In the midst of a passage devoted to the transcendent qualities of Henry V — ‘a true hero [with] a strong claim to be rated the greatest of all English monarchs’ — Paul Johnson abruptly drops in an aside that begins:
Once when I was giving a history lesson to the late Princess Diana, we discussed the predicament of a person born to be king. She said she had found [her husband] utterly selfish and self-centred because he had been spoiled from the cradle on. I pointed out that this was the common fate of heirs apparent.
Having blithely swung an axe-blow to the character of the Prince of Wales, the institution of royalty, and his own pretensions to modesty, he lurches back to an extravagant encomium of Henry’s kingly virtues. Similar egotistic detours appear repeatedly in the grand sweep of this crisply written, bizarrely selected cavalcade of heroes. We learn for example that Salvador Allende was his friend, although Johnson seemingly preferred the mass murderer, Pinochet; that Lady Pamela Berry admired his depth of learning — ‘darling, you know everything’; that Nancy Mitford confessed to him that she liked to imagine the execution of Lady Jane Grey as she masturbated; and that Margaret Thatcher irritated him by stealing his ideas and presenting them as her own.
Although mere decorations, these gossipy remarks provide many of the book’s pleasures. Its subject, however, aspires to weightier consideration, and could hardly be more timely. One attribute of heroism — celebrity — has largely succeeded in driving out the thing itself, and we need a reminder of its more estimable ingredients. Given Johnson’s distinguished career as a commentator with a conservative bent, the exploration of what makes a hero should therefore have made a rewarding theme.