comedy, and usually the point at which newcomers to B.S. Johnson are encouraged to start” (Coe 2004: 26), Coe reduces the conflict of the story to “the relationship between writing and terrorism; the validity of literature as an expression of political protest” (319), without going into any detailed explanation of the ideological tensions involved.

Both Coe and Tredell do, however, provide something of a political background to the issues that Johnson was engaged with while writing the two books. They mention for example Johnson’s fascination for leftwing terrorist groups such as The Angry Brigade and The Free Wales Army, as well as his active involvement as a documentary film-maker in the campaign against the ruling Conservative government’s antitrade union Industrial Relations Act in 1971. The conclusion that Coe draws from all this, however, is one of individual psychology, claiming that the increasingly violent political unrest in Britain at the time produced in Johnson a condition of private delusion and political withdrawal: “[F]rom early 1971 onwards, one of the factors feeding his growing sense of persecution and paranoia might have been the belief that unnamed forces – identified, partly, with the security forces – were starting to keep an eye on him” (Coe 2004: 314). Such psychological conjecture invites, predictably, a close personal comparison in Coe’s reading between the character of Christie Malry and Johnson himself.

Tredell does not fall completely into this simplistic biographical trap, insisting instead that his own “study has questioned the truthclaims of Johnson’s autobiographical texts” (Tredell 2000: 159). However, this declaration promises more than it delivers. His throwaway comment that Christie Malry’s actions problematise “the definition of ‘terrorism’” (2000: 137) remains tantalisingly unexplored in what turns out to be the briefest discussion of all Johnson’s novels. What it seems to boil down to critically is the suggestion of some sort of parallel between terminal illness and terrorism. Thus, despite his acknowledgement of the political implications of the story, the portrayal of terrorism is reduced, in Tredell’s argument, to a morality tale of somewhat vague, socio-pathological significance.

Despite all this critical prevarication, the tactics of terrorism are, I would argue, at the ideological core of Johnson’s novel, the whole double-entry system of direct retribution being a dramatic way to redress the injustices that Christie experiences both in his own life and in society around him. Christie’s campaign of terrorist revenge is therefore a consciously political, albeit individualist, attempt to hit back directly and violently at a system that both exploits and oppresses. Even his final act of mass murder – the poisoning of 20,479 people by putting cyanide in the London water system – is ultimately seen as a subversion of the power and authority of the state:

But what about their relatives, you must be asking. What about their relatives? They will blame it on the Government, argued Christie, and not me. And that is entirely proper: the Government is responsible in every way for letting such things be and become and remain possible. Guilt at a Double-Entry overdraft or personal responsibility would be liberal wishiwashiness. One must subtly oppose the Government with its own weapons of casualness, indifference, mass carelessness. (CMODE: 147)

Christie’s growing adherence to direct action is also set in contrast to that of other, apparently less serious or effective left-wing activism, as is shown by his reactions to a “conversation among revolutionaries” (127) he overhears in a pub: “‘Socialism has never been given a chance in this country.’ ‘It must be given that chance’ ” (129). However, this call to arms is, in Christie’s mind, just another example of talkingshop bravado about somehow turning revolutionary theory into practice that he thinks characterises young radical groups at the time. Their breathless listing of potential targets to attack – both private and public – he quickly dismisses as left-wing infantile rant: “ ‘After the Clubs we could defoliate Grosvenor Square.’ ‘Hyde Park!’… Christie grimaced and passed out of overhearing; for these were but children” (129), even though there is in fact little to distinguish his own acts of arbitrary terrorist violence except in their actual implementation. Although this encounter clearly situates Christie in the context of 1960s and 1970s radical politics, there has been no real attempt by critics to explore the broader framework of this ideological connection. No recognition is given to Johnson’s two last novels as a literary engagement with the debate that was evolving within the left about the terrorist tactics of extra-parliamentary groups and the role of the revolutionary vanguard.

