Jonathan Barrow - A wild picaresque fantasy, erotically polymorphous... with a cast of bizarre humans and talking animals’

Jonathan Barrow, The Queue, CB Editions, 2014.

click here to read a pdf excerpt

Easy enough to summarize, The queue is difficult to define. Picaresque encounters, recounted at speed, include bizarre scatalogical episodes and much random violence. - Paul Binding
‘A wild picaresque fantasy, erotically polymorphous . . . with a cast of bizarre humans and talking animals’ Independent on Sunday

‘I glance down and see a dachshund nosing at my ankles. She is a stray.  Together we walk to the station cafeteria and queue for 25 minutes to get tea and pies. Round her neck is a disk and it tells me her name is Mary.’ 
The narrator and Mary – alcoholic, drug-addicted, nymphomaniac – embark on a dizzying odyssey through the abattoirs, strip clubs, prison cells, lunatic asylums and sewers of England. Encounters with hens, giant wood pigeons, snakes and many other species punctuate their progress. Bodily fluids flow profusely. Sexual malpractice is never more than a page away.

Written in the months before his death in a car crash in 1970 at the age of twenty-two, Jonathan Barrow’s The Queue is a book that doesn’t know when to say when. It’s a satire on the professional world; a mockery of the laws of good taste; a children’s story turned inside out, wound around a core of innocence and affection. 

The Queue is one of the most extraordinary, original – and funniest – books I have ever read. Subversive, satirical, like a farcical, erotic, animal-human animated film, it is, I think, a work of strange, obsessive genius.’ – Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy

The Queue is difficult to define. Picaresque encounters, recounted at speed, include bizarre scatological episodes and much random violence  . . . Yet [Jonathan Barrow’s] novel’s final sentences prove that he possessed and could express compassion.’ – Paul Binding

The Queue, published here in full for the first time, provided the framework for Andrew Barrow’s memoir of his brother, Animal Magic, published by Jonathan Cape in early 2011. Reviewing Animal Magic in the Independent, Richard Canning wrote that ‘No stranger book will appear this year – with the possible exception of Andrew Barrow’s deceased brother Jonathan’s novel The Queue, which sees publication in May, after more than 40 years of neglect.’ Other reviewers of Andrew Barrow’s memoir have already praised The Queue:

‘Wildly inventive and surreal . . . At its height Jonathan’s writing has shades of Evelyn Waugh in its eye for detail and pomposity, fascination with the British class system and eye for the absurd’    – Jane Thynne

‘Savagely surreal . . . A rare comic talent’ – Francis Wheen

‘A highly idiosyncratic maypole . . . with its motley cast of schoolmasters, policemen, perverts, dogs and hens . . . repeatedly recalls Joe Orton in its macabre preoccupations and scabrous humour’
Rupert Thomson

‘Bizarre and beautiful’ – Janine Johnston

‘Darkly comic, treading a thin line between brilliance and total barminess’ – Elisabeth Day
‘The macabre fascination of an adolescent Mervyn Peake’ – Rory Bruce Knight

