27 October ~ For many, football literature – if such a term exists – is Fever Pitch, The Damned United and their film adaptations. But that may have changed. Last week, BBC Radio 3 aired an adaptation of BS Johnson's The Unfortunates, a novel that comes in 27 unbound chapters inside a box. Apart from chapters marked "First" and "Last", the reader determines the order in which the other sections are read. The novel's protagonist is Bryan, a part-time football writer for the Observer. The Unfortunates is non-fictional – Bryan is Johnson's first name and sports writing helped supplement his income. Indeed, Johnson's inspiration comes from a day's reporting in Nottingham, with the novel an attempt to recreate this day and his unstructured inner monologue composed of thoughts and memories – hence the unbound sections.
"First" begins with Bryan's arrival in an anonymous Midlands city to cover the rather anonymous City v United. Johnson's experience of sports writing is evident by his focus on reporting's often underwhelming nature: "Always, at the start of each match, the excitement... But already I suspect the worst." Duncan Hamilton, writer of Provided You Don't Kiss Me, has described The Unfortunates as "the best account of what it is like to be a football reporter".
On Bryan's arrival into the city's train station, memories of his dead friend, an academic called Tony, are uncovered. From here, the reader constructs Bryan's monologue, which includes sections on reporting and visiting a pub after the game. During this section, he looks at a train timetable and suddenly remembers his lateness for Tony's funeral. He also remembers where he sat in the pub with Tony and his wife, and ponders why this is so important. Through piecing a narrative together, The Unfortunates turns the reader into a reporter: the goal to form a cohesive report of the day with these different sections.
On radio, The Unfortunates felt like listening to a game; the different voices, memories and experiences leaping in and out, almost spontaneously and unpredictably. And there were crowd noises in the background, of course. The chapter order was drawn at random before broadcast and, importantly, you can piece together your own order by listening to individual sections online. The whole adaptation is faithful to the book – something film adaptations are often not. Thanks to The Unfortunates, the late Johnson – he committed suicide, aged 40 – succeeded in changing the mainstream view of the novel. The Unfortunates is available on BBC Radio 3 for the next three months. David Meller