Paul Johnson

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Paul Johnson (right) 2006

Paul Bede Johnson (2 November 192812 January 2023) was an English journalist, historian, speechwriter and author.




  • I have just finished what is, without doubt, the nastiest book I have ever read. It is a new novel entitled Dr. No and the author is Mr Ian Fleming. ... By the time I was a third of the way through, I had to suppress a strong impulse to throw the thing away, and only continued reading because I realised that here was a social phenomenon of some importance.
    There are three basic ingredients in Dr No, all unhealthy, all thoroughly English: the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical, two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult. Mr Fleming has no literary skill, the construction of the book is chaotic, and entire incidents and situations are inserted, and then forgotten in a haphazard manner. But the three ingredients are manufactured and blended with deliberate, professional precision ...
    Our curious post-war society, with its obsessive interest in debutantes, its cult of U and non-U, its working-class graduates educated into snobbery by the welfare state, is a soft market for Mr Fleming's poison. ...
    • "Sex, snobbery and sadism" New Statesman (5 April 1958), as reproduced in Stephen Howe (ed) Lines of Dissent: Writings from the New Statesman (Verso, 1988) pp. 151-54
  • [I]t is about time we destroyed the British class system
  • I would therefore abolish the monarchy and House of Lords, dispossess ... the public schools and Oxford and Cambridge; end the regimental system in the army ... disestablish the Church; replace the Inns of Court ... abolish the Honours List. What is more, we should take the offensive on all these fronts simultaneously: for if the apostles of social change eschew violence, they must embrace speed. Our society is a many-headed hydra: it is no use chopping off the heads singly, for while you are dealing with the second or third, the first will grow again.
  • Before I am denounced as a reactionary fuddy-duddy, let us pause an instant and see exactly what we mean by this "youth". Both TV channels now run weekly programmes in which popular records are played to teenagers and judged. While the music is performed, the cameras linger savagely over the faces of the audience. What a bottomless chasm of vacuity they reveal! The huge faces, bloated with cheap confectionery and smeared with chain-store makeup, the open, sagging mouths and glazed eyes, the broken stiletto heels: here is a generation enslaved by a commercial machine. ...
    Are teenagers different today? Of course not. Those who flock round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures: their existence, in such large numbers, far from being a cause for ministerial congratulation, is a fearful indictment of our education system, which in 10 years of schooling can scarcely raise them to literacy.
  • But violence is an evil continuum which begins with the inflammatory verbal pursuit of class war, continues with Grunwick and the lawless use of union power, progresses to knives, clubs and acid-bombs of Lewisham and Ladywood and then—as we may well fear—rapidly accelerates into full-blooded terrorism with firearms, explosives and an utter contempt for human life.
    This where the Labour Party is heading. It has already embraced corporatism, which ultimately must mean the end of parliamentary democracy. But corporatism plus violence is infinitely worse. It is fascism; Left-wing fascism maybe, marxist-fascism if you like, but still fascism all the same.


  • The article by Roald Dahl in the August Issue of Literary Review is, in my view, the most disgraceful item to appear in a respectable British publication for a very, long time. Indeed 1 cannot recall anything like it ... As a rule, in a civilised country like Britain, those who hate the Israelis, or the Jews in general, are careful to mask their views behind a screen of anti-Zionism, thus in theory giving their collective condemnation a political rather than a racial rationale. Dahl is a different case. He is too reckless, or too angry, or too confident in getting away with it, to take such precautions.
  • This kind of racial abuse is, thank God, rare in British journalism nowadays. The present case is serious, however, because Dahl is a well-known and successful author who, among other things, writes books for children and whose work is frequently used on TV. I ant not suggesting he be hauled before the Race Relations Board, a body which, I suspect, provokes rather than reduces racial antagonism, or indeed the Press Council, a tribunal which is falling in- to contempt. The most effective action the civilised community can take is for reputable writers to refuse to be associated with a journal which publishes such filth.
  • A Stalin functionary admitted, "Innocent people were arrested: naturally - otherwise no one would be frightened. If people, he said, were arrested only for specific misdemeanours, all the others would feel safe and so become ripe for treason.
  • Men are excessively ruthless and cruel not as a rule out of malice but from outraged righteousness. How much more is this true of legally constituted states, invested with all this seeming moral authority of parliaments and congresses and courts of justice! The destructive capacity of an individual, however vicious, is small; of the state, however well-intentioned, almost limitless. Expand the state and the destructive capacity necessarily expands too. Collective righteousness is far more ungovernable than any individual pursuit of revenge. That was a point well understood by Woodrow Wilson, who warned: 'Once lead this people into war and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance.
  • Mussolini was a reluctant fascist because, underneath, he remained a Marxist, albeit a heretical one.
    • (2001 ed.) p. 101.
  • With Lenin he shared a quasi-religious approach to politics, though in sheer crankiness he had much more in common with Hitler (…) One of his favourite books was Constipation and Our Civilization, which he constantly reread. (…) His eccentricities appealed to a nation which venerates sacral oddity. But his teachings had no relevance to India’s problems. (…) His food policy would have led to mass starvation. In fact Gandhi’s own ashram (…) had to be heavily subsidized by three merchant princes. And Gandhi was expensive in human life as well as money. The events of 1920–21 indicated that though he could bring a mass-movement into existence, he could not control it. Yet he continued to play the sorcerer's apprentice, while the casualty bill mounted into hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands, and the risks of a gigantic sectarian and racial explosion accumulated. This blindness to the law of probability in a bitterly divided subcontinent made nonsense of Gandhi’s professions that he would not take life in any circumstances.
    • About Mahatma Gandhi. Modern Times, pp. 470–472., Quoted from Elst, Koenraad (2018). Why I killed the Mahatma: Uncovering Godse's defence. New Delhi : Rupa, 2018.

