Alexander McCall Smith: I've never met Boris Johnson but I kent his father (briefly)

It is inevitable, as one goes through life, that one will meet a certain number of people.

Boris Johnson is congratulated by his father Stanley Johnson after delivering his keynote speech on the final day of the annual Conservative Party conference in Manchester in 2019 (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Some of these people will be remembered, while others will not. There are very few of us whose memory is sufficiently elephantine to recall all those with whom we brush shoulders over the years – indeed elephants themselves occasionally forget the odd waterhole-acquaintance.

Yet most of us do remember – and can be quite specific about it – those whom we have not met. And while it is bad form to talk about those whom we have encountered – name-dropping is, quite rightly, frowned upon – there is no prohibition on mentioning those we do not know.

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In fact, it is considered praiseworthy to confess never to having met somebody. The really self-effacing go so far as to deny having met people whom they have indeed met. Sometimes they take it to extremes and deny having met people to whom they are actually married, which is a bit ridiculous, although very modest, and therefore most creditable.

I have never met Mr Johnson, who is currently Prime Minister, and seems to be in the press at the moment for one reason or another. Nor have I met Mr Cummings who has recently written about Mr Johnson in his blog, and who therefore has probably met him (in the past).

Indeed, Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings used to work in the same building, I am told, although that does not necessarily mean that they actually met. It is quite possible to work in the same building as somebody else and not meet him or her. Stranger things have happened.

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Now that you mention Mr Johnson, I might for my part mention that I did once meet his father. Although people do not like name-dropping, it is perfectly permissible to mention the fact that one once met somebody’s father.

Vladimir Putin's eyes appeared to glaze over while speaking to Alexander McCall Smith (Picture: Alexei Danichev/Sputnik/Kremlin pool photo via AP)

To say "I kent his father” is not considered pretentious – in fact, it is considered a positive nod towards the principle that tall poppies, or tall thistles, perhaps, should be reduced to their proper size. To suggest that somebody has a father is to underline the fact that nobody should get above himself and that everybody, even those in an elevated position were once not so elevated.

I met Mr Johnson’s father very briefly on some stairs. He was going in one direction, and I in another. We had a brief conversation, the details of which I cannot remember, but which might have had something to do with the stairs. This was well before Mr Johnson lived in his current flat – which they say, incidentally, needed doing-up. But that is another matter: many people’s flats could do with a lick of paint.

But since you brought up Mr Johnson, I thought I might mention that I did once meet Mr Putin. I am not making this up. I met Mr Putin some years ago at a do organised by some people I knew. Well, I didn’t actually know them, but they had organised this do anyway and I was invited – probably by mistake.

I had a ten-minute conversation with Mr Putin (Vladimir) through an interpreter whom I had never met. I cannot recall what we talked about, but it was, I think, not of much importance to Mr Putin, whose eyes glazed over shortly after we had been introduced. He was very polite, and apart from his eyes glazing over, there was nothing to indicate that he did not enjoy our meeting.

I did not meet Mr Berlusconi in Naples, although I almost met him. I was in Naples years ago when I was on a committee that met there. In those pre-Zoom days, committees loved meeting in romantic cities if they possibly could – all for work reasons, of course.

The members of this particular committee, on which I served, probably by mistake, were all accommodated in a very grand Neapolitan hotel, called something like Il Hotel Grande, such was its grandeur. The organisers of the meeting must have got a special conference rate, and therefore been able to put all of us, who were not grand at all, in this hotel normally reserved for grand people.

I had a large room with several armchairs and a balcony. The balcony looked out onto a piazza in which various Neapolitans strolled round in that elegant way that the Italians have of strolling round in the evening. They call that stroll, if successful, a “bella passeggiata”, which is not to be confused with “bel paese”, which is a cheese.

Which reminds me of the apocryphal story of somebody who asked at a bar in Florence for a glass of “prosciutto”. That charming story is another matter, and there is nothing wrong in trying to use one’s Italian when in Italy. Anybody could confuse ‘prosciutto’ with ‘prosecco’. Who amongst us has not done that?

Anyway, there I was in my Neapolitan hotel room when I became aware that there were two surly-looking types seated in chairs placed outside the door to the neighbouring room. They looked at me in a very suspicious way when I went down to breakfast, and even more suspiciously when I returned.

It was as if they knew that I had taken an extra roll from the buffet to bring back to the room – which I think you are allowed to do, although some take a different view. We can return to that problem of moral philosophy some other day.

I noticed that there were empty trays left outside the room, as happens in hotels with room service. There were plates and an empty bottle of “prosciutto”. Later that day, I asked whether somebody important had been staying in the hotel, and I was told that Mr Berlusconi had been there. The men outside were his bodyguards. Had they not been there, of course, I might have had the chance of meeting Mr Berlusconi.

The point of this story is to show that life can be tantalising. I never actually met Tantalus, incidentally, although I gather that he was a Watsonian and that he played at Myreside before he went back to Greece. His failing was indiscretion, which is never advisable, in any circumstances, and about which, quite properly, no more should be said.

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