Interview: Stanley Johnson, father of London Mayor, Boris Johnson
'I remember,' says Stanley Johnson, father of the London mayor, "when Boris shot his brother Leo with an airgun…" The conversation-stopper is delivered with a certain gravitas but the glint of the devil in his eyes. Two minutes ago, he had said he didn't want to talk about Boris. But being torn between an amusing line that will get him in terrible trouble, and being sensible, isn't really a contest for Stanley. "I had to take Leo to hospital to have the pellet removed," he recalls. "Although, actually, Leo now maintains it was he who shot Boris, so I'm not sure I've got this right any longer…" You can tell Stanley has lived on charm all his life because, after saying anything in the least bit dodgy, he turns warm, appealing eyes on you and says something like, "Would you mind awfully not mentioning that? Would you mind?"
His new memoir, Stanley, I Presume, gives further evidence of his capricious instincts. While working for the World Bank, he slipped a spoof paper before the loan committee, outlining proposals to build a new pyramid in Egypt. Time for a career move. He began working as project director on a world-population study, becoming a recognised expert in population control. Except at home. He had four children with his first wife, Charlotte, a painter, and two with his second wife, Jenny, and decided it might be expedient to work in another field. He has had an impressive array of careers: eurocrat at the United Nations, politician (he was a Conservative member of the European Parliament, though failed in his bid to be the Tory MP at Westminster for Teignmouth, in Devon), campaigning conservation expert (he's currently a UN ambassador on migratory species) and writer. He has published 20 books, nine of which are novels, and lots of journalism.
I suppose you won't have had time to read the book, Stanley says modestly. Of course I have! "It's jolly nice of you to take an interest," he says, which is a bit like telling your surgeon it's good of her to check which of your kidneys she is meant to extract. Stanley has the same self-deprecating charm his son has used to such effect over the years; if Boris is known for being bonkers, Stanley clearly got there first. They are uncannily similar, and look like a pair of blond bears separated only by 20 years. Both have the habit of pushing self-effacing eccentricity to the fore and pushing back a formidable intellect to make it less threatening. Well, says Stanley, nobody is going to listen to a politician if they go around using words like "implementation", are they?
But Stanley, a keen classical scholar, considers himself "horribly serious" (as is Boris, he insists) and gets very gloomy around ignorance – people who don't get the allusion to Dr Livingstone in his memoir title, for example. He constantly throws little puns into his conversation, and references to the classics or literature, almost fainting with pleasure if you get them or brushing over it good-humouredly if you don't. "No one who has read the fourth edition of my book Environmental Policy Of The European Community, which is now 400 pages long, could say I'm not a serious person," he says. Dammit, Stanley. I missed that one.
"When you think about it, what are the world issues?" he continues. "They are to do with poverty and international development and international environment questions. I have spent my life doing that. But obviously you can't talk about it all the time. If you tell people we've only got another ten years and we're all doomed, it's a bit of a conversation-stopper. So I tend not to bang on." As a European MP, though, he did bang on in an interview about the annual Canadian seal hunt, until his interviewer was moved to ask if there wasn't anything else he was interested in. Yes, replied Stanley. Whales and dolphins.
The seeds of his interest in conservation were sewn when he was a boy and his father fulfilled an ambition to become a farmer, buying West Nethercote in Exmoor. Stanley divides his time between the farm and his house in London but thinks Exmoor has been the single biggest determinant of his personality. "It's the most wonderful valley you could imagine. When you have lived somewhere, as I have, for 60 years in the same place, it makes a deep, deep impression. And then, I think, just being away from people most of the time – my father always believed animals were much more important than people, and he was probably right about that."
His father had been a pilot in the RAF, and Stanley's childhood home overlooked the runway where his father was stationed. One night, his mother rushed him to the window. Look, darling, she said – there had been a crash and there was a wonderful bonfire on the runway. Stanley interprets this rather bizarre reaction as his mother's unfailing optimism, a trait they shared. It turned out her husband was the guy in the middle of that wonderful bonfire, though remarkably he survived. What Stanley didn't know until recently, when he received a letter from an 85-year-old former airman who had survived thanks to his father's skill, was that two others had died in the crash. His father received a DFC for trying to pull the others from the wreckage.
The colleague told Stanley that, just eight days before, they had also had a crash. "He crashed on take-off, for reasons I'm not quite sure of, so having two crashes in eight days must have been quite traumatic." His father had to have cosmetic surgery, and ended up with one leg an inch and a half shorter than the other. Perhaps it was those difficult experiences that influenced his reserved personality. "My father was the strong, silent type. My mother was more the strong, noisy type."
