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Paul Johnson, the provocateur


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Diario de Navarra, El Día and El Diario Montañés

Pablo Perez |

Full Professor of Contemporary History and professor at Master's Degree in Christianity and Contemporary Culture.

All my encounters with the recently deceased Paul Johnson have been literary: I have read him. Less than I would like to, because there is always a lack of time and he wrote a lot. The first of his works that came into my hands was his Modern Times. I still remember the beginning, in 1917, with the expedition to verify the thesis of Einstein's theory of relativity, in the middle of the First World War. That beginning attracted me as did the rest of the book's more than eight hundred pages. There were surprises in every chapter and sometimes on every page. It was very different from the history I had been taught at School.

Some mythical prestige was mercilessly questioned: the good judgment of the British government in its colonies (and this by a Briton), the personal habits of Gandhi, the ascendancy of J. F. Kennedy, the wisdom of many thinkers evoked by others as oracles... He allowed himself to write with appreciation of believers, so often presented as relics of another time by the popes of progressivism. And there was more: he detested Franco, but he did not consider the Republicans the only heroes of the Spanish Civil War and, to top it all, he was not a Marxist. I did not know very well, but we had to admit that he made us think. He was a real provocation for the ideas commonly admitted in the Spanish Schools of the 80s.

Shortly thereafter I learned that Modern Times had become required reading in many Anglo-Saxon political science Schools . I read his Intellectuals and argued almost non-stop with a good friend and colleague who considered unacceptable those biographies of thinkers and writers that focused on the private life of the character compared to his ideas. There was ardor in those discussions, which made us think and read even more.

I learned later that he had been trained as a historian at Oxford but that he had devoted himself to writing for the press and magazines. That he had been a significant leftist in his youth, critical, combative, with a sharp pen for denunciation, prestigious for his devastating analysis of conservatives. And it turned out that he had changed: his leftist radicalism no longer convinced him and he rectified his position, launching his criticisms against many of his previous convictions. Somehow I had sensed it when I read him: Johnson defended positions considered conservative with the language, style, forcefulness and fury of the left. He was a progressive who had seen beyond the apparent triumph of his ideas in '68 and was determined to challenge them now to the point of laughing at them.

I also admired him as a keen columnist. I remember his article on how to keep a marriage alive. He gave several pieces of advice, among others not to argue with acrimony and to have a bad report: things were not as important as they seemed in the heat of the moment. And you had to have a bad report: "- Honey, do you remember what was the reason for that argument that almost got us divorced", his wife would have asked him one day. "- I have no idea", he would have answered. It was a good committee for living together. Years later it was scandalously made public that Johnson had had a mistress for eleven years... showing signs of a B incoherence. Almost as B as some of those he denounced. He acknowledged it, apologized. By then, the attempts to damage his reputation were a small thing.

With more than 50 books published, one of them a History of the Jews that had been so well liked that it was studied in many synagogues, after thousands of brilliant articles, he had proved to be a writer of great stature. I trust that he achieved the coherence he desired. May this provocateur who helped us to think rest in peace.