When Paul Johnson was a schoolboy, he met Winston Churchill on the steps of the Clifton Arms public house in Lytham in Lancashire. The prime minister gave him one of the long matches that he used to light his cigars, emboldening young Paul to ask, “Mr. Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?” The reply was instantaneous: “Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down. And never sit down when you can lie down.”
Paul Johnson never seemed to conserve his energy, however. His prodigious output was unmatched by any other British writer of his generation. He published more than 50 books, became editor of the New Statesman magazine at the age of only 36 in 1965, debated regularly on Britain’s TV and radio shows, carved a reputation for himself as the best-known British historian in America—and, at a crucial moment in the history of his country, ignored the pleas of lifelong friends on the left and embraced the Thatcher revolution, which he recognized as the only way to save Britain from slipping down into the third tier of the world’s nations. He also wrote an outstanding history of the Jews, fired as he was by a lifelong loathing of anti-Semitism and all its metastasizing forms.
In the mid-1970s, Johnson bravely set his face against the trade-union militancy and Marxist activism that was wrecking the United Kingdom’s economy and democracy, and he denounced it in language of remarkable range and eloquence. “In the 1970s Britain was on its knees,” he later explained of this period in his life, “The Left had no answers. I became disgusted by the over-powerful trade unions which were destroying Britain.” Blessed with the remarkable capacity to type 1,000 words of searing, well-argued, factually supported polemic in only 15 minutes, Paul was a commanding presence in British journalism for half a century. He died at 94 on January 12, 2023.
Without his apostasy against the left in the period after Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975, it would have been possible for the Labour Party to paint her as an extremist reactionary bent on ending trade-union rights. Yet along with the Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt, the newspaper columnist Bernard Levin, and the novelist Kingsley Amis—all of whom had been Labour supporters since 1945—Paul was able to persuade many lifelong Labour voters that the party, which by this point had come to support unilateral nuclear disarmament, was no longer the same organization that it had been under Clement Attlee and his immediate successors following the Second World War, and that Thatcher could be trusted to rein in anti-democratic trade-union ultra-left militancy.
The result was to be 11 and a half years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Although Paul never joined the Conservative Party, he advised her and was occasionally called upon to contribute to her speeches. Paul was offered a peerage by Thatcher, and later also by Tony Blair, but he honorably refused on both occasions because he did not believe that journalists should accept honours from politicians. Instead of retiring to the cozy anonymity of the House of Lords backbenches, he continued in the Daily Mail and many other newspapers to issue broadsides against the ills of modern society. His firm Catholic faith, socially conservative beliefs, contempt for Marxism and anti-Semitism, patriotic support for Britain’s active role in the world, love of Ronald Reagan’s vision of America, and superb sense of humor and delight in mischief-making meant that he became one of the most readable British journalists of the 20th century.
It was probably Paul’s upbringing in the 1930s in the Potteries region of Staffordshire in the West Midlands, an area known for its no-nonsense plain speaking, that gave him the brutal honesty he unleashed in his 1988 book Intellectuals, one of his finest, in which he flays a series of famous thinkers for their abominable personal hypocrisy. “Didn’t think much of his opinions,” he once said of Jean-Paul Sartre, “and he was a very ugly little man.” Similarly, it might well have been the influence of Paul’s father, who was the headmaster of the Burslem School of Art, that encouraged Paul in his profound knowledge and love of traditional representation and left him despising much of the modernist art school, as expressed in his bestselling, countercultural work of 2003, Art: A New History. (Paul himself painted watercolors, giving them to friends.)
Nor did Paul reserve his commentary solely to the written word and his regular TV and radio appearances. When the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm was invited to say a few words at a London Library party in the early 1990s, Paul kept up a hilarious, low-level barracking of the Stalin apologist that had those around him laughing uncontrollably. His use of ridicule to puncture the pomposity and illuminate the fatuous inconsistency of leftist intellectuals was a constant joy to his many friends.
Paul was always helpful to young journalists and would-be authors, giving them extensive free interviews, often in his drawing room in his well-appointed house in Bayswater. In almost all cases they treated him with the respect his age and eminence warranted. On one occasion, however, an interviewer arrived to attack him with rude questions criticizing Paul’s admiration for Ronald Reagan. After answering a few of them perfectly politely, Paul got irritated and bored by the left-wing termagant. So he simply stood up and, without a word of explanation, went upstairs for a nap. The journalist, nonplussed and with his tape recorder still running, called upstairs several times and waited until it became clear that Paul was not returning, and then let himself out. It might have been uncharacteristically discourteous of Paul, but who among us hasn’t wanted to do the same thing?
Paul’s charming memoir, The Vanished Landscape (2003), was a funny and evocative paean to his early years, from his birth in 1928 to the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. It provides several glimpses into how and why he turned into the Promethean figure he became. His remarkable memory for facts derived from his mother, Anne, who, he writes, “came from a time when memory training was instilled and vast quantities of knowledge were stored in the spacious chambers of the mind.” Anne Johnson could recite all the rivers and bays of Europe, the kings and queens of England with reigning dates, the prime ministers from Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s dominions and colonies in order of acquisition, the decisive battles of world history, and so on. She had many thousands of lines of poetry by heart, including Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Southey, and Browning. When in later life Paul wrote his thousand-word pieces for the Daily Mail and other publications, he rarely had to consult the reference books in his library, thanks to his mother’s training. “She was an enchantress,” he wrote, “and the countless hours I spent listening to her are rich treasures I shall carry with me to my grave.”
