Tuesday 26 January 2021

F. H. Johnstone (b.1867), Old Mancunian, scholar, soldier, school master, poet

Below is a brief biography of F. H. Johnstone, which I have compiled, in order to learn something more of the then-Western Australian, occasional poet responsible for both the pleasant “The Lender’s Library” (1907; for my post on this, see here) and the somber war-time meditation on the ANZACs “Young Australia in Ancient Egypt” (1915), which I have transcribed at the end of this post.

Since there is something in Francis’s history that reminds me of two wonderful 1981 films: Gallipoli (1981) and Chariots of Fire (1981), this attempt to rescue him from oblivion is, therefore, a combination Australia Day and Anzac Day offering. (Probably the latter would be more appropriate, but I am impatient, so I favour the former.)

Francis was both an Oxford graduate and an Indian Army veteran who spent more than a decade teaching Western Australian Colonials in Greek and Latin, returning “home” to do the same at a Grammar School that had been founded in 1515, before volunteering to train England’s finest for the horrors of WWI.

For those who don’t know the film, Gallipoli “revolves around several young men from Western Australia who enlist in the Australian Army during the First World War.” Both films involve runners, and so the plots of the two films have become entwined in my memory: both are also terribly sad films, which had a profound impact on me when I saw them in 1981. I don’t know how many of his students at “The High School” in Perth ended up at Gallipoli. For their sakes, I hope it was none.

* * * * *

Francis Herbert Johnstone, O.M. (i.e., Old Mancunian), M.A. (Oxon; University of Western Australia), or “Frank” to his sister, was born 16 January 1867, won an Entrance Scholarship at Manchester Grammar School in 1879, followed by a four-year open scholarship for Classics at Wadham College, Oxford, in 1885, taking a 2nd in Mods and a 3rd in Greats; “Gentleman Cadet Francis Herbert Johnstone, from the Royal Military College” did three years full-time military service in the Northamptonshire Regiment from 14 September 1887 (The Times (14 September 1887); Hart’s Army Lists (1890), 292; London Gazette (13 September 1887): 4945), being posted to the 11th Madras Infantry 1 November 1889; and reaching the rank of 2nd Lieutenant on 16 November 1889 (London Gazette (17 February 1891): 885).

Francis returned from active duty, taking the post as school master at the Pocklington Grammar, 1889–90; Macclesfield Grammar, 1890–1902. On 14 December 1902 the King approved his resignation from the Indian Army (London Gazette (5 February 1904): 786); in 1902, Francis was appointed Second Master at The High School, Perth, where he stayed for twelve years, until at least 20 July 1914 (when the Bishop of Perth wrote to Manchester Grammar School—his alma mater—to help find him a position there). Towards the end of his time in Perth, the University of Western Australia awarded him a degree “Ad Eundem Gradum” (i.e., a degree awarded by one university to an alumnus of another; The West Australian (20 Mar 1913): 1). It was also about this time, the main school building was being constructed for The High School, which changed its name to “Hale School” in 1929 (see here).

In 1914, when drafting his C.V., Francis noted that he had trained up four successful Rhodes Scholars and that his “Total absence from work in 12 years has been 2 days, from influenza.” The last record I can find of Francis in Australia is that “Mr. F. H. Johnston, of Perth High School, [was] spending the summer holidays at Albany” according to a new report of 1 January 1915 (The Daily News “Mainly About People” [byline “Franziska] (1 January 1915): 3a).

In February 1916, Francis joined the staff at Manchester Grammar School (Ulula, no. 333 (February 1916): [1]); on 30 January 1917, Francis “read a brief but suggestive paper on ‘Literary Criticism’” for the Literary Society, “in which some of the most famous critics were discussed and some excellent advice was given as to the forming of personal judgments” (Ulula, no. 331 (February 1917): 20); from 10 November 1918 to January 1919 (when he would have turned 52), he returned to military service as temporary 2nd Lieutenant, training in the Manchester Grammar School Officers Training Corps “for service with Junior Division” in France (Record of war service, 1914-1918, Officers training corps (Junior division) Public school officers, and other members of the staffs (1919), 110).