With the rise of the student revolts and their post-1968 decline, the frustrations with the less glamorous routine of everyday political agitation among the working class led to a growing sense of impatience among some radicals with traditional collective methods of struggle. The attraction of more direct acts of violent resistance began, therefore, to exert a powerful pull upon the minds of these left-wing activists. The aim of such attacks was to provoke a situation in which the fascist nature of the state would be revealed, thereby creating, it was hoped, a corresponding leap in revolutionary consciousness among the workers. The rationale behind this type of left-wing adventurism is characterised by Tariq Ali in his “Autobiography of the Sixties,” Street Fighting Years (1987), in terms of the post-1968 retreat of student activism: “Mass resistance to Capital has become impossible. There are no longer any mass politics on the Left and working-class militancy is limited to the regions. The Left then turns to minority actions on the German and Italian models” (1988: 263). Ali describes a scenario that was also dramatised by Raymond Williams in his novel, The Volunteers (1978), a story that tries to capture some of the ideological confusion of the times. Ali quotes in this context Williams’s own comments on the sort of political conditions that might produce this drift towards left-wing violence:

[I]f the British working class were contained into a local militancy, managed and by-passed and pretty thoroughly defeated by a repressive right-wing government. Then I think you would probably get violent clandestine actions. I wouldn’t want them… I didn’t want to underwrite that model – call it terrorist if you will. But neither did I simply want to oppose it with the old pieties, because I don’t think we can rely on them. (Quoted in Ali, 1988: 263)

Left-wing terrorism was not, however, primarily a British phenomenon. Indeed, some of the most violent terrorist attacks were carried out in the 1970s by, for example, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Red Army Fraction in Germany, the IRA in Ireland, and urban guerrilla groups in Latin America. In Italy alone, as Donald Sassoon records, “between 1969 and 1980, there were 7,866 acts of violence, leading to 172 people being severely wounded and 362 deaths, including those of 65 policemen, nine magistrates and three politicians, primarily at the hands of left-wing terrorists” (Sassoon 1997: 587). Michael Burleigh traces the process of transition from collective politics to individual terrorism in terms of growing sectarian isolation and the psychological lure of violent direct action:

The ‘autonomous’ left-wing groups which sprang up everywhere developed strong-arm security squads, which would eventually detach themselves from political control, becoming terrorist groups in their own right. For a minority, this often involved first storing guns, then getting used to handling, stripping down, reassembling and loading them, and on to the life-changing decision, for the terrorist and for his or her victim, to fire weapons at a living, breathing person. (2009: 193–194)

In his classic study of social outlaws, Bandits, E.J. Hobsbawm also refers to the “characteristically anarchist confusion between riot and revolt, between crime and revolution, which regarded not only the gangster as a truly libertarian insurrectionary, but such simple activities as looting as a step towards the spontaneous expropriation of the bourgeoisie by the oppressed. We need not blame serious anarchists for the excesses of the lunatic fringe of declassed intellectuals which indulged in such fancies” (Hobsbawm 1972: 111). It is tempting, in this context, to view Christie Malry as a critical portrayal of one such declassed intellectual anarchist.

Within traditional leftwing thinking, the complete rejection of individual acts of terrorism was first made clear by Marx and Engels in their response to the bombing campaigns of the Irish Fenians in London.2 In a similar political struggle against the tactic of individual assassination adopted by the Russian anarchist narodniki, both Lenin and Trotsky also reasserted the basic Marxist critique of terrorism as fundamentally undermining the collective role of the working class as the instrument of its own social liberation:

In our eyes, individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes toward a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission.

The anarchist prophets of “the propaganda of the deed” can argue all they want about the elevating and stimulating influence of terrorist acts on the masses. Theoretical considerations and political experience prove otherwise. The more “effective” the terrorist acts, the greater their impact, the more the attention of the masses is focused on them – the more they reduce the interest of the masses in self-organization and self-education. (Trotsky 2008: 7–8; emphasis in the original).3

The decisive point here is that acts of terrorism, however much motivated by a genuine desire to overthrow a system based on injustice and inequality, are completely irreconcilable with the aims of socialist revolution. They function in fact as a dangerous political distraction that plays directly into the hands of the class enemy, not only by disempowering the working class itself, but also by providing all the necessary excuses for a repressive state curtailment of the democratic rights of the people.