‘Arrestingly ludicrous . . . apocalyptically violent’ – Stephanie Cross

Anthropomorphism and a weird, astringent sense of humour combined to make The Queue, the late Jonathan Barrow’s only novel, a work of genius in the opinion of his brother Andrew. The typescript he inherited, though ‘unedited, repetitious and often excessively scatological’, he writes, ‘appealed to me immediately . . . I found it screamingly funny.’ In this affectionate expression of sibling adulation, he describes Jonathan’s style as ‘part journalese, part satire, part Beatrix Potter, part Marquis de Sade’. Jonathan wrote about animals, birds and fish as if they were human, implicitly deriding the absurd illogicality of human social behaviour. A less sympathetically prejudiced reader, in an apt summing-up, has described The Queue as ‘surrealist whimsy’.
Jonathan was born in Lancaster in 1947, the youngest of five sons of a senior legal civil servant, eventually a Treasury prosecutor, with a home in Turleigh Combe, Wiltshire, and a flat in Holland Park. Andrew, the fourth son, only 18 months older than Jonathan, shared his creative ambitions but was not equally imaginatively preposterous, and apparently felt like a rather inferior twin.
In late childhood, both of them, Andrew recalls, were
beginning to become acutely class-conscious – partly the effect of being at the fundamentally middle-class Clifton and then at posh semi-upper-class Harrow, and partly the effect of our father’s multiple snobberies.We both had an oversimplified view of toffs and grand country life, as witnessed at a distance in Wiltshire, Savile Row tailoring and the typical Harrovian’s respect for and fear of Etonians.
Their scholastic careers were undistinguished, so they did not attempt to follow their three senior brothers into profitable conventional pursuits.
Jonathan and Andrew at first aspired to the glamour of show business. Andrew soon discovered how difficult it is to succeed as a stand-up comedian and how embarrassing it is to fail. Jonathan was quicker to give up. He went to work in the kitchens of Claridge’s and the Savoy, became a good cook and was entranced by the clientele of fashionable hotels. His vivacity and charm enabled him to penetrate the society of debutantes and their elders. However, his principal interest was in writing and drawing. Andrew also wrote then and ever after. He has successfully published eight books before this one.
When young, like some other unpublished novelists, they drifted into advertising, Jonathan characteristically into the trade’s smartest two agencies, Ogilvy & Mather and J. Walter Thompson, fragrant with the ethos of Madison Avenue and Mayfair, Andrew into an agency somewhat less smart. Meanwhile, with Andrew’s help, Jonathan submitted stories and drawings to acquaintances who were variously authoritative in publishing and the arts. Undeterred by some crushing responses (one leading London literary agent said, ‘repulsive and boring’), he managed to place two stories in the London Magazine , and, then under the influence of Jackson Pollock, sold two drawings through the Redfern Gallery. Many of his more easily comprehensible drawings, ingratiatingly sub-Thurber, decorate the pages of Animal Magic. The best of them were inspired by Gilda, a family pet Jonathan described as ‘a bad, fat, greedy dachshund,’ the spiritual heroine of The Queue.
The novel was not accepted for publication until immediately after Jonathan and his fiancée died in a car crash, in 1970, and has long been out of print. In it, he wrote of a wedding that turned into a funeral, foreseeing their own coffins being carried into Brompton Oratory when their wedding guests were waiting there. Lengthy quotations from The Queue profusely intersperse the text of Andrew’s biographical tribute, like commercials. A republication is planned. -

Few books can claim to capture the juxtaposition of surreal darkness, sexual frustration and juvenility which are essential and simultaneous components of the apex of adolescence quite like Jonathan Barrow’s The Queue. Written when the author was twenty two and very shortly before his death in a tragic car accident, the novel follows the exploits a an unnamed schoolboy who, having escaped from his Headmaster’s clutches, meets a talking nymphomaniac, drug-addicted dog called Mary in the queue at Euston station. Together the two go on a wild journey across England, encountering all manner of strange creatures and events. The Queue ’s wild recombination of the traditional polymorphic fairy-tale and squalor, disturbed sexuality and brutality use their excesses in an attempt to expose that inexpressible moment on during the transition to adulthood when seemingly paradoxical emotional states and ideas cease to be mutually exclusive. Freedom and inescapable authority; boredom and adventure; pre-pubescence and sexual awakening; blind acceptance and self- discovery etc. all start to inter-mingle and the results, in the novel as in reality, are often exciting and frightening. No matter how many times the narrator escapes the Headmaster, no matter how gruesomely he is murdered, he always returns. Many of the surreal events of the odyssey result in incarceration and dealing with administration and paperwork for the narrator and Mary. Other animals join or hinder them. Bodily fluids and death are everywhere sometimes evoking sadness, sometimes laughter. Traditional dichotomy breaks down. The paradox being assembled from these convergent lines then is the double rejection of both the values of childhood and those of the adult world. The brilliant satirical wit with which all this is done, not to mention the use of puns for characters’ names, recalls Boris Vian’s Froth on the Daydream. Another novel whose own use of thematic use of humour and the surreal enables the author to expose the area around the inexpressible, in his case the paralysing sadness of love teeming with obsession and loss as opposed to the madness of reaching maturity. The novel has flaws in its prose style and the focus of some of the imagery and humour is not always as effective as it could be. The rhythm of the prose sometimes suffers too, and it doesn’t quite maintain the fluidity and sharp changes of pace it sets out to but these only ever come across as the mistakes of a writer who has only begun to develop in style. A hilarious twisting of the traffic jam scene from Godard’s Weekend around the bones of a fable, The Queue ’s protagonists reject both sets of values to allow Barrow, through the prism of the absurd, to subvert many of the misconceptions about innocence, the class system, death and adulthood. -

