Remembering Douglas Johnson

Remembering Douglas Johnson

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Simon Hoggart writes:

Douglas Johnson, who has died at the age of 80, was one of the most distinguished — and most entertaining — of the academic writers who have appeared in the columns of The Spectator. In fact, the word ‘academic’ has perhaps the wrong connotations, for in spite of Douglas’s great scholarship, few people working in university education were less remote; as a lifelong student of France, he was fascinated by the real life and real people of that country. For instance, many historians who have written about the Dreyfus affair used it to create ponderous studies of social and political change. Douglas knew that it was fundamentally a tremendous story and a great drama, which is why his book on the subject, France and the Dreyfus Affair (1966), conveys the feel of the country and its era far more vigorously than screeds of dense, ideological analysis.

He knew many French politicians personally. His elegant essays on modern French politics, as well as recent and more distant French history, were sharp, illuminating and expressed with a lucidity and wit which meant that his name over a Spectator piece immediately drew even those readers whose interest in France mainly concerned food and property. To him, French history was a continuous tapestry, and could not be chopped into separate centuries or discrete events. You could not fully understand the Revolution without understanding Mitterrand; you could not understand Mitterrand without an awareness of the Revolution, Napol-eon, the Commune and the Occupation.

Like many people who have a foot in both countries — his widow, Madeleine Rébillard, is French and they lived both in Paris and London — he was always described as a Francophile. He was, but unlike some he never allowed his love for the country to turn into unqualified adulation. He had a cool and sceptical eye for French politicians and their machinations. In spite of this, he rose two ranks in the Légion d’Honneur. I can still see him at the French ambassador’s residence, listening to the encomiums, head cocked, sensible of the honour, but with a small, wry smile at the corner of his mouth.

One of Douglas’s most striking gifts was his ability to keep his own views to himself. He delighted in hearing and passing on anecdotes, but it was always pointless to ask what he thought, or how he would have voted. In later life he came to know Margaret Thatcher and admired her. He was one of a small group of experts invited to Chequers to advise her on present-day France. (A similar event on Germany had ended in rancour, as the prime minister refused to believe that the people of that country had changed.) At 11 am the party was served coffee, but Mrs Thatcher received a tumbler full to the brim of whisky. If she was drinking that now, Douglas wondered, what would she be like after lunch? In fact she sipped the scotch throughout the entire meal, finishing the last drop with coffee, and conducted throughout a sober and useful debate on the topic. Douglas left with a great admiration for her ability to grasp new ideas and new ways of thinking, and to cope with lavish quantities of booze.

David d’Avray writes:

For several reasons it was not easy to know Douglas Johnson, but those reasons could all be traced to a certain self-effacement on his part, a deflection of direct observation through which he kept secret an inner self that was even more interesting and attractive than the remarkable exterior. To call him self-effacing sounds paradoxical. People would naturally gravitate towards him and when he entered a room there seemed always to be more oxygen in the atmosphere. You could never guess what he would say next. It usually left you smiling, but you did not know what was going on in his mind. Another reason why it was easy to miss his real personality was that in some external respects he was a brilliant specimen of a type.

He belonged to a generation when grammar school boys and girls were beginning to compete successfully with those from public school for the best university places. Douglas’s Oxford college was not particularly congenial to a grammar school boy. Entering it during the war, he felt the slight when public school freshmen were greeted, and placed in famous regiments. Still, he was there, near the start of the brief golden age of access to elite universities. The fascination with France that crystallised in his years as a visiting scholar at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (in the rue d’Ulm) also fitted into a distinguished pattern of British academics, men who identified closely with a particular country or region and explained it to their compatriots.

As lecturer and professor he fulfilled perfectly the roles required of him. His books were outstanding. He liked young people and the sound of his own voice (as he once put it) and so succeeded equally as a teacher of small groups and as a lecturer so much on top of his subject that he did not need notes. As a Head of Department and Dean of Arts at UCL he brought flair to these demanding administrative roles, showing much discreet kindness to colleagues along the way. And he combined all this with a parallel career as a high-class intellectual journalist and as a frequent reviewer in these pages as in many others.

His central role as interpreter of France, which explains his fame and the distinctions he received from the French government, could lead to misunderstandings. To observe French society from the inside Douglas realised that one needed to be accepted by a group; from his days at the rue d’Ulm he got to know famous figures on the far Left, and he read L’Humanité, though to draw inferences from this about his personal political views would be a major mistake.

Certainly one would be hard put to it to find any political ideology in his historical writing. He was fascinated by the drama of French history, but he did not try to impose his own personality on it. He loved his French wife Madeleine, but it would be misleading to say that he loved France, and indeed what does it mean to love a whole country? He just couldn’t get enough of observing France and trying to make sense of it, watching it with open eyes as an independent rather than trying to fit it into a framework. In this respect he was unlike Fran