Intriguingly, Tredell states that terrorism is “an unstable phenomenon” and that “[o]ne man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” thereby suggesting that Johnson’s novel interrogates the blurring of these political boundaries. “Terrorism”, Tredell continues, is “the product of a complex conjuncture of political, ethical, legal and psychological discourses in which violent acts that cause injury and death are separated into those which are deemed necessary, and indeed right, in certain circumstances, and those which are not merely criminal but inexplicable, monstrous, insane, evil, barbaric” (2000: 137). Unfortunately, he does not specify in this context which of Christie Malry’s actions belong to what category. Indeed, there is an indication that Tredell takes Christie at his word when defending the moral justification for what he does. Thus, the massacre of thousands of unsuspecting Londoners is to be blamed, as Christie does himself, on the inherent violence of the system (138). The point is, however, that if the struggle for socialism, which Christie sees himself engaged in, involves adopting the same murderous methods of capitalism, then what superior moral right does it retain? Most certainly, capitalism continues to commit all sorts of heinous crimes against humanity. But to reproduce such outrages in the name of human liberation undercuts the whole ethical purpose of social revolution.

Christie’s rationalisation of his poisoning so many innocent people is not, I would argue, meant to expose the hypercritical moral relativism of capitalism, but instead to discredit the whole idea of paying the system back by committing similar atrocities and then blaming them on the government. Christie’s attempt at expiating himself for putting cyanide in the public drinking water is therefore completely abhorrent and proof of just how disoriented he has become politically. The cynicism of this purportedly consciousness-raising, pseudo-radicalism is summed up by the narrative comment: “Their deaths were not painful, nor prolonged. Virtually all of them (as I have explained before: but it is important) were easily replaceable, according to society. What can be wrong? Can Christie be condemned?” (CMODE: 147). A similarly cavalier attitude towards ordinary people and their dispensability – both physical and political – is revealed when Christie blows up the local tax office, killing several clerical workers: “Lots of people never had a chance, are ground down, and other cliche´s. Far from kicking against the pricks, they love their condition and vote conservative” (CMODE: 82).

Thus, accordingly, if people are too stupid to revolt against their own oppression, a violent purge seems perfectly justified. Philip Tew’s critical comment, albeit somewhat more philosophical, is directed along the same lines: “Christie enacts revenge and punishment upon the general populace for its (Hegelian) complicity in subjugation” (Tew 2001: 55). However, a more radical reading of this development would be that objectively Christie’s terrorist logic has made him become part of the same ruthless system that he claims to want to overthrow. This is what Johnson’s novel really attacks: the callous, inhuman and politically reactionary function of terrorism that substitutes itself for any democratic movement for social change. Terry Eagleton makes a similar point in relation to the resurgence of terrorism today: “Socialists may wish to see the back of capitalism, but they have no plans to do so with dirty nuclear bombs. Their weapons are trade unions, not typhoid. They are out to expropriate the propertied classes, not exterminate them; …socialism is an antidote to terror, not a variety of it” (Eagleton 2005: 105).

Christie Malry is therefore a depiction of the devastating consequences of the violent individualism of someone who has turned his back on humanity and who views the anti-capitalist struggle as a form of personal vendetta. As Christie himself declares: “I am a cell of one! In that way he could not be betrayed, in that way he was responsible for and to no one but himself. It was the only way” (CMODE: 100). His final solipsistic plan of terrorist retribution is to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London, initially by using “a limited tactical nuclear weapon” dropped from a light aircraft, but quickly settling on more “orthodox explosive charges” like some latter-day Guy Fawkes (171). Thus, the aim of eliminating members of the political elite is once again couched in terms of personal revenge, while the broader political implications of such an act are never considered:

