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Who’ll man the fax?

R.W. Johnson, 13 February 1992

... One of the great lessons of the Nineties is that democracy can be a doomsday machine: some states – Yugoslavia, East Germany, the Soviet Union – are unable to survive its coming. This may be the year in which we see whether South Africa is one of those that can. With the launching of Codesa – the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, whose first plenary session was held on 20-21 December – the march towards a democratic, non-racial South Africa has entered its climactic phase ...

Angry White Men

R.W. Johnson: Obama’s Electoral Arithmetic, 20 October 2011

... 267 to 225. Carter and Clinton (twice) could not have gained office without the black vote; indeed Johnson in 1964 was the last Democrat to win a majority of the white vote. He used his victory to push through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, observing that this meant the Democrats would lose the South for a generation to ...

In Pyjamas

R.W. Johnson: Bill Deedes’s Decency, 17 November 2005

Dear Bill: A Memoir 
by W.F. Deedes.
Macmillan, 451 pp., £14.99, July 2005, 9781405052665
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... Bill Deedes is justly celebrated as a nice man and an English archetype, the sort of character Ian Carmichael used to play in Ealing comedies: Woosterish, emollient, never standing on his rank, always accepting Tory family values – usually expressed more forcefully by a fearsome, chauffeur-driven auntie figure, as played by Margaret Rutherford, or, in Deedes’s own life, by Margaret Thatcher ...

After the Election

R.W. Johnson: In Zimbabwe, 20 July 2000

... I was in the Harare headquarters of the Movement for Democratic Change when news came through that two boxes of uncounted ballots had turned up in Buhera North, the constituency in which the MDC’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, had been narrowly defeated by his Zanu-PF opponent a few days before. I asked Tsvangirai what he made of this. ‘Well, it means we can apply for that election to be declared null and void too ...

Lords loses out

R.W. Johnson: Basil D’Oliveira and racism in sport, 16 December 2004

Basil D’Oliveira: Cricket and Conspiracy: The Untold Story 
by Peter Oborne.
Little, Brown, 274 pp., £16.99, June 2004, 0 316 72572 2
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Reflections on a Life in Sport 
by Sam Ramsamy and Edward Griffiths.
Greenhouse, 168 pp., £7.99, July 2004, 0 620 32251 9
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... Growing up in Durban in the 1950s, I could see how keen Coloured and Indian cricketers were, how much everything was tilted against them and, at the same time, how good white South African cricket was. Take the schoolboy generation I saw rising around me. Playing against Hilton College, I came up against Hylton Ackerman and Mike Procter – the latter opening both the batting and bowling at the age of 13 – while at Durban High School the opening pair of Lee Irvine and Barry Richards had century or double-century partnerships every week; it was impossible to bowl to them ...

A Formidable Proposition

R.W. Johnson: D-Day, 10 September 2009

D-Day: The Battle for Normandy 
by Antony Beevor.
Viking, 591 pp., £25, May 2009, 978 0 670 88703 3
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... In his account of D-Day Antony Beevor comes to many surprising conclusions: that the Germans were by far the better soldiers, more experienced, disciplined and confident; that their weapons were generally better, not just the Tiger and Panther tanks and the 88mm anti-tank gun but even their MG42 light machinegun, which was far superior to its British and American equivalents; that the Allies shot many prisoners and committed all manner of atrocities; that French civilians caught in the middle often suffered more from the Allied onslaught ...

Just Had To

R.W. Johnson: LBJ, 20 March 2003

The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Vol III: Master of the Senate 
by Robert A. Caro.
Cape, 1102 pp., £30, August 2002, 0 394 52836 0
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... breaking all records with LBJ. This third volume takes us only as far as 1960, with the whole of Johnson’s Vice-Presidency and Presidency still stretching ahead, yet this volume on its own contains 645,000 words and the first two, The Path to Power and Means of Ascent, were each of similar size. Mainly this is justified, for LBJ’s career, from the young ...

