Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The stellar and acidic historian, Paul Johnson, retraces his steps

MOST OF THE PORTRAITS are penned in acid, and a delightful liquid it is. Chou En-lai: "He reminded me of an old-fashioned nonconformist clergyman, in his black clothes, discreet, seemingly humble manner, and clasped hands." Julius Nyerere, late president of Tanzania: "the first of the great black African humbugs." Jawaharlal Nehru: "shifty, inconsistent, mendacious, and hypocritical." Picasso: "He did more harm to art than all the Goths and Vandals, the Puritan iconoclasts and the totalitarian thugs combined." Bertrand Russell: "a clever man, devoid of wisdom and with poor judgment." Robert Maxwell: "the only man I ever met who genuinely radiated evil." (Obviously Johnson never met the recently deceased Robert Strange McNamara.) There is an unforgettable portrait of E. M. Forster on the steps of the Reform Club -- "the epitome of the Man in the Dirty Raincoat."

Perhaps the anecdote worth reproducing at greatest length concerns the publisher Frank Pakenham, Lord Longford. One of his lordship's interests was a campaign against pornography. The committee he formed to advance his cause included, remarkably enough, Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard.

He was once proceeding down Harley Street [Johnson writes] with a large suitcase full of pornographic material, when the cord holding the disreputable bag together snapped, and its contents fell all over the pavement. A lady phoned the police, saying, "A scruffy old man is selling dirty books outside my house." A policeman duly came up to Frank, who was trying to stuff the magazines back in his case. "'Ullo, sir, who are you and what might you be doing?" "My name is Lord Longford and this is my homework." "Is that so, sir, and you would please step this way to the station with your wares and we will sort it all out."

Johnson claims that he was taught to write by the iconoclastic historian A. J. P. Taylor, who told him to keep his sentences short. "Just occasionally put a longer one. Strong verbs. Few adjectives. Forget about adverbs, unless essential to the meaning. Short quotations, if any. Beware of subjunctives....All writing is a series of tricks...the great thing is to master all the best tricks of others, then invent some of your own." And, Taylor, added, "always work hard. Nothing is ever accomplished without a lot of sheer hard work." He obviously followed this counsel, and two generations of readers are the richer for it. 

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