Despite the Exmoor farm struggling to survive financially, the Johnson family was well connected, with Stanley and his brothers and sisters receiving a private education. His mother was half-French with a strong strand of German ancestry in the mix, connecting the family to the King of Wrttemberg. (Stanley is not the sort of man to find himself connected to Fritz who worked in the Holsten brewery.) His father was the son of a Turkish politician, Ali Kemal, who was assassinated by political enemies. But despite affluence on his mother's side, Stanley was not really aware of having an upper-class upbringing. "My father saw himself as an Exmoor farmer. He certainly didn't see himself as a gentleman farmer or anything like that. He would go to the pub and down his beer along with the rest of them." In fact, his father sounds like he went to the pub most nights and frequently ended up squiffy – in a respectable sort of way.
Others might have wondered why he did that, but there seems to be that peculiarly upper-class repression of emotions in Stanley's background. When his father drove his children to boarding school, he emptied them out on to the school driveway like salt being sprinkled out of a cellar, without even switching off the engine, then rushed back to the farm. The school, Sherbourne, was "a good, tough, rugger-playing school", says Stanley. He describes the bizarre 'fag' system, where older boys could drop a pencil and demand a younger one pick it up, or could beat the living daylights out of the unfortunate minors with impunity, as if that is simply the natural world order. It sounds like a different planet. "Seemed pretty normal to me," says Stanley with some surprise. Didn't it make him think twice about sending his own children away? "Not at all. My view has always been that bringing up children is much too important to be left to the parents."
OUR CONVERSATION IS taking place in the York and Albany, near Camden Town, the posh north end of London. Stanley jokes that he regards himself as a self-made man because he never went to Eton. (He just made sure his sons did.) He won a scholarship to Oxford University, though. But, overall, he thinks he has underachieved in his life. "Absolutely! No question of it!" He even saw it as failure to switch from studying classics to studying English. "When I went up to Oxford I thought, 'What are we going to do? A) We're going to get a rugger blue – that was top of my list. B) Be president of the union. And C) get a first in Greats' – Greats being classical literature. All those went down the drain, didn't they?"
Being a Scot, he says, I'm bound to understand his feelings about the rugger blue, which makes me blink in bafflement. My interest in rugby is roughly equivalent to my interest in David Beckham's left foot, the inner workings of a lawn mower or the pronouncements of Jeremy Clarkson. As for 'rugger'… blimey, has he ever been to Scotland? (He banks here, actually, Adam & Co, in Edinburgh.) He may not have fulfilled his original ambitions but he did win the prestigious Newdigate prize for poetry at Oxford with a 14-verse submission in rhyme royal that the esteemed Robert Graves said was the only entry that showed any poetic understanding. (He dismisses it but one senses a great source of pride – justifiably – in this achievement. He reprints the poem in his memoir.) "I persuaded myself that was fine," says Stanley. Of course he did – it's far better than a rugger blue. "Do you think?" he asks. No comparison, I say. "Do you think?" he repeats, with delighted incredulity.
The poem was written after climbing a hill with a girl he had brought home from Oxford for the weekend, though the hill sounded a bit more inspiring that the girl. (He disappeared for hours to write the poem while she was still there.) Stanley's relationship with women is quite interesting. His first attempt at seduction ended unhappily when he took a girl to Paris, left her in a caf while he went to find a hotel, then got himself so lost he couldn't find her again. He didn't see her for some years, though happily by then she had found her way back to England and wasn't still circling the streets of Paris.
I do wonder how frank he has been in his memoir about women. His first wife Charlotte is said to have had a serious breakdown – said by people other than Stanley, that is. He doesn't actually mention it. "I'm not sure I noticed," he flashes back, which looks bad on paper but was actually very funny. "That's just a totally flippant remark," he says, thinking better of it. "I'm relying on you to treat that with… would you mind, Catherine? Look it was… Charlotte was an absolutely wonderful person and I have nothing but good to say about her." It would be a bit mean to say he meant it, so I'll just be half mean and say it was probably only half-true.
Wasn't it a difficult period? "Piece of cake. Piece of cake. I can't do this business of looking at the world with dark glasses." Partly that's his mother's influence. But he also learned optimism by travelling extensively as a student. He went to South America and Africa, and even tried to follow the Marco Polo route to China on a motorcycle. (He never quite reached China due to some technical hitches with a visa. His car, he says, had broken down going round Marble Arch and, knowing repairs would be too expensive, he seized the moment and got a workman in a bulldozer to push it into a pit where a carpark was being constructed. Only when the concrete was piled on top did he remember the letter that would have led to his Chinese visa was on the dashboard… A very Stanley story, somehow.) "I did go round the world," he says, "and when you see the way in which most people live… Now, obviously, I haven't been to Glasgow…" he parries. That's a declaration of war, Stanley. He laughs delightedly, the eyes lighting with characteristic humour.