Francis returned to Manchester Grammar, appearing in a series of photos during the 1920s held in the Manchester Grammar archives: in 1920, with the “Second Form”; in 1923, with the Classical Middle Third grade; from 1923–28, in a series “Classical Transitus” from; and in 1929, with “History Sixth”—by which time he would have been close to retirement (62 yrs).

The Manchester Grammar School archives also hold a “bundle” of letters from J. P. Bowden to F. H. Johnstone from 1923–27. The John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, holds three files of material (1905–15) belonging to Francis, “Miscellaneous material including verses by F. H. Johnstone and his C.V. and press cuttings” (from which much of my account of his academic career is culled); a file of 44 letters from Francis to his sister Mary Tout (née Johnstone), and a further 17 letters to other correspondents. The files were filmed as part of the Australian Joint Copying Project, and can be read online (here).

Poems written by Francis were published in a number of periodicals, and manuscripts of three of them survive at the John Rylands Library (“Then and Now,” “Egypt Speaks,” composed February 1915 [published as “Young Australia in Ancient Egypt” in Ulula, no. 315 (1915): 15–16], and “Exile”). “The Lender’s Library” was likely first published in 1907 by Mrs. Frances Zabel, but was reprinted in 1913 and 1947.

* * * * *

“Egypt Speaks,” aka “Young Australia in Ancient Egypt” can be read here (in manuscript) and here (in print: pdf file, pages 15–16). Below is the version that was printed. (Which may be identical to the MS; I have not compared them.)

Young Australia in Ancient Egypt

Through the long tale of my unnumbered age,
  Old as the oldest breed of men,
I turn in memory page or storied page,
  And live the past again.

I mind me when my people bowed the knee
  To gods forgotten, fain to raise
In Thebes and Memphis to the sacred Three
  Untiring meed of praise.

Then was the cycle of the sombre years
  When Isis for Osiris dead,
Weeping a sister's plenitude of tears,
  Could not be comforted.

I saw the kingly Pharaohs wax and wane;
  Their pomp is written on my sands;
Behold it, tomb and pyramid and fane,
  Rifled by alien hands.

Who were those bondmen low that were akin
  To Joseph? Bitter was the woe
Their Moses wrought me, when he fain would win,
  My Pharaoh's leave to go.

The Persian held me captive, and anon
  Great Alexander came to seek
Dominion with his men of Macedon;
  Thereafter I was Greek.

Through reign of Ptolemy on Ptolemy:
  And one of them—could you have seen
Both Caesar and the noble Antony
  Thrall to that laughing queen!

These were of Rome, and Rome was soon to be
  My mistress for a season, till
The hate of Mahmoud flooded over me,
  And bent me to their will.

Still am I theirs, but for one little while
  I was Napoleon's, to the day
When Nelson's seamen from a seagirt isle
  Shattered his dream of sway.

And now, behold, the youngest nation sends
  From far her youth and chivalry,
Her mother calls, and she responsive leads
  In all true loyalty.

Where Sphinx and pyramid so long have gazed
  Across my desert floor of sand,
The white tents of their sojourning are raised;
  In glittering line they stand.

I see their companies march to and fro,
  Their limbs with youth and pride endued,
Envious I mark them: Would that I could know
  Youth's ecstasy renewed!

Mine eyes have looked on centuries of war,
  And none, methinks, more like than these,
The chosen manhood of that southern shore,
  Their longed-for prize to seize.

What shall I take of them, or gain or loss?
  Will they be valiant to prevail?
And will the Crescent yield before the Cross,
  And Islam's warriors fail?

I wonder, I am old and very old,
  And change has ever been my fate,
What will be, will be, as the years unfold,
  Patient I sit, and wait.


Wednesday 20 January 2021

Libraries: The First Cut Is The Deepest

In 1887, Augustine Birrell explained that “Libraries are not made; they grow. Your first two thousand volumes present no difficulty, and cost astonishingly little money” but “After your first two thousand difficulty begins.”

When I started collecting, just shy of a hundred years after Birrell wrote this, both observations were still true, although he does not explain the connection between “growth” and “difficulty” quite as clearly as I would have liked.

I definitively had very little difficulty accumulating a room full of books but, when I got to about two thousand, difficulties certainly began. The difficulties Birrell has in mind (you can read his essay here) are a combination of money, haste and taste.

Money is always a problem when you have champagne tastes on a beer income, but the main difficulty I faced—whether I was living below the poverty line, as I did for two decades, or above it—was and still is, space.

