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George Henry Johnston (1912–1970)

by Maurice Dunlevy

George Johnston, by Australian News and Information Bureau, c.1965

George Johnston, by Australian News and Information Bureau, c.1965

National Library of Australia, 53047053

George Johnston, who died on Tuesday night, was one of the most successful Australian novelists of the 1960s.

His 'My Brother Jack' (1964) sold more than 100,000 copies in hard cover and paperback, and was shown twice after his wife Charmian Clift, turned it into a television serial while Johnston was in hospital.

The novel's detailed picture of Melbourne between the end of World War I and the closing days of World War II stirred nostalgia in the hearts of thousands of Australians.

It was the first volume of a trilogy, which continued last year with 'Clean Straw for Nothing', about the problems of a marriage and of an expatriate.

When Charmian Clift died a year ago Johnston had been working for two weeks on the third volume, 'A Cartload of Clay'. He continued to write it as a kind of therapy. "I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't been a writer", he said after his wife's death.

Johnston was born in Melbourne and grew up there. He became a successful journalist and one of Australia's leading war correspondents. In 1941 he wrote two books about the war at sea, 'Grey Gladiator' and 'Battle of the Seaways'. A year later he wrote the highly praised 'Australia at War'.

In 1949 his first novel, 'High Valley', written in collaboration with Charmian Clift, won the 'Sydney Morning Herald' prize for an Australian novel.

Johnston visited about 60 countries during his life and his 25 books were partly a record of his travels. Their settings included such countries as China, Greece and Assam. In China in 1945 he was horrified to find the bodies of 100,000 people who had died of famine and he later returned to the country in his imagination in one of his earliest semi-autobiographical novels, 'The Far Road'.

Greece was the setting for 'Closer to the Sun', a novel about a married couple on a Greek Island. The book was a slab out of his own life. He left a prosperous career as a journalist in London and went to Hydra for nine years with his wife, "to sort himself out". There he wrote a series of potboilers, including six widely translated mystery stories under the pseudonym, 'Shane Martin'.

On Hydra he contracted tuberculosis. At first he thought he had cancer. "I was geared for the short course'', he said. "Instead, I learned I had TB. It was the long course, unpleasant but slow, without even the drama".

Adjusting himself to the bad news, he got a sort of "womb-yearning" for the past. "A man brought a load of wood every day on a donkey and we kept the fire going day and night. Charmian sat beside me, and we talked interminably about my boyhood in Melbourne. I found after a while I could remember everything, every house, every shop ... It was then I had the idea of a trilogy".

The first volume, 'My Brother Jack', won him the Miles Franklin award in 1964. 'Clean Straw for Nothing' (1969) won it for him a second time. Between the two books he kept the money coming in with freelance journalism, documentary films and coffee table books, including the highly successful, 'The Australians'.

He had come back to his gumtree and kookaburra womb to find a new land, a people without a soul, and some uncomfortable ghosts from his past. "I would like to help Australians to find a new identity, a new soul, a new spirit", he said on television. But to do so he had to sort out his own attitude to a country where he had left "the irrecapturable rapture of being young". He was trying to do this in the third volume of the trilogy during the past year.

If he finished it, he said once, he would give writing away and go and fetch yabbies.

The yabbies never saw him. He took his gaunt, thin frame to a Sydney hospital, where he broke all the rules, and he died, still trying to sort out himself and his country.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Maurice Dunlevy, 'Johnston, George Henry (1912–1970)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

George Johnston, by Australian News and Information Bureau, c.1965

George Johnston, by Australian News and Information Bureau, c.1965

National Library of Australia, 53047053

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Martin, Shane

20 July, 1912
Caulfield, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


22 July, 1970 (aged 58)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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Military Service
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