Paul Johnson’s Brief Lives

July 17 2010

Johnson’s Brief Lives are two hundred-odd gossipy pieces about people he has met or known. They are not even as biographical as Aubrey’s. The title is a misnomer as well as a copy.

The subtitle on the cover is An Intimate and Very Personal Portrait of the Twentieth Century. Very.

There is a joint entry on Arnold Toynbee and his son Philip.

“It is extraordinary to think that when I first went up to Oxford in 1946 many people regarded Arnold Toynbee as the world’s greatest living historian. The first six volumes of his A Short History appeared that year.”

No, they didn’t. Somervell’s abridgement of the first six volumes of the Study appeared in 1946 in one volume. There was no book called A Short History of anything. The first three volumes of the main work had appeared in 1934, the next three in 1939. It is extraordinary to think that American interviewers regularly introduce Paul Johnson as “the great historian”.

“It was immediately denounced by Hugh Trevor-Roper, and many other academics (especially Peter Geyl, who wrote a superb essay about it) as a pretentious fraud.”

No, it was not. Trevor-Roper made his first denunciation in 1954, eight years later, when the last four volumes appeared. Geyl wrote not one essay, but several equally important ones, and his name was Pieter not Peter.

And Geyl and Trevor-Roper concerned themselves only with the original work, not with the abridgement.

“But, considering its length (four more volumes appeared in 1957, … ”

No. The last four volumes appeared in 1954. Somervell’s abridgement of the last four appeared in 1957 in one volume.

“ … then two more in 1961, … ”

No, only one in 1961.

“ … and a condensation the same year; … )”

No condensation between 1957 and 1972.

“After politics, journalism has always been the preferred career of the ambitious but lazy second-rater”: Gore Vidal, View from the Diners Club, 1991. Johnson thinks that his gossip will be authentic if he doesn’t check anything. That is apparently how he writes history. His lazy and second-rate publisher, Hutchinson, takes him at his word.

“I dipped into it a lot but whenever I came across an event I knew about, Toynbee always got it slightly, sometimes profoundly, wrong.”

Give us an example.

“I complained about this to A. L. Rowse, who said: ‘He is certainly all wrong about Queen Elizabeth. The only book he seems to have read is Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex.’”

He was probably right, but there is something almost comically provincial in Rowse, of whom I am a great fan, fishing out “Elizabeth” from the ocean of historical references in A Study of History.

Toynbee admitted that he knew nothing about English history. His detractors said that he knew nothing about any history other than the history of territories at some stage occupied or directly influenced by the Greeks.

“‘I read some of it [Rowse continues] because it was attacked so ferociously by Hugh Roper. [Johnson usually calls Trevor-Roper “Roper”.] As Hugh is wrong about so many things I thought he might be wrong about this too. But I fear he is right. Not that Arnold will mind, as he is the most insufferably conceited man in creation.’”

Geyl and Trevor-Roper also saw an irritating conceit in Toynbee. Nothing would touch him. Johnson’s passage confirms that all three of the Oxford triumvirate of my day – Trevor-Roper, Taylor, Rowse – agreed about Toynbee. There is a mildly critical reference to him in Rowse’s entertaining All Souls in My Time (1993), and Rowse quotes Richard Pares’s description of him as a “rubbery man”; there are two more in Historians I Have Known (1996). I suppose Pares meant that criticisms seemed to bounce off him or make no mark on him, or he considered him an escapologist or contortionist.


“Rowse related to me a conversation between Churchill and Attlee at the Commons. Churchill: ‘Have you read this man Toynbee?’ ‘A bit.’ ‘What do you think of it?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘Same here.’ ‘Who do you think is our best historian?’ ‘Arthur Bryant.’ ‘So do I.’ Rowse laughed: ‘And why not? He is good. Though not as good as me.’”

This not very brilliant anecdote reminds us of the other great demolition of a modern English historian’s reputation. Trevor-Roper destroyed Toynbee’s, Andrew Roberts exposed the once popular Arthur Bryant as an arch-toady and appeaser in Patriotism: The Last Refuge of Sir Arthur Bryant, an essay in his Eminent Churchillians (1994). That book, incidentally, lists Toynbee as an appeasement historian. There was a tendency in Toynbee in that direction, but you cannot apply the label to him without many qualifications, and not after Abyssinia.


“By all accounts, Toynbee was an obsessive worker. The only time I met him, he said to me: ‘Make a plan for each workday. Never lose a minute. People waste a lot of time over meals. I don’t. Napoleon never spent more than ten minutes over a meal, if he could help it. I do the same. Walking is good, because you see and learn things. All other sports and exercise are a waste of time and energy.’ He leaned towards me confidentially (we were at a Chatham House party): ‘You can waste a lot of time on – er – well – sex. There again, Napoleon is an example. He believed copulation should never take more than ten minutes.’ I thought he was a grandiose booby but I remembered what he said about Napoleon – another count against the monster.”

This, of course, is vulgar caricature. The first part is credible, though if you read Toynbee’s letters, you do not get the impression of a man incapable of relaxing. Toynbee worked at a Victorian pace, but he enjoyed food and wine and company, and travel. The tendency for ordinary meals to drag on is anyway modern. Family meals in old-fashioned houses were regular and short. The same was no doubt true of sex, but I do not believe the last part of this very Johnsonian anecdote. He would have been too dignified to say this.

“Toynbee’s austerity and work obsession must have made life with him hell. He married a daughter of the great Gilbert Murray, but the marriage did not last.”

It did. It lasted thirty-two years. Does he know why Gilbert Murray was great?

