The Haunted Writings of Lionel Johnson, the Decadent Era’s Dark Angel - Edited and with an essay by Nina Antonia (Strange Attractor Press)
Nina Antonia crops up at the I-94 Bar yet again. Perhaps best known for:
- Her compelling, astonishing book (the first if you discount Morrissey's) on The New York Dolls (a band renowned for decadence at a time when decadence was almost a rite of passage),
- Her bio of Johnny Thunders (the film currently out doesn't use her research, so you can guess what it'll be like),
- Hr bio of Peter Perrett,
- And a book with Pete Doherty.
One begins to rather wonder about Antonia's fascination with doomed, beautiful men...
As she reveals in "The Prettiest Star" (nominally the story of Brett Smiley) she's clearly drawn like a moth to a flame; and she's been writing in solitude and sacrifice for well over 30 years ... suffice to say she should be better known.
Now, answer this question:
when (er, or if) you hear the term 'fin-de-siècle', is the correct response:
• is that legal?
• ooh! that's interesting!
No, I can't pronounce it properly, it's French, and I've heard the term spoken and it sounds like lazy slime. So, pronounce it how you like, after all I get it wrong all the time, and - because God is not a Frenchman no matter what the French say - I've not been struck down yet. See, 'fin-de-siècle' means the end of one era, the beginning of another.
So it's a period of great liberation ... and of course, great debauchery, decadence and deviation.
And if debauchery, decadence and deviation isn't rock'n'roll, then Keith Moon was a eunuch, lived to be 88 and died in bed with four bishops crying over him and our current Prime Minister is a Satanist. (Mind you, that last could well turn out to be the case)
I'll just pause there and explain, patiently, that the modern goths, and a considerable quantity of black metal, is on more than spiritual nodding terms with the 'fin-de-siècle'. Take Aubrey Beardsley - now, there's a name everyone knows (and you can't tell me Beardsley had no influence on the above musical genres), but few seem to know that he died dreadfully young: born 1872, died 1898. Another young, sensitive writer doomed to die early was Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) - I mean, can you imagine geniuses of this calibre dying so young today?
That's right. They'd get the Sid Vicious, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain treatment.
Anyway, one of these days you and I will have a conversation about what constitutes the influences of rock'n'roll. We'll get hideously drunk, argue and maul each other over many hours, and wake up feeling appalling, vomitous and egregious, but we'll find we can agree to differ as long as no-one mentions The Cure or Robert Smith.
See, I told you we'd argue, didn't I?
(Alright, I'll quickly qualify; yes, The Cure have done good things, musically and lyrically. And it's up to you if you want to wear makeup and big hair. But godalmighty, take a look in the mirror once in a while. Never has the term "sea-lion in lippy" seemed so appropriate). Send your hate mail c/- the Barman ...
Reason I say all this is because the Barman will only let me write about things which have a link with rock'n'roll. Which is rubbish, because almost everything does. I've edited two books by Bomber Command veterans and quite frankly nothing is more rock'n'roll than going to war and blowing things (and people) up. (get em here.)
Except decadence, dubious sexuality and a troubled past, that is. Dubious, not immediately-obvious sexuality is one of those things which has caused idolatry-based riots - you don't need to look much further than folk like Stravinsky (the 1913 debut of 'The Rites of Spring', produced by Diaghilev), Sinatra, Elvis, The Beatles, The Monkees, The Bay City Rollers, Poy Gorge (good God, who on earth in their right mind would find that Michelin boy attractive?), and Tony Abbott.
Alright, I was lying about Tony Abbott; I meant to write David Cassidy there but the gin got to me.
Anyway, one idolatrous scandal which erupted just before the twentieth century was that of the trial of Oscar Wilde. Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry (of Rules fame) for libel; unlike Liberace several decades on, the court found there was much merit in the Marquess's charge that Oscar was having it away with the Marquess's son, Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas (we assume the seduction was not entirely one-sided).
Wilde was arrested, tried, convicted and thrown in the slammer (two years hard labor); he died of acute meningitis three years after his release - it's possible that an injury received whilst in Reading Gaol could have been the contributing factor. On the other hand it might simply have been the insanitary conditions he lived in after his release: Wilde had gone to France, after all. Bloody French.
