Paul Johnson does not, as they say, need much introduction. Whatever one thinks of his opinions, one has to admire his frenetic energy. From 1955 to 1970 he poured forth strong left-wing views in the New Statesman, and since then has moved to pouring forth strong right-wing views in a whole host of publications, books and speeches. This collection of 76 pieces, culled from the Conservative press of 1976-84, shows him again in full spate on subjects as diverse as 'The Decline of the Hat' and 'The Family as an Emblem of Freedom'. The essential unity of the book is, however, political. It is not just that extreme Thatcherism breathes from every page: both the strength of Johnson's writing and its often dreadful thinness derive from its sheer polemicism. Here, at least, the continuity with his New Statesman days is clear, for there is the same fatal, though exciting, tendency to go over the rhetorical top, the same eye for what will make 'our side' hug themselves with glee and what will most infuriate the enemy. The whole effort is a form of literary baiting which works up the troops on both sides and generally creates a deal of heat, sound and fury. This style of writing was the sole (and rather measly) contribution to English letters made by Kingsley Martin, and has been imitated by successive New Statesman columnists - Richard Crossman, Paul Johnson, Gerald Kaufman, Matthew Coady et al. (One only has to listen to the Parliamentary speeches of Gerald Kaufman to see how this sub-genre, once picked up, is hard to drop.) The origins of the style lie, only too audibly, in the world of the public school and Oxbridge debating society: it is at once over-heated and un-serious, and has a sort of neighing ring to it, as of a clash of young geldings.
LRB 4 July 1985 | PDF Download