Bristling Ermine

Jeremy Harding

  • Look Back in Laughter: Oxford’s Postwar Golden Age by R.W. Johnson
    Threshold, 272 pp, £14.50, May 2015, ISBN 978 1 903152 35 5
  • How Long Will South Africa Survive? The Looming Crisis by R.W. Johnson
    Hurst, 288 pp, £12.99, July 2016, ISBN 978 1 84904 723 4

R.W. Johnson is a long-standing contributor to the LRB. His first appearance was on the letters page in 1981, where he took ‘mild issue’ with a review of his most celebrated book, The Long March of the French Left. In 1984 he wrote a memorable piece about national intelligence agencies, and the following year, a homage to Pierre Mendès France, one of the best pieces the paper has published on postwar politics in France. He has gone on to write more than a hundred pieces for the LRB, as an Oxford scholar whose politics were to the left of the editor’s (Karl Miller favoured the SDP, while Johnson favoured Labour). Nowadays I think he’d still say he was on the left but it isn’t obvious what that would mean, in his case especially. Like many people, he prides himself on describing things as they really are.

As the Cold War drew to a close, his patience with politicians and writers of the left had begun to wear thin. The LRB, which appeared to be moving leftward (in reality, Britain had moved to the right), stayed with him, and tossed him some meaty bones, which he gnawed loudly, often controversially. In 1989 he disparaged Hugo Young’s biography of Thatcher, in a piece of rhetorical brilliance about the profligacy of Thatcherism. In 1990 he sneered at Raymond Williams as a kindly old fellow from the valleys. In 1999, he savaged an authorised biography of Mandela, creating a stir on the letters page by identifying him – correctly – as a former communist. He rarely lets a response to a piece he has written go unanswered. His letters can be as fierce as his reviews. Not long ago, he seemed to have found a second home in Daniel Johnson’s post-9/11 journal Standpoint, somewhere to the right of the ‘new’ British centre.

But to read back through his pieces for the paper, and the reviews of his books, among them a glowing piece by Paul Foot in 1986, is to know that he isn’t easily pinned down. Yet if there were laws against inciting party political hatred, Johnson would have been fined and marginalised as a red-baiter on many occasions in many countries: he is a reliable, aggressive anti-communist. Red is the colour that troubles him in Africa; skin colour, he would argue, is beside the point. Yet his feud with South African communism gets him tangled in a tricky racial condescension, as we’ll see later.

He has two recent books to his name. Look Back in Laughter is the story of his time in Oxford from the 1960s to the 1990s. It is good on the in-house politics of the university, where he arrived as a Rhodes scholar from South Africa in 1964, and went on to become a PPE don at Magdalen with a keen interest in French and British politics, as well as a passion for southern Africa, on which he kept a vigilant eye. Karl Miller, who edited many of Johnson’s LRB pieces, called him ‘a beast from the pampas … rushing around and butting everybody’. (The remark is quoted on the back of the book.) Miller was thinking of Johnson the journalist. Here we get much more of the academic, yet the two are not so different: there’s something in this memoir of the fulminating don, gown rippling and ermine bristling, as he charges past the porter’s lodge to have a go at someone.

As he explains in his preface to Look Back in Laughter, Johnson returned home to South Africa in the 1990s (the book ends with some reflections on the post-apartheid state). Having made the decision to go back – and there’s much to commend it – he found a new lease of life as a think tank director. Then, in 2009, he lost a leg to necrotising fasciitis, after swimming in a lagoon in KwaZulu-Natal. It might as well have been taken off by a crocodile in one decisive snap, but life is seldom so simple, or so kind, in southern Africa: his leg was amputated in three stages, the last time above the knee, in a race against the disease, brilliantly described in a Diary for the LRB. He has it all not to give up at that point – courage, stoicism, bloody-mindedness – and he remains a noisy presence on the South African scene, just as he was at Magdalen.

Johnson’s Oxford, he tells us, was ‘a magical world’, and it can even be uncanny, with a touch of Hogwarts about it. Where else could the art historian E.H. Gombrich be transformed by a feat of necromancy into his son Richard, and suddenly appear as ‘a distinguished Orientalist’? What other magical city could induct a wizard of Johnson’s calibre and pack him off to France to discover Jean-Marie Le Pen’s followers celebrating their Welsh origins (‘nos ancêtres les Gallois’)? True, this is Muggle carping but Johnson is never slow to write to the LRB, castigating the editors – and contributors – for errors great and small. The book is a trove of tall stories and good ones, digs at the bien-pensant, whom he dislikes – and isn’t afraid to say so – and strong opinions about colleagues or acquaintances he doesn’t think are up to much. His dismissals tend to be cursory; people make him impatient, but his impatience is rarely tempered by an exercise of fellow-feeling. Men of action can dispense with imagination: Captain MacWhirr can only take the Nan-Shan through the eye of a tropical cyclone because he won’t give it too much thought. But Johnson, like most of us, isn’t in charge of a steamer in a typhoon; he’s a fellow of an Oxford college.

There is a touch of romance – the kind that makes it possible to write a memoir in the first place – in the way Johnson sees himself. Long before his terrible illness, he often felt that he was a priority target for the forces of evil. Apartheid security in South Africa (would he have withstood torture? he wonders, but he was never detained). Burly French communists in ‘blue overalls’ in a café in Mayenne (they seemed to want to pick a fight, but they didn’t). The US State Department (they really did hound him for his conspiracy theory about the downing of a Korean airliner over the Soviet Union in 1983, but not for long). MI5 (they really did snoop on him, apparently at the behest of Washington, but stood him down in a mild-mannered interview). Johnson’s journey through life without detentions by Verwoerd’s interrogators or beatings by the Communist Party does nothing to discredit him. Yet here we find his imagination hard at work: he tends to dramatise what might have happened. Under Captain Bill Johnson, the adventurer distracted by the imminence of danger, the Nan-Shan might well have broken up in the water.

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[*] Roger Southall, who reviewed Johnson’s Brave New World in the LRB of 8 October 2009, agrees that the ANC is now ‘a threat to democracy’, along with Mugabe’s Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe and Swapo in Namibia. In a revised edition of his Liberation Movements in Power published last year, he finds that ‘the promise they once embodied is now dead.’ The inexperienced ANC listened carefully to business leaders and multinational CEOs. Too carefully, in Southall’s view: it wasn’t long before the corporates were exercising an undue influence on economic policy.

[†] The World Bank Group’s 2016 Poverty and Shared Prosperity annual makes it clear that Sub-Saharan Africans are not beneficiaries of the ongoing drop in worldwide poverty since 1990. The conspicuous fall has taken place in the Asia-Pacific region.