Let’s Do Lunch With Jennifer Johnston

Over CRAB CLAWS at Cavistons, prolific novelist JENNIFER JOHNSTON shares some of her childhood memories with ANNE HARRIS

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“The only way in which things would have been any better would have been if my father hadn’t left us.” The lament of one abandoned as a child never loses its pathos. But this one is different. Jennifer Johnston’s father, Denis, left in 1938, almost 80 years ago. Is it possible it’s still raw?

There is nothing of the victim about Johnston. The last time I saw her was at the 2012 Book Awards where she received the Lifetime Achievement Award. At the time, the country was in one of its periodic convulsions about abortion after the death of Savita Halappanavar. Her speech was pithy. “This one’s for Savita,” she said. She didn’t need to say more. In literature and life she has never been afraid to confront taboos.

In her life now, she is confronting one of the biggest taboos. Old age, as Bette Davis said, is not for sissies. As we lunch she is trying, with her cousin Caroline Fitzgerald, to organise a launch for her new novel, is planning supper for guests that evening and explains that her work is greatly impeded by settling into a new flat, though she is now happily ensconced near her son. Her second husband, David Gilliland, resides in a nursing home in the north. 

Clearly that idea of dozens of novels and plays melding into an ethereal block that is Jennifer Johnston, pivots on one great act of abandonment by her father.

All interviews, like life itself, follow a flux and flow like the seasons. Tentative spring followed, hopefully, by summer’s glad confidences. This interview was in pleasant autumn: Cavistons crab claws washed down by chilled Sauvignon blanc, panna cotta digested as smoothly as her episodic life story – two husbands, four children, six awards – including the Costa and the Booker – and my finger reaching for the “stop” button when the sentence bobbed to the surface with the aerodynamic of something long submerged. The information wasn’t news to me: absent fathers, brothers and emotionally absent mothers are the ghosts that walk her work. It was the urgency which surprised.

She had been explaining the difficulty of writers talking about their work. “What I want is to leave behind an 86-year-old block of me.” Clearly that idea of dozens of novels and plays melding into an ethereal block that is Jennifer Johnston, pivots on one great act of abandonment by her father.

Her parents’ lives, though totally Irish, were typical of those Anglo narratives – the Mitfords, the Guinnesses – we devour through theatre or television drama, pre-war sagas where glamour was to sadness much aligned. Her father, playwright, war correspondent and television producer, and her mother, actor and television producer Shelah Richards, had a tumultuous marriage. After many affairs, her father left and her parents divorced. It was a very Protestant life.

My mother worked to keep secrets. The first I knew of the divorce, which happened during the war, was during a row in art class with a girl called Diana Campbell. She said ‘Your mother and father are divorced.’ I said ‘No – he’s at the war.’

“In a way, if he hadn’t left us, nothing would have been different. My mother and he would have had their rows. May, the maid, would say to me: ‘Don’t go in there.’ But he would never have gone to the BBC. We would have had our friends and relatives – my father had a battlefield of relatives from whom I have benefited.

“My mother worked to keep secrets. The first I knew of the divorce, which happened during the war, was during a row in art class with a girl called Diana Campbell. She said ‘Your mother and father are divorced.’ I said ‘No – he’s at the war.’ Our art teacher, Mainie Jellett, pulled us apart. The following day, my mother called me into her room and said, ‘By the way, your father and I are divorced.’ It was only tough because nobody had thought to tell us. It left Shelah a woman alone.”

Jennifer Johnston is on good terms with her own first husband, Ian Smyth. “His mother was afraid he would marry a Catholic. Instead he married me.” He subsequently married Deirdre MacSharry, a longtime Cosmopolitan editor. “She’s elegant and clever, a far cry from me. I always send him the books. This time he sent a simple note: “It’s the best yet.”

Right from the go, I have loved old men. I keep wondering why did they go to those terrible wars. As I write these books I get the answers. During the wars, people were thinking – something they hadn’t done since the Enlightenment.

I get the feeling this is the accolade that matters. And he is right. Most of her themes – war’s alarms, the folly of youth, the devastation of abandonment, the Big House, the disinhibition of old ladies, incest – are all contained in one small compelling volume. “And the maid,” she reminds me. Of course, the almost forgotten phenomenon of Irish middle class life – Protestant and Catholic – the maid is the one in the middle who sees everything. In Johnston’s novels, she is something of a warrior in the war of attrition of family life, holder of the fort of family secrets.

Johnston talks of her “wonderful grandmother Adelaide, who tied herself to the railings in Stephen’s Green” and of whom “there’s a bit in all of the old ladies in the novels.” And of those who fed her fearlessness for the big subjects: “Right from the go, I have loved old men. I keep wondering why did they go to those terrible wars. As I write these books I get the answers. During the wars, people were thinking – something they hadn’t done since the Enlightenment.” But it was May, “a Catholic” who nurtured her feelings. She was doughty – temporarily fired for refusing to give a second helping of roast beef to Shelah Richards’ theatrical partner whom she couldn’t stand – and devoted to Denis Johnston “despite his behaviour”, repeatedly interrupting his funeral in St Patrick’s Cathedral, preoccupied with the theft of the family silver.

“We were lucky to have May,” she says. She undoubtedly is part of the reason Jennifer Johnston, now 86, is still the consummate artist, open to her own vulnerability, still trying to retrieve that part of herself she lost the day her father left. “It’s a sadness,” she says. But it has made marvellous novels. 

Anne Harris

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our October issue, out Thursday, October 6.

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