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on 11 February 2016
This really is an awful little book on any serious level but it is chatty and extremely readable. Paul Johnson is a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and has been an important person since before most people were born. Like Michael Foot, he spanned left and right in his very wide acquaintance and the book contrives to find a relation - however tenuous - with practically every known public figure of the 20th century. In all but a few heroic cases (e.g. Mrs Thatcher, Tony Blair) the author's reports are, alas, not favourable. The 'great' of this world for the most part turn out to be rather inferior to Mr Johnson's mind, if not ridiculous. (Mme de Gaulle's penis is a rather shockingly stolen story and much better told by Gore Vidal)'
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.
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on 25 November 2010
I had read a couple of enthusiastic pre-publication reviews which induced me to seek this book out the minute it was published ... all those titbits of gossip in the extracts made me expect a "grown-ups'" 'Horrible History' of the 20th Century, which I would thoroughly enjoy and get through in a couple of days at most. I was quite taken aback when it arrived to discover that the sketches of people (as Johnson says, 'some are mere glances, others attempts to pluck out the mystery'), are presented in alphabetical order, like a sort of encyclopaedia, rather than woven into one (probably impossible)in chronological order, or some other by-category way.
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!
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on 3 September 2011
General de Gaulle had halitosis. Princess Diana had intuition, lots of it, according to this very accomplished name-dropper. And so on. This is a collection of shortish (in many cases very short) pieces about an assortment of worthies from the period since he went to university in the late 1940s. Some he did not meet, or scarcely met, but many he claims to have known quite well; and here are his brief thoughts on them. In no sense is this an exercise in biography. It is an exercise in reminiscence and (sometimes fruity) comment. Some of the articles are pretty dud (hence four stars rather than five), but it is all done with brio and an eye for the telling anecdote. It is a book to dip into. There is no index, and the book is not reliable on historical fact; but it is highly enjoyable, and if like me you remember a lot of these people in their public persona, then it is fun to have Mr Johnson's take on them.
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on 3 July 2010
Paul Johnson's "Brief Lives" proves that he knows everybody and can write brilliantly.

"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.
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on 4 September 2011
Another brilliant well written book for the library. In my opinion with a few exceptions, Mr Johnson presents the 1920s to the present UK establishment people, of his known aquaintance, as priviliged underachievers, something I have suspected for years, but it is reassuring to learn that such an eminent and respected Historian, Journalist and Writer is of the same opinion.
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on 13 July 2010
Fascinating insight into what the 'Well-Known' are really like. All those people you have seen in the news for decades come to life.
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on 10 June 2012
This is a delightful bedside book by an author who has known almost everyone of consequence over a lifetime of (respectable) journalism. He insists that he is not writing 'memoirs' but these snippets about famous figures in the UK flesh out what is already known about them , revealing insights into temperament, character and, sometimes, motivation.
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I bought this after reading excerpts in the Mail. It has some very good stuff, but is also very dry in places. I'm fairly on the ball with public names, but a lot of the people mentioned I've never heard of, and that makes it hard to connect with the subjects at times. OK but not as good as expected.
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on 13 January 2011
Bought this book as a Christmas present for a friend who was absolutely delighted with it. Very interesting read if you are interested in reading about some very high profile people.
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on 22 December 2010
I bought this book as I love biographies and also anecdotes about people, I lent it to a freing who also enjoyed it and so bought it for freind as a christmas present.
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