Since thousands of volumes “present no difficulty,” and “astonishingly little money” to accumulate, “an ordinary man can in the ordinary course, without undue haste or putting any pressure upon his taste, surround himself with”—more books than he has room for.

And since libraries grow, and grow, and grow—sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but always and forever growing—they do need pruning every now and then, if—like fruit trees—they are going to be productive, and retain any kind of “shape.”

I have pruned my library a number of times over the years, many more times than I would have liked. I have pruned when I was poor and needed to sell books (will I ever stop regretting selling my first edition of Lyrical Ballads?), but more often I pruned when I had simply run out of space.

I have consoled myself on each occasion, that the pruning has forced me to be more selective than I would otherwise have been, and so more focused in what I collect, thus improving my collection as a whole.

While there is obviously some truth in this, and so the fruit-tree metaphor is a good one, I still mourn the books I have been forced to prune. Perhaps, as a result, the word I have always used is based on a much bloodier metaphor: “cull.”

Below is the story of my first library pruning / cull. This first cull was by a very wide margin, the most savage of all, so it looms largest in my memory. I am telling this story now, so I can tell another (about a specific book, in a separate post here), but I may tell the story of other culls in future. To tell the story of my first library cull, I have to tell the story of my first library.

My First Library

I started actively collecting books in my early teens. I was given a little pocket-money, but I earned a little more, mowing lawns and doing garden work in the neighborhood; later it was paper rounds, and supermarket shelf-stacking. I spent most of it on books.

I was very methodical about my book-buying. I would get the local paper on a Wednesday, and would study the garage sale listings, and then consult the street directory to work out the maximum number of garage sales—those that mentioned books—which I could reach on my bike, on a single Saturday morning circuit. On Saturday, I would head out shortly after seven, ride for about an hour, then work my way home, going from one garage to another, seeing what I could buy.

When I think about it now, my geographical range was enormous and still impressive. My range of purchases was far less impressive; I would buy science fiction, fantasy, and anything to do with the supernatural, with a very little literature and history thrown in when something piqued my interest. Most of what I bought was cheap pulpy paperbacks, but I picked up a few older hardbacks too.

At about this time I would also, on occasion, tag along with my mother on shopping trips to Hornsby or Chatswood, so I could make a hasty visit to a paperback bookshop or op shop. (I recently found a few surviving books bought on these trips—Bram Stoker and “Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult” paperbacks—but that is a subject for another day.)

In my mid- to late teens (especially after I left school), I earned more money, and ranged further, catching trains to visit secondhand bookshops all over Sydney, spending whole days trawling bookshops. I was buying more paperbacks, but mostly hardbacks, and a few antiquarian books, and focusing more on literature and history.

Once I started working full time, I bought even more. My first real job was working in the city as a storeman and packer; my five-day paycheck was about one hundred dollars. I have a few random records for my purchases at this time: my copy of Dante’s Inferno, illustrated by Gustave Doré, cost me $75—most a full week’s wage. Adam Alexander’s Summary of Geography and History, Both Ancient and Modern (1809) was $55.

Most of the other books I bought at this time were twenty to thirty dollars each, but I bought them four or five at a time, leaving nothing much in the bank by the time I quit. (That the price on all of these books would be the same today, over three decades later, shows what a poor investment this was!).

I did somewhat better at saving at my next job, but I also started buying what might be called “real” antiquarian books: 16C classics, 17C and 18C literature in English, private press and limited editions; I also bought some new books: leather-bound reprints, slip-cased facsimiles and coffee-table books. After my gap-years working (and collecting), I went away to university in Hobart, leaving behind a room full of books.

I returned after a year of studying English Literature, Latin, Classics and Medieval History—with even more books: adding scholarly editions and serious works of reference to my still-growing library. With space at home exhausted, and with transporting any number of books to, or from, Hobart being very difficult, I (stupidly, idiotically, rashly) decided to dispose of most of the books from my childhood and adolescence, especially my garage-sale finds: the pulpy paperbacks, the science fiction, fantasy, and the supernatural.

If I had gone to university in Sydney, I might have carted these books from share-house to share-house, getting rid of a few here and there, gradually winnowing the bookish chaff from the wheat. Instead, chaff and wheat alike went to Ashwoods and a few other bookshops in Sydney, while my most prized books were posted to Hobart—at enormous expense.

