'I now present for the reader two hundred or more sketches of people I have come across
during over sixty years as a writer, editor, historian, broadcaster and lecturer, all over the world. Some are mere glimpses, others attempts to pluck out the mystery. I have been obliged to exclude a number of interesting people who are still living, and I present my findings more for diversion and amusement than for edification. I simply raise the curtain on the human comedy I have witnessed, and present what I have seen, and heard, often in whispers and asides.'
In the course of a long and distinguished career, Paul Johnson has known popes, presidents, prime ministers, painters, poets, playwrights, even the foul-mouthed publican Muriel Belcher who ran the legendary Colony Club. Harking back to the scandalously anecdotal seventeenth-century book by John Aubrey on the celebrities of his times, Johnson's Brief Lives gives us a unique insight into recent history. But where Aubrey relied on hearsay (however meticulously ascribed), Paul Johnson draws more on personal experience.
He has advised Margaret Thatcher, counselled Princess Diana, had dinner with Lee Kuan Yew, and had a drawing done of him by Ernest Hemingway. He has been an insider and an outsider but, above all, is a shrewdly humorous analyst of a range of characters who have changed history, formed public taste or simply lightened our lives by their presence.