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Paul Johnson has written ‘an intimate and very personal portrait of the 20th century’ called, after John Aubrey, Brief Lives: two hundred portraits of famous people he has known, or met once, or nearly. The blurb calls him a ‘shrewdly humorous analyst’. Here are a few examples of his shrewd humour, some of it so shrewd as to be surely unintentional. And the juxtaposition of Picasso and Pinochet is something else.

Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-73) was, in my view, a bad man with some good qualities.

Nikita Krushchev (1894-1971) was the ebullient, ruthless, blood-stained and accident-prone Soviet leader between the end of the Stalin era and the long, comatose reign of Brezhnev.

Richard Nixon (1913-94) led a busy life after his enforced resignation.

Robert Maxwell (1923-91) was the only man I ever met who genuinely radiated evil.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was probably the most evil man I ever actually came across.

General Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) was perhaps the single most misjudged figure of the 20th century.

The Duke of Beaufort (1900-84) invited me to the annual lunch of the Masters of Foxhounds in 1959.

Princess Diana (1961-97) was well made.

Pope John XXIII (1881-1963) was full of jokes.

Tony Blair (b. 1953) had become leader of the Labour Party before I met him.

George Orwell (1903-50) I never met, though I might have done.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). I was taken to see him in 1949 at his lonely house in Jävenpää. He seemed very old.

Comments on “Misjudged”

  1. Mark C says:

    I am also surprised to learn that Princess Diana was apparently some kind of robot.

  2. Camus123 says:

    I have never met Paul Johnson but I might have done. Banality is not a crime, but as oscar Wilde might have said, if it was the poor man would be jailed for life.

  3. pinhut says:

    “General Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) was perhaps the single most misjudged figure of the 20th century.”

    Says it all, really. From the same corner that is usually rambling on about how the Left took too long to wake up to Stalin’s crimes (which is fair comment). At least they woke up.

    • Bob Beck says:

      Does Johnson mention Juan and/or Eva Peron? I might possibly — though I doubt it — be interested in his opinion of that pair. Upon learning that there were and are many left-of-centre Peronists in Argentina, I concluded I would probably never understand Argentine politics.

      • Thomas Jones says:

        I didn’t look them up, and no longer have the book. Sorry. Will endeavour to find out though…

        • Bob Beck says:

          Don’t work too hard — not on my account, anyway.

          I got a cheap laugh from the Wikipedia entry on Johnson, the photo caption of which begins “Paul Johnson (right)…”. Um, just so. The photo itself is priceless: he’s red-faced and could be roaring at the top of his lungs.

  4. pinhut says:

    And if anybody wants to know more about Pinochet, his participation in Operation Condor is a good place to start.


  5. outofdate says:

    To be fair, it was Paul Johnson who, before the New Labour Party or whatever it’s called even came to power, said we’re looking at a decade or more of rightwing prohibitionism, that’s just the way the pendulum swings. I expect he thought this was wonderful, but you can’t fault his instincts.

    So if he says Diana was well made, perhaps we ought to take another look at dem bones.

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