Michael Johnston – Profile

Michael JohnstonMichael Johnston was born in Leith in 1936, grew up in the Scottish Borders. His parents were both artistic and talented. Michael went to Galashiels Academy, where he was bookish and not keen on rugby. In 1950, he auditioned for the BBC and read a story on Children’s Hour.

Leaving school he studied Textile Design but, in 1953, he also auditioned for the BBC Younger Generation programmes and for the next five years worked as an occasional freelance interviewer, presenter and question panel member. In 1955, he spent a summer working in France. He used his BBC experience to arrange an interview with Françoise Sagan, then a teenage French novelist, which was part of a radio documentary he recorded, wrote and presented.

After College, he had two years National Service as a Sub-Lieutenant, in the Royal Navy, taking part in Operation Grapple, Britain’s first thermonuclear tests at Christmas Island. This is the subject of his 2017 book H-Bombs & Hula Girls – written in collaboration with his fellow midshipmen.

Subsequently, he freelanced as a television news cameraman based in the Borders, until his father put his foot down and insisted he turn up to work at the mill.  He swam with the current of the sixties and seventies, acquiring on the way a wife and four children before moving to live on the southern fringe of Edinburgh.

He flirted with politics then and, but for the offer of a well-paid job as the UK representative of a New York based fabric importer, he might have stood in the first elections for the European Parliament. The American work allowed him time to read as he travelled, and to freelance when at home as a radio journalist for BBC Radio Scotland.

In the eighties, he joined the London headquarters in Carlton Gardens of what is now The Woolmark Company which then had offices in 30 countries. It meant being out of the UK in every calendar month and regular travel to the USA, Far East, South East Asia and Australasia as well as all round Europe. This was how he found the time to read the whole of Proust, as well as everything else, from Austen to Zola!

Michael Johnston wrote radio documentaries for the BBC

Leaving The Woolmark Company in the early nineties when it ran out of the money he had been helping it to spend and now divorced and remarried, Michael tried to retire to write but, instead, became co-founder of a school of strategic management run from a stately home near Harrogate. He also found time to write more radio documentaries for the BBC including one about the relatively unknown romance between Lord Thomson, Secretary of State for Air in Ramsay MacDonald’s cabinet and the Rumanian novelist, Princess Marthe Bibesco, in which the actress Janet Suzman played the leading role.

He tried to retire for a second time but not hard enough. He was elected a local councillor and, in 1997, became the Leader of Harrogate Borough Council and later a Board Member of the new Regional Development Agency, Yorkshire Forward. Retiring for the third time in 2001, he embarked on his too long postponed ‘career’ as a novelist and a programme of study with the Open University culminating in a first class BA (Honours) in Literature.  In parallel with his studies he was writing Brideshead Regained so as to be able to publish this hommage to Waugh in time for the writer’s centenary in 2003.

In 2009, Michael Johnston was awarded an MA (with Distinction) in Modern and Contemporary Literature by Birkbeck College, University of London.  His dissertation was on the impact of Margaret Thatcher on contemporary fiction.  Finished with studies for a while, he finally completed the thirty-year long writing of his art forgery novel, Rembrandt Sings.