Jonathan Barrow had a life of stellar promise before him when he and his fiancee were killed in a car crash. His brother Andrew remembers an eccentric and talented writer.

From page one:
Mr. Prente leaves tomorrow. The bursar raided his study and found three hundred pairs of soiled boys’ underwear in a chest under his bed. And hidden in a laundry bag, he found 12 lemonade bottles: each overflowing with boys’ urine that was still warm. Next morning these bottles were put on display in the assembly hall as a warning to all other members of the staff. Then, after the hymn, each boy filed past and those responsible had to claim their urine. I refused and was thrashed by Mr. Kille before the entire school. (Judging by the wet patch, I guessed that he had an orgasm whilst administering the punishment. Fourteen years later, when we both shared cells at Parkhurst he admitted to me that this was correct.)

another edition:
On the Run with Mary
Jonathan Barrow, On the Run with Mary, New Vessel Press, 2015.  
read it at Google Books

Shining moments of tender beauty punctuate this story of a youth on the run after escaping from an elite English boarding school. At London’s Euston Station, the narrator meets a talking dachshund named Mary and together they’re off on escapades through posh Mayfair streets and jaunts in a Rolls-Royce. But the youth soon realizes that the seemingly sweet dog is a handful; an alcoholic, nymphomaniac, drug-addicted mess who can’t stay out of pubs or off the dance floor. In a world of abusive headmasters and other predators, the erotically omnivorous youth discovers that true friends are never needed more than on the mean streets of 1960s London, as he tries to save his beloved Mary from herself. On the Run with Mary mirrors the horrors and the joys of the terrible 20th century. Jonathan Barrow’s original drawings accompany the text.

This crude, nightmarish picaresque describes the gross adventures of a teenage boy and a talking dachshund named Mary as they travel in and around London.
Missing sugar buns at an English boarding school set off a search of lockers that turns inexplicably bloody. The school hairdresser cuts off a student’s ear. The headmaster vomits in class because of his gin habit. And 300 “pairs of soiled boys’ underwear” are discovered under a teacher’s bed. This is Page 1 of Barrow’s uncommon debut. He crowds numerous incidents into a skimpy plot that is set off by the headmaster’s sadistic punishment of the student narrator and the youth’s flight from the school. Along the way, he encounters the dachshund and countless incidents of violence and vomit—with the latter peaking during five consecutive pages of Technicolor belches. Twice, and for 25 minutes each time, the narrator is covered with feces from a bull that has been dosed with an emetic. Sexual activity is rampant. Harrod’s has on staff a “Flatulence Contraption Buyer.” There are at least three castrations, with one by Mary, whose storied past includes drug addiction and whose search for her mother ends tragically—as did the author’s short life. Born in 1947 and showing signs of talent in art (his Ralph Steadman–like characters accompany the text) and writing, he was killed at age 22, along with his fiancee, in a car crash two weeks before their wedding. The book’s manuscript was found in a drawer a day later. The primitive, understated style amid such horrors has a nice comic effect, and it might be argued that Barrow only exaggerates the usual catalog of man’s inhumanity. But the torrent of bodily fluids and feces, the mayhem and the wallowing therein will not be to every reader’s taste.
Whether the book comes off as mad satire or just sickening juvenilia, Barrow suggests a writer who might in time have joined the ranks of William Burroughs, William Kotzwinkle, or John Kennedy Toole. - Kirkus Reviews