This time I shall go not for numbers but for quality, very loosely speaking. The greatest number of those who make most of the decisions affecting me gathered together at any one time is probably at the State Opening of Parliament. To obliterate the buildings concerned at that time would rid us at one blow of the Monarch and other assorted members of the Royal Household, The Cabinet, The Opposition Leaders and all other MPs who were not sick, malingering, or lucky. Yes! (170)

The surreal calculation that such an attack reflects is part of the political intention of Johnson’s novel to show how Christie’s moral bookkeeping system has degenerated into the monomania of a serial killer. There is no progressive ethical basis for his plan to try and physically annihilate as many of the ruling class as possible. Moreover, in reality, individual political murder achieves absolutely nothing, as Trotsky also argued – such leaders will be quickly replaced and the system carries on as normal:

[T]he smoke from the explosion clears away, the panic disappears, the successor of the murdered minister makes his appearance, life again settles into the old rut, the wheel of capitalist exploitation turns as before; only police repression grows more savage and brazen. And as a result, in place of the kindled hopes and artificially aroused excitement come disillusion and apathy. (Trotsky 2008: 8)

By viewing Johnson’s novel as a fictional critique of terrorism, it is possible to read the ending of the story, of Christie’s precipitated death from cancer, as both the physical and political unravelling of his career as a terrorist. Christie has been infected by the virology of violence that is endemic in capitalist society. Thus, in a final, truncated confession, his dying complaints reveal the ultimate political futility of his actions: “I need not have bothered, need I, it seems, if it all ends like this: but if not like this for others it still ends. A mockery of hope, of thinking of the next day. So I need not have bothered: all is useless, pointless, waste all, all pointless” (CMODE: 178). In other words, his tactics have no transcendence, either politically or personally. They represent merely the ideological dead-end of delusional left-wing terrorism.


In House Mother Normal, a novel written in part at the same time as Christie Malry, although published first, Johnson takes his portrayal of terror a qualitative step further and shifts the focus from the individual to the collective. In this companion novel, he also turns the tables on the system and shows how terrorism begins, literally at home, and has become institutionalised as part of the class system. State terrorism, like fascism, does not start with storm troopers in the streets. Instead, as Martin Roiser and Carla Willig remind us in connection with the 1930s debate within the Frankfurt school about the psychopathology of Nazism, its origins can be located in the much more widespread social norms and practices of bourgeois society: “Individual authoritarianism was advanced as the inevitable human product of late capitalism and as a potential cause of authoritarian and Fascist government” (quoted in Roiser & Willig 1996: 59). What I aim to show here is that in House Mother Normal, Johnson continues his exploration of the psychology of terrorism, this time by exposing the brutal power relations at work within a state-run old people’s home. It is therefore once again the political subtext of Johnson’s novel that I will seek to illuminate. Not only does he portray such a public institution as a social microcosm, he particularly wants to point to the treatment of the aged as a democratic gauge of the status of working people under capitalism.

Even more than with Christie Malry, critics have ignored these deeper political dimensions of House Mother Normal, viewing the novel instead as a satire on the condition of senility through Johnson’s use of increasingly fragmented interior monologues. Tredell, for example, describes it as “a grotesque black comedy” concerning “decay and death” (Tredell 2000: 121), while Coe characterises it as “one of Johnson’s bleakest, in the grim thoroughness with which it explores the indignities of old age” (Coe 2004: 293). While admitting a thematic connection between the two novels, which he characterises as a pair of “narratives [that] have a socio-political core of inverting and scrutinizing central social issues” (Tew 2001: 57), Philip Tew unfortunately leaves this fundamental political link unexplored, relegating the politics of the novel to a more abstract level of the subversive incoherence of the stream-of-consciousness technique.

