Some people make a journalist’s life difficult – an impenetrable barrier of secretaries, press officers, media consultants, image massagers. Paul Johnson is one of the country’s best known journalists and historians – I was half a minute into my request for an interview when he said: “Yes, when do you want to come?” Oh, if only life was always so simple.
So within 72 hours I was disembarked at Queensway, left into the “Grove” and wandering, early morning, up a quiet side street in W2.
The opening of the road was drab and spoilt by an obtrusive 1960s porch soldered onto a perfectly decent Victorian Presbyterian church. A sharp left takes you into a different part of the squared crescent. The rush of traffic was inaudible and the air was filled with birdsong. A gang of builders waited patiently on a garden wall for access to their patron’s house and almost every front garden was carpeted with early spring blossoms.
Through the central archway substantial courtyards and little sunlit gardens were visible carrying the properties up to the back of the main street with its 19th century parade boasting a closed bank, a Greek restaurant, several Asian shops and a Sue Ryder.
The wall and entrance of Johnson’s house rejoiced in a tumbling tide of early white clematis and, under the awning an elderly Nissan presided over an insignificant and sanded oil patch.
Up the steps to the door, bang on the hour, and a moment later Johnson there, welcoming but not effusive, casually but tidily dressed and, checking my brief and expectations, ushering me into the book and painting-lined front room to do an hour’s work.
He is a man of warmth and incisiveness, passion about his faith, little time for muddle or compromise and of very definite opinions about anything you care to raise. I begin, as always, with his beginnings.
As the gospels make no sense without Genesis so the understanding of a man’s journey is often enlightened by his origins.
“I’m from Manchester. My family’s origins are in North Lancashire, one of those catholic pockets that resisted the pernicious effects of the 16th century. There is not a drop of protestant blood in my veins.”
(This is said with quiet but definite pride. It is typical of Johnson to put his cards on the table while others are still matching suits and pairings!)
“I was brought up in North Staffordshire, the Potteries. My father was headmaster of an Art School and trained decorators and designers for the china factories.”
Are you artistic yourself?
“I still paint, in fact I’ve got much more serious about it in the last five or six years, with two quite successful shows in London. If you look out the back you can see I’m having a studio built and I want to start doing oils seriously.”
(There indeed, where most folks have a garden shed or double garage, is the advance framework and foundation of a substantial studio. The walls of his home are filled with artists who understand form and light, weight and antiquity. In between are his own fresh and romantic watercolour landscapes.)
What about church art?
“My father helped design, build and decorate the large catholic church at Tunstall under the leadership of an energetic and ambitious priest, Fr Ryan.”
(It is a curious thought that in Anglican ears “ambitious” would betoken the nauseating and all to prevalent, preferment seeker. It is clear from Johnson’s remarks that this is a wholly parochial ambition to do the best for God and His people.)
Where did you go to school?
“My mother didn’t want me to go to prep school – too young to be sent away she believed. So going to board with the Jesuits at Stonyhurst was a bit strange at first but I quickly grew to love it.”
It is fashionable now to tell stories of hideous cruelties at religious order’s schools. did you experience anything like that?
“No. My father died when I was 13 and they couldn’t have been kinder. There was tremendous sport on this huge estate, buildings full of wonderful paintings, drama, art and a very keen Officers Training Corps.
The Army was the first profession to lift the ban on Catholics and Stonyhurst had won more VCs than any other school – their portraits hung on the wall.”
(The resentment of charges of historical disloyalty run understandably deep in English Catholics and their determination to give the lie to such assertions has often led to acts of great heroism.)
Did you continue your acting?
“No. I played Hamlet in my final year and got an Exhibition in History to Magdalene, Oxford. My moral tutor said, “I hope you’re not going to waste your time acting” and I said, “No”. That was it.
“1949: military service for two years. I was staff captain at the garrison on Gibraltar. Then I went to Paris for three and a half years to work as an assistant to the editor on a magazine. When I returned it was to be Foreign Editor of the New Statesman and, for the last six of my fifteen years there, Editor.”
(Any innocent reading the Johnson of today would be astonished to discover such a philosophical past. One detractor, of his own generation, recently described him as “having progressed from Young Turk socialism to crusty old bufferdom.” But the picture is not quite as simple as that.)
“After 1970 I went freelance and then, in the early eighties I began my weekly column for the Spectator – first of all on the media but now on everything. This autumn a selection of essays is coming out called, To Hell with Picasso.
Were you brought up a socialist?
“My father was a very old fashioned Conservative and my mother was a Gladstonian Liberal. I became very left wing during my time in France, heavily influenced by Pierre Mendez France. I was a friend of Aneurin Bevan and a great admirer – though not so much now. Friends with Harold Wilson, but he was a great disappointment.”
(This is the same Johnson who became a great admirer and friend of Mrs. Thatcher and now a strong supporter of Mr. Blair.)
What do you say to the charge of inconsistency?
“The important thing for me is leadership. Parties are a 19th century invention and I don’t think they will be a great feature of 21st century politics.
Character and moral beliefs are the keys to leadership – Thatcher and Blair have them.”
You’ve recently surprised people by coming out in support of labour?
” I’m not a supporter of the Labour Party and I think it contains serious errors, but Tony Blair is a good Christian man and there are religious principles behind his political thinking which is rare today.”
His wife is a catholic, do you think that he will end up one?
“He has a nice wife and sweet children, it would be lovely to think so.”
What about the Labour Party’s position on abortion? Isn’t that deeply anti-christian?
“The more we know scientifically the more wicked it becomes. I believe, in the end, the USA will act. For all the English criticisms of America they have a great capacity for taking on big moral issues. Others will follow. In 20 years time it will have returned to being a moral and legal crime.”