“They had three sons, of whom I knew Philip, for many years the chief literary critic of the Observer. When Philip was in his sixties, he sent his father, still alive but pretty old, a long, itemised bill, coming to (I think) about £80,000, and headed ‘For Ruining My Childhood.’”

No, he did not. When Philip was in his sixties, his father was dead.

The “(I think)” is in the manner of Aubrey. At least he admits here that he might be wrong. McNeill does not mention this bill in his biography of Toynbee, but the story is credible even if we are not told its source. Toynbee was a distant father. When people are present and absent at the same time, absorbed in their own world, the effect on people around them can be more devastating than if they are physically away. Toynbee’s oldest son Tony committed suicide in 1939. His middle son Philip exhibited bouts of attention-seeking and self-pity, drank, and suffered in later life from severe depression.

“He meant it seriously, too, though naturally Arnold did not pay up. Philip was tall, like his father, and handsome in a rough and primitive way. As a boy he had been a Communist, along with Esmond Romilly, who married the CP Mitford girl, Jessica. They ran away from school, Philip from Rugby, Romilly from Wellington. Philip was, so he said, the first Communist President of the Oxford Union. But in the war he was a captain. When I knew him he was famous for founding, with Ben Nicolson (Harold’s son) a ‘progressive’ lunch club, at Bertorelli’s. I was never invited to one of their ‘do’s’, being part of a rival gang. In any case, I was always careful never to sit next to Philip at a meal as he was liable to get horribly drunk and vomit all over you. As a critic he was erratic. He made a fool of himself over Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, which he hailed as a masterpiece and helped to make into an ephemeral bestseller. But his work was gradually taken over by his religiosity. He attacked my History of Christianity for not devoting enough attention to mysticism. He certainly did not make that mistake himself. All his energies [not quite all] went into a gigantic poem, Pantaloon, never published in full. So he became a famous bore, like his father, though in a different way.”

Why be so unpleasant about him? He was a troubled but not an uninteresting man, even if no one is going to read Pantaloon.

Most journalistic utterances about Arnold Toynbee are shoddy. Why not praise the nobility of his undertaking or his scholarship in “straight” works such as Hannibal’s Legacy? Why not ask yourself why you find his work merely “repellent”, a word Johnson uses?

His opinions are second-hand. Discrimination is harder work. Johnson likes it easy. If there were to be a new Ten Commandments for those who do not believe in God and don’t think that they need to be told not to steal, the most demanding would have to be: “Don’t jump on bandwagons.”

This passage probably does not contain his own insight, but it perhaps says something about Greene:

“The trouble with Greene was that he went to a school (Berkhamsted) where his father was headmaster. This set up in him an unresolvable conflict of allegiance – should he be loyal to his friends or to his father? – and this led, in practice, to a deep-rooted instinct to betray.”

He develops the point for a few lines. There is an absurd non sequitur at the end. And whom or what did Greene betray?

His piece on Trevor-Roper gets the years of his birth and death wrong (they are his brother’s years) and says that his Archbishop Laud was published before the war when it was published during it. Trevor-Roper was made a life peer in 1979, when his wife was seventy-two, but Johnson tells us that after that things started to go wrong and his marriage was childless.

One or two passages aside, the name-dropping is rampant, the thoughts trivial, the language fake upper-class, the writing slovenly, the anecdotes humourless. The nadir is reached in the section on Forster.

“I saw him once [it’s often “once” in this book], in Pall Mall, standing on the steps of the Reform Club. He wore an old mackintosh, stained, greasy and crumpled. The figure struck me as the epitome of the Man in the Dirty Raincoat. It began to rain as he hesitated on the top step. Then he turned up his collar so that only his big, sharp nose showed, moved gingerly down the steps, crossed the road and headed for Soho. Going cruising, was he? Cottaging? Better say: looking for copy.”

8 Responses to “Paul Johnson’s Brief Lives”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    This 3-hour Q&A with Johnson on C-Span makes me question even his intelligence. His seems a blunt mind.

  2. […] “Rubbery” (immune from criticism, according to Richard Pares) as Toynbee seemed, Geyl’s and others’ criticisms led him to write a long twelfth volume of the Study, after the Atlas, and an Annex in it which he called Ad Hominem, about the personal implications of some of the attacks, and which contained four sections: […]

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Amazon review of his history of America:

    “He says of Lyndon Johnson, for example, ‘there is a good biography waiting to be written.’ Has he never heard of Robert Caro’s monumental work, widely considered to be one of the best political biographies ever penned?”

  4. davidderrick Says:

    “Paul Johnson is perhaps the most eminent living British historian”: Brian M Carney, Wall Street Journal, March 5 2011.

  5. davidderrick Says:

    In BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs on January 15, Johnson said that he was unimpressed by Nelson Mandela, but admired Augusto Pinochet, opinions he must have obtained from Denis Thatcher.

    He also said: “Tchaikovsky led a very sad life, and in the end he was forced to commit suicide by a court of honour because he had made a pass at the Tsar’s nephew.”

    Leaving aside the fact that there is very little indeed to support the court of honour theory and not one serious scholar believes it (see Poznansky, passim), the alleged offence was committed against the nephew of a Count Stenbock-Fermor, who was an equerry to the Tsar.

  6. davidderrick Says:

    Another lazy writer and publisher: Richard J Evans reviews AN Wilson, Hitler: A Short Biography, Harper Press, 2011 in New Statesman.

  7. davidderrick Says:

    Summary in New Statesman of Evans’s subsequent exchange with Wilson.

    Johnson’s dislike of Obama and Mandela is basically racism.

  8. davidderrick Says:

    Comment on an April 16 2016 article on Donald Trump in Forbes:

    “This great and legendary English historian lays it all out for us.”

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