A boy and his talking dog are off on a frenzied quest for safety and succor in Barrow’s dementedly cheerful, comically lewd, consistently scatological picaresque, set in and around a London—a place where nobody’s safe from absurd attacks, molestation, and general indignity. The narrator, a young man escaping from his boarding school and its sadistic headmaster, encounters “a dachshund nosing at my ankles” named Mary at Euston Station. The duo then careens from a strip club where the performers do “unprintable things with a hedgehog and two slugs,” to a jailhouse, to a “Home for Imbeciles,” where the deceased are buried “up to the waist in concrete,” this method being “cheap, easy, and entertaining.” Having gone to Mary’s estranged mother for help and found her corpse in bed at the Dogs’ Home, the pair continue adventuring through “one of London’s main sewers,” awash in waste and giant rats. Topside, the city’s just as filthy: a taxi driver uses his own vehicle as a latrine, acts of bestiality are commonplace, and strange men are forever making advances toward the narrator; his monogamous heterosexual partner turns out to be wielding a “polythene ‘screw-on.’ ” A rollicking catalogue of sex, violence, and acts of cartoonish cruelty, Barrow’s novel is a schoolboy’s happy nightmare writ large; readers may find it impossible to look away.  - Publishers Weekly

Jonathan Barrow demonstrated indescribable creativity and imagination, talented beyond belief. A true tragedy his life was extinguished all too soon, his promise evident in this book, along with accompanying illustrations.
Barrow’s borderline “locker room-potty-juvenile school boy humor” might not appeal to every one, however, his potential cannot be denied. His maniacal, frenzied, stream of consciousness writing forces the reader to take notice. Castration, flatulence, feces, violence are outlandish and off-putting, yet you continue to turn every page. Not exactly my type of humor yet there were occasions I couldn’t stop laughing. His thoughts and humor indeed reflect that of a twenty-two year old male causing you to imagine what’s going on in the deeper recesses of his mind.
The eclectic characters included in his story add to its endearing bizarreness. Their actions, encounters leave you both in awe and perplexed. Mary is the perfect mischief partner, these two cause havoc as they jaunt through London. Barrow stirs in varying shades of humor from the lightest to the darkest with every thing in between, not to mention fantasy, as well as magical realism.
Unknown if Barrow’s humor or intent will fall under your desire spectrum, nonetheless there is genius weaved throughout this preposterous narrative. If only Barrow could have expanded with his writing, such a shame it wasn’t possible. Barrow is gone but not forgotten thanks to this sampling of his artistry, man and work both memorable. -

Raymond Queneau's Zazie in the Metro meets the "tales" of Beatrix Potter, by way of "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream." On the Run with Mary, written shortly before the author's death in 1970, is decidedly not for all tastes. (Despite its being a boy-and-his-dog story, I cannot stress this enough!) But I suspect everyone knows someone who will delight in its spirit of perverse adventure.
An English teenager flees his boarding school and its lecherous Head Master, only to find worse things and people waiting for him in London. Fortunately, our hero also acquires a companion: an elderly dachsund named Mary. Though worn out by years of hard living, Mary still enjoys a drink or several and the company of the opposite sex, and she has the street smarts to help our young protagonist survive on his journey by train, lorry and, yes, sewer to his uncle's house. But even when they reach their destination, there's little respite from man's inhumanity to man and beast.
Featuring talking hedgehogs, bulls, sparrows and other creatures - as well as just about every imaginable form of brutality and bodily function - On the Run with Mary is a rollicking journey through hell. If you've a strong stomach and a peculiar sense of humor, buckle up and enjoy. - Rebecca Oppenheimer