(Johnson’s own family life is, with his faith, at the very centre of his world. The Worsthorne’s introduced him to Marigold, a high Anglican devotee of the Mirfield “gang” in 1956 and they married the following year – “Ruby wedding next year”. It was, says Johnson, “her idea to become a Catholic” – no pressure applied.
Their children have all made their way. Daniel is senior editor with the Times and writing a history of German philosophy. Cosmo is in building. Luke is an entrepreneur, “I’m told he’s very rich”, and Sophie is in LWT drama dept.) There are five grandchildren.
Who have been your great influences?
“Politically my great hero is Sir Karl Popper. My proudest procession is a letter from him praising my book “Modern Times.” I’ll show you it later.”
(He does. It is framed in his study. I won’t bore you with the details but if I’d received a letter like that from one of the great minds of our century I would have framed it too.)
“Spiritually it was Mother and Father and two elder sisters – remarkably spiritual people.”
What about the wider family – the communion of saints?
“My second name is Bede and I have a great devotion to him – spiritual guide, theologian, historian. Anglicans have a lack of saints. I’m very devoted to Dr. Johnson and Jane Austen. Johnson, writer, journalist, spent his whole life among words, knew he had weaknesses, prayed and failed. His whole life was a spiritual struggle towards goodness. And Jane Austen, very devout, witty, interesting. Her novels are guides to virtue and she made a very good death”
(Johnson greatly approves of Johnson’s practice of writing prayers and does this himself for others. Grateful recipients have included Blair and Princess Di. More writers should do this “there was a time when Bishops wrote prayers rather than reports.”)
More people know you as a “state of the nation” Jeremiah in the national press but, in fact, your major work is history.
“Yes. I’ve written thirty books so far and I’m hoping to finish my history of the people of the USA by the end of ‘96. Then I’m planning a book on the millennium – lessons of history and mistakes to avoid in the third.
(Anyone who has read a Johnsonian history or biography, whether or not you agree with his politics or theology, will have encountered that rare and delightful thing – scholarly research given journalistic drive and accessibility so that, no matter what the hour you don’t want to put it down. Modern Times, History of Christianity, History of the Modern World or the biography of the Pope are good places to start.)
You admire the Pope but he seems very unpopular with some western Catholics.
“Totally unrepresentative media liberals! He’s universally popular with ordinary Catholics throughout the world. He is steadfast in the traditional catholic doctrines. Remarkable man – he radiates truth and justice and he’s a very tough and brilliant thinker. I was granted an audience recently and gave him a copy of my Christianity history in Polish. That day, apart from worship and administration he talked to 2000 students, met senior police officers from Europe and held an audience with catholic MEPs – speaking in six languages. He has incredible energy and commitment. He has published encyclicals on every major matter and travelled all over the world to be with his people. His pontificate is a great one and it has persuaded me of the need for genuine pastoral gifts in high office – a first class track record is required. There is a great search for God afoot and it is no good having lukewarm leadership.”
Do you approve of the new catechism?
“One of the best things to happen. I use it a lot – a huge tome, what a shock replacement for the penny catechism! Everything is argued and backed up from the scriptures and the fathers.”
(We exchange a long meaningful glance, the meaning of which he is all to happy to impart…..)
“This is not the same in Anglicanism is it?”
But you’ve said you favour women’s ordination
“The catholic church will change and I hold in contempt all arguments against it.”
Like the doctrine of creation, incarnation, iconic representation, the example of Jesus, teaching of the Church and the Pope?
“We need more priests and it is a matter of convenient practice.”
Why not have married priests?
“No – men must devote their whole lives, body and soul to priesthood.” (Presumably this celibacy will apply to women). “Women have a peculiar aptitude for holiness and to refuse to ordain them is contrary to natural justice!”
So you agree with Archbishop Tutu?
“I doubt whether I agree with him on anything!
Do you believe “natural justice” applies to practising homosexuals?
“No! It is a manifest sin. They are not born, but made. Corrupted, and then corrupting others in their turn.”
Where do you worship?
“St. Mary and All Angels. Marvellous parish priest, Fr Michael Hollings, 40 – 50 at mass every morning.”
(Johnson has just been instrumental in clearing Holling’s name from wicked allegations in “the worst newspaper in the world” and is joyfully triumphant that this particular “work of the devil” has been thwarted.)
As a historian is there any other age you would liked to have lived in?
“Lots but probably 1780 – 1830 – the political, literary and musical life was tremendous and a tremendous sense of enterprise, hope and fun.”
Same problems with the Prince and Princess of Wales
“Almost uncanny parallels. Diana, though, is an admirable woman whereas Caroline was an old bag and very tiresome. And George IV was more reprehensible than Charles.”
(I suppress the momentary and cynical reflection that poor Caroline would have got a better press if she hadn’t looked like the back end of a bus and smelt worse than the exhaust.)
Is this the end of the royal family?
“No. The English love the monarchy, it will recover. We are going through a bad patch all round – no deference, no awe, a decline of respect for authority. Without it you require physical sanctions. Less natural respect leads to more prisons. There may be a big change ahead – a swing back to authority. But don’t confuse that with authoritarianism.”
Does the Church have a role to play in this?
“The last Archbishop with natural authority was Fisher.”
(He rehearses his recent comments about the present incumbent. One cannot but get the impression that Johnson regards the C of E as a faintly ridiculous organisation and is enjoying a quiet satisfaction that it is revealing itself as such at every turn.)
There is about him the creative and combative excitement of a Chesterton or Belloc, a hugely talented and enjoyable man with perhaps a shade too much reverence for his own opinions – though that he has the capacity to form others opinions and operate as a highly educated vox pop there can be little doubt.
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St. Alban’s