We Were Not Alone: Brian Johnstone On His Recent Memoir

‘Much in the story is resolved; some is unresolved. But the writing of it has resolved much in my own mind.’

In this candid article, poet, writer and performer Brian Johnstone discusses the revelations and resolutions in his memoir Double Exposure.

‘Show us a carpet and we would sweep our worries under it’ I say, early on in my memoir Double Exposure. Like so many others born and brought up in the ‘let’s get back to normal’ atmosphere of post-war Britain, nothing was ever discussed. Disagreements were not to be countenanced. Any such attempt was dismissed as ‘arguing the toss’. No – doubts and worries were things to get over, to put aside. Normality, however staid, was paramount.

Our family was a secure unit – two parents, two children – no more. Life in middle class, mid-century, suburban Edinburgh was as it should be – father out at work; mother looking after the home. Why would I have questioned that? Why would I have expected anything but that bland normality? After all, it gave me something to rebel against as a fractious teenager. Something to look down on, even despise, in that self-righteous manner of the know-it-all youth.

But by twenty-five I’d got over that. Married and settled in a job myself, I had begun hesitantly to think there might be a point to my parents’ stance. But, unbeknownst to me, that was about to be challenged. The rug, under which so much had been swept, was about to be pulled from under my feet. Six months after my father’s early death, the first revelation appeared. We were not alone. There was more to our family than I had been led to believe. One more, in fact.

In the memoir I describe this as feeling like a game of musical chairs. We all had ‘to move round the family circle and sit down again, but in a different place from the one we’d been in before’. That never-discussed period in my father’s life – the war – had produced a daughter – my half-sister – and a first wife, into the bargain.

This was something to assimilate, to take on board if I could. That the situation had been concealed caused a lot of initial resentment. But my mother was able to fill in the back story and, although we struggled to understand why we had been kept in the dark, my brother and I eventually came to terms with the situation. After a lot of heart searching, we accepted it. Contact was made and the family demographic was sketched anew.

There is a time-lapse to this story. One in which visits were made, letters were exchanged and relationships were hesitantly shaped. But it was not until over twenty years later that the next piece in the puzzle fell into place. In a strange instance of symmetry, this was six months after another death – my mother’s this time.

But it was the same thing. A strange recurrence of the previous revelation. Another family member hove into view over the time horizon. Another hidden wartime episode was suddenly out in the open. Once again the family unit had to be resized, recalibrated – but this time there seemed to be no-one there who could fill in the details.

While the first revelation, twenty years before, had produced surprise and resentment, this one produced a much more profound sense of shock and bewilderment. Even getting back in touch with an aged second cousin, who had carried this secret for some fifty years, did little to allay my feelings.

It was these emotions that drove me back to my childhood, seemingly so staid and conventional. As a poet, naturally I turned to that form to explore and express all that the two revelations induced. Over a further time lapse – now also twenty years in duration – the muse took me through the ‘incidents and accidents’ of my younger years. Poems about childhood memories, family members, early friends. All were written, many were published in my various collections – but I still felt I had more to say.

Gradually it dawned on me that what I had in these poems was a sort of storyboard, a path through the confusion that rejigging the family circle had caused. And it was a unique story, as far as I could see. All similar memoirs – at least the ones I had read – were written from the point of view of those actively seeking lost relatives. The story that I had to tell was from the point of view of someone to whose family tree new and unknown members had been peremptorily added. I had to turn to prose. And the memoir was born.

I wrote Double Exposure over a period of some five years, researching as I went the social mores and accepted values of the time of my upbringing. It took me down paths I had never fully explored: the rich texture of city life in the 1950s; schooldays and holidays and Sundays; attitudes to unconventional behaviour; life in a more homogenous society; the nature of memory itself. Much in the story is resolved; some is unresolved. But the writing of it has resolved much in my own mind.

By a winding and often torturous trail, I have come to understand the motivation behind all the sweeping-under-the-carpet that went on. And others have too. And consequently we understand each other the better.

I wish the reader well if they choose to venture down this trail. It is one which underlines how different the past was – even the not-so-distant past. It is very much that different country the saying exemplifies. As I say in the book, ‘the current climate of openness is preferable to the reticence, obfuscation and denial’ that characterised the times my parents lived through.

But what I also say is that I hold nothing against them on this account. They were products of their time and background. Who am I to suggest they should – even could – have been otherwise?

Double Exposure by Brian Johnstone is out now published by Saraband priced £9.99.

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