Monday 16 January 2023

Paul Johnson died on Thursday aged 94

I met him once at the inaugural meeting of the GK Chesterton Society in the Reform Club and quoted to him Chesterton saying 'The wildest hope of a healthy person is to get back to his first Christmas party, and be shy enough to be happy.' 

He replied 'And do you remember how Chesterton said you can remember what it is like to be six. By getting down on your knees.' 

I promptly got down on my knees and reported that GKC was right. 

I never much liked his writing, middlebrow and bad tempered. I did not at all share his keenness on Mrs Thatcher or Reagan, but now they both seem much better than their predecessors or successors. 

Geoffrey Wheatcroft must have enjoyed writing his obituary in the Guardian, from which I extract these plums.
On good weeks, Johnson’s Spectator columns were among the best things he wrote. Though he lacked the character of a real scholar, he was clever and widely read, with an old-fashioned well-stocked mind, so that he could turn out a polished column on almost any subject full of apt examples and pithy phrases.

That was to a lesser extent true of his far more lucrative “why-oh-whys” in the Daily Mail, attacking everything and everyone on the left. It was these fulminations that prompted Michael Foot’s jibe that, while every movement had its Judas, this was the first time the 30 pieces of silver had been turned into a weekly income. Tabloid editors who treated him with such reverence would have been dismayed by his private contempt for their papers. He once described from experience and with feeling the ordeal of the popular journalist, “writing to order, against a deadline, on a subject not of his choosing, for readers he does not respect and for an editor who is both demanding and gruesomely uncivilised”.

...Some of Johnson’s “big books” were well written and readable, but uncritical in approach. After the History of Christianity, and what one critic called “Paul Johnson’s sycophantic” History of the Jews (1987), a colleague said that “Paul will now write a book telling the Americans how wonderful they are”, and he duly did. A History of the American People (1997) was “the most malignantly error-ridden” book of its kind, wrote Robert Sam Anson in the Guardian, “to appear since the politburo went out of business”, and it also achieved the unusual distinction of being criticised from a liberal perspective by Conrad Black.
...Johnson chose wisely not to pursue fiction, although his enemies later liked to quote a lurid spanking scene from his brief oeuvre.

Despite that, he wrote a memorable onslaught on the James Bond books entitled Sex, Snobbery and Sadism (1958) in the New Statesman. In Johnson’s view, Dr No was “without doubt, the nastiest book I have ever read”, and he derided the Bond novels for their combination of “schoolboy sex fantasies” with suburban “snob-cravings”. This polemic caused Ian Fleming much distress.

...He once told the African American writer James Baldwin that only someone like himself who was Catholic, redheaded and left-handed knew what prejudice meant.
That was probably the right thing to have said to Baldwin.

Johnson moved from being left-wing to being right-wing after reading The New Despotism, a book from 1929 by Lord Hewart, Lord Chief Justice of England, which led to the founding of the Council on Tribunals in the UK.

Somewhere, long ago, I read something that implied that he and Lord Rees-Mogg were racists, but I have no idea if it is true. Probably it isn't.

Both were Catholics and conservatives, though Rees-Mogg was much the more intelligent and the better writer.

Some quotations from Johnson. 

'I agree with J.B.S. Haldane, a scientist too great to be a fundamentalist, who said that his chief impression, at the end of a lifetime of research, was of ‘the inexhaustible oddity of nature’. To me God will always be the Great Eccentric.’

'The truth is that by the time a person becomes conscious there is such a thing as a ‘working class,’ he has already lost touch with it and has ceased to be a credible authority on its characteristics.'
From the list Paul Johnson made of the century's greatest political figures

‘Only six weeks to go before the end of the century: time to draw up a list of its political success stories. My criterion is the simple utilitarian one of Jeremy Bentham: who did most to promote the greatest possible happiness of the largest possible number? Top of my list, then, is Lee Kuan Yew, who took over Singapore when it was pretty demoralised and its per capita income less than $100, and transformed it into one of the richest, safest, most orderly and sensi- ble countries in the world. The media did not like him. Good. He in turn did not like bead-jangling, hirsute, pot-smoking, guitar-strumming hippies, and all the false philosophies which go with that kind of thing. He kept them out. That is one reason Singapore is virtually crime-free and a little paradise of old-fashioned virtues. 

...Latin America has made a good recovery, in places, during the last two decades, and the credit must go largely to General Pinochet, who inherited a civil war, the world's worst hyperinflation and a flight of capital, and in less than 20 years gave Chile modern agriculture, competitive industry, a stable currency and the highest per capita income in South America. All the go- ahead Latin American states are following suit. His reward is to become Britain's first political prisoner since the 18th century, his jailer being the odious Jack Straw, But as Pope Gregory VII said, 'I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile.' ’

I agreed with all that then and agree now, but yet I was very pleased that Pinochet was arrested, even though the lawyer Nick Hammond pointed out to me that Pinochet was travelling on a diplomatic passport. (How could I have ignored this?) 

Johnson rated Coolidge above Mandela. That is obviously right.


  1. I can't really comment, not being a great reader of political commentary or indeed recent history. But I did enjoy the quotations, especially the one about the working class - "by the time a person becomes conscious there is such a thing as a ‘working class,’ he has already lost touch with it." The one about prejudice (Catholic, red-headed, left-handed) is excellent.

    1. I am not sure if the working class one is true - what do you think? Flannery O’Connor is a writer I should read. I don't think Baldwin is. She wrote in a letter:
      “About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind. Very ignorant but never silent. Baldwin can tell us what it means to be a Negro in Harlem but he tries to tell us everything else too. M.L. King I don't think is the ages great saint but he’s at least doing what he can do & has to do. Don’t know anything about Ossie Davis except that you like him but you probably like them all. My question is usually would this person be endurable if white. If Baldwin were white nobody would stand him a minute.”

      A Yankee Catholic magazine called Commonweal, where I found them, considers these words objectionable.

  2. Patrick Devlin (another Papist) reckoned Gordon Hewart the worst Chief Justice ever.

  3. I respectfully disagree with you Sir. I found Paul Johnson's historical works rather good - because he was concerned with what people actually believed and did, and rejected the idea that history has some predetermined progressive direction (the Hegelian doctrine may be high brow, rather than middle brow - but it also wrong). But then I rather liked Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher - most certainly they did not achieve the massive roll back of the state of which they dreamed, but they achieved some things. And at least they tried.

    1. Yes they did and I was in favour of that but also of the welfare state. I said nothing about his books - which I never read - I am quoting the obituary by Wheatcroft.

    2. I assume his books are middlebrow and have not read them but I dipped into one about the decline of religion and read that Hume's death shocked Europe because for the first time a great man who did not believe in God died without recanting. That is the kind point that I respect. I intend to browse through his (allegedly sycophantic) book about the Jews.

  4. I did not know that it was The New Despotism that converted Paul Johnson. As for James Baldwin - a good writer, but a fraud. A man who made up stories of being persecuted to hide the fact that he as a young writer had been well treated. Paul Johnson argued with his political opponents, yes sometimes heatedly. James Baldwin just sneered at people who did not share his politics (or at least the political positions he claimed to believe in) as if being conservative was proof of being mentally retarded, and so such people were not worth debating with.