As you might imagine, whoever introduced handsome, sporty, hunky (and rather Leif-Garretty) Lord Alfred Douglas ('Bosie') to successful playwright and wit Oscar Wilde must've been feeling frightfully gloomy. And that would be Lionel Johnson, (1867-1902), English poet, essayist, and critic. And homosexual.
Nina Antonia's last major work was the hauntingly beautiful "The Greenwood Faun" (Egaeus Press, 2017); the main character bearing some resemblance to Lionel Johnson. "Incurable" is essentially all Lionel's poems, a handful of revealing ephemera, and Nina's very-well researched, elegantly-told and all too brief essay on a man who strongly felt he should be noticed as little as possible, loved to sleep beneath the stars, appeared to drink without enjoyment ... "The clouds are breaking from the crystal ball/ Breaking and clearing and I look to fall" ...
Johnson later repudiated Wilde in his uncharacteristically vituperative poem "The Destroyer of a Soul" (1892; included here) taking aim at what he felt was Wilde taking, and 'ruining', Bosie.
Here's a quote;
Mourning for that live soul, I used to see;
Soul of a saint, whose friend I used to be:
Till you came by! A cold, corrupting, fate.
Grim. But wait, there's more...
Call you this thing my friend? This nameless thing?
This living body, hiding its dead soul?
I think Ian Curtis (out of Joy Division) might've enjoyed Lionel Johnson's work as well. Both hopeless romantics, of course.
From the descriptor Strange Attractor Press provide on the website;
"Johnson should have been one of the great poets of the age but was already drinking eau-de-cologne for kicks while a teenager at Winchester College. His attraction to absinthe damaged his fragile health and cast him forever into a waking dream of haunted rooms and spectral poetry. A habitual insomniac, he haunted medieval burial grounds after dark, jotting down the epitaphs of the gone-too-young, as if anticipating his own early demise at the age of 35 - apparently falling from a bar stool in a Fleet Street pub."
Seems like Johnson died in that century's equivalent of sticking a needle in his arm. Certainly puts my teenage fondness for a swig or four of blackberry nip and a puff on a stolen fag behind the bikesheds in perspective.
Strange Attractor continues;
"It was rumoured that Johnson performed “strange religious rites” in his rooms at Oxford and experimented with hashish in the company of fellow poet Ernest Dowson. Moving to London, he fell in with Simeon Solomon, Oscar Wilde, and Aubrey Beardsley, and would contribute to the leading decadent publications of the day, including The Chameleon, The Yellow Book, and The Savoy."
Clearly, compared with Lionel Johnson, that Robert Smith bloke has nothing to cry about.
Remember how in rock'n'roll, you'd all kind of find each other, usually at half-empty pubs to see some genius band which no-one, apparently, had ever heard of? Yeah. See, the decadent poets (no, not all of them were homosexual, stop that right now) all knew each other. And, like the fanzines of the late 70s and early 80s, they'd know about each other and find themselves meeting, swapping poetry, puffing pipes and swigging booze.
Here's a bit of context; "The Chameleon" was an Oxford University journal. The first issue (December 1894) included Oscar Wilde's Phrases and Philosophies for Use of the Young and Alfred Lord Douglas' "Two Poems: In Praise of Shame and Two Loves"; the latter was later used in the trial against Wilde for 'acts of gross indecency'. The poem's last line, 'I am the love that dare not speak its name', was regarded as an allusion to homosexual love."
The Savoy (the name pinched from the posh London hotel of the same name) was a monthly which lasted eight issues, all in 1896; clearly the intention was to conjure opulence, modernity, decadence. Let's nick from Wikipedia, shall we? "It featured work by authors such as W. B. Yeats, Max Beerbohm, Joseph Conrad, Aubrey Beardsley and William Thomas Horton. Only eight issues of the magazine were published. The publisher was Leonard Smithers, a controversial friend of Oscar Wilde who was also known as a pornographer. Among other publications by Smithers were rare erotic works and unique items such as books bound in human skin ..."
Well, I don't know about you but I'd say that qualifies rather strongly in the decadence stakes. And you can't tell me that Led Zep or the Red Hot Collywobbles wouldn't produce a book bound in human skin if they could get away with it. I reckon Eminem would be up for it as, I'm sure, would Lady Gaga.
