Brief Lives

Short of an autobiography - which Paul Johnson says he does not intend to write - Brief Lives is the next best thing. It recalls very colourfully many of the most memorable encounters Johnson has had during his long and tempestuous life as a journalist, historian, polemicist and distinguished man of letters. Whether these accounts are made from notes he took at the time is not made clear. I would imagine not, because their tone - most of all, in the sym­pathetic descriptions of political soldiers such as Generals Franco and Pinochet - seems to reflect his current right-wing opinions, rather than the more leftish ones he held when editing the New Statesman between 1965 and 1970.

Even so, most of the 200-odd accounts cast new light on the great and the good (and not so good) who are put under his microscope here. In a few cases, Johnson reveals hilariously funny aspects that had previously been discreetly brushed under the carpet - take, for instance, the publisher Victor Gollancz's habit of "constantly taking out his penis to inspect it to discover whether it shows signs of VD or indeed whether it was still there at all".

The cast list includes most of the American presidents of the second half of the 20th century, British prime ministers and European leaders (including Franco, Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle), as well as most of the literary and artistic giants of the period. These include T S Eliot, who tells Johnson that "there is nothing in this world quite so stimulating as a strong dry Martini cocktail", and Picasso, whom he judges "to have done more harm to art than all the Goths and Vandals".

Great international hostesses - Lady Pamela Berry, Katharine Graham of the Washington Post and Louise de Vilmorin in Paris - have a place here, as does the Queen, alongside scandalous creatures such as Muriel Belcher of the Colony Room and John Davenport, the last of the London bohemians. Interspersed throughout, and most welcome to me, are a number of Johnson's old journalist friends, such as Henry Fairlie - who coined the term "the establishment" to describe society - and the critics Philip Hope-Wallace and John Raymond. For the most part, his subjects are no longer with us, which allows him to let rip when he feels like it (which is quite often), without fear of legal or physical retribution.

It all makes compulsive reading. For Johnson has not only a retentive memory - total recall, in fact - and a lively imagination, but also a great raconteur's gift for witty dialogue, rivalling that of Oscar Wilde.

Surprises abound, too. Despite having known him for well over half a century, I had never realised that Johnson had met and had a significant conversation with Franco, as far back as 1950-51. The meeting, which Johnson characteristically describes as if it were par for the course, took place while he was serving in Gibraltar, where he ran into the Spanish dictator in the officers' mess. It was a brief encounter, but Franco is quoted as saying: "The trouble with Spain is that there is nothing between the landowners and the peasants, or the capitalists and the workers. I want to create a large middle class, as you have in England. Then we will have a tranquil state in which democracy can work."

Every so often, there are disgusting passages, such as the following vignette of Tom Driberg, the MP and former chair of the Labour Party:

His fondness for fellatio made him no respecter of persons. When he was chairman of the Labour Party, he and Jim Callaghan,
the prime minister, had to attend a Labour occasion in the north, involving a long car journey. They stopped to have a pee behind
a hedge. Driberg, ever alert, exclaimed in delight: "Ooh, I say! What a beautiful cock you have, prime minister! May I have a closer look?" Jim was at a loss.

Any historian of the last half of the 20th century - especially if he has a taste for the comédie humaine - should read this book, if only to learn more about its author, the Thomas Carlyle of our age, who has also played a life-enhancing part in that history.

Peregrine Worsthorne's most recent book is "Democracy Needs Aristocracy" (Harper Perennial, £7.99)

Brief Lives
Paul Johnson
Hutchinson, 304pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas