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From blank pages to 13,000 word sentences: a brief history of British avant garde writing


In the 1960s, writers such as BJ Johnson, Ann Quin and Bob Cobbing were ripping up the rules of fiction, fighting the establishment - and each other. What, if anything, of their legacy lives on?

Of all the curious artefacts gathering dust in the BBC’s Sound Archive, one of the very weirdest dates from an evening in 1969. John Peel’s guest on his late-night radio show is the sound poet Bob Cobbing. Stationed alongside is the Scottish monologist Ivor Cutler. Urged on by his captivated host, Cobbing plays the tape of a recording made with his French collaborator François Dufrêne. What follows is a kind of aural collage from the very edge of language: repetitive pantings, groans, sighs, whispers and primal gibberish. After it judders to a halt, Peel turns to the somewhat nonplussed Cutler to inquire: has he ever tried anything similar? “You mean making a noise?” Cutler sceptically lobs back.

As the spectacle of Cobbing in full shamanistic flow on a Radio 1 pop show confirms, the literary 1960s was an era in which, for the first time in nearly 40 years, the avant garde veered dangerously close to the mainstream. It was an age in which (sometimes rather to their surprise) experimental writers found themselves contracted to major commercial publishers, in which novels could cheerfully be issued in random fragments under the cover of a cardboard box (BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates), and ambitious debutants embark on their careers with the assumption that, as Eva Figes once put it: “I and a few other writers with similar ideas could change the face of English fiction.”

BS Johnson phoned AS Byatt after the publication of her well-received second novel to tell her she was ‘no competition’

Quin's 1964 debut Berg is like watching Match of the Day when someone has removed the ball

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