- The Pick of Paul Johnson: An Anthology
Harrap, 277 pp, £9.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 245 54246 9
Paul Johnson does not, as they say, need much introduction. Whatever one thinks of his opinions, one has to admire his frenetic energy. From 1955 to 1970 he poured forth strong left-wing views in the New Statesman, and since then has moved to pouring forth strong right-wing views in a whole host of publications, books and speeches. This collection of 76 pieces, culled from the Conservative press of 1976-84, shows him again in full spate on subjects as diverse as ‘The Decline of the Hat’ and ‘The Family as an Emblem of Freedom’. The essential unity of the book is, however, political. It is not just that extreme Thatcherism breathes from every page: both the strength of Johnson’s writing and its often dreadful thinness derive from its sheer polemicism. Here, at least, the continuity with his New Statesman days is clear, for there is the same fatal, though exciting, tendency to go over the rhetorical top, the same eye for what will make ‘our side’ hug themselves with glee and what will most infuriate the enemy. The whole effort is a form of literary baiting which works up the troops on both sides and generally creates a deal of heat, sound and fury. This style of writing was the sole (and rather measly) contribution to English letters made by Kingsley Martin, and has been imitated by successive New Statesman columnists – Richard Crossman, Paul Johnson, Gerald Kaufman, Matthew Coady et al. (One only has to listen to the Parliamentary speeches of Gerald Kaufman to see how this sub-genre, once picked up, is hard to drop.) The origins of the style lie, only too audibly, in the world of the public school and Oxbridge debating society: it is at once over-heated and un-serious, and has a sort of neighing ring to it, as of a clash of young geldings.
At his best, Paul Johnson’s writing rises above this – for example, his picture of how the 1983 Labour Manifesto came to be written: ‘The absurd policy document ... which reads as though it was written by a covey of demented social workers with Napoleonic delusions, was supposed to be cut, hacked about and generally sanitised before becoming the manifesto. The idea, I gather, was that Michael Foot himself was to do the job ... But either he was caught short by Mrs Thatcher’s abrupt decision, or had simply forgotten, or had found it all too much for him; at any event he arrived without anything to show, and the document simply became the manifesto un-amended.’ The artful juxtaposition of ‘covey’ with the bumbling Foot (a bumbling so nicely elongated by the long line of hopeless alternatives) has, at once, a literary and political punch. But although Johnson contributes a rather pompous but quite good essay on ‘The Craft of Writing’, much of what he himself writes stays with one only because it is so abusive (‘the pointy-head Tam Dalyell’), and a lot more is eminently forgettable. Indeed, it’s meant to be. Johnson’s greatest admiration often seems reserved for Dick Crossman, whom he takes to be a far greater intellect than he really was. Of his reports for the New Statesman Johnson comments that they ‘were always illuminating and exciting, though sometimes wrong-headed and quickly belied by events. This was not a disadvantage. The purpose of weekly journalism is to encapsulate seven days, and stir up the minds of its readers; not to achieve a reputation for prescience in twenty years’ time.’ This is a judgment to bear in mind as one reads Johnson’s own weekly journalism. The fact that Crossman was frequently wrong and silly, and encouraged delusions among his readers, is far less important than that he stirred them up.