On Writing ‘The Beautiful Daylight Has Gone’

Fred Johnston

The story, ‘The Beautiful Daylight Has Gone,’ is based on real events. They took place in my early childhood in Toronto, Canada, nearly sixty years ago. So is the story simply a reminiscence, a bit weepy, the sort of thing some cosy radio programmes might prefer? I hope not. Least of all is it intended to be sentimental; I have endeavoured to remove traces of that element, sentiment, too often indulged for its own sake. Nor is it some crazed allegory suggesting that the Jews of Toronto at that time had a natural penchant for fire-arms of any kind. We lived in a Jewish neighbourhood, I had a Jewish doctor. We lived in the converted and very comfortable basement of a Jewish household. It’s a story magnified, transmuted, I trust, through a potent mixture of memory and imagination into a story that stands outside of both its location and its time. It’s a view through time-tinted spectacles of a series of events. It is peppered with fictions, or perhaps a writer ought to say, spiced. Neither the location nor the characters are oath-accurate to the events. I have conjoined several events and people with the glue of fiction.

 

I do not like writing straight out of the bucket of memory and in any case, memory distorts and every memory, one might argue, is a fiction. Seldom is memory truth. The story attempts to capture a certain essence which is its own truth, much as a poem might, or ought, to do. The most elemental truth in the tale is that certain events had a profound effect on me. Beyond that, it’s hard to know. One may conjecture, but that’s a reader’s, not a writer’s job.

 

Canada itself had a very deep effect on me, so much so that, only quite recently, have I understood the degree to which I resented my parents for not staying there, for returning to an Ireland which, bleak then, has never quite improved to my mind. In Canada, I had friends, I was at school, I spoke and dressed and acted like a little Canadian. When we returned to Dublin I was an outsider. And in Dublin I witnessed what I now recognise as poverty; at first among the kids in the street, and later, in what was expected of me. Some of my family chided me for a snob simply because I chose journalism as a career. An only child, I have felt double-fettered by a need to fit in and a desire not to be thought snobbish. For the first time, I was introduced to the notion of ‘knowing one’s place,’ and staying in it. Canada, at least in first memory, was a place of warmth, light and colour. It was the psychological and imaginative opposite of Ireland. I think, for me, it still is.

 

Educated later in Belfast, Northern Ireland, at St. Malachy’s College – a fine old school, alma mater to, among others, the novelist Brian Moore, who also took to Canada – my first introduction to good writing was through H. Rider Haggard and Graham Greene. Still in my teens, I discovered Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck and James Baldwin for myself. Typically, Baldwin’s great novel, ‘Another Country,’ was banned in the Irish Republic. My lust to write – it was nothing less – began almost at once. I discovered that writing permitted me to invent controllable worlds, environments over which I had some odd dominion. Not having experienced life, I wrote, quite unsuccessfully, out of the imagination. In writing was escape and reconstruction combined. I wrote because the world bored me silly. Much later in life, I found success with stories whose characters suffered from this ennui to a self-destructive degree. For the most part, my characters have remained at emotional odds with a world that does not and probably can not fulfill their needs at any level. Happiness is attained only when they turn themselves inside-out, wear their coats reversed, become shocking, even in an amusing way. I have published two collections of stories, Keeping The Night Watch (Collins, Ireland) and Dancing In The Asylum (Parthian, Wales.)

 

Nowadays, short story collections are all the fashionable publising rage in Ireland, if you are a scribbler under thirty-five. Irish literary critics and commentators seem utterly to have forgotten the mounds of short stories published by writers in the ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies. The death of memory in this case is virtually assured by shock-and-awe publicity campaigns, and the buck-shot blasts in reviews of words such as unique, mesmerising, long-awaited, fascinating and so on.

 

I didn’t come up in such an age. Insofar as that means anything, I tend to write in a fairly straightforward manner, traditionally, if you like. The late playwright and story-writer, John Arden, with whom I was close friends for some time, thought my stories more European in flavour than typically Irish. That rather delighted me. I read and publish poetry in French and am taken with European novelists, especially some of the younger ones, who seem to have a brightness about them, even in a darkened room. I think too many Irish writers of the younger stamp try very hard to do what their European counterparts do with ease. In creative writing classes, whose value I doubt though I am employed to give them, I recommend that would-be prose writers go to Dostoievski, Balzac, Turgenev and Joyce; all the style and craft you need is in there.

 

Much as when I started out, I tend to write from experience cut with observation and made piquant – I hope – with imagination. I can’t be too clever and I know this because I have tried. I would begin with a modest recipe for a decent soufflé and end up with road-kill.To return to it, I think ‘The Beautiful Daylight . . . .’ is a quite digestible soufflé. I don’t think there is a bitter after-taste, at least I trust not. The ‘daylight’ in this case is, I suppose, a sense of innocence, which is obvious enough, yet in with that is my life-long regret at having known one life only to be beamed up to another. In a real sense, I can do nothing more with it. I cannot revisit it. Published, of course, it no longer belongs to me. It must fend for itself. In some sense too, it must grow up.

 

It was not a particularly difficult story to write. One version of it, lost long ago, was written in my twenties. Interestingly, at least for me, is realising that I had much the same framework for the original story forty years ago. So perhaps it might be argued that whole pieces of the story are simply immovable. And of course the young man who wrote the first story no longer exists. The problem with childhood is that one is never still a child when one comes to write about it.

 

I am a lazy writer and consequently find it hard to be dragged from an episode of CSI Miami to the computer screen. Is writing poetry the lazy prose writer’s way of justifying himself? I don’t know. Hopefully, things aren’t like that. Poetry has one use, prose another. That seems much more comforting. I am delighted in many ways, therefore to have this story published here. And Canada? Several years ago I applied for a visa to go there. Quickly they ascertained that my father had been there long enough to become a Candian citizen, which would automatically entitle me to become one too. Had I applied in time.

 

Alas, I was four weeks too late.

 

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Fred Johnston was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1951. He worked as a journalist for some years and in 1986, founded Galway’s annual international poetry festival, Cúirt. Recent work has been published in The Spectator, The New Statesman, and prose and poetry have been published widely. Two collections of short stories have been published and three novels. His short story collection, Dancing in the Asylum, is published by Parthian Books.

© Fred Johnston, 2015. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2015.

‘The Beautiful Daylight Has Gone’ is featured in the Winter issue of The Lonely Crowd, which can be purchased here.