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.