Volume Seven Issue One
- Category: Volume 7 Issue 1 2011
- Created on Friday, 18 February 2011 21:44
- Published on Friday, 18 February 2011 21:44
- Hits: 2913
Doug Johnstone was born in 1970 but looks a little younger. We met to talk in Edinburgh, in the Scottish Storytelling Centre café. He hails from Arbroath originally, the setting for his first novel, Tombstoning (2006). His parents were working class kids who studied hard and became teachers. Johnstone has a PhD in experimental nuclear physics from the University of Edinburgh. After graduating, he worked for Marconi’s Avionics as a systems engineer designing radar and missile weapons systems. “I didn’t have any when I began,” Johnstone answered when I asked whether he had had qualms when he worked on weapons systems. “I was part of a mathematical modelling group: we were asked to model new ideas on computers. It involved a lot of mathematical work. At the time we weren’t at war with anyone, which would have made a difference to me. You might say that doesn’t matter, you were still helping to design a missile guidance system. But what I was doing was air-to-air, so it would been used to kill someone else in a plane as opposed to air-to-ground, which is very different. So yeah, I had qualms, but that’s not why I left. I left because I ended up hating the job.”
Johnstone quit to enrol on a journalism course at Napier. He already wrote for fanzines; he also played music, which he still does. He has released four albums with his band Northern Alliance and another one with the Ossians, named after the fictional group who are the titular heroes of John-stone’s second novel. ‘There’s nothing more kid-like than touring. You don’t have to look after yourself.’
Like Bissett, Johnstone has dealt with the subject of infantilisation, although in his case, his diagnosis of the root of the problem isn’t popular culture; it’s men and their codes of behaviour. In his third and most recent novel, Smokeheads, four male friends in what advertisers might call middle youth visit Islay on a whisky-tasting expedition. The trip ends violently. The story is reminiscent of James Dickey’s Deliverance. A banker, Roddy, is a flashy anti-hero, and Johnstone links the aggressive male behaviour that endangers the quartet with the risk-taking that broke the banking sector.
‘If you go for a drink near the City of London, you’ll encounter an insane level of macho behaviour.’ If a refusal to grow up is bad for the soul as Bissett argues, Johnstone suggests through the character of Roddy how bad it is for Scotland internationally. ‘The one thing Scots were known for was their carefulness with money. We were known for running some of the most responsible banks in the world. I don’t think our country’s banking system will ever recover its reputation.’
He related childishness to another factor peculiar to Scotland. ‘The history of Scot-land over the past few centuries has been dominated or subsumed within English or British history, and at some point you have to grow up, strike out on your own. I’m not going to bang on about independence, but I am in favour of it. I don’t care about the economics of it, it’s do with the country’s mental health. We need to stop blaming England for everything that goes wrong.’
In The Ossians (2008), Johnstone’s fictional rock band play a series of gigs pegged to sites of historical interest in the Highlands. ‘I’ve always been interested in whether history is just a line we’ve been fed. That’s most obvious in The Ossians. You can see it in the name I chose for the band.’ His protagonist Connor says at one point, ‘It’s typical of Scot-land that our oldest history and literature might not even exist. It might be an 18th-century fabrication, like tartan for lowland families. Everywhere you look, Scotland is made up of stupid myths and romantic ideals, most of which are fake, or more likely a mixture of falsehoods and reality. Tartan and shortbread for tourists. Fucking Brigadoon.’ In Smokeheads, one of the cornerstones not only of Scotland’s economy but its identity too, the whisky industry, is largely owned by foreign conglomerates who take the profits out of the country without the natives seeing the benefit of it. Globalisation has only complicated Scottish identity further. ‘What the fuck does “authentic” even mean?’ Con-nor asks in anguish.
* * *