Against this critical introversion, I would argue that Johnson’s text constantly breaks out of the formal constraints of the interior monologues in order to confront the broader social and ideological issues at stake. This reaching out is evident from the very start, when the House Mother herself strikes a tone of patronising intimacy in order to implicate the reader in the practices that occur in the institution:

Friend (I may call you friend?), these are also our friends. We no longer refer to them as inmates, cases, patients, or even as clients. These particular friends are also known as NERs, since they have no effective relatives, are orphans in reverse, it is often said. You may if you wish join our Social Evening, friend. You shall see into the minds of our eight old friends, and you shall see into my mind. You shall follow our Social Evening through nine different minds! (HMN: 5)

It is this invitation to take part in the life of the elderly residents of the home that underscores the deeper moral challenges of the novel. Implicitly, Johnson’s microcosmic journey into the heart of geriatric darkness is an uncomfortable reminder that the personal is also political, in this case through the systematic mistreatment of the elderly. Thus, it is clear from the very start that it is society at large that is on trial here, nothing less.

In her classic study, Old Age (1970), published a year before House Mother Normal, Simone de Beauvoir also pointed to the care of the aged as symptomatic of the ethos of modern capitalism. Old working-class people are no longer of any use to the system, so they are thrown away, often dumped into institutions and forgotten. Their superannuated existence remains, nevertheless, a profound indictment of class society as a whole:

The word ‘scrap’ expresses [this] meaning admirably. We are told that retirement is the time of freedom and leisure: poets have sung ‘the delights of reaching port’. These are shameless lies… Leisure does not open up new possibilities for the retired man; just when he is at last set free from compulsion and restraint, the means of making use of his liberty are taken from him. He is condemned to stagnate in boredom and loneliness, a mere throw-out. The fact that for the last fifteen or twenty years of his life a man should be no more than a reject, a piece of scrap, reveals the failure of our civilization: if we were to look upon the old as human beings, with a human life behind them, and not as so many walking corpses, this obvious truth would move us profoundly. Those who condemn the maiming, crippling system in which we live should expose this scandal. (de Beauvoir 1988: 13)

In the case of the institution portrayed in House Mother Normal, the daily regime there is basically fascistic, with the House Mother maintaining, together with her hunting dog Ralphie, a constant reign of low-key terror in order to frighten, humiliate and punish the residents, who are old working-class people with no means or family of their own. In the course of the so-called ‘social’ evening described in the novel, different levels of physical and mental abuse are revealed. The House Mother organises, for example, a game of pass the parcel where the contents are found to be a piece of dog shit: “Pass the parcel, pass the parcel, See what comes from RALPHIE’S arsehole!” (HMN: 196). She then forces those sitting in wheelchairs to engage in a jousting “Tourney,” using wet mops to hit one another. Finally, she puts on a public striptease “Entertainment” during which she has her dog perform oral sex on her. The whole evening is therefore a descent into brutalisation, depravity and cynicism. In between times, she keeps up a barrage of petty harassment by shouting at the residents and rapping them over their knuckles with her stick: “Don’t you cheek me or you’ll get another taste of the twitcher, the twitcher! Now then!” (195). The image of the House Mother is, without doubt, reminiscent of an overall-clad, cane-brandishing guard in a Nazi death camp, accompanied by her Borzoi guard dog; of someone who, as she herself admits, was taught discipline and punishment as “an abject disciple of Frau Holstein” (191). The darker menace of all this is indicated when she defends her actions to the reader by stating, “There areworse conditions and worse places, friend”:

I have worked in geriatric wards where the stench of urine and masturbation was relieved only by the odd gangrenous limb or advanced carcinoma. Where confused patients ate each other’s puke. Where I have seen a nurse spray a patient’s privates with an aerosol lavatory deodorant. Even worse, people like these can be put away in mental wards and homes when they are perfectly sane, simply because they are old; they don’t stay perfectly sane long. They are stripped of their spectacles, false teeth, everything personal to them. They are shut away, visits are rare and discouraged anyway, no one cares; they are forgotten and wholly in the power of nurses who have been known to make them alter their wills, to scatter the ward’s pills for everyone to scramble for, to put Largactil in the tea unmeasured. This is a happy House, friend, a holiday camp, compared. (197–198)

This is a nightmarish catalogue of criminal neglect and harassment. Coming from someone who is herself sadistically brutal in her treatment of the aged, this is clearly meant to be taken as inside evidence of a systematic denial of human rights and respect for old people. It documents a routine of everyday terrorism that is directed against those who are at the mercy of a system that has transformed terminal care into physical and mental torment.