The manuscript for On The Run with Mary was found the day after author died in a car crash. It was 1970, and Barrow was 22. Barrow’s brother had found the manuscript in a desk drawer, with a fresh page still in the typewriter.
To add more bizarro, Barrow was to be married two weeks later, turning his “save the dates” for a wedding into those for a funeral. A tragic story for Barrow, who tells a tale even more tragic, disturbing, and grotesque in his novel On The Run With Mary.
Barrow’s 115-page book follows a young narrator as he escapes from boarding school and navigates the unforgiving streets of London. While waiting to board a train, the narrator meets Mary, an old, talkative, alcoholic dachshund. The frantically told narrative then becomes about survival as the traveling duo pursue freedom from the boarding school’s Headmaster (who manages to pop up randomly) and the obscene, perverted adults that plague the world around him.
There’s a serious sense of perseverance in On The Run – despite all the horrors, troubles, and unsightly deaths the narrator sees, he keeps going, his spirits not yet affected by the horrific world around him. The constant movement of the plot doesn’t give the narrator – or the reader – the chance to sit and let the action sink in, which gives the prose a strangely lighthearted tone.
The narrator finally shows signs of unease more than halfway through the book when he says, “I am tired by the ceaseless commotion that now forms such a major part of my life…the daily strain is too much. I am sorry to be so dreary.” The narrator’s apology is one of the few softer, genuine moments in book, a rarity in between scenes of defecating, sexual advances, boiling flesh, giant rats, and profuse amounts of vomiting. The other caring, tender moments happen when the narrator is interacting with animals, whether it be taking care of and protecting Mary, or meeting other animals along the way, stopping to grieve when any of them die (an emotion not reserved for any human death in the book). Animals come to the duo’s rescue several times, saving them from plane crashes and drowning in rivers. In this novel, humans are mean, twisted, perverse, and animals are sweet, caring, and a victim of human cruelty, much like the narrator.
The narrator’s “I’m sorry to be so dreary” apology might also be more than a brief introspective moment. On The Run With Mary has also been speculated to be Barrow’s suicide note, as he makes a strange prediction about his own death. Halfway through the book, the narrator finds himself delayed by a wedding crowd outside of a church, who are all left horrified after the bride comes down the aisle in a coffin, turning the wedding into a funeral. It is eerie and almost beyond coincidence that Barrow himself turned his own wedding into a funeral just after finishing the novel. In an interview with the Daily Mail, Barrow’s brother says, “I do not know, or care, what such scenes really signify. It certainly indicates that there was an extraordinarily dark side to Jonathan. Did he have any idea about what was going to happen to him the moment he finished this book? If so, was he profoundly morbid or wonderfully brave?”
After the wedding/funeral scene, the book becomes much more chaotic and absurd. The narrator delivers a baby on a bus from a pregnant man, is trapped in a sewer and can look up and see through toilets, runs into a gang of large talking rats, even crashes a plane into a field of young boys and kills almost all of them. The sentences become random, gory, and frenetic, with profanity being used loosely and often.
The book ends with the narrator seeing Mary off to a maternity home and alcoholic center, as Mary confesses she is five months pregnant, but will not stop drinking. The narrator’s sweet affection for Mary created speculation that Mary’s character was mirrored after Anita, Barrow’s fiancée, who also died with him in the car crash. Barrow’s entire novel has been called a “love letter” for the whirlwind romance he had with Anita, his love-struck state giving him the perseverance to manage day-to-day life. Intentions aside, On The Run With Mary is a complex narrative much deeper than what could be viewed as an absurd, romping story about a young boy and his talking, alcoholic dog. At its core, it’s a tale about being able to bear the evil and horrors of the everyday, as long as the ones you love are close by your side. - Rachel Kolman

Andrew Barrow, Animal Magic: A Brother's Story, Vintage, 2011.                                                                                                                                  

Jonathan Barrow was not famous. But in his brother, Andrew’s, eyes, he was on a path to greatness before his life was cut short by a car accident when he was just 22. Nearly 40 years later Andrew Barrow has written this homage to his younger brother, which entwines his memories of their life together around the text of an unpublished novel Jonathan had written in the months before he died.
Surreal, sexual, scatological, this novel – The Queue – involves the adventures of a fast-talking, sex-mad Dachshund called Mary and the narrator, who are helped on their adventures by a giant sparrow and pursued by a vicious wood pigeon. It also reveals a morbid obsession and a passage which is remarkably prescient as to the manner in which Jonathan would die.
Genius, or simply troubled young man? Perhaps both, but Barrow plumps firmly for the former as he showcases excerpts from The Queue and other pieces of Jonathan’s writings and drawings with an admiring eye, at times faintly envious, at others almost awe-stuck. Indeed, he admits he was in thrall to his younger brother and frequently felt upstaged by him, to the extent that he felt 'liberated by his death'.
Whether Jonathan Barrow would have become a famous artist or writer will never be known. But with Animal Magic he has been immortalised by a brother who knew he would forever be overshadowed by his younger sibling – in life, and, still, in death.