Paul’s Roman Catholicism derived from Father Ryan, to whom he had to make confession from the age of six. “I doubt if he heard a word of my mumble,” Paul wrote of one of these early encounters, “but he pronounced absolution and said, ‘Tell the next [child] to make it snappy.’” Later on that day, Paul’s schoolmate Rena Milton asked him how many sins he had confessed, and when he replied three, “she positively smirked, and putting her hand on her hip and twirling, said, ‘I had nine!’”
Paul was educated at the Jesuit public school Stonyhurst from 13; his profound Catholicism was an integral part of his personality. His powerfully expressed belief that homosexuality was sinful produced a good deal of outraged criticism from his detractors, but although he had several gay friends, it was not a stance from which he ever resiled. From Stonyhurst, Paul won an exhibition to Magdalen College, Oxford, where from 1946 to 1949 he read modern history.
Paul considered himself a historian as much as journalist. His greatest bestseller, A History of the Modern World—published in the United States as Modern Times in 1983—provides a master class in how history ought to be written, blending narrative with insightful commentary. The extraordinary commercial successes of Paul’s books—it was said that his History of the Jews was given as a present at half the bar mitzvahs in America—meant that Paul never accepted advances from publishers, so he started receiving royalties from the moment the first copy of each book was sold. It is an almost unheard-of practice, but it gave him the satisfaction of knowing that he never needed to earn back advances, which of course made him popular with publishers, as did his practice of always indexing his books himself. His close and long friendship with the maestro publisher George Weidenfeld, who published much of Paul’s vast output, gave both men enormous pleasure.
Paul had an innate gift for friendship. Among his other close friends was Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of COMMENTARY and father of its present editor. Paul and Norman were contemporaries; both edited magazines of the left, then moved to the right, enduring ferocious criticism in the process. Among his younger American friends, the historian Amity Shlaes got to know him well in later years, around the time he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in December 2006. “Our country honors Paul Johnson,” Bush said at the investiture ceremony, “and proudly calls him a friend.” Richard Nixon became a fan after leaving office. He would not have been a fan when in office, however, as Johnson attended anti–Vietnam War demonstrations outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square in London.
In 1957 Paul married Marigold Hunt, the daughter of Dr. Thomas Hunt, physician to Prime Ministers Churchill, Attlee, and Anthony Eden. She is a sparky, delightful, and engaged woman whom Paul adored for the next two-thirds of a century. Her attractive personality deflected some of the more bitter criticism that would otherwise have been directed at her occasionally rebarbative husband. “Paul is offense,” their son Daniel has said, “and Marigold is defense.”
Marigold was educated at Oxford and later campaigned against poverty with prison reformer Lord Longford, the father of her great friend, the historian Antonia Fraser. In 1974, she stood as a Labour candidate in the safe Tory seat of Beaconsfield and never joined her husband in his admiration of Margaret Thatcher’s politics. On meeting Thatcher at a reception once, Marigold tried to make small talk, later recalling, “I was standing with a glass of Champagne and I said nervously: ‘Isn’t it lovely to be here, a real treat.’ And Margaret looked at me with such contempt and said, ‘I don’t get up in the morning and think about treats. I think about what work there is to do that day.’” In fact, of course, Marigold’s life extended to much more than treats, and she was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her work on the Northern Ireland peace process. She and Paul had four children, among them the aforementioned Daniel (a Commentary contributor, as was Paul) and the successful businessman Luke Johnson.
Paul Johnson was a rain-making journalist; what he wrote changed people’s minds and ultimately their votes, too. It is unlikely that the British people would have voted to reclaim their sovereign independence from the European Union in the Brexit referendum if it had not been for the decades-long work that public commentators—Paul at the forefront among them—had done pointing out the constitutional implications of Britain’s membership. His eloquence and vigor changed Britain, and probably far more than if he had followed his youthful idea of entering politics.
Of course the profound effect that Paul had on British politics and society made him widely loathed on the left after his mid-1970s apostasy, especially once he became one of the leading standard-bearers for the causes of Thatcherism, Zionism, and pro-Americanism. Far from disconcerting him, however, the abuse he received only ever confirmed him in his certainty that he was on the correct side. He had firm convictions and great moral courage, as well as a superb sense of fun. I knew him well for 30 years, and almost all my many memories of him involve laughter.
All writers worry occasionally that they are preaching into a void, that their work has little or no effect. Paul Johnson knew that he was making a difference. He knew it from his huge book sales, bursting mailbags, praise from friends, and—equally enjoyably—the howls of fury from his enemies. The phrase “Great Man” is bandied about far too promiscuously in an age when any sports personality, celebrity, or tycoon seems awarded the distinction by an undiscriminating media. Paul Johnson, however, was indeed a Great Man.
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