I began writing this review in September 2017 shortly after I had received my copy of the book in August. Much, good and bad, disrupted our lives in the autumn of 2017 and we have since moved house so, many months too late, here are my thoughts on The Story of John Nightly.
My reading for August 2017. The artworks are now complete and the books all read.
I had great confidence when I pledged the small purchase price towards the eventual publication of this novel at the crowdfunding publishers Unbound. Apart from the fact that Tot Taylor is the co-founder of Riflemaker, my favourite London gallery, I was fascinated by the idea of a book that had been so long in the gestation (rather like Alasdair Gray’s Lanark or my own biography of Frances Darlington which I had gradually worked on for decades) and which seemed to bind so many of my own interests together. Glimpses of images on social media while the book was in production teased followers with enigmatic reference points from a long litany of British musical, literary and visual culture. I seemed to be rather far down the mailing list for while others were tweeting jubilantly about the arrival of their copy, I still waited and in my anticipation, there was a niggling doubt about why the book had not been pounced upon by a publisher – surely this was publishing gold?
When my copy finally did arrive I leapt in, as if into a much longed for pool of water. There are immediately identifiable voices in the text, as popular newspaper / magazine copy is matched with the narrative of a shy beautiful teenager from Cambridge and John Nightly surely references the trajectory and later hermit-like life of Syd Barrett, the flash of youthful success followed by years of seclusion. The first introduction to John Nightly sets a familiar cinematic scene of sixties cinema, think “Hard Day’s Night” or “Smashing Time” where the trendsetting officials on Carnaby Street rocket teenagers to stardom on the new pop vocabulary of “gear and fab”. But this bright, Day-Glo world of instant thrills and pop is almost immediately contrasted with Nightly’s deeper, reflective and creative background of Cambridge, a contrast which immediately instances the current observations of many contemporary artists (including myself and Grayson Perry), the essential tension between the popular and the exclusive art form. (This motif continues throughout the book, indeed right to the core of the central work, Nightly’s magnum opus “Mink Bungalow Requiem” which seems to be a composite of the weave and straying threads of the book and Nightly’s life).
For where the object of the London record company is for their bands,
“To be literally popular with a cultural impact equal to that of cat food…”
with the result that “By the spring of 1962, “pop” had become its own dirty word.”
Counter this with John Nightly’s esoteric sound collages, which in creative description sound sublime and echo the poetic experimentations of Pink Floyd with birdsong, Grantchester, snatches of T. S. Eliot and R.A.C. manuals working their way into aural hybrids.
I have long been of the opinion that a great artwork should stand alone, and be accessible without prior knowledge, but that if you did possess the particular knowledge it was built on, or proceeded to acquire more of it, then the artwork would resonate, its meaning would deepen, and the more you learnt or knew the more that artwork would mean and its intrinsic value as a player in this ongoing conversation would increase. If they are not obvious in the text, Tot Taylor has provided an extensive bibliography and a formidable list of references at the back of his novel. These are a fascinating work in themselves and do much to deepen the perspective of the book. The careful footnotes to each point of reference, which add diverse resonances of English thought throughout history, transform the reading of the novel, a work of fiction, into a play upon preceding literature, astronomy, music, so that the novel becomes an educational journey. Initially, I was worried this might be a peacock-like display of knowledge, a showing off of glorious feathers, but no less a showing off, but the footnotes enlarge upon the text as a thing in itself establishing the entirety of the novel as compassed by the opening quote, the notes and bibliography as in an essay. This shifts the form of the novel in a fascinating way: the appendix parts are part of this art form, a hugely generous thing, and each note elucidates the character and story of John Nightly locating not only the character, but the book’s location within our culture.