I began to regret this cull almost immediately, and so I began to replace some of the books I missed the most only weeks after selling them. But I had no catalogue of the books I had disposed of, and no substitute for one: no purchase receipts, reading records and no systematic photographing of shelves.

(The few photos I do have from before I went to University show only a little of a few of my shelves, and these photos are so blurry that you can only make out about half the titles.)

As the years have passed, my memory of my first library of garage-sale and op-shop finds has faded somewhat, and I stopped looking to replace the books that I sold so long ago. But I still occasionally find myself in a bookshop, with a familiar-looking book in hand, unsure whether this is simply a book I have seen many times, in many other bookshops, or whether it is one of the books I had had in my first collection.

Although it is satisfying when I am sure that the book in hand is a copy of a book I once owned, I usually don’t buy it just to satisfy my nostalgic impulse. Likewise, whenever I am driven by my nostalgic impulse to examine an old photo of my books, and find myself newly able to correctly identify a blur—presumably, after recently seeing a copy of the book in a shop somewhere—I do not race off to buy the book.

Instead, for some years now, I have simply added the titles to a list of my pre-University books that I have been maintaining. The list costs me nothing, and allows me to satisfy my nostalgic impulse without cluttering up my shelves with books I would never now want to buy or read.** (Of course, I do buy the ones I do still want to buy and read.)

Like book collecting itself, it is astonishing how easy it has been to accumulate a lengthy catalogue of my pre-University library, without “putting any pressure upon” myself. The 750-odd books I have identified probably represent less than half of those I had at the time. But what my catalogue tells me is that, of the more than 1500 books that I must have had before my first cull, I kept only about ten percent.

This figure explains why “prune” is not really the best term for my first … “library sale” (?). If you remove ninety percent of a fruit tree, all that remains is a stump. Even “cull” suggests a less drastic act of slaughter, that leaving ninety percent of the herd on the blood-soaked earth.

While—in raw numbers—I probably disposed of more books in later culls, the percentage disposed of has never approached that of this first cull. As I explained at the start, this is probably why it looms so large in my memory. That, and—as Cat Stevens rightly says—“The First Cut Is the Deepest.”

**I got the idea for this catalogue (as a substitute for re-constituting my entire first library) from Don Astlett’s Freedom from Clutter (1986): an excellent book. At one point, I had two copies—but, in time, I found the strength necessary to dispose of one.

[REVISED 2021.04.22]

Monday 18 January 2021

The Lender’s Library, 1907

I found "The Lender’s Library" printed in Perth Boy’s School Magazine, Vol. 1, no. 1 (2 May 1913): 5b. Google tells me that over thirty years later the poem was reprinted as “The Lender’s Litany,” in The Educational Magazine, Vol. 4 (1947): 143, but it seems not to have been printed again.

Since the poem nicely enumerates (albeit condemns) many of the evidences of reading that I am presently searching for, and hoping to find, I thought I should do my bit to preserve it. I have since done some research into the author and first publisher, which I will post separately.


The following lines, written by F. H. Johnstone, Esq., M.A., of Perth, are published this month for the benefit of all readers, but more especially for those boys who are thoughtless and careless in their treatment of books, and who have yet to learn that “books are friends,” and should be cared for as such.

We have to thank Mr.[sic] Zabel, of the Booklovers’ Library, Hay-st., Perth, by whom the copyright is held, for kindly allowing us to use the verses, and trust that they will be carefully studied and practised [sic].


From leaves turned down or folded back,
To mark the careless reader’s track;
From comments in the margin writ—
By pen or pencil void of wit;
From Vandal’s mutilating zeal,
Inflicting wounds that none can heal;
From candle grease or liquid spilt
On covers fair or edges gilt;
From dogs’ ears that too plainly say
“A dirty thumb has passed this way”;
From thoughtless failure to extend
Protection when the rains descend;
From artists of a tender age,
Whose sketch-book is the printed page;
From all such conduct as offends
The reader to whom books are friends—
Good Borrower, deliver me.

(Copyright Book Lovers' Library, Perth, W.A., 1st Sept., 1907[)].

[Updated 2121.01.20]