A doctored life of Johnson

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The Independent Online
I have been offered the serialisation rights of a new book called Boswell's Life of Paul Johnson, and I am in two minds as to whether readers would actually want to read any of it.

On the one hand, it has been offered to me very cheaply, and it certainly is a lively and intimate portrait of the greatest talking Englishman, with his crusty disposition and wonderfully varied prejudices. On the other hand - well, I suppose the only way to find out is to print an extract and see what the reaction is. Here we go, then, with a short chapter.

I recently encountered my old friend Paul Johnson travelling between two social functions, and asked him what he thought of the re-election of Mr Major to the leadership of the Tory party.

"Why, sir," said the great Johnson, "I think it is a very good thing for the Tory party and a very bad thing for the country. I am of the opinion that Mr Major will find it well within his abilities to govern the actions of 300 members of Parliament, but I am afraid he finds it beyond him to govern the British people. I have said for many years that he stands in the shadow of the great Mrs Thatcher, and in consequence is half invisible to the British public. Until such time ashe moves out from her shadow we shall not know if he is man or shadow himself."

I asked Johnson who he would rather see governing Britain if it were not Mr Major.

"I have a fancy to see Mr Blair at 10 Downing Street," said Johnson. "I call him Mr Blair and not, as is the common custom, Tony Blair. I am not sure that I want to be governed by a man who has no Christian name, only an abbreviation of one, and as the man refuses to be called Anthony Blair, then I shall refuse to call him Tony."

I said I did not know if Mr Blair had been christened Tony or not, but said that it was very likely, as many people now chose names for their children which would not have been admitted as fitting or decent names before.

"What kinds of name, sir?" he asked me.

I mentioned names such as Wayne and Darren, at which he gave a kind of shudder.

"Well, sir, I suppose we must not complain too much if parents name their children after stars of the screen. There was a time when everyone named their offspring after members of the royal family - indeed, half the globe is named after portions of the English royal family, from Carolina to Georgia, from Virginia to Prince Edward Island - and it is merely a transference from royalty to show business. I remember Melvyn Bragg, the writer, once informing me that he had been named after a film performer named Melvyn Douglas, and I sympathised, but he said that he was much cheered by the knowledge that nobody now remembered Melvyn Douglas."

I asked the great man if he liked being called Paul.

"Well, sir, I do not dislike being named after the great apostle. It is a Jewish name, of course, yet it is curious how some names in the Bible are thought to be irremediably Jewish, such as Isaac and Abraham, and others not at all, like Paul and David, even though they are just as Biblical."

I asked him if he thought it odd that Jesus should be ignored as a Christian name in Britain but welcomed in Latin countries.

"Not at all, sir. It is part of the difference between Protestant and Latin culture."

I asked him if he knew the New York joke about this matter, and he said he did not, and requested me to tell it.

"The joke is: 'If Jesus was Jewish, how come he had a Puerto Rican name?' "

Johnson stared at me, as if he did not understand, or as if such things should not be joked about, or indeed as if he would recognise a joke when he saw it. Finally he said: "What were we talking about?"

I said that we had been talking about Mr Blair as a possible leader and I said that he had had a good Scotch education, as he had been sent as a young man to school in Edinburgh.

"A good education, sir?" said Johnson. "There are very few men alive who can boast of having had a good education, whether Scotch or otherwise. I am constantly placed in a state of terror by the ignorance of educated men around me, which is why I have sought so often to enlighten them."

Here Johnson was making reference to the series of definitive histories he had written on the Jews, the Catholics, the modern world, and even on castles, which have made his name a byword as an authority, as well as to the frequent utterances he makes in the columns of the Spectator and the Daily Mail and other publications circulated everywhere except among the working classes. I asked him if he ever was thrown into despair by his apparent lack of success in converting the people to his way of thinking.

"No, sir. Depend on it, if I converted all to my way of thinking, then nobody would ask me to write for them, as I would no longer seem outrageous."