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Good Show to All That

The great Paul Johnson has penned a sort of counter-autobiography.

By From the September 2010 issue

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Brief Lives: An Intimate and Very Personal Portrait of the Twentieth Century
By Paul Johnson
(UK: Huchison, 304 pages, £20)

PAUL JOHNSON NEEDS NO to most readers of this publication, or indeed to serious and literate men and women throughout the English-speaking world (and in some cases, beyond it). Journalist, longtime editor of the New Statesman, television personality, and for the last three decades a serious historian (Modern Times, History of Christianity, History of the Jews, Birth of the Modern), he is now in his ninth decade. His wide-ranging work has inevitably brought him close to some of the outstanding figures, good and bad, of the past century. This book is a kind of random harvest.

Brief Lives is in fact a sort of counter-autobiography; instead of talking about himself, Johnson talks about others -- people he has seen up close and personal. The ensuing vignettes range from a paragraph to several pages. They include politicians, entertainers, intellectuals, or pseudo-intellectuals society ladies, lawyers, and writers. Unfortunately, quite a few British personalities will be unfamiliar to any American under the age of 50, itself an indicator of the cultural gap that has opened between our two nations these last two decades, an abyss that the current occupant of the White House, himself a man without a country, is endeavoring to widen yet further. Nonetheless, there is still enough here of common interest to justify an American publication. Awaiting that happy day, this reviewer offers a few choice morsels.

Here is the Duke of Beaufort, master of Britain's principal hunt (a sport vindictively prohibited by the recent Labour government), justifying his "trade": "I know a bit about it. That is, I know a hell of a lot about it....You may think I'm a stupid, wasteful fellow, but running a pack of hounds provides work and gives pleasure to a lot of people, as well as the hounds who, let's face it, are more important than people. Well, nicer anyway."

Or the late Chilean president Salvador Allende -- this quote comes from before he entered into left-wing martyrdom, i.e., when he was known around Santiago mainly as an assiduous skirt-chaser and a lover of fine imported whiskies: "I shall never, I think, be president. The right-wing vote is too big. But they might possibly split, and then I will slip in between them." That, of course, is precisely what happened a couple years after the comment was uttered. But, as Johnson observes, once Allende took power, the extreme left seized control of his government and pushed the center and right into each other's arms -- and to knocking on the barracks doors to bring the entire business down.

Meeting the late Princess Diana for the first time, Johnson was stunned to be asked, point-blank, who exactly the Prince Regent was. "Why do they talk about him -- you know, Regent's Park"? she inquired. "Was he important?" Then, the stunner: "What does it mean, 'Regent'?" Johnson replied with a rather lengthy description of one of Britain's most selfish, self-indulgent monarchical figures, George IV. Diana was indiscreet enough to follow this up with an anecdote about her husband's treatment of servants that established more than a biological link to his notorious ancestor.

Some of Johnson's judgments of people may surprise. He describes Richard Nixon, our 36th president, in these terms: "I have rarely met a man so anxious, right to the end, to acquire knowledge. He was much more interested in learning than in talking about himself....He lacked the ego obsession characteristic of the professional politician." He speaks well of the late Labour leader Aneurin Bevan, of former U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles, of Lauren Bacall ("always," she told him, "give people, visually, a little less than they want of you"), of Hubert Humphrey ("the jolliest politician I ever met"-this was, of course, before his terminal humiliation by his patron, Lyndon Johnson), and (to my astonishment) of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Less surprising is his favorable portrait of David Ben-Gurion, who thumped the desk while urging Johnson to read the Bible -- "The Bible is a fact. [Bang.] A record and a prophecy. [Bang.] It is all there, Mr. Johnson. Read your Bible, understand your Bible, and you won't go wrong about the Jews. [Final bang.]"

BUT MOST OF THE PORTRAITS are penned in acid, and a delightful liquid it is. Chou En-lai: "He reminded me of an old-fashioned nonconformist clergyman, in his black clothes, discreet, seemingly humble manner, and clasped hands." Julius Nyerere, late president of Tanzania: "the first of the great black African humbugs." Jawaharlal Nehru: "shifty, inconsistent, mendacious, and hypocritical." Picasso: "He did more harm to art than all the Goths and Vandals, the Puritan iconoclasts and the totalitarian thugs combined." Bertrand Russell: "a clever man, devoid of wisdom and with poor judgment." Robert Maxwell: "the only man I ever met who genuinely radiated evil." (Obviously Johnson never met the recently deceased Robert Strange McNamara.) There is an unforgettable portrait of E. M. Forster on the steps of the Reform Club -- "the epitome of the Man in the Dirty Raincoat."

Perhaps the anecdote worth reproducing at greatest length concerns the publisher Frank Pakenham, Lord Longford. One of his lordship's interests was a campaign against pornography. The committee he formed to advance his cause included, remarkably enough, Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard.

He was once proceeding down Harley Street [Johnson writes] with a large suitcase full of pornographic material, when the cord holding the disreputable bag together snapped, and its contents fell all over the pavement. A lady phoned the police, saying, "A scruffy old man is selling dirty books outside my house." A policeman duly came up to Frank, who was trying to stuff the magazines back in his case. "'Ullo, sir, who are you and what might you be doing?" "My name is Lord Longford and this is my homework." "Is that so, sir, and you would please step this way to the station with your wares and we will sort it all out."

Johnson claims that he was taught to write by the iconoclastic historian A. J. P. Taylor, who told him to keep his sentences short. "Just occasionally put a longer one. Strong verbs. Few adjectives. Forget about adverbs, unless essential to the meaning. Short quotations, if any. Beware of subjunctives....All writing is a series of tricks...the great thing is to master all the best tricks of others, then invent some of your own." And, Taylor, added, "always work hard. Nothing is ever accomplished without a lot of sheer hard work." He obviously followed this counsel, and two generations of readers are the richer for it. 

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About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.