It seems almost bad manners to ask the question in this lighthearted atmosphere, but it has been said that Charlotte's breakdown was due to his womanising. (Circumstantial evidence, but Boris has also had travails with infidelity.) "No… no… I can't answer that. I know nothing. I know nothing," says Stanley. He knows nothing about women? "I know nothing about women. I didn't even meet any women. Look, I… There's nothing to be said about that. I have no idea how these things get in the cuttings. Honestly, I have no idea." He's not a womaniser, then? "I have no idea why it gets in the cuttings. I have gone into it a bit and there's no way of knowing."
From the bit I've gone into, it seems to have come from an interview with Charlotte, though apparently the two are still friends. Let's put it another way: is he hard to live with? "Well, I don't know. I did 17 years the first time round and I've done 28 the second, so I don't think so. But the kind of life I've led, I did change houses and continents a lot. I think Charlotte calculated that we had lived in 32 different houses in 15 years."
It sounds like a recipe for chaos but Stanley is relentlessly upbeat. "I look at my life and see I have been unbelievably privileged. Everything has gone swimmingly. I have had a wonderful set of jobs, a wonderful set of children and two remarkably loyal and intelligent wives. It's not up to me to start complaining."
If there's anything he would like to have done more of, it would be fulfilling that early promise and writing more poetry. But it's tricky, he says. "You have to have something to write about. But I do write some poems from time to time." In fact we could write one now, he suggests. "Sitting in the York and Albany," he begins. "Sitting in the York and Albany…" We look blankly at one another. If there is an easy rhyme with 'Albany' in the English language, it's escaping both of us. Even the Newdigate prize winner.
"NOW, WE'RE NOT going to have a whole lot of stuff about Boris," says Stanley sternly – or as sternly as Stanley gets. Come, come, I only have three questions about Boris (or maybe six, but I do words better than numbers) and I would have asked Boris three questions about Stanley if I had interviewed him, I tell him. Oh, go on then. The thing is, the children of famous parents often talk about living in their shadows. Is it a bit humiliating the other way round, to have your son more famous than you in the same fields? Or is it a source of pride?
"He has done better in every respect," says Stanley generously. "I haven't given up politics, but I recognise that Boris – I call him Alexander, of course – has gone much further. On the writing front, he has done much better. He's a first-class writer. Have you read his novel Seventy-Two Virgins?" Eh, no. Sounds very Boris. "First-rate novel. Oh yes, it's very good. I have no difficulty having children who are more famous than I am. In fact, I regard it as a bit of an incentive. It keeps me going in the morning."
They are all high-achievers, his children. His daughter Rachel is also a successful novelist, and one son is a film director while another is a senior journalist on the Financial Times. "That's fine, I'm very much in favour of that. But I come to the point, Catherine, they've all had top-notch educations. They ought to do well, don't you think? If your kids have gone through the top schools and wanted for nothing all their lives, they ought to do well." Which of them does he think he influenced most? "I don't think I've influenced any of them. My tactic was always to get them off to school early."
The nearest his children got to rebellion was when his youngest daughter, Julia, refused to follow her five elder siblings to Oxford and went to Cambridge instead. Stanley says he automatically supports Oxford in the boat race; it's just instinctive, a bit like being a Conservative. "I can't imagine anyone in the village I lived in voting Labour. Even now. You might conceivably have someone voting Lib Dem, but I can't imagine anyone could vote Labour in deepest Exmoor. I know it's not the same in Glasgow," he adds. Other way round, there. "Exactly. You see the point I'm getting at? It's part of background, of culture, of anticipation." And yet he says his travels gave him a real insight into poverty. "Yes, that's true. I know, there are some inherent contradictions in my life."
At the end of the interview Stanley says it was awfully nice of me to take an interest in the book, and my plane has barely touched down back in Scotland before he has rung to check I got back safely. A very charming man. He's appearing on Richard & Judy today. He once met the husband-and-wife team at a dinner, asked each of them what they did, then enquired if they had ever come across one another at work. They forgave him, of course, which I suspect people might have done quite a lot of in Stanley's life. How could they not? r
Stanley, I Presume (18.99, Fourth Estate) is out now