Notting Hill is what Martin Amis would call “pram-torn”. Precision-engineered, pastel-hued designer buggies – pushed by some yummy mummies but more often than not by nymphet nannies – rule the pavements. But we have no need for Amis as our guide, for today we’re visiting Rachel Johnson, the Jane Austen of W11.
Johnson – wee sister of Boris, London’s Mayor – lives a short walk from the Tube station during which further hazards are presented by builders’ lorries and skips, although don’t get her started on home renovations in this neighbourhood. Perfectly fine kitchens are being ripped out all the time, she will tell me, to be replaced by new ones costing six figures. What could prompt such drastic action? I’m imagining a newly rolled-out select range of Nigella-approved breadbins which doesn’t include a colour exactly matching the Aga (or forsooth, the Smeg), doesn’t sit perkily next to the Dualit and brings out the hitherto dormant pink in the Farrow & Ball shade known as Pale Hound. But Johnson, in satires such as Notting Hell, could describe the crisis far better than me.
She’s receiving me at home. Frankly, I don’t know why the highly interviewable do this. I wouldn’t let a journalist anywhere near my house, to have my personal taste described/dismissed in the third paragraph using cod-psychological techniques, and Johnson is herself a journalist. Indeed, she’s on a deadline when she greets me at the door in black sweatshirt, white jeans and trainers, so she points me towards the basement and I don’t get to inspect the interesting rooms (damn).
The kitchen is unrenovated. A tradesman beetles about here too, but Johnson insists his tasks are non-major. On a mantelpiece there’s a lovely black-and-white photograph from her gilded youth. She’s wearing a summer frock so must have grown out of the phase when she refused to wear dresses and insisted her entire school address her as “Richard”. On the table there’s the Guardian, which is what you might expect of Boris’s “irritant” of a sister (her word), and indeed, she’ll go on to tell me why she’d make a good Labour MP.
Johnson on deadline? The mind boggles. For Vogue the topic was her Brazilian. The Daily Mail commissioned her on her breasts (“I’ve never minded men staring at them rather than my face”). A colour supplement gave her six pages for Debutantes-not-dead-shock! as she chaperoned her daughter Charlotte at a Parisian ball. Another Sunday wanted her views on middle age and the 47-year-old ’fessed up to being caught trying on Charlotte’s denim miniskirt (“Mum, take it off!”). And of course, she was recently and spectacularly the editor of the Lady, the posh old bats’ magazine – where the photo on the desk was of her in a “tight blue Tory dress” while David Cameron talked to her embonpoint.
Her life seems like one long, jolly Wodehousian jape. Today’s burning issue? “What I’d ban if I were Prime Minister,” she says, bouncing down the stairs followed by her hound, Coco. “Coffee-bar staff who, when you’ve requested a double-shot skinny latte, ask: ‘Do you want any pastries with that?’ The word ‘skinny” should be a clue that I don’t.” She makes me tea, without pastries, while continuing to check Twitter. “Now, shall I give you my undivided attention?” She puts down the phone and we head out to the garden to catch what looks like the last of the rubbish summer. Ah, the garden. Not the one attached to her four-storey townhouse, but the garden beyond, the big communal green-space, the magical glade. If you’ve read Notting Hell, you’ll know it. A lot of the action happened here, and a lot of her neighbours – she lives, or lived at the time of the book, close to media power couples, minimalist architects, supermodels, tycoons and not forgetting those Notting Hill Tories on the rise (David Cameron, George Osborne, Michael Gove) – were reportedly horrified at finding their barbecue confessions laid out in a fast-selling comedy of manners.
“They loved it!” she yelps. “People I didn’t know would rush up to me at parties and thank me for putting them in the book. I just thought: ‘Gotcha.’ It meant I’d nailed types. And there are endless men who are reckoned to be the inspiration for Si Kasparian [one of Notting Hell’s billionaires, who had an affair with Johnson’s heroine] and who I’m supposed to have slept with but I’m afraid I don’t know them either.” Still, are people more guarded around her now? “No, they’re compelled to tell me things. They all love to be written about. As Mae West said, better to be looked over than overlooked.”
Let’s stay with Cameron. Contrary to rumour, she’s not a bosom buddy, thinks she’s only had dinner with him twice (and never at his home), and reckons he’s doing an okay job, although she’s disappointed he’s not been tougher on the bankers. “These guys are still having perfectly good kitchens ripped out, although maybe they have to do without a butler on the yacht and the polo ponies are down from four to two. When you meet them you’re so underwhelmed. I challenged one at a dinner party, demanded to know why he was paid so much. He looked at me as if I’d been sick in his soup. ‘Because I’m the David Beckham of the financial world,’ he said. I couldn’t understand why a doctor at St Mary’s Hospital who could have saved my son’s life was on £70,000 and this unutterable bore was worth £3 million.”
