The novelist Joyce Cary shall never be forgotten, I have vowed, upon the heads of his two grandest characters, Gulley Jimson the English painter, and Mister Johnson the Nigerian clerk.
Why such determination to keep their memories alive? Only forty years ago – a moment or so for some of us – Cary’s books and his two wayward characters we re the light of our world. Every artist in Chelsea, it seemed, hoped to be another Jimson – yet rather feared it. Every writer in Hampstead wished to turn out another Johnson – yet feared they might fail. Not a critic, not a bookworm but adored Cary and his works – above all The Horse’s Mouth, Jimson’s story as told by himself, and Mister Johnson, featuring that wicked though lovable Nigerian clerk. It seemed inconceivable then that these characters would not reign supreme for ever. But sadly, that has proved to be the case. Having recently polled readers, savants, re v i ewers, academics – all card-carrying members of the intelligentsia and all under 50 – I found that a dismaying percentage did not know that Cary ever existed, weren’t even aware he was an author, nor a man at all – some wondered whether I meant that actress in Brief Encounter.
What are we to do about it? Let us not stand by and wring our hands. Let us launch a campaign to have Cary reinstated among the regularly read.
So what am I on about? Well, let’s start with Mister Johnson. Cary wrote the book after an adventurous early life through several wars and several changes of career. He based it on his time as district officer in the wilder parts of Nigeria, when Britain was busy extracting profit from her colonies by opening up the interior and ‘civilizing’ the natives. ‘Mistah Jonsohn’ was modelled on his own clerk, a rather adorable man whose head, though, is filled with a little knowledge – a dangerous thing when running a huge territory on behalf of ‘dat ol’ King of Englan
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