Paul Johnson’s 90th birthday, health tips for Churchill and swapping jigsaws with Attlee

Paul’s memories are amazing, if erratic. He instantly recalls the first Catholic lord mayor, exchanges with several US presidents (Reagan: “Don’t look at me, Paul, look at the camera”).

Many readers may not know that my husband, Paul Johnson, edited the New Statesman for six years, in the 1960s, having worked with Kingsley Martin and John Freeman, handing over to Dick Crossman in 1970, then Tony Howard. His 90th birthday on Friday 2 November was wonderfully happy, with 50 guests, a room full of flowers and cards, and a huge Patisserie Valerie chocolate cake.

We married 62 years ago and are hugely proud of our four children and ten grandchildren. Our children helped Paul write the NS Diary during my Labour candidacy for Beaconsfield in the second 1974 general election. Frank Field, Tony Benn, Barbara Castle, Lord Longford and Michael Parkinson all came round canvassing.

So did Germaine Greer, whose latest biography is just out, and who has famously posed nude. To the full house at Slough Working Men’s Club, Germaine explained her Labour support: “Entirely because, in Australia, voting is compulsory so I came here, where I can also claim a pension. May I tell you…” The audience had not come to hear about women’s pensions!

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Exactly 60 years ago, the New Statesman published Paul’s article about James Bond and his creator Ian Fleming, “Sex, Snobbery and Sadism”. A fellow NS journalist wrote of Paul: “By the age of 30, he had become a master journalist, well-known performer on TV, assistant editor of the NS. He is at his best when angry. In that mood, his writing is typically New Statesmanly.”

Angry? Yes. Often, but not in his 50 books, which I see beside me in his study. Among those in power, Paul had fun with Clement Attlee, who asked for silence during a joint ride to Broadcasting House. While Paul was briefed, he asked if the PM would sign his autobiography, to which came a nod. Twenty minutes later he handed back the book. When all was over, Paul opened it to see: “Attlee.” My own exchange with Attlee was while diagnosed with meningitis aged 15 in St Mary’s Paddington, when nurses crowded in my room to avoid Lady Attlee, famously fierce. It emerged that the prime minister was spending his August break having his verrucas removed. We swapped a jigsaw.

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Paul’s allegiance switched to Margaret Thatcher and thence the Spectator. We have a list of diary topics from 2000, by when we had moved to our current four-storey house in Bayswater. Paul is determined to stay here until the end, and stopped talking on world cruises long ago. His memories are amazing, if erratic. He instantly recalls the first Catholic lord mayor, exchanges with several US presidents (Reagan: “Don’t look at me, Paul, look at the camera”).

When Paul was made CBE two years ago, Prince William asked what was his first book. “The Suez War, long, long ago,” Paul replied. “Oh, what luck. I knew it well. Training in the air force we all knew it.” So a happy chat of three minutes for them. We all watched.

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It’s irresistible now to mention Churchill, whom Paul describes meeting when he was 17 years old. Paul said: “Mr Churchill, to what do you attribute your success in life?” Answer: “Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” He then got into his limo.

Which recalls another personal Churchill tale. In 1936, the already Great Man consulted my gastroenterologist father in Wimpole Street. The prescription reply, handwritten, says: “You will be glad you do not have a duodenal ulcer. However may I suggest one or two ways of feeling healthier? One: try a holder for your cigars. Two: try 15 minutes’ exercise a day, no more. Three: try brandy/ whisky, a bit less than the port you like. Four: vegetable soup better than meat.”

Churchill instantly telephoned: “Doctor, I want to see you.” My father: “Sorry, I have patients today. Could you come tomorrow?” Churchill slams down the phone, calls his best friend Lord Beaverbrook. “Max? Find me a new doctor. Mine won’t see me.” Max found Wilson, later Lord Moran, who lasted a fine wartime stretch.

In old age, Churchill was at Chartwell. Moran begged my father for his opinion. There seemed nothing but terminal care possible, but my father said he’d be down early on Sunday (so Moran could have his truncated weekend). At 8am the next morning the hoard of medics had gone. The housekeeper smiled and said: “Please come up, doctor. Sir Winston would like to see you.” Sat up in bed, cigar in one hand, glass of brandy in the other, a beaming Churchill said, “How are you, Tommy? Haven’t seen you for too long.” A good end to a busy life, like Paul’s.

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JB Priestley and his wife, Jacquetta Hawkes, led a healthy and happy “lord of the manor” life in Paul’s time at the Statesman, and had us many times to visit at his Stratford-upon-Avon house. The house was large enough to have each meal in a different room, with loud music to sustain our visits. On our first ever evening, I was told to come to breakfast in my dressing-gown. “Don’t you dare,” Paul said. But, by 9am, Priestley was supervising a huge breakfast, which I politely declined. “Just coffee, please.” “Harrumph,” said Priestley. “I can see you were never in the trenches.” Just as many years later, we were guests at the US ambassador’s palatial house overlooking Regent’s Park. First to arrive, Paul chatted to the new ambassador, I was alone in the huge drawing-room when in came Margaret Thatcher. “I leave her with you, Marigold,” said her carer.

Knowing Margaret was not fond of me, I said, nervously: “What a treat to be here in this lovely house for dinner.” Looking coldly at me, she replied: “When I get up, I don’t think about treats. I think about the work for the day.” Last words for both of us and well deserved.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state