Intellectuals (1988)

  • It was part of Rousseau’s vanity that he believed himself incapable of base emotions. "I feel too superior to hate." "I love myself too much to hate anybody."


  • This book is dedicated to the people of America--strong, outspoken, intense in their convictions, sometimes wrong-headed but always generous and brave, with a passion for justice no nation has ever matched.

Quotes About Johnson

  • Intellectuals is a caricature of the bad faith it itself denounces. Were we to judge it by Johnson's own standards, the result would be clear. We would not give a fig for Mr Johnson's private life. He might be an excellent husband, an admirable father, a good colleague, and even in his other work a decent historian. None of this would redeem the shallowness of his arguments.
  • Well then, who had he had time for, during his 24 years in the Party, if he didn't like collectivists and didn't like moderates? There was a pause. "Well, Benn. I have a high opinion of Wedgwood Benn. He is committed to a form of collectivism, but at least he is honest and original. I'd like to see him leading the Labour Party."
    You could have knocked me down with a feather. But, I said, would not Benn's leadership of the Labour Party make it still more likely that the country would go collectivist, with the inevitable erosion of our liberties as outlined by Johnson in his "Farewell"?
    Not necessarily, Johnson replied, because Benn was a genuine democrat, and might, when it came to the crunch between collectivism and liberty, choose liberty. But it would be too late by then! Well, said Johnson, it might be. But at least Benn leading Labour and Thatcher leading the Tories would present the country with "a proper chloice" between collectivism and individualism.
    This struck me as dotty.
  • In a novel called Left of Centre which is now, to the relief of its publisher and author alike, safely out of print, Paul Johnson wrote what is generally agreed to be the most embarrassing spanking scene ever penned. The eclipse of this otherwise unreadable novel did nothing to dim the memory of the cringemaking episode, which was continually called to mind by Johnson's public and social behaviour. This often involved drunken and boorish conduct towards women, including his wife. On a famous occasion in a Greek restaurant in Charlotte Street in 1973, he struck her across the face for disagreeing with him in public and, when rebuked for this by a colleague of mine, threatened to put him through a plate-glass window. At a lunch given for the Israeli ambassador to Britain in the boardroom of the old New Statesman, I watched Johnson bully and barrack Corinna Adam, then the foreign editor, as she attempted to engage Gideon Raphael in conversation. "Don't listen to her, she's a Communist", he kept bellowing, his face twisted and puce with drink. "Fascist bitch!", he finally managed, before retiring to a sofa on the other side of the room and farting his way through a fitful doze for the rest of the meal. ...
    Long before he made his much-advertised stagger from left to right, Johnson had come to display all the lineaments of the snob, the racist and the bigot.
    • Christopher Hitchens "The Life of Johnson" Critical Quarterly (1989), republished in For the Sake of Argument: Essays and Minority Reports (Verso, 1993) p. 260
    • From the introductory passage of an article reviewing Johnson's book Intellectuals (1988)
  • I must confess I have not as yet found a permanent replacement for Mr Johnson. His catty jokes about politicians take some matching. But I had had enough of spanking for Britain.
    • Gloria Stewart "Life After Paul", Evening Standard (28 July 1998), p. 23
    • The journalist Gloria Stewart had an 11-year affair with Paul Johnson and originally initiated a sting with the help of the Daily Express earlier in 1998. "Paul loved to be spanked and it was a big feature of our relationship," she said. "I had to tell him he was a very naughty boy".
  • Many of my contemporaries have vivid memories of visits to our home in Iver. There my father presided over idyllic Sunday lunches, improvising quizzes for us children and entertaining the Worsthornes, Frasers, Howards, Stoppards, Amises, Gales and countless others with conversation and jokes that flowed and gurgled like a bubbling stream. When the talk turned to politics, he could be combative. We children didn’t like that. Aged about six, I tackled him: "Daddy, why do you go on and on about Mr Wilson?" "Why do you go on about the Daleks?" he replied. "The Daleks are important," I said. After lunch there were walks in Langley Park, culminating in the hunt for sixpences, hidden in a giant hollow tree where (he claimed) the Great Train Robbers had stashed their loot.
    My recollection of him taking me to London on my seventh birthday is a joy: riding in a taxi, visiting the New Statesman office as the editor's son, and then to Bertorelli’s for lunch, where he introduced me to Vicky, the great cartoonist, who was not much taller than I was.
    He seemed to know everyone. When I was puzzled by my part in a school play by J.B. Priestley, he suddenly said: "Let’s ring old Jack up and ask him." Next minute, I heard an aged voice with a Yorkshire accent saying: "Oh yes, Time and the Conways. Damn good play, that. What’s the problem?"
  • Stoppard's Night and Day was dedicated to his friend Paul Johnson, the historian and polemicist. Of the many funerals I have attended in 2023, Paul's was the one I'd least expected to be at. For 25 years, from the late 1970s on, I mocked him in print whenever he wrote anything that seemed to merit it—which, given his prolific and often intemperate output, was very often. He in turn accused me of "playing Job Trotter to [Christopher] Hitchens's Alfred Jingle Esq", a taunt I still cherish. When he threatened to sue unless I stopped goading him, this merely encouraged me to give him another prod.
    About 20 years ago, however, the fun went out of this sport—perhaps because Paul was well into his seventies, or perhaps because I'd run out of epithets to hurl. Thanks to an intercession by his saintly wife, Marigold, he turned up at a book launch I was hosting, shook me firmly by the hand and agreed an immediate ceasefire. A few years later, he descended into the abyss of Alzheimer's. "The Gospel today had Jesus enjoining us to make peace with our enemies," one of Paul’s children later wrote to me, "and I am sure that you did the right thing by putting an end to your feud with my father while you could."
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