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Martin Johnston (1947 – 1990)

Martin Johnston, Greece, photographer unknown Martin Johnston, Greece, photographer unknown

Martin Johnston was born in Sydney on 12 November 1947, the eldest child of two writers, George Johnston and Charmian Clift. When he was three, the family relocated to England, where George Johnston and Clift worked as journalists. In 1954, his parents decided to leave England to live and write in Greece. They lived first on the island of Kalymnos and then on Hydra; Johnston adapted to the local Greek schools and managed to excel in his studies, doing particularly well in modern and ancient Greek language. For much of their time in Greece, the family lived in strained financial circumstances, and in 1960 they returned to England. While George Johnston unsuccessfully tried to recommence a journalistic career, Martin and his younger siblings struggled to adapt to the England school system, and in 1961 the family returned to Hydra. After George Johnston’s autobiographical novel My Brother Jack became a success on its publication in 1964, the family decided to return to Australia.

In Australia, Johnston completed his secondary education at North Sydney Boys High School, a selective school, and subsequently matriculated to the University of Sydney in 1966, enrolling in an Arts degree majoring in English. He dropped out of university in 1968, to become a cadet reporter with the Sydney Morning Herald; he spent less than two years as a journalist before resigning to become a freelance writer. Johnston maintained an interest in Greek politics and campaigned against the military dicatorship which seized power there in 1967: one of his earliest published poems, ‘To Greece under the Junta’, appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in April 1968. In July 1969, Johnston’s mother Charmian Clift committed suicide. His elegy to her, ‘Letter to Sylvia Plath,’ was published in several poetry journals in 1970. After the death of his father, Johnston wrote another, highly-praised elegy, ‘The Sea-Cucumber: For Ray Crooke.’

In 1971, Johnston published his first poetry collection, Shadowmass. Two years later, he published a book of translations of Greek poems, Ithaka. With the help of a Literature Board fellowship he began work on a biography of his parents, but found the work distressing and transferred his attention to a novel, Cicada Gambit, which would eventually be published in 1983. Johnston suffered further family tragedy when his younger sister Shane, with whom he had grown up in Greece, committed suicide in 1974. In 1975, after the fall of the military dictatorship, Johnston and his then partner Nadia Wheatley travelled to Greece to live and write. In 1977, they left Greece for London, and in 1978, after travelling through Britain and Ireland, returned to Australia. Johnston’s third poetry collection, The Sea-Cucumber, was published in 1978. In 1979 he returned to Europe with partner Roseanne Bonney (whom he married in 1982), intending to recommence work on a biography of his parents. The trip involved a series of unfortunate occurrences, some of which are related in his sonnet sequence ‘In Transit’.

On his return to Australia in 1980, Johnston worked as a translator of Greek language television shows and movies for the Australian Special Broadcasting Service (SBS). In 1984, he published his fourth poetry collection, The Typewriter Considered as a Bee-Trap. Through the late 1980s, Johnston’s dependence on alcohol worsened, and he produced less poetry. In 1988–1989, however, he returned to Greece and spent a productive period working on poems and a novel. But the premature death of another family member – his half-sister Gae died of a drug overdose in late 1988 – affected him badly, and by the time he returned to Australia in early 1989 alcoholism had badly damaged his health. He spent period in rehabilitation in the year following his return, but after a collapse in June 1990 he fell into a coma, and died on 21 June 1990. Three years after his death a comprehensive volume of Selected Poems and Prose, edited by John Tranter, was published by the University of Queensland Press.

Poetry Collections
  • Shadowmass: Poems (Sydney: University of Sydney Arts Society, [1971]).
  • Ithaka: Modern Greek Poetry in Translation (Sydney: Island Press, 1973).
  • The Sea-Cucumber (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1978).
  • The Typewriter Considered as a Bee-Trap (Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1984).
  • Martin Johnston: Selected Poems and Prose (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1993).
Suggested Further Reading
  • Hazel de Berg, ‘Interview by Hazel de Berg,’ [1980] (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1993), pp. 256–65.
  • Martin Duwell, ‘Exiled by Circumstance and Inclination: Martin Johnston, 1947–1990,’ in Martin Johnston: Selected Poems and Prose (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1993), pp. 273–76.
  • John Lucas, ‘Martin Johnston and the Matter of Elegy,’ Jacket no. 11 (2000).
  • Geoff Page, A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Australian Poetry (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1995), pp. 136–40.
  • Mark Roberts, ‘Towards a New Diversity: Martin Johnston and the New Australian Poetry,’ Island no. 58 (1994), pp. 60–63.
  • Gig Ryan, ‘Martin Johnston (1947–1990),’ Scripsi 7.3 (1992): pp. 229–44.
  • John Tranter, ‘Martin Johnston, 1947–1990,’ Martin Johnston: Selected Poems and Prose (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1993), pp. xi–xxvi. [see linked file]
  • John Tranter, ‘Interview by John Tranter,’ [1989] in Martin Johnston: Selected Poems and Prose (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1993), pp. 256–68.