What do we associate with the historian and journalist Paul Johnson? There's his habit of changing sides politically - from left to right and then back to the middle with his "good friend" Tony Blair. Running in parallel are his violently changing moods. One minute he is charm itself, the next, as I once found to my cost, he is telling you via his saintly wife never to darken his door again. Part and parcel of this turbulence are his forceful and iconoclastic opinions, occasionally rising to a pitch of ranting intolerance. Finally - perhaps his most lasting and attractive legacy - there are his superb books, erudite, articulate, challenging sweeps of history, on Christianity, the Jews, the American people.
So I opened The Vanished Landscape, Johnson's first direct foray into autobiography, with certain expectations. Yet it was only on, literally, the last of its pages that any came close to being realised. It is only there that a hint of the curmudgeonly, stick-in-the-mud middle-Englander pops up, bemoaning on a return trip to his native Potteries that "every element of dreary and uniform modernity had been introduced. It looked like anywhere else in England. It was clean, comparatively prosperous, comfortable after a fashion and totally without character."
Although unashamedly about Paul Johnson, this book is otherwise devoid of all his trademarks. The Vanished Landscape is a charming, wistful, gentle account, set almost entirely in the Johnson household in Tunstall in the 1930s. Its tone is that of a favourite old uncle telling you stories from his childhood. War looms somewhere, but utterly out of sight. The Depression is glimpsed through a glass darkly. There is no broad sweep, no attempt to fit himself into history (save for a slightly cringe-worthy intimate anecdote about Princess Margaret that a decent editor would have crossed out).
Instead, Johnson writes with a child-like awe of his sharp-tongued mother, of his joyful siblings, of his art-teacher father, of the dynamic parish priest, the local park, the factories he visited, the nuns who taught him. It is all very cosy and minutely observed, against the backdrop of an industrial landscape that Johnson senior (a close friend of Lowry's) teaches his son is like "an ugly woman who has a strange kind of beauty. The French have a word for it, as they do for most things concerning art - jolie laide."
There are moments when you could almost be reading a Paddington story, for young Paul was, like Michael Bond's bear from darkest Peru, forever confused by metaphorical use of English. When a local nun is described as running her convent "with an iron rod", Johnson continues that "I looked for this iron rod but it was not there: instead an umbrella." You almost want to say, aaahh. This, I had to keep reminding myself, is Paul Johnson. He illustrates his tales from the family hearth with his own pen-and-ink drawings: very good they are, too. Journalism's gain has been fine art's loss.
Once I had got over my bemusement, I settled in to enjoying it all. As an evocation of the lost world of 1930s industrial Britain, it would be hard to better. As an account of what it meant to grow up Catholic in the 1930s, when left-footers lived in a mental and spiritual ghetto, it illustrates how far attitudes have changed. And as a clue as to why the adult Johnson has built a reputation for railing against the modern world, it is instructive.
You can't help but wonder what it is in Johnson's current life that has prompted this rosy retrospection. But what remained was a sense that I had witnessed yet another spectacular about-turn by the man. This time it has taken place in his writing career, from polemicist and connoisseur of the big picture to folksy memoirist. It is a volte-face he carries off with great and enviable aplomb.
Peter Stanford's 'Heaven: a Traveller's Guide' is published by HarperCollins
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