Apart from the violence and sexual humiliation that the residents are exposed to by the House Mother, there is also the unpaid work that they are forced to do. There are a number of scams going on in the home that provide her with illicit sources of income, based on the exploitation of the old people under the guise of physiotherapy These involve making for example so-called Fancy Goods – “Handicrafts, felt toys last month. And now Christmas crackers, in due season” (191) – that are sold to a dealer “on some big purchase tax fiddle” (192); also, more shockingly, the diluting and relabelling of bottles of medicine that are “Shipped abroad, no doubt, as something or other that it isn’t” (192). The quality of food for the residents is also skimped upon, since, she claims, “[s]ome of them indeed are not capable of differentiating between meat and bread” (184), thus creating another lucrative sideline for the House Mother in selling what is left as pigswill. The analogy between patients and pigs to the slaughter is thereby made disturbingly clear. All in all, Johnson portrays a system of institutionalised terror which tries to subdue old people by violence and coerce them into working as cheap labour. This, of course, is one of the main functions of state-sponsored terror. Moreover, as its provocative title House Mother Normal suggests, the novel explores the ideological relationship between normality and senility, between the brutal regimentation of the poor and aged and the decrepit system that normalises this oppressive regime. Thus, like demented dictators everywhere, the House Mother seeks both to disempower and infantilise her subjects in a continuum of maternalistic dependence and naked coercion:

My children. From this dais I am monarch of all I survey. This is my Empire. I do not exaggerate, friend. They are dependent upon me and upon such minions as I have from time to time. Nothing is more sure than that I am in control of them. And they know it. (190)

However, as Johnson also shows, the rule of terror that prevails in the home fails to crush the spirit of the inmates completely. There is, therefore, in this novel, an element of collective resistance that is absent from Christie Malry. This has its origins in the residents’ own knowledge and experience of the past, a space that the House Mother cannot manipulate and which constantly threatens to undermine her rule. The eight interior monologues of the old people are filled with this unruly sphere of memory to which they can return and where they can reassert their own individuality and sense of dignity. Thus, in contrast to the previous novel, Johnson creates a mutual response to terror that challenges the repressive power of the state. The House Mother acknowledges this threat of subversion when she admits to her ultimate inability to control the minds and memories of the residents:

Come along now! Chivvy chivvy chivvy. Day-dreaming, most of them, they remember years ago far better than they remember to change themselves, or ask to be changed. They admire the past, think so much of the past: why therefore do they expect treatment any different from that they would have received in the workhouse of the past? Ah, you can bet, friend, they prefer at least this aspect of modern life, do not want to return to the good old workhouse days! Oh dear me, no, no! (185)

This mention of the 19th-century institution of the workhouse, where the lower classes were punished for their penury, is another intimidating reference, this time to the Malthusian prejudice about the fecklessness of the poor and the desirability of their speedy social demise. It is a further indication of the fascist mentality of the House Mother, who lumps the residents together into an anonymous grey mass that has no personal history and that is only heading towards physical extinction.