As a novel the book is highly readable, creating situations that are desirable to inhabit, Swinging London, the Cambridge that incubated Pink Floyd; like Woolf’s Orlando we are transported to a London of the past, crucially to 77 Beak Street (next door to the very site of Riflemaker Gallery) where a John Pond in 1806 prefigures a 1960s John Pond, both are connected with occasions at The Royal Society. The parallels are written into a chapter that focuses upon the books concern with astronomers, with time and space. The first John Pond is Astronomer Royal about to give his lecture “On the Declination of Principle Fixed Stars”; the sixties John Pond is John Nightly’s manager, who is also dealing with another decline of a not so fixed star while Nightly himself composes a piece with the same title “Principle Fixed Stars”. Those familiar with Riflemaker and its run of exhibitions which has hosted “Stardust” a collaboration between kinetic artist and concrete poet Liliane Lijn and NASA and which reinstated Indica Gallery (where Yoko met John) and where the same intellect exhibited a collaboration between Francesca Lowe and Alasdair Gray (whose epic novel Lanark was as long in the gestation as this book) in the magnificent painting installation Terminus, will recognise much.
Terminus : Francesca Lowe & Alasdair Gray at Riflemaker Gallery, 2008.
Alasdair Gray Talks about Terminus
Terminus was my initiation to Riflemaker. I remember each step of the old creaky wooden stairs that lead up to the next floor being lit with a votive candle. This memory was instanced again in the book (p. 246) where Nightly insists on one occasion, recounted in the text, on the use of candles instead of electric light.
Those familiar with 1960s British culture will recognize many resonances, I cannot think of the book’s “Mawgan” (who recalibrates Mink Bungalow Requiem causing a renaissance for Nightly) and Nightly’s housekeeper, “Endy”, without thinking of David Warner and Irene Handl and her pronunciation of “Morgan” in the 1966 film, “Morgan A Suitable Case for Treatment”. At a critical distance the novel occasionally reads like a collage of source material and sometimes the weighty references and complicated pinning to actual facts obscures the delicate narrative, but in its entirety, the bibliographies and notes included, it approaches a shifted art form and doubles as a reader on a vein of British cultural inheritance. The intense detail is at times rather like Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke but in this, I recognize much of Terminus and the hyper criss-crossing over of cultural landmarks, concerns, emotions, facts and figures in the human state of existence.
The text opens with a quote from lines from John Donne:
Who makes the Past, a patterne for next yeare
Turnes no new leafe but still the same things reads,
Seene things, he sees again, heard things doth hear,
And makes his life, but like a pair of beads
(John Donne: Letter to Sir Henry Goodyere Doctor of Divinity, Cambridge University, 31 March 1631)
Just as in the gyres of Yeats, time and instances, words and happenings, rhyme through time and history and this is beautifully achieved in The Story of John Nightly. Each chapter begins with seasonal gardening advice and the text is punctuated with excerpts from astronomical treatises which along with the insertion of certain illustrations add to the sense of the cut-up collage and this novel as something else beyond the usual bounds of “the novel”.
Like the metaphysical poetry that Taylor begins his book with there are verbal conceits: after his mental breakdown, Nightly is attended by a trained nurse and friend, John Daly, whose order and safe rationality counters the irrational and chaotic head of Nightly. Add this to the intertextuality with the output of Pink Floyd and the real life of Syd Barrett and John Nightly himself instances The Dark Side of the Moon. Nightly’s wife is called Iona, an echo of his own name. Johns, in fact, move back and forth through the text, notes, and bibliography – it is as though this “John” like Woolf’s Orlando, travels down the ages, resonating back and forth with other British Johns. Once again this points at various ontological and existential themes and the confused state of Nightly’s head which becomes understandably disturbed by the layer upon layer of coincidences in which he seems to be at the utmost central knot. I have had similar experiences and it is possible that each one of us sees ourselves at the centre of our own universe, not through any colossal arrogance, but as we recognise resemblances and repeats of ourselves, in the past and present, that are singly particular to ourselves and which would not necessarily bear much significance to others. The book then works as something of an assistance in navigating such an existence and I think that is the greatest compliment I can pay it! The gardening tips are most useful too.