Northern Lights: Jennifer Johnston

Garbhan Downey recalls reading about a Derry he recognised and why Johnston should be a figurehead of Derry's City of Culture campaign

30 years ago, my late brother Rónán, then just ten, landed a part in a new BBC film, Shadows on Our Skin, which was being shot in Derry. He didn’t get the lead on that occasion, but his pitch-perfect performance as the hero’s friend, ‘Martin Casey’, was enough to win him a starring role in his next film, My Dear Palestrina, in which he shared top billing with Liam Neeson and Eleanor Bron.

I remember only two things about the filming of Shadows on Our Skin. Firstly (and this happened so long ago I’m almost afraid I might have invented it) one of the scenes went spectacularly awry.

Shadows on Our SkinThe script called for a mini-riot, so a few of the (English-accented) crew dressed up as British soldiers, while the prop-man painted a few sponges to look like half-bricks. And they all then headed off to Bull Park in the heart of the Bogside, whistling happy tunes.

Unfortunately, no-one thought to tell the local neighbourhood watch group. And by the time the paid actors, like my brother, had finished throwing their sponges, a posse about ten times the size had joined in with half-bricks of the non-sponge variety. And then the real army intervened to break it up so the whole thing wound up on the six o’clock news...

My other memory of that time was that author Jennifer Johnston gave Rónán a much-treasured hardback copy of her Booker-shortlisted novel Shadows on our Skin, on which the film was based. And, after he read it, he let me borrow it.

Although I was just 12, I knew then that it was wonderful. It wasn’t the plot - Johnston admits readily she doesn’t do plots. It was the atmospherics. Derry was never captured better in all its war-torn angst and anger. And yet, underpinning it all was the fundamental morality and decency in the people, as reflected in the relationship between the young hero and the ostracised outsider. For me, there was never a more powerful filmic or literary evocation of what it was like to live in the city at that time.

Johnston went on to win the Whitbread Prize (1979) with The Old Jest and write a series of novels that I, being young and foolish, had no interest in, because they weren’t set in Derry.

She did come across my radar once, when a local republican wrote a newspaper article which, I remarked, was extremely well put-together. 'Jennifer Johnston taught us creative writing in jail,' he grinned. 'I was her star pupil.'

Then, four years ago, my agent took a table at the Irish Pen dinner, at which Johnston was to receive the annual award for outstanding contribution to Irish literature. Not wanting to appear like a total bluffer, I got my hands on her two latest, The Gingerbread Woman and Grace and Truth, and read them cover to cover.

I was only sorry I had left it so long. No-one I’ve ever read, with the possible exception of John McGahern, has a better handle on the guilt of the abused. You close their books, breathe out and thank God for your happy life.

Not that my last-minute cramming was necessary, mind. When we got to the Pen dinner at Dun Laoighaire Yacht Club (and picked up a free Cross pen and pencil set, thank you very much), the craic, led by Johnston and our MC for the night, Roddy Doyle, was ninety. And all debate about the slow death of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy was drowned in a sea of champagne and raucous banter.Truth or Fiction

Doyle, I recall, began his speech by how he’d searched Google for information about Johnston’s upbringing. 'Johnston,' he announced, 'was born in Uddingston, South Lanarkshire in 1944 and first became known as ‘Jinky’ when she signed for Celtic Reserves aged 15...'

Johnston later retorted in her speech (in which, if memory serves, she did not make a solitary literary reference), that on a recent trip to China she had been stalked by a senior official, whose mission, it transpired, was to give her a book he wanted signed by 'Loddy Doyle'.

Not terribly politically correct, I’ll grant you, but unlike many of her ilk, Johnston refuses to take herself too seriously either, and so gets away with it.

In January next year, Jennifer Johnston (whisper it quietly) will turn 80-years old. A long-time native of Derry, she is still writing and still performing – most recently at the city’s Central Library.

As entries close for the first UK City of Culture award, (winner to hold the title in 2013), Derry council are seeking figureheads to champion their claim. The list is endless - Friel, Deane, Roma Downey, Phil Coulter, Dana, Feargal Sharkey, Martin O’Neill, Peter Cunnah, Eva Birthistle, Nick Cohn ... And that’s before we wheel out our Nobel laureates or open the box of Dead Poets.

For my money, if Derry’s bid is to succeed – which, of course, it will – Johnston must feature prominently among them. But in the interim, our city fathers and mothers could do a lot worse with our ratepayers’ money than to organise a helluva birthday bash for one of the finest women writers of an Irish generation.

Jennifer Johnston’s latest novel Truth or Fiction (published autumn 2009) is published by Headline.