Aids in South Africa

R.W. Johnson, 12 September 1991

... An Aids epidemic is coming to South Africa. The countries with the highest Aids incidence in the world are grouped in East-Central Africa – Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Malawi are probably the greatest sufferers of all – and gradually the virus has been making its way southwards. It has indeed been possible to work out South Africa’s ‘HIV prevalence lag time’: nine years behind Burundi, eight behind Tanzania, Uganda and Malawi, seven behind Zaire, Zambia and Rawanda, five behind Kenya and Angola – and so on ...

Far from the Least Worst Alternative

R.W. Johnson: The shortcomings of Neville Chamberlain, 17 August 2006

Neville Chamberlain: A Biography 
by Robert Self.
Ashgate, 573 pp., £35, May 2006, 0 7546 5615 2
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... I am not a superstitious man and indeed I should not greatly care if I were never to be PM,’ Neville Chamberlain told his sisters, still in mourning for his brother, Austen, ‘but when I think of Father and Austen and reflect that less than three months of time and no individual stands between me and that office I wonder whether Fate has some dark secret in store to carry out her ironies to the end ...


R.W. Johnson: The World Cup, 17 December 2009

... Cape Town is in a state of serious dislocation because of next summer’s football World Cup. The huge new 68,000-seater stadium at Green Point is virtually complete but there are roadworks everywhere, as the city tries to fulfil its public transport plans on time. Except that there is now no hope that it will, because it has belatedly discovered that the vaunted Bus Rapid Transit system, which was supposed to cost 1 ...

Ducking and Dodging

R.W. Johnson: Agent Zigzag, 19 July 2007

Agent Zigzag 
by Ben Macintyre.
Bloomsbury, 372 pp., £14.99, January 2007, 978 0 7475 8794 1
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... In December 1940, Ben Macintyre’s anti-hero, Eddie Chapman, was in jail in Jersey – he already had a long record, including everything from safe-breaking to blackmail – when the Nazi occupiers threw a young hotel dishwasher, Tony Faramus, into the same jail; Faramus became Chapman’s cellmate and friend. At Chapman’s suggestion they both offered to spy for the Germans, essentially as a way of getting themselves out of jail and away from Jersey ...

The Revolution is over

R.W. Johnson, 16 February 1989

The Permanent Revolution: The French Revolution and its Legacy 1789-1989 
edited by Geoffrey Best.
Fontana, 241 pp., £4.95, November 1988, 0 00 686056 7
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... the state-encrusted flummery of Black Rod, the Mace and the Queen’s Speech, are quite dead: the rows about the handling of the sacred Mace are really to do with the blasphemous disturbance of a corpse.Eugen Weber amends Marx to say that when revolution repeats itself, it becomes not tragedy or farce but tradition. Looking at what is planned for the ...

Danger: English Lessons

R.W. Johnson: French v. English, 16 March 2017

Power and Glory: France’s Secret Wars with Britain and America, 1945-2016 
by R.T. Howard.
Biteback, 344 pp., £20, October 2016, 978 1 78590 116 4
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... is liable to jeer when the occasion arises. When De Gaulle ordered US bases out of France, Lyndon Johnson angrily demanded to know if that meant digging up the graves of American soldiers who had died in the liberation. Jacques Chirac’s refusal to support George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq caused fury in Middle America, in part because it was felt that ...

Bevan’s Boy

R.W. Johnson, 24 March 1994

Michael Foot 
by Mervyn Jones.
Gollancz, 570 pp., £20, March 1994, 0 575 05197 3
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... At the Party Conference following Labour’s crippling defeat in the 1983 election Michael Foot stood before the massed ranks of the faithful to account for his stewardship of the Party. ‘I am deeply ashamed,’ he began. Unfortunately for Mervyn Jones, who both loves and admires his subject and would have us dwell on other things, it is the freeze-frame of that moment which lives on ...


R.W. Johnson: Alan Taylor, Oxford Don, 8 May 1986

... When I became a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, the fact that my vote at college meetings counted the same as that of A.J.P. Taylor seemed to me, as it still does, a glorious democratic quirk of the Oxford collegiate system. I was just 26 and the youngest fellow; he was probably the most famous historian in the world. I was not long to think of him by his initials, for Alan was the least standoffish of the senior fellows, the least likely to stand on his dignity ...

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