In contrast, however, the past for the residents is a source of personal strength from which they are able to destabilize the present. Thus, for them, nostalgia is not just a longing back to better days, but a way for these old people to defy the tyranny of their own physical decline. It is in this context that the professed normality of the House Mother appears in its true, grotesquely abnormal light, as the paranoia of a system that has lost touch with reality. In contrast to this ideological reading of the text, both Coe and Tredell view the old people’s monologues as a slow narrative descent into senility that ends in complete silence and oblivion. Tredell comments for example that the novel “evokes, through its eight monologues, the anamneses, amnesias, aphasias, absences, abjections and agonies of the old” (Tredell 2000: 119). In a similar vein, Coe remarks that “One of the dark jokes at the heart of the novel is that each successive character is more infirm than the last, so that the monologues get more and more fragmented, partial and incoherent as the book progresses” (Coe 2004: 24), without explaining what is so funny about that particular development. The last, and therefore according to Coe, most “incoherent” monologue in the story is that of Rosetta Stanton, a Welsh woman. The fact that most of her words are in Welsh and that she dies during the House Mother’s sex show, shouting out loud in English “I am a prisoner in my self. It is terrible. The movement agonises me. Let me out, or I shall die” (HMN: 175–176) has, however, postcolonial connotations that have not been lost on other, more alert critics. Nicholas Jones concludes for instance: “Rosetta Stanton therefore dies in a language that is not her own, suffering cultural dislocation right up until her final breath, the destruction of the Welsh language and culture by imperialism embodied in the neglected end of a mentally and physically decaying woman” (Jones 2007: 200). Even Tredell makes the observation of Rosetta’s exclamation being a last subversive act of speaking back at the imperial centre:

Rosetta has become a stone occasionally inscribed with strange fragments. She is represented as having withdrawn from the English language – the language of those around her and of the institution in which she is confined – into a fragmented version of a language that is, from the perspective of ‘standard English’, marginal but also threatening, magic, primitive, poetic, a dangerous challenge to English cultural hegemony, to the very unity of the British nation. (2000: 123–124)

All of this colonial hegemony is personified, one might add, by the figure of the House Mother.

In many ways, the military regimentation of the home by the House Mother has turned the institution into a war zone from which the residents constantly retreat into their past as a strategy of survival. They have become conscientious objectors to the abusive condescension of the present. War also becomes another point of reference that defines their perception of who they are and their outrage at the violence directed against them. Thus, significantly, several of them share recollections of the First World War, a traumatic conflict which they all managed to survive. The suggestion is that they will not be defeated either by this latest campaign to rob them of their sense of personal worth. As Charlie Edwards, an ex-soldier, says of the sex show they are forced to witness: “Oh filth, utter filth! Even in France in the first War I never saw such filth. In front of everyone, too. Filth” (HMN: 48–49). Most of the other residents come from similar working-class backgrounds – domestic servants, soldiers, housewives – a point of departure that enables them to view their present situation in class terms, of them and us, as Sarah Lamson’s remarks about the House Mother indicate: “Listen to her now, work, work, I’ve known nothing else all my life, who does she think she’s taking in?” (12). Sioned Bowen, another Welsh woman, also recalls: “I was content – no, at the time I hated every minute of being a servant, only now does it seem pleasant” (135), a comparison between then and now that is damning indeed. Ivy Nicholls, a housewife, comments tersely: “Like a prison, this is” (65), while Charlie Edwards declares of the House Mother: “Some would revolt at some of the things that woman says. I do myself. But I keep my feelings to myself” (32).

Since their physical vulnerability allows them little room to manoeuvre, what remains is a question of mind over matter, of mentally opting out while appearing to acquiesce, like Sioned Bowen: “I was going to read myself but daren’t now she’s given Ivy a taste of her tongue. But I’m not going to watch this filth again, why she does it baffles me. Surely she can’t think it stirs us up?” (136). Such shared feelings of revulsion among seemingly senile old people represent a reassertion of moral values, of dignity and decency that is in complete contrast to the cynical, self-promoting rationality of the House Mother:

How disgusting! You must be saying to yourself, friend, and I cannot but agree. But think a bit harder, friend: why do I disgust them? I disgust them in order that they may not be disgusted with themselves. I am disgusting to them in order to objectify their disgust, to direct it to something outside themselves, something harmless. (197)

What is revealing here is that, despite the fact that the hatred of the residents is never openly expressed, the House Mother is fully aware of their collective animosity. Her attempt at psychologically deflecting this opposition is in itself an admission that her tactics of terror are basically ineffective. She has lost the battle because she cannot completely intimidate even these old and frail inmates. Terror loses its sting when people no longer fear its consequences. None of the residents are, for example, afraid of death; they do not dwell on it at all, despite their infirmities. Only the House Mother, who is suffering, unbeknown like Christie, from a malignant cancer, is preoccupied with it. It is this threat of oblivion that, once again, makes her own existence meaningless. Without family or friends, she has lived and worked in an institution whose abusive practices she never questions:

You should understand the simple fact that they are all approaching death very quickly; and one must help them to do so in the right spirit. It is what used to be called a holy duty. I did not invent this system: I inherited it. And in the end death will come to me too, probably. (198)

The fact that she is surrounded by people much older than herself gives her no spiritual or existential comfort, despite her spurious reference to religion and service to others. Unlike them, she has no positive memories to look back upon, nothing that has made her life worth living. The last word “probably” indicates her fear of death, the real terror that haunts her and makes her so hateful to the residents. Like Christie, she has no faith in humanity or progressive human agency. Thus, it is at this juncture of contempt for the so-called masses that right- and left-wing terrorism meet. Objectively, they serve the same reactionary function of supporting the status quo.


In his preparatory notes for Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, Johnson commented on the role of literature in the struggle for socialism. His conclusion was to reassert the need for political rather than literary activism: “It is not possible to write long novels today, in this situation! So much so that we should not be writing about the revolution… but making it” (quoted in Coe 2004: 316). It was an ideological dilemma he struggled with throughout his working life. Despite this radical commitment, most of the critical discussion about Johnson’s significance as a writer has tended to place the emphasis on his aesthetic achievement through the experimental innovations of his fiction. However, as I have tried to argue here, there is a much more urgent case to be made for Johnson’s dramatisation of the dialectic between the political and the personal, not least in his two last novels. This essay has, therefore, sought to refocus critical attention back to Johnson’s ideological concerns, in particular his depiction of terrorism, both left-wing and state-sponsored, and the devastating impact this has on the individual, both as victim and as perpetrator. The postmodern playfulness of Johnson’s novel writing – the ellipses, quirky typography, empty pages, unbound chapters and spoof authorial interventions – have all become quickly dated. His exploration of the function of terror in the daily lives of a white-collar worker and of the residents of an old people’s home remains much more morally challenging, politically subversive and psychologically disturbing.


1. Hereafter cited as HMN and CMODE. CMODE was reprinted in 2001 and HMN in 2004. These later editions are used here.

2. In a letter to Engels December 14, 1867, Marx comments on a bombing attack by Irish Fenians on Clerkenwell Prison: “The last exploit of the Fenians in Clerkenwell was a very stupid thing. The London masses, who have shown great sympathy for Ireland, will be made wild by it and driven into the arms of the government party. One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of the Fenian emissaries. There is always a kind of fatality about such a secret, melodramatic sort of conspiracy” (Marx & Engels 1971: 149).

3. Earlier, in What Is To Be Done? (1902), Lenin wrote: “The Economists and the terrorists merely bow to different poles of spontaneity; the Economists bow to the spontaneity of ‘the labour movement pure and simple’, while the terrorists bow to the spontaneity of the passionate indignation of intellectuals, who lack the ability or opportunity to connect the revolutionary struggle and the working-class movement into an integral whole. It is difficult indeed for those who have lost their belief, or who have never believed, that this is possible, to find some outlet for their indignation and revolutionary energy other than terror… Political activity has its logic quite apart from the consciousness of those who, with the best intentions, call either for terror or for lending the economic struggle itself a political character. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and, in this case, good intentions cannot save one from being spontaneously drawn ‘along the line of least resistance’, along the line of the purely bourgeois Credo programme. Surely it is no accident either that many Russian liberals – avowed liberals and liberals that wear the mask of Marxism – whole-heartedly sympathise with terror and try to foster the terrorist moods that have surged up in the present time” (Lenin 1970: 179).


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