Brief Lives, By Paul Johnson

The good, the bad, and the plain bonkers

This collection of pen portraits of 200 or so of the luminaries whom the journalist Paul Johnson has met must be one of the most eccentric books ever published.

Apart from political oddities (in what world is Picasso "the most evil man" but Pinochet "the single most misjudged figure of the 20th century"?), there is the sheer bonkers-ness of some of the entries. Noel Annan was "clever" but also liked to pretend he was a commander of a German submarine at the public baths. The Spanish Civil War is "a period of the greatest possible difficulty" for poor Franco, and Mary McCarthy was "nearly always wrong". Of W H Auden, Johnson remembers nothing at all. A scream from start to finish.