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Brief Lives Hardcover – 3 Jun 2010
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"Where would the popes, presidents and princesses of the world be without Paul Johnson, the former editor of the New Statesman and much loved columnist in this and other periodicals? As his latest book shows, he is an all but indispensible asset, a social equivalent of the Admirable Crichton." (A.N. Wilson Spectator)
"It all makes compulsive reading. For Johnson has not only a retentive memory - total recall, in fact - and a lively imagination, but also a great raconteur's gift for witty dialogue, rivalling that of Oscar Wilde . . . Any historian of the last half of the 20th century - especially if he has if he has a taste for the comedie humaine - should read this book, if only to learn more about its author, the Thomas Carlyle of our age, who has played a life-enhancing part in history." (New Statesman)
"Johnson's enthusiasm and industry are, as usual, prodigious" (Sunday Times)
A unique and entertaining insight into the last 50 years of our history through its most famous faces, by a man who knew everyoneSee all Product description
Top customer reviews
I had bought the book in the hope of finding a brief account of long-gone friends Peter Brook (Anthony Carson) and Garith Windsor. It seems that dear old Garith - Johnson's first boss and an impossible man, much loved by his frequently astonished colleagues - has disappeared completely without trace. Not a word here. But I was glad to find that the equally rare and eccentric Carson is treated kindly. I once sat next to John Freeman on the bench seat of a bus going down the Strand. Just before he got out at the Savoy, I said idiotically, "Forgive me, but aren't you Paul Johnson?" Reading this book reminded me of the depth of Freeman's wry smile as he explained that, no, he was not.
Once I had overcome this surprise, I find the portraits original, in some cases witty, full of titbits and quirky observations on appearance, mannerisms, or simply anecdotes one wouldn't find elsewhere.
I still haven't anything like finished reading the book. Because of the disjointed nature of the alphabetical order, it is in no way a page-turner, and it lies beside my bed for dipping in and out of. And taking on short journeys. It is a 'different' experience, reading about one name leads to looking up another (sometimes to be found, others not, of course). So it is more like browsing the Internet and jumping from one subject to another in a totally individual way. An enjoyable experience and I look forward to my next slightly longer trip, when I expect to manage far more of it!
"Brief Lives" comprises about 200 alphabetically organized mini-portraits, ranging from one paragraph to several pages in length, of members of the literary, social, political and ecclesiastic establishments (a term invented, he tells us, by Henry Fairlie, one of his subjects). Johnson has met nearly all of his characters in the course of his long career as journalist, editor, historian and national treasure. His rolodex is as formidable as his memory and he evidently worked hard to develop it as when, as a teenager in 1946, he laid in wait outside the lift of the Clifton Arms in Lytham in order to intercept Churchill on his way to the Tory conference or when, later, he wrote to Tony Blair to explain that he had met all the other post war prime ministers and felt that TB too should have the privilege - a suggestion which was readily accepted. The subjects here are as diverse as General Franco and Arthur Scargill or Coco Chanel and Archbishop Lang. Most are now dead, which should be a relief to Random House's legal team.
Johnson supplies many fresh anecdotes. I especially enjoyed, for example, his account of Nigel Lawson's wife's aborted elopement with the aforementioned Fairlie who, having sobered up, had utterly forgotten their planned rendezvous and his observation that Tony Blair virtually never reads a book. Many are salacious - as for instance the story of Tom Driberg admiring the penis of Jim Callaghan, or the information that the Duchess of Windsor was an expert in applying the Baltimore Clinch (read the book).
There is unconscious humour, too. Johnson berates Alistair Forbes for his "tiresome propensity" to namedrop and he complains of having his intimate conversation with Princess Margaret interrupted by a "peculiarly obnoxious and pushy social- climbing journalist." In one entry he remarks that Picasso was "probably the most evil man I ever actually came across" - the next entry is General Pinochet who is presented as a noble and gracious host of tea parties. The reader has to wonder of Johnson is conscious of the irony in these comments and juxtapositions. One tends to think not. There are also glaring lapses. He says of Lyndon Johnson, for example, "there is a good biography waiting to be written." Has he never heard of Robert Caro's monumental work, widely considered to be one of the best political biographies ever penned? Robert Dallek's isn't half bad either.
In "Brief Lives" Johnson has perfected a terse, epigrammatic cadence. Many of his judgments are wicked and he delivers them through a characteristic snap of the tail.
The author - who is 81 - suggests that he wrote this volume in lieu of an autobiography. It is certainly worth reading but we should not let him off the hook for delivering a proper memoir.