So who is this avowed mischief-maker upsetting in new book Winter Games? The Games in question are the 1936 Winter Olympics in Germany where it’s the Nazis on the rise, so right away I’m imagining Boris in his mayoral eyrie, still drunk on the highs of London 2012, but a bit dischuffed at his sister (again) for raising the spectre of old Adolf, and the English aristocracy cosying up to the jackboot, at such an inopportune moment. She giggles. “Well, here’s how I tried to pitch this one: we’ve had The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones and the Olympic Games. Now [lapsing into comedy German] ve hav ze Winter Games.”
Johnson’s first historical novel, it jumps back and forward over a span of 70 years, between a deb called Daphne, who has an encounter with Hitler, and her granddaughter Francie, a journalist in the immediate pre-crash London of 2006, hot on the trail of a rip-snorting story. On our bench, Johnson in Ray-Bans, head tilted towards the sun, will touch my arm and say: “I’m very, very insecure about this book. Normally I just do the zeitgeist.” She’ll even say, re: further books, “Will you help me?” But frankly I’m not buying it. This is a woman with enough spunk and daring to juxtapose paragraphs about the Furher with Cameron getting his driver to follow in the car with a fresh shirt for his big cycle-to-work photo-op.
“Did I really do that? Ha ha well, what I thought might be interesting was the juxtaposition of two societies on the cusp, how they danced on the precipice. In both, there was innocence, excess and a wishfulness. The reason the Anglo-German Fellowship went to [Joachim, German Foreign Minister, hanged after Nuremberg] von Ribbentrop’s parties was they really didn’t want to have to fight Jerry again. And in 2006 the bankers had no idea their £3m salaries were about to stop.”
What’s just as interesting is Johnson’s own family story, how German-heavy it is, and how complicated. The PR blurb accompanying the book says it was inspired by the recollections of her grandmother, herself a deb in Munich. “No, that’s a mistake. My mother-in law was the deb. She was there in 1938 and witnessed the Anschluss. A lot of her friends had been repatriated but she saw the German tanks bound for Austria rumble right past her finishing school. Then her father, the Earl of Glasgow, drove all the way from Kelburn Castle in Ayrshire to bring her back. But we are quite Bavarian, we Johnsons. This all came out in Boris’s Who Do You Think You Are?” Their paternal grandmother came from Munich aristocratic stock; their maternal grandmother, of Russian-Jewish extraction, also had ties to the city. “Although no one, as far as I know, ever met Hitler.”
Whatever you might think of Boris and Rachel, they make spiffing documentary subjects. I don’t know who makes me laugh more. On WDYTYA? there was Boris, likening the clan to “honey from Waitrose or British sherry: the product of many countries”, recalling how “Granny Butter” taught the kids how to eat crisps with a fork and knife and asking of his genealogists: “Who’s got their tits in the ringer?” On The Lady and The Revamp, which followed her ultimately doomed attempts to sex up the moribund mag, Rachel went “shouty-crackers” at the befuddled staff when they offered up yet another feature on cobnuts or a barn-owl front cover.
I think the award should go to Rachel, though, because Boris is always straying, mad of barnet, into her interviews. Given his recent profile as the Tories’ coming man, however, some discussion is inevitable. Rachel has just finished telling me about the “Olympic pause”, when the Nazis halted the pogroms for the duration of the winter games; I suggest a “Boris interlude” when I might be permitted a few questions, and she agrees with a chuckle.
How would she describe their relationship? “I adore him.” Surely they must have had some local difficulties, say, as teenagers? “Not really, although I suppose there was that period when he went a bit Etonian.” On When Boris Met Dave, a docu-drama about her brother and Cameron’s Bullingdon Club pranks, she memorably shot down the sex boasts thus: “I don’t think they pulled girls. It wasn’t the Pullingdon.”
“I was never a very glamorous younger sister,” she continues, “and he probably used to view me much as he does now: an irritant.” Are they competitive? “Very! When I beat him at tennis he always says: ‘This must never get out.’” So what does she think of his chances of one day becoming Tory leader and perhaps Prime Minister? “Never underestimate a Johnson! Look, I don’t really want this reported but ... well, I think he’d make a fantastic PM and I’d love to see him in Chequers. There’s no secret plot to put him there, though, however great a story that might be.”
