My last conversation with Paul Johnson, the journalist, author and former New Statesman editor who has died aged 94, was in 2015, at the launch party for Hugh Purcell’s biography of John Freeman. We both spoke at the event, and afterwards we discussed the mysterious allure of Freeman. He never wrote a book and disdained attention, yet moved through public life with imperious ease, occupying notable roles as a soldier, politician, editor, television interviewer, diplomat, businessman and academic. Johnson had succeeded Freeman as editor of the New Statesman in 1965 – they remained close to the end of Freeman’s life – and before that they’d worked together under the editorship of Kingsley Martin during the period when the New Statesman became the dominant political and literary publication of the era, read by both left and right, as it should be.
I’d first encountered Johnson many years earlier when, as a schoolboy, I read his columns in the Daily Mail – my mother’s newspaper of choice in the late 1970s. I understood easily enough that Johnson was an ardent defender of Margaret Thatcher – he shared her social conservatism, her Atlanticism, and her hatred of the left and the then powerful trade union movement – but what I struggled to understand was why he seemed so angry, not just some but all of the time. Only much later did I discover he’d once been a man of the left – a former editor of the New Statesman, no less – and wrote with the fire and zeal of the convert.
Appalled by the revolutionary social excesses of the late 1960s and scornful of the anti-intellectualism of the Labour left, Johnson announced his turn to the right in a 1975 New Statesman essay, “The Rise of the Know Nothing Left”. “Without a struggle, with complacency, almost with eagerness, [Labour] has delivered itself, body, mind and soul, into the arms of the trade union movement,” he wrote. Johnson could be preposterous and unpleasantly reactionary. He loved being a provocateur – he told me that if a column took him longer than an hour to write there was something wrong with it. But there were other Johnsons: the Spectator columnist who could write gracefully about literature and theology (his favourite essay, he told me, was Charles Lamb’s “Dream Children”, a beautiful meditation on loss and grief); and the prolific author who wrote bestselling histories for the general reader.
Every New Statesman editor, Peter Wilby once wrote, “starts with a belief that he (it’s always been a he so far) can restore the magazine’s glory days. I was fired in the end. Not all the others suffered the same fate, but most left office with a sense of disillusion and disappointment and, in some cases, mental turmoil.” In our recent Christmas issue, Steve Platt wrote poignantly of the stresses of editing the New Statesman after John Major sued the magazine for libel in the 1990s. Johnson was a successful editor, at least initially – the New Statesman recorded its highest ever print circulation in his first year – but, according to the Times’s obituary, he too departed disillusioned. “Readers started to fall away to more sectarian publications and the political tensions… took their toll on Johnson personally. He began to drink heavily – a weakness that was periodically to trouble him until he gave up alcohol altogether some 25 years later – and in 1969 he suffered a breakdown.” In 1970 he was replaced by an aged Richard Crossman, previously a regular contributor, whose editorship would be a failure and last only two years.
In the spring of 2013 my former colleague Jonathan Derbyshire and I were planning for the New Statesman’s centenary and so we visited Johnson and his charming wife, Marigold, at their home in west London. It was fascinating to spend the afternoon listening to Johnson, the old anger now subdued, as he described the New Statesman in the 1950s and 1960s. He’d taken particular interest in what he called “the middle” – the essay in the middle of the book, before the book reviews began, that could be more personal and less directly preoccupied with the Westminster scene or world politics. He mentioned as especially memorable “middles” Bernard Levin’s “Am I a Jew?”, Malcolm Muggeridge’s “The Royal Soap Opera” (sounds familiar) and his own witty denunciations of the Beatles and James Bond, the print equivalents then of “viral” online hits today. As we were leaving, Johnson gave us each a copy of his most recent book, about Charles Darwin (he complained he was now read much more in the US than the UK), as well as a hardback anthology of New Statesman profiles. These were originally published unsigned but, in the book, Johnson had written in pencil, at the end of each profile, who he thought the author was. We included all the pieces cited in conversation that afternoon, including profiles of Sartre and Koestler, in our centenary editions.
In recent weeks, as chair of a special “winner of winners” literary award, I’ve been reading – and in some cases rereading – the 24 books that have won the Baillie Gifford Prize (formerly the Samuel Johnson Prize), which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It’s an outstanding list of prize-winning non-fiction books from which my fellow judges – Shahidha Bari, Sarah Churchwell, Frances Wilson – and I have the honour but also the considerable challenge of choosing a shortlist, to be announced on 9 March. The winner – the very best of the best, as it were – will be revealed on 27 April at a ceremony held at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. In the meantime, Waterstones is promoting the prize with displays of all the Baillie Gifford-winning books. Do read some of them if you can.
This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis