As epigraph to his poem ‘The Commonplace’, Brian Johnstone offers these words, translated from the Latin of Horace:
The jar will long retain the fragrance
Of what it was steeped in when new.
His memoir Double Exposure bears out, in its progression, its technique and in its highly controlled but not burnished diction, the veracity in his own case of these words. A careful poet, with a strong gift for packed but lucid utterance, Johnstone has the responsible schoolteacher’s resistance to obfuscation or anything whatever that might be designated pretentious (a weasel word if ever there was one; and more verminously carnivorous yet in this time of name-calling). His life has been generously led, both publicly, as primary schoolteacher, as poet, as performer of his poetry with or without musical accompaniment, as poetry administrator, enthusiast, proponent, exegete and representative, and as StAnza Festival co-founder, and privately, as declaredly devoted and longstanding husband (to the artist Jean Johnstone), and as son – and fond brother.
It is in this last role, as brother, that his whole life was steeped in something – in some things – far more than he knew, and that brings the title to this book, which is, he makes plain at its start “a baffled memoir, a perplexed memoir, a disconcerted memoir”.
For into his life that reads as almost implausibly ordered unless one had resided in the Edinburgh of the time (he was born in 1950) and into such a family as his (hardworking and almost, he – correctly – senses, wilfully conventional) there irrupted, many years apart, two secrets, symmetrical almost to the point of implausibility, secrets so astounding, yet, it may be speculated, far from unprecedented beneath the suppressing lid of ‘respectability’ of the time, that they leave the reader raw with distress for all they may have occasioned in terms of retrospective pain and uncertainty, and all that they appeared to necessitate for those who kept them, as well as those who discovered them. We are left almost hankering, indeed, for messier times, when such secrets might have been offered the warmth and light of common day.
For these are, no mistake, living secrets. And once they are exposed they make moral sense not only of certain attributes of Johnstone’s parents’ conduct, but also of his artistic decision to forge a prose-style, in Double Exposure, that is quite without delinquency or flourish, to the point of stifled breath, which strikes the reader of his, far freer, poetry, with its capacity to look into the mouth of the lion, or on occasion to offer what Nabokov called ‘aesthetic bliss’, as rather peculiar and exceedingly Edinburgh, where that proper noun is used as an absolutely superlatively proper, nay stifling, adjective.
Johnstone is a dedicated photographer, photography being an art close to poetry in its capacity to draw a response from its viewer or reader with the developed attention to a moment that may have gone, but that has left its trace and so may be recreated once more in the apprehension of another person than the one who has caught it, in light and shadow or in words, should sufficient shaping consciousness be present. Johnstone possesses this consciousness in a fashion that is reliable and strongly fettled. Drawn to images of building and making in his poems, he has the dry-stone-wall builder’s appreciation of each word’s shape and weight, its provenance and of the spacing wherein it must be set to hold and brace with conviction, and of how to lean words together so that they give strength to one another without risk of falling to incoherence. He is good too at edges and hedges and sings the richness of dust and weed.
Johnstone writes in the book’s short introduction: ‘If this memoir is anything, it is an attempt to “fix” and then “stop” this story – and the people involved – in time’. An impossible task then, which is surely the only decent way to approach or to understand one’s own impulse to make a memoir.
No Scot of feeling and with the sickness for reading will not prick up their ears at the delicious, promising, word ‘Double’. It’s not a greed for second helpings or bigger portions, it’s what the recently late Scots novelist Emma Tennant in an interview called ‘the Caledonian malady, seeing doubles everywhere’. The also unhappily late Karl Miller wrote a masterpiece called, simply, Doubles. It is a commonplace that Edinburgh, birthplace of Johnstone, is itself a doubled city split at the spine, at once high-heaped and secretive in the Old Town and commodious and silverily-ordered in the New Town, the streets haunted by doubly-led lives, Deacon Brodie and Jekyll and Hyde merely the celebrity avatars.