When I mention his buffoonish image, she gets protective. “He’s not a buffoon. Maybe it’s easier for him, given how recognisable he is, to have this bumbling, messy-haired persona – that way he can have a private one, too. But the guy is laser-focused, a genuine intellectual firecracker and I say this without any rancour: he’s got twice as many brain cells as me. Next to all my brothers [there’s Leo and Jo as well], I was the dummkopf. I’m not being bogus or self-deprecating but I really muddled through university. ESN – educationally sub-normal, ha ha.”
Pre-Oxford, there was a pretty muddled schooling, and not for the first time in Johnson’s story I get a bit lost. There was the call-me-Richard primary and the European school in Brussels where Ma (Charlotte, painter) and Pa (ex-Tory MEP Stanley) had to be summoned. “The English children would fight the Germans and the Germans would then fight the Danes, presumably over Schleswig-Holstein. I thought Boris was going to be expelled for fisticuffs but the problem was, he was too gifted.” There was the school she loathed. “I was intolerable: wouldn’t work or wear the uniform, got caught smoking and got caught hitchhiking. Factor in my short attention span, hormones, boys and you had the perfect storm. I got expelled.” As this was shortly after the breakdown of her parents’ marriage, I return to my role of amateur psychologist and wonder if this sparked her wild-child behaviour. “Cause and effect, how can you tell? My parents did split up but they weren’t especially happy together. They’re both fantastic people and went on to have great second marriages.”
Finally Johnson found a school she loved. “Cold showers and Greek before breakfast!” Did she also love it because of the attention which came with being the only girl? “No, it wasn’t that. I loved that you got ranked in every subject and I loved the rugby and cricket, which was all I’d known at home. That was me at my intellectual peak, but I was also a freak.” By the time she got a job on the Financial Times, she was a “rather unattractive 25-year-old who looked like she was going to be left on the shelf”, only to be introduced to her future husband by her father. “Palmed off on him, more like. It was at an environmental summit in Rio. Dad said: ‘I’m going to ring up Ivo Dawnay [in PR]. He’s a frightful shit but you might as well meet him.’ I suppose we were doomed to marry because he was the first man I’d found remotely attractive who would stand up to my father.”
They have three children. “Ludo, Trinity College, Dublin, reading politics; Charlotte, Edinburgh, reading modern languages; Oliver, Wellington College, reading Facebook.” Johnson is very funny in her books on the state of modern marriage, at least as it’s played out in Boden-and-Cath-Kidston-patterned Notting Hell, where parents obsessed with finding the right chi-chi deli for the perfect 000 flour and verjuice compete with each other via sprogs. “I don’t,” she insists. “I’m the complete opposite of the tiger mother. If my children want to do chess club, fine, but these things have to come from them. And if they don’t, it’s their bloody lookout.”
The sex scenes in Winter Games are funny too. “I don’t think there are any.” Oh yes: once again it’s Johnson the journalist writing about a journalist who has an affair. “Ah ... ” So, after winning the Bad Sex Award for her previous book (Shire Hell), and after Julia Budworth, octogenarian granddaughter of the Lady’s founder, claimed, “You can’t get her away from a penis”, was she nervous about writing the scene where Francie (“glazed – stupefied – by lust”) sticks her hand down the trousers of her editor? Silly question: you can’t imagine Johnson being nervous about anything. “I’m not obsessed with penises. Because I went on Any Questions? and said that Trident was a willy-waving anachronism, Mrs Budworth got a bee in her bonnet.”
And so with my time almost up, and with the last day of summer appearing to have just turned into the first of autumn as Johnson spies a conker on the grass and hands it to me, we end on the P-word (that’s politics, not penises). “I hate being told what to do,” she says. “That’s why I fought with the Lady’s publishers and that’s why I got expelled so I could never have gone into politics.” A wicked smile. “I don’t like authority so I couldn’t be a Tory MP, that’s for sure. The Lib-Dems are beyond contempt, which leaves Labour. Yes, I could be a Labour MP. When you’re young you’re wrapped up in yourself but as you get older you realise how unfair the world is. The older I get, the leftier I’ve become. But can you imagine anyone less suitable for public office, anyone more off-message, than me?” Better to stay outside the tent, making fun of the circus. She thinks back to Election Night, the Tory dream of overall majority dissolving, and a tweet which incurred the wrath of Nick Boles, now Cameron’s Minister of Planning. “He screamed at me: ‘Rachel, this is serious! You’re about to ruin everything!”
The message? “It’s all gone tits up. Call for Boris.”
Winter Games is published by Fig Tree, priced £14.99. Rachel Johnson talks about writing and editing at Lennoxlove Book Festival today at 6:15pm, £9 (£7), www.lennoxlovebookfestival.com