I happened to catch the repeat broadcast of Desert Island Discs last Friday. The castaway was Paul Johnson and as one would expect from a man of his age, someone who is also a very well-known journalist and writer, he had some fascinating anecdotes to recount, all told with panache. An Oxford contemporary of Margaret Thatcher’s, he had actually asked her out –but she had turned him down; something to do with her new hair-do. Now they are old friends and when he invites her out to dinner he makes sure he tells her some of her late husband’s jokes as she loves to hear them repeated.
Johnson also had the temerity to strike up conversation with Churchill when he bumped into him after the War, and asked him the secret of his success. The great man immediately replied, “Conservation of energy.” He explained that he never stood up when he could sit down and he never sat down when he could lie down (I must remember that.) Johnson mimicked him perfectly. As a boy he had had a crush on the child actress Shirley Temple and was delighted to meet her years later when she had become the US ambassador to Ghana.
Johnson admitted that he regretted some of the things he had written when he was young, such as his damning verdict on Anthony Eden. The chief influence on him seemed to be his mother, widowed when Johnson was 14 and who lived to 90. On her deathbed Johnson told her she would not spend long in Purgatory. She replied: “But I’ve often criticised the clergy.”
These were her last words. The sudden death of his father, he said, when he was just beginning to get to know him, was the only tragic thing that had happened to him in his life. Asked by Kirsty Young, the interviewer, about his education he told her he had been born a Catholic and sent to Stonyhurst College; he approved of the Jesuit formation he had received there: “They teach you the difference between right and wrong.”
It was an interesting interview and I enjoyed it – apart from one moment. Kirsty Young was probing Johnson slightly (though only in the light format of the programme; it wasn’t a John Humphreys-type interrogation): in his earlier days had he not criticised the sexually permissive society? What did he think of David Cameron’s brand of Conservatism and his support for gay marriage? Was Johnson now a man out of his time?
Johnson’s response was urbane: “Time moves on.” He added, “Cameron is entitled to his views” and “I don’t want to stand in the way of progress”. He had the perfect opportunity here to state the Christian teaching on marriage; instead, although he might not have intended to give this impression, he sounded entirely relativistic. What would his old Jesuit masters at Stonyhurst have made of it?
In his speech last September to the German parliament, the Bundestag, Pope Benedict gave a critique of moral relativism and defended the natural law tradition. He said: “The idea of natural law is today viewed as a specifically Catholic doctrine, not worth bringing into the discussion in a non-Catholic environment, so that one feels almost ashamed even to mention the term.” If only Johnson could have simply said to Kirsty Young: “Whether you are Conservative or Labour, a believer or non-believer, you can’t change the natural law; it doesn’t change with the times.” It would have been an awkward moment and it might have caused him some embarrassment to say it, but it would have been the truth. An opportunity was lost.