Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Johnston, George Henry (1912–1970)

by Garry Kinnane

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

George Henry Johnston (1912-1970), by Ray Crooke

George Henry Johnston (1912-1970), by Ray Crooke

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2287725

George Henry Johnston (1912-1970), journalist and author, was born on 20 July 1912 at Caulfield, Melbourne, fourth child of native-born parents John George Johnston, tram repairer, and his wife Minnie Riverina, née Wright. George attended Brighton Technical School from 1922 and gained the Intermediate certificate before being apprenticed to a lithographer with the art printers, Troedel & Cooper Pty Ltd. He took art classes at the National Gallery schools, and spent much time on his boyhood hobby of drawing, painting and reading about classic sailing ships. At the age of 16 he had an article on local shipwrecks accepted by the Argus. In 1933 he was taken onto that paper as a cadet reporter, with responsibility for the shipping round. At St Mary's Anglican Church, Caulfield, on 19 March 1938 he married Elsie Esme Taylor, a cashier; they had a daughter Gae (b.1941).

In 1941 Johnston was accredited No.1 Australian war correspondent. He worked in New Guinea (1942), Britain and the United States of America (1943), India, China and Burma (1944), Italy (1944) and in Burma once more (1945); he also witnessed the Japanese surrender on board U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay in 1945. In a popular, racy style, he published in Sydney several quasi-documentary books on the war, including Grey Gladiator (1941), Battle of the Seaways (1941), Australia at War (1942), New Guinea Diary (1943) and Pacific Partner (New York, 1944). He chronicled his service in Journey Through Tomorrow (Melbourne, 1947). Johnston returned in October 1945 to find himself famous and favoured, especially by the Argus's managing director (Sir) Errol Knox who nicknamed him 'golden boy' and appointed him first editor of the Australasian Post.

A scandal over Johnston's relationship with Charmian Clift, also employed on the paper, caused him to resign in 1946, after which he and Clift moved to Sydney together, and began writing fiction. Johnston published Death Takes Small Bites (London, 1948) and Moon at Perigee (1948), and began to write in collaboration with Clift. He was divorced in 1947 and married Charmian on 7 August that year at the court-house, Manly. They were to have three children, Martin (1947-1990), Shane (1949-1973) and Jason (b.1956). Their first joint novel, High Valley (1949), won the Sydney Morning Herald prize. Early in 1948 Johnston was given a feature-writing role on the Sun.

As a couple in these years, Johnston and Clift had the world at their feet: they had fame, good looks and youth, and a burning ambition to make their names in the literary world, especially abroad. Their chance came in 1951 when Johnston was appointed to head the London office of Associated Newspapers Services. They wrote another joint novel, The Big Chariot (1953); following a Mediterranean holiday, Johnston wrote The Cyprian Woman (1955). The strain of two careers began to tell on his health, and, when Associated Newspapers Ltd was taken over by the Fairfax family in 1953, he started to consider writing full time. In November 1954 he resigned from newspaper work and moved with his family to the Greek islands, first to Kálimnos, and a year later to Hydra. There his plan was to establish himself as a writer of international repute.

During the nine years he spent in Greece, Johnston worked hard, completing another joint novel with Clift, The Sponge Divers (London, 1956). He also wrote a series of five detective books under the pseudonym 'Shane Martin', the novels The Darkness Outside (London, 1959), Closer to the Sun (London, 1960) and The Far Road (London, 1962), as well as numerous short stories for international magazines, published posthumously in an anthology, Strong Man From Piraeus (Melbourne, 1984). Although some of this work attracted modest critical acclaim and occasional popular success, it too often suffered from cliché in both language and characterization, and good material and ideas were poorly handled, mainly through too much haste. Essentially, he had not yet found his true subject matter.

Moreover, life on Hydra was not proving to be the idyll that he and Clift had expected. They allowed themselves to get caught up in the constant flow of expatriate 'drop-ins', and the routine binges of talk, cigarettes and alcohol. This, together with the relentless worry over income, had an effect on Johnston's health and on his marriage. In 1959 he developed tuberculosis of the lung, and suffered alarming weight loss. At the same time, he was concerned that Clift was drifting away from him into relationships with other men. They attempted to solve their problems in 1961 by returning with the children to England, where Johnston tried unsuccessfully to go back to journalism. After six months they gave up and returned to Hydra. There they learned of the unexpected financial success in the United States of America of Johnston's novel, Closer to the Sun. But their reprieve was short, and by 1962 the old worries were overwhelming them.

Yet, it was all this suffering and struggle that led to Johnston's breakthrough from literary mediocrity to widespread acclaim. In near desperation to get the mistakes of his life into focus, he began in 1962 to write his first directly autobiographical novel, My Brother Jack (London, 1964). It took him seven months, a long time by his speedy standards, with Clift prompting his memory and encouraging him all the way. My Brother Jack was immediately hailed as an Australian novel of rare distinction, and has been a great favourite with two generations of Australian readers. In it, David Meredith conducts a search not merely for his own 'mistakes', but for his whole past, to map it, to explain it, and to find meaning in it, much in the mode of contemporary existentialist fiction. Beginning with his childhood, Meredith sees himself as an oversensitive, duplicitous child of artistic temperament, developing in contrast to his more manly and honest brother, Jack. In presenting two figures, the novel thoughtfully explored two Australian myths—success and mateship. It also gave a richly detailed picture of Melbourne between the wars, and a telling contrast between its working-class and middle-class lifestyles.

Johnston returned alone to Australia in February 1964, to a warm and admiring reception. He established himself in Sydney, and later that year Clift and the children joined him. My Brother Jack was produced as a television serial, and Johnston set to work on Clean Straw for Nothing (London, 1969), the second volume in what was to be a Meredith trilogy. Continual smoking and drinking dogged his health and his relationship with Clift, who was herself under considerable strain writing a regular column for the Sydney Morning Herald. Johnston had lung surgery in 1966 and again in 1968. In July 1969, a month before the publication of Clean Straw for Nothing, he was devastated by Clift's suicide. She had been afraid of the way in which he might have portrayed her in that novel, which dealt with the painful period of their life on Hydra and the disintegration of their romantic aspirations. The tragic irony was that Cressida in the novel emerged as a figure of generosity and integrity, quite in contrast to the self-pitying David Meredith. Like its predecessor, this novel won the Miles Franklin award. In January 1970 Johnston was appointed O.B.E.

Although ill, he worked on the final volume of the trilogy, A Cartload of Clay (London, 1971). This novel continued Meredith's life-journey, setting itself the specific task 'to plot the arabesque that linked everything together'. It was incomplete when he died of pulmonary tuberculosis on 22 July 1970 at his Mosman home; survived by his children, he was cremated with Methodist forms. His portrait by Ray Crooke won the 1969 Archibald prize and was bought by the Art Gallery of New South Wales; a study for the portrait is held by the National Library of Australia.

As a novelist, Johnston belongs in the tradition of journalistic realism. However, the autobiographical element in his best work gives it uncommon power and honesty, and in its blend of 'truth' and the fictive, a modernistic narrative sometimes paradoxically results, as in the case of Clean Straw for Nothing. Characteristically, Johnston's narrative voice is that of an educated Australian male, better at dealing with material detail than with expressions of emotion.

Johnston bore the marks of his time and background: he was from the working classes, had only basic formal education, experienced the Depression and the war, joined the expatriate exodus to postwar Europe, and returned to participate in, and benefit from, the increased sophistication of Australian culture in the 1960s. The psychological legacy of all this was a deep insecurity about his own talent and, indeed, his right to fame; the chief victims of the legacy were his own health and his marriage. He wrote about this with strength, honesty and descriptive brilliance in the Meredith trilogy, which, through the personal odyssey of its central character, managed to express a varied and crucial era of Australian life.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Kinnane, George Johnston (Melb, 1986) and for bibliography
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Jan 1970
  • Johnston estate papers (National Library of Australia)
  • information from Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Austin, Texas, United States of America
  • private information.

Citation details

Garry Kinnane, 'Johnston, George Henry (1912–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johnston-george-henry-10632/text18893, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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