Captain Moonlight: Penguin Books of Interviews

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The Independent Online
A FAT volume thumps on to the Moonlight desk. It is The Penguin Book of Interviews, an anthology edited by Christopher Silvester, and a fascinating read, despite containing not one single example of the Captain's technique. There are interviews with Marx and Mae West, Margaret Thatcher and Henrik Ibsen, the two Josephs (Stalin and Orton), Lester Piggott and Benito Mussolini. But the one which caught my eye is the last in the book, an interview with the famous historian, socialist, conservative, thinker, and writer of angry articles on page 8 of the Daily Mail, Paul Johnson, conducted by Richard Stengel for Time.

The interview did not appear in Time, though, but rather later, in Spy, the New York satirical magazine. This is because it was an entirely unsuccessful interview. Time had wanted it because Johnson is revered by the right in America as a popular historian (read and recommended by both Richard Nixon and Dan Quayle). Johnson, at home, answered eight questions. Five times he said 'Don't know'; once 'unlikely' and once 'very unlikely'. For example: Stengel - 'One of the issues that you have written about is biological determinism. Do you think that, now we're finding out more about genetic inheritances, the idea of morality is becoming less, uh, important and more a function of biology? Johnson - 'Don't know'; and: Stengel - 'Are these questions not up your alley?' Johnson (eyes closed) - 'Don't know.'

Stengel turned off his tape recorder. Johnson walked out of the room, and did not return. After half an hour, Stengel left, shouting goodbye, but getting no response. Gripping stuff. I rang Johnson to find what it had all been about. 'Who are you, Mr Nevin?' he asked. I told him. 'You are a gossip columnist,' he said. I demurred, unconvincingly. 'I have an absolute rule,' he said, 'never to talk to gossip columnists. It's nothing personal. Sorry, goodbye.' He then hung up. Stengel did bloody well, if you ask me.

(Photograph omitted)