Paul Johnson first came to my attention on Sunday, June 26, 1983 when The New York Times Book Review published Robert Nisbet’s extraordinary notice of Johnson’s work Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties.
Reading Nisbet’s essay, I wondered why the Times agreed to print it on the front page. After all, the book’s premise that “statism along with moral relativism [was] the crowning disease of the twentieth century, even in the democracies” couldn’t possibly be anything but anathema to the editors.
Interestingly, Johnson’s argument that Albert Einstein’s scientific theory of relativity (and the relativistic moral theories many were glad to draw from it) was “the principal formative influence on the course of a century of history [because] it formed a knife…to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture” struck a cord with enough Americans to push Modern Times to the top of the Times best-seller list.
Since the publication of that work, Johnson has been recognized as one of the world’s most distinguished and popular historian/journalists. The breadth of his knowledge is amazing, and he has the remarkable ability to transform complex topics into wonderfully lucid prose.
The many sides of his versatile mind are exemplified by the wide range of his writing. In the United States, his Birth of the Modern, Intellectuals, A History of the Jews, A History of Christianity, A History of the American People, have commanded large audiences and remain in print. President George W. Bush, a big fan, awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in December 2006.
In November 1989, I had the privilege of spending an afternoon at Johnson’s London house. He and his wife, Marigold, were charming hosts, who put me at ease. What I particularly remember about that visit was the tour of his writing room – a walk-in closet with built-in bookshelves and two typewriters on a desk. “How,” I asked, “can you create thousand-page tomes in this tiny room?” “Easily,” he replied. One typewriter was for text, the other for footnotes and the confined space, he said, permitted him to reach reference books without getting out of his chair. (Frankly, I would go out of my mind writing in a closet.)
Paul Johnson was born in Manchester, England in 1928. A Roman Catholic, he was educated by the Jesuits at Stonyhurst and received a second-class honors degree from Oxford. After army service, he became a journalist, joining the staff of the liberal New Statesman in 1955 and serving as its editor from 1965-1970. His first of fifty books, The Suez War, appeared in 1957.
In the late 1960s, Britain’s fiscal, economic, and cultural decline moved him to the right. “In the 1970s,” Johnson wrote, “Britain was on its knees. The left had no answer. I became disgusted by the powerful trade unions which were destroying Britain.” Johnson shocked his left-wing friends when he not only supported but became an advisor to his former Oxford classmate Margaret Thatcher.
Johnson has led a remarkable life. As a writer, editor, historian, broadcaster, and lecturer, he has had opportunities to meet with many of the world’s leading personages. And in his eighty-second year, instead of a memoir, he has penned Brief Lives (Hutchinson Press and currently available only from Amazon in the U.K.), an unvarnished recollection of 250 prominent people he has known. Johnson describes this work as raising “the curtain on the human comedy I have witnessed and present[ing] what I have seen, and heard, and learned, often in whispers and asides.”
Here’s a sampling:
Martin D’Arcy, S.J. (1888-1976), “His sermons were tremendous. But afterwards you could not remember what he said or what they were all about. He told me: ‘That does not matter. A sermon should disperse a species of spiritual magic, which lifts up to soul, the sursum corda, and make one’s theological nostrils twitch.’ There was always something a bit cloudy about him.”
Graham Greene (1904-1991), “His understanding of Catholic theology was defective and makes nonsense of the plots of two of his novels. Unlike Evelyn Waugh, a good theologian, he never understood what the Catholic Church was about. At heart he was a twisted Calvinist.”
Cardinal Basil Hume (1923-1999) “created as Cardinal-Archbishop, a reputation for sanctity he did not deserve.”
John Paul II (1920-2005) “set about rescuing the runaway Church from its unchecked descent into careless liberation and pointless change. . . . John Paul was a great man, an outstanding pope in the tradition of Gregory the Great, Hildebrand, Innocent III, and Pius X, and a saint, who will, I hope, shortly be declared so.”
Msgr. Ronald Knox (1888-1957) “The Catholic hierarchy, even more stupid and philistine than it is now, made little use of his talents, though he was given the cushy job of a chaplain at Oxford University, where he wrote his best book, Let Dons Delight. He wrote a serious book, Enthusiasm, about those dangerous people who think they have a direct line to the Holy Ghost.”
Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) “led a life of sound and fury which in the end signified little. . . . His Darkness at Noon (1940) I read . . . on the advice of the Jesuits. They were right because it cured me of any possible tendency to embrace the far left.”
Margaret Thatcher (b. 1925), “I liked Mrs. T and admired her. I saw her as a savior of the country, like Churchill in 1940. And, of course, she did save the country.”
Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), “His way with words could be startling. Words spoken, but especially written, were the most important things in life. He loved getting letters in the morning, and would answer them right away. His diaries were written in the evening. Hence the contrast between the two thick volumes of his letters, and his diaries; the first is sober, the second liable to convey a whiff of alcohol.”
Paul Johnson has been an indispensable commentator on our times. Let’s hope Brief Lives will not be his last words on the subject.