How to write an autobiography that casts a shadow the author may control and that will add to the deepening understanding in the reader’s mind? We each ‘have a little shadow’ as in RLS’s nursery poem. There are the coarse approaches of the pompous public man or the self-deceived star, leaving out all bruising or shading such that the effect is flat, bleached-out and unsatisfying. It’s not an intelligent approach and bears little relation to conscience, consciousness or art.
There is the approach taken by Muriel Spark in her Curriculum Vitae, which had the inestimable advantage that her readers were accustomed already by her fiction to her grand dissociative trapdoors and the understanding that truths may arrive from differently carpentered untruths and destabilising shocks, that are no more ‘untrue’ than anything else in all fiction, anywhere. She can also indulge in a self-satirical hyper-realism whose effects are distraction and dislocation, and that discourages us from reposing trust – that can so soon degenerate into passivity – in any apparently stated authorial intent. We must, as her readers, listen carefully, keep up at the back, and do some of the work ourselves. Moreover, next time we read the book, we shall find new work to do. We may not rely upon those structures, necessarily artificial, that console us in more conventional or sentimental work. We are alone and we are fragmented; there is no smooth single story.
An author remains separate from that which he or she is writing should he or she be any good, in order best to express thought to the mind of another and to make something enduring from fleet matter. The author is controlling the means whereby information is offered and the style by which it is disclosed, but cannot altogether be trusted not to elide or doctor ‘versions’ when it comes to autobiography. There are also the matters of the unconscious, and of the protection of the living, and, no less importantly, of the dead. Spark sets out to confute untruths that she believes are already loosed in the world when it comes to the subject of her own life, untruths that are jumping about ‘like fleas’.
Matters lie very differently for Johnstone. Because he is a realist and possessed of a responsible nature, he tells in unfanciful detail of the routines and prohibitions around which the orderly days of his own and his brother’s boyhoods were woven, by a tightly controlled house-proud mother and a decent very hard-working salesman father, each of them separately shaken up by the recent world war. He recounts a social order hirpling towards … something unforeseeable, at a time when the vocabulary of introspection was unpermitted to those attempting to conduct a life of perceived normality (nosey parkers everywhere), and the expression of affection was strictly encrypted, even amid so devoted a family as ‘the four of us’, Johnstone, his brother and their mother and father, understood themselves to be.
In my own Edinburgh childhood, that commenced five years after Johnstone’s own and in circumstances less secure and more ‘Bohemian’, there was considerable flurry around an individual I found glamorous on account of his wearing not a coat in the street but a paint-spattered fisherman’s jersey. My parents moved in what were called left-wing circles; among more conventional citizens however, this jersey was taken for irrefutable proof of its wearer’s Communism. Karl Miller records, in his memoir Rebecca’s Vest, encountering ‘the Communist intelligentsia, in the persons of an Edinburgh University lecturer and his wife’. Classification was everywhere.
The ostensible protecting safeties of convention at this time, cleaved to by the parents of Brian Johnstone, should not be sneered at. The continent was only just recovering from chaos and war. There is particular tender ruefulness to Brian Johnstone’s account of his own and his brother’s rebellion against their parents’ seemingly smug ways; he sees smugness’s boot on the other foot, now that he is in possession of the two secrets his parents worked separately and together to keep from their two sons. For, in one case, a secret was carried unconfided to a spouse in a fashion vividly reminiscent of John Lanchester’s memoir Family Romance, in which he comes to realize that his mother, once a nun, had lifelong falsified her age, making his own birth, if not miraculous, something quite blessed. Retrospect not merely horizontal, but dizzyingly vertiginous.
On first reading, this book’s pursed style seemed to be unnecessarily withheld by a man with such verbal acuity as its author demonstrates in his poetry. On a second, it seemed like good mimetic housekeeping and a form of tribute to two parents recognised posthumously in more dimensions than their managed living days had offered to their son, who has done them, and the contained secrets, fine respect in his quiet telling of what was doubly unexposed, and his tactful summoning of the fragrance of lost days, even if the jar be broken, in which he was actually steeped.