Jonathan Barrow
At the age of 22, Jonathan Barrow, a promising advertising copywriter, was killed in a car crash alongside his fiancee, Anita Fielding. It was a few days before the couple were due to get married. Both of them had been over the alcohol limit, though the police were never able to discern who was driving – something that, according to Jonathan's older brother, Andrew, the author of this unique and touching memoir, troubled their grieving father for several months after the event.
The couple's wedding was due to take place at the Brompton Oratory in London on 23 April 1970. Instead, it became a double requiem with the wedding guests now in the role of mourners. But what made Jonathan's death even more eerie was that he had left behind the manuscript of an unpublished novel, The Queue, in which a wedding turns unexpectedly into a funeral after a bride falls under the wheels of an oncoming bread van. "Tragic, early deaths, even double deaths, are alas not rare," writes Barrow, "but Jonathan's case is stranger than most."
For months afterwards, Barrow touted the manuscript around publishers to no avail. Instead, four decades on, he has written a tribute to his younger sibling that is part-biography, part-elegy, interspersed with extracts from Jonathan's own writing and reproductions of his comic sketches.
The result is a book unlike anything I have ever read. Barrow's reminiscences of his brother's life – from a Wiltshire childhood surrounded by eccentric relatives and a menagerie of animals (including a much-loved family dachshund) to a miserable time at Harrow and then on to a hand-to-mouth existence in late- 60s Chelsea – are touching and heartfelt. But in other places the book is overwhelmed by the anarchic, surrealist tone of Jonathan's own writing.
The Queue, from which Barrow quotes extensively and analyses with painstaking care, is darkly comic, treading a thin line between brilliance and total barminess. The heroine is a dachshund called Mary with human characteristics and a racy past. There are nightmarish visions of screw-on male genitalia, passages about homosexual pigeons and a detailed sequence in which a man is caught having sex with a hen. Beyond this, there seems to be very little narrative. Perhaps the whole thing is a surrealist masterpiece but it is hard not to concur with the opinion of Barrow's acquaintance Quentin Crisp who, after reading the manuscript, said: "Your brother looked healthy, happy, natural… But everything else about him is extremely odd. Not faintly odd. Extremely odd."

Barrow writes with obvious tenderness about his lost sibling – the youngest of five brothers – to whom he was very close. Despite, or maybe because of, his idiosyncrasies, Jonathan emerges from these pages as effervescent, clever and hilariously entertaining company but also as someone who did not invite intimacy and who never quite worked out who he was (Jonathan's unresolved sexuality and inner demons are occasionally hinted at but left unexamined).
The text is littered with private jokes which might or might not amuse others. The pop star Mike d'Abo, a Harrow contemporary who went on to become the lead singer of Manfred Mann, is something of a comic talisman for the Barrows who refer to him jokingly in conversations and letters. But d'Abo also makes frequent, inconsequential appearances in Animal Magic so that, in the middle of a paragraph about something else, d'Abo's chart success will suddenly be noted or he will be spotted on the street wearing "purple trousers and red shoes". It all adds to the impression that we are eavesdropping on something that should have remained private.
About two-thirds of the way through, there is a footnote in which Barrow relates that his friend, the comedian Barry Humphries, "reminded me recently that the best jokes are often understood by only one other person". It is hard not to feel that Animal Magic would have been best understood by the one person who, tragically, is no longer around to read it. -


Popular posts from this blog

Steven Seidenberg - a dramatic intensification of Seidenberg’s career-long blurring of fiction, poetry, and philosophy—an accomplishment recalling the literary contributions of Blanchot, Bernhard, and pre-impasse Beckett

Leon Forrest - Fabulous, wildly comic, and Ulysses-like. a huge oratorio of the sacred and the profane, set in bars, churches, and barbershops .

Futures and Fictions - In what ways could we imagine a world different from the one in which we currently live?