You'll have noticed Beardsley turns up in both the above periodicals. But the real grand-daddy of modern decadence, the periodical which utterly defined the fin-de-siècle, was The Yellow Book (1894-1897). Sets of the first edition, first printing are worth quite a packet; it was reprinted (the only way you can tell is that the original adverts were omitted in the reprints). Antiquarian booksellers often describe such a set thus:
"The most important periodical of the nineties, with contributions by Henry James, Max Beerbohm, Ernest Dowson, Yeats, Wilde and others, and with numerous illustrations and covers by Aubrey Beardsley, Sickert, Housman, Rothenstein..."; or "the illustrated work of many of the leading artists of the period, including Frederick Leighton, Pennell, Sickert, Rothenstein, Houseman, Anning Bell, Walter Crane, Singer Sargent, The Gaskins and Charles Robinson. However it is Beardsley's style that will forever mark the Yellow Book as a true classic in the literature of illustration. The legendary 1890s publication, British decadence in its original format."
Hell of a list there. Lionel was in the Rhymers' Club with his friend Ernest Rhys who went on to found The Everyman Library (the intent was to make classic world literature available for the masses), published by Dent; and W.B. 'Willie' Yeats makes it clear in his autobiography how close he was to Johnson.
So, a pretty impressive crowd. And, quite by accident, Johnson caused the downfall of one of the fin-de-siècle's leading lights and great heroes of the chattering class and oppressed criminals - which is what homosexuals were back then, no joke; if you were known as a homosexual you'd have to publish your books anonymously.
All that in itself should be enough to get you to the starter's gate. So, while I'm holding this little 'Incurable' book in my hand, I'll quickly explain: when you're contemplating a collection, or in fact any book which requires Forewords, Introductions, Prefaces and so forth ... my advice is to skip the lot and go directly to the first actual work of the author. Sod the editor for now; if you've enjoyed the author, you can go back to the editor's stuff later (I'm not being mean to Ms Antonia; when I've told my friends about my last two books, I say the same thing. Read the author. If they're any good, they'll hold your attention).
The first thing that grabs you is Johnson's uncanny fascination with death; not just the actuality, but its markers, inscriptions, its solemn ceremonies and the sensations it leaves behind ... The other thing is Johnson's obviously overly-romantic insomniacal lifestyle.
Antonia is spot-on when she remarks that "only by writing about another with similar predilections, could Lionel shed some light onto his own strange borderline existence." I'm not going to quote Johnson this time - you must discover this for yourself.
Many people need the company of others. Johnson gives the appearance of being complete in himself, to the point where he wanders the streets, graveyards and cloisters in the small hours. That said, the expression of what is surely his loneliness is excruciatingly exquisite.
Men pity me; poor men, who pity me!
Poor, charitable, scornful souls of pity!
I choose laborious loneliness: and ye
Lead Love in triumph through the dancing city:
While death and darkness girdle me,
I grope for immortality.
So let's get this straight, so we understand each other. Minor poet? Minor footnote in a larger scheme? Possibly. But like Curtis, Cobain, Joplin and even Vicious, it's the fascination, and the undying mystery of ... what if these people had lived? Their deaths were all tragic; and who knows, Johnson might have blossomed into a major influence, sending his shadow down the twentieth century like the war poets of WWI. I mean, anyone who comes up with the line "the purple winepress of the wrath of God" (twenty years before 1914, ffs) needs to be drunk deeply and often ... just before his death, he was energised after a long malaise, determined to come out of his chambers and ... we'll never know quite what he had in mind ...
Compared to Shelley or Beardsley, you might say, Johnson's output was minimal.
Irrelevant. Johnson was slowed (considerably) by his alcoholism and his insomnia (determined or otherwise).
But ... Johnson is right up there with the greats. Not because he kept their company, but because he was their equal in talent.
And hell. Joy Division did two LPs and their work remains influential to this day. Nirvana what, three? Joplin, four. The Sex Pistols one (unless you count 'Spunk') and Vicious wasn't on either.
Sod Christmas, get this for your loved one, especially if they have a romantic/ fantasy/ gothy/ dark sensibility. Order Incurable today, there may not be many left. It might take a couple more weeks than you'd prefer for the bugger to arrive, and no, it's not for sale in yer mainstream shops, but fuck.
How much trouble is it to seek out genius, however haunted?
Get on it.
And while you're at it, get Antonia's others as well.