Saturday, February 5, 2011

Sir Launchalot on Paul Johnson

The 30th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the March 1996 issue.

We started the Sir Launchalot column in the second issue in an attempt to lift the standards of Auckland’s book launches. Unity Books would always put on a good show, but elsewhere the standard was variable: publishers are notoriously mean. So we started reviewing them – speeches, food, drink, the works – and it worked. Launches got better.

Full credit for that goes to Denis Edwards, who wrote all 43 Sir Launchalot columns. (At least I think he did – I have a vague memory of writing one myself in his style and finding it a real challenge.) I got a bit of grief from people in a city at the other end of the North Island about this column, which they felt lowered the tone of the magazine. To which I always said, “Yes. That is the point of it. Also, I think it’s funny. Now please fuck off.” 

The intro read:
Paul Johnson, flexible thinker, at the Sheraton
Paul Johnson is one of England’s journalistic icons. Author of some 30 books, he did a spectacularly successful turn as editor of the New Statesman in the 60s and 70s. All through those decades he was a leader of the left. Then in the 80s, while on the road to his personal Damascus, he stopped by the burning bush and heard the voice telling him of his new direction. That voice was Margaret Thatcher’s.
Naturally Johnson did the only thing a man of principle could do in such circumstances. He flicked the lefties, grabbed at Maggie’s coat-tails and has been huffing along in her wake ever since – although he is rapidly letting go of John Major’s tails and scrambling to be part of the Tony Blair phenomenon.
Johnson does this from a position of high moral standing and a careful reading of history. If you accuse this fine man of spotting the next bandwagon and hefting his soft, wide buns on board while there is still time, you are quite wrong, and have no appreciation of the concept of Flexible Thinking.
He was in town at the behest of the Business Roundtable, our commercial and moral leaders. Some were there for a little breather from the work of making the country great, now that the winebox inquiry has bollocksed their chances of those refreshing little hols in Rarotonga.
His lunchtime lecture at the Sheraton kicked off with drinkies in the bar. This is cash money, $3.50 for an orange juice and $5 for a “midday sharpener” (a single whisky). This is on top of the $55 for the lunch and speech.
Never, ever go into one of these things hungry, thinking you’ll come away thoroughly fed and watered. The Sheraton sets a thinnish table. There’s a bit of lamb, half a dozen beans and a spud. Add the bread and butter, a little chocolate and a piece of cheese each. Whip through that lot and you’ve just lived through the Sheraton’s idea of a fifty-buck rib-sticking feed.
Ron Small, the wine chappie, went on about the wine Corbans had kicked in for the event. He told us the charders wasn’t closed in at all. This triggered a lot of sage nodding of heads. No one, but no one, likes a closed-in wine.
On Ron rolled. The reds weren’t dominated by the wood. More nodding. Lots of these blokes had been to boarding schools, giving them an adolescence dominated by the wood, and they’d had quite enough of that, thank you very much.
Doug Myers sidled up to the mike, to pave the way for Johnson, then dropped back to Lion’s ringside table and the four thirtysomething Lionesses seated on Doug’s either side. Hey, he could live with it. They had perfect hair, high cheekbones, elegant suits and they were dedicating their MBAs and their lives to making him even richer. Who says you can’t have it all?
There was none of that down at the New Zealand Herald table. No sheilas there. Bloke the Herald was, bloke the Herald is and bloke the Herald will stay.
Down on the floor the atmosphere was tensing up. Paul Johnson was at the wicket. Now for the good stuff, right from the very wellspring, Margaret Thatcher’s Mother England, about how social welfare was a cancer, how malingerers should be pitched out of their hospital beds to make room for high-producing and stressed business people and, of course, a few considered thoughts on how to tear the nuts off whatever is left of the union movement.
Disappointment all round. Johnson launched into an erudite and boring history lesson, about how the French Revolution created a class of professional politicians. That was in 1789 – what about the welfare bludgers here and now? Nope, Johnson took us on a little spin through the development of American democracy, the rise of democracy in England and a bit on the Whigs who appeared from the west of Ireland. Whigs!
Fortunately things picked up near the end, when he started giving politicians a good barrelling, except for strong leaders like Maggie T and Tony Blair. The real knee-slapper was when he said that the problem with the Labour Party was all the people working for it were “raving lunatics”. Boy, that one hit the spot.
Johnson tried to build on this for the big finish. Unfortunately the history lecture had killed any chance of a frothing, screaming berserk, on-­their-feet outpouring of adoration. In fact, as soon as he’d finished there was a steady trickle of suits heading for the door.
Naturally, as befits those in the presence of Doug and Paul, no one showed a hint of a cellphone – they’re just too, too sales rep – and leaving early implied being answerable to someone else. So those fleeing were all muttering excuses about “Woolworths bladders”. Funnily enough, not many of them came back for more.


Danyl said...

In the Penguin Book of Interviews (Oscar Wilde, Adolf Hitler, Mae West ect) the last interview is Richard Stengel of Time interviewing Paul Johnson at his home. Johnson answers several of Stengel's very reasonable questions with 'Don't know' and then - without speaking - gets up and walks out of the room never to return. He seems like a very odd man.

Unknown said...

I remember talking to someone else who saw Johnson speak at that visit - it may have been the event portrayed here, although I think this particular occasion was in Wellington (the Press Club, I think).

Reckoned that as soon as Johnson opened his mouth and this awful Hooray Henry accent came out he lost about three quarters of the audience.

Stephen Stratford said...

"He seems like a very odd man." Indeed. He was a hero of mine when he was editor of the New Statesman in the 70s. Later, less so. There was a particularly disgusting column in the Spectator - based on Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" so it was possibly intended as humorous but it wasn't, it was just straight-out vile racism, advocating sending all the jigaboos back to Jamaica or wherever - and I stopped reading him. Haven't since. Shan't.

Unknown said...

Personally I found his Spectator columns a real mix: you'd get one which would be really insightful, a couple which were so-so, and one in four would be utterly barking and bear little relation to reality.

Sort of a Pommie right wing version of Chris Trotter, in fact.