Paul Johnson

Season’s greetings

My recollections of Christmas Past are dominated by the fabrication of the family card. It was one of my father’s principles that Christmas was a family event and that any cards sent out should be created within the family. It was quite wrong to buy one. Happily he was an artist of the old-fashioned sort,

A gimlet eye

We should be grateful to families which encourage the culture of writing letters, and equally vital, the keeping of them. Leopold Mozart, for instance, taught his son not only music but correspondence, and as a result we have 1,500 pages of letters which tell us everything we know of interest about the genius. His younger

Paul Johnson’s books of the year

The most nourishing book I have read this year is Armand d’Angour’s The Greeks and the New: Novelty in Ancient Greek Imagination and Experience. The author teaches classics at Jesus College, Oxford. He plays the piano beautifully, and also the cello, can talk fluently on art and literature and so is the ideal person to

The meanest flowers that blow

Sarah Raven comes of a botanising family. Her father John, a Cambridge classics don, travelled all over the British Isles studying wildflowers. Like his own father, Charles Raven, he was a gifted watercolourist, and between them they drew almost every plant in the British flora. Sarah still possesses 18 volumes of their watercolours. Nevertheless, to

When the going got tough

The acute emotional pain caused by his first wife’s infidelity was of priceless service to Evelyn Waugh as a novelist, says Paul Johnson Evelyn Waugh died, aged 62, in 1966, and his reputation has risen steadily ever since. His status as the finest English prose-writer of the 20th century is now being marked by an

Sense and magnanimity

People see William Rees-Mogg as an archetypal member of the Establishment. But this is not quite true. His father’s family had been modest landowners for centuries, but his mother was Irish-American and Mogg was baptised a Catholic. His religion has brought him such happiness as he has enjoyed, including a long and comfortable marriage, but

Heroic long-suffering

English patriotism was still a force in 1914. On the first day of the war, my mother’s three brothers, and my father and his two brothers, all joined up together, in the Artists’ Rifles. On the first day of the second world war, which I remember well, there were some similarities, but they were superficial.

The power of a pocket

In 1951, Winston Churchill, then leader of the opposition and aged 77, scored a humiliating Commons victory over the new chancellor of the exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell. Not for nothing did Aneurin Bevan call Gaitskell ‘a desiccated calculating machine’. His dry Wykehamist tone made his financial statements seem interminable, and this one soon had the House

Sins of the fathers | 26 March 2011

The trouble about writing a history of the popes is that there are so many of them. Usually elderly when elected, most of them have only lasted a few years. The longest reign was that of the mid-19th-century pope, Pius IX, Pio Nono, who clung on for 31 years. In our own times, Pius XII

Failure of the feminists

After 100 International Women’s Days, real achievement still trumps leftist ideology Nothing illustrates better the difference between political idealism and political realism than the campaign to advance women in power, now a century old. The idealists insist on universal principles, based on rights theory, which benefit all women equally. Realists grasp the point that gifted

Dirty rotten scholars

Who was the dirtiest don in history? There must be many claimants for this title, especially in the 17th century, when all dons (except heads of houses) were bachelors. The diaries of Anthony à Wood bear witness. Actually my candidate for the title lived until 1940, and had a wife, too, though she was instrumental

The plum pudding trick

Which was the best Christmas party ever? Perhaps it took place on Boxing Day, Tuesday 26 December 1843, at the home of Nina Macready, wife of the famous actor. It was her birthday, but her husband was away on tour, and to cheer herself up she decided to give a children’s party, but invited a

A race against time

Lord Palmerston poses severe quantitative problems to biographers. His public life covered a huge span. Born in 1784, the year Dr Johnson died, he was nine years younger than Jane Austen and four years Byron’s senior. He died in 1865, the year Kipling, Yeats and Northcliffe were born. To put it another way, when he

Welsh wizardry and venom

Paul Johnson reviews Roy Hattersley’s life of David Lloyd George No politician’s life is so difficult to write as Lloyd George’s. All who have tried have failed, and wise heavyweight historians have steered clear. I applaud Roy Hattersley’s courage in tackling this rebarbative subject and congratulate him on his success in making sense of Lloyd

Not every aspect pleases

Half a century ago I read W. G. Hoskins’s book, The Making of the English Landscape, when it first came out. It was for me an eye-opener, as it was for many people. Half a century ago I read W. G. Hoskins’s book, The Making of the English Landscape, when it first came out. It

For true democracy, bring back ostracism

Among the many complaints I have heard about this unsatisfactory election is this one: it is impossible for the general public to get rid of a thoroughly unpleasant, or corrupt, or dangerous politician if he (or she) sits in a safe party seat or in the Lords. Such people can thumb their noses at us,

Will Asia ever match the cultural magnificence of Europe?

It is all very well saying Asia is replacing Europe as the prime creator of wealth, but is there any evidence that new superpowers like China and India will be able to supply the cultural magnificence which once accompanied European productivity? We take European art for granted. But its profusion and variety, and the thoroughness

A dangerous fellow

Do we need another huge life of Arthur Koestler? He wrote a great deal about himself, including three autobiographical works: Spanish Testament (1937), describing his experience as a death-row prisoner of General Franco, Arrow in the Blue (1952) and The Invisible Writing (1954). He also contributed to The God that Failed, the fascinating collection of

When dons were still happy to be egregious

Before the advent of Political Correctness — the system of censorship which has settled over the English-speaking world like a dense cloud of phosgene gas — clever people were unashamed of being eccentric. This applied particularly to dons. I am reminded of this by browsing through a gigantic book, Magdalen College, Oxford: A History, edited

A seasonal lament

This Christmas my thoughts go out to the people of Cockermouth, perhaps my favourite little town in all England, as it was Wordsworth’s. Especially I think of its small shopkeepers, for what makes the town so delightful is its many tiny businesses, selling unusual and curious goods. So well-mannered and friendly are the people who