Stanley Johnson: Like father, like son

The hair. The voice. The talent for dropping a clanger. Boris's dad shares them all... and now, unwittingly, reveals what really lies behind the family charm. Cole Moreton meets Stanley Johnson
Click to follow
The Independent Online

"The child is father to the man," says Stanley Johnson in his new book, quoting Wordsworth, and that's just asking for trouble. The reader immediately thinks of his eldest child, Boris, Mayor of London and one of the most famous men in the land. If the quotation invites comparisons, the book is crammed with insights into the Johnson family psyche.

Recklessness. Arrogance. The belief in being able to busk a way out of any problem, however huge. The use of charm, wit and self-deprecation as a smokescreen for fierce ambition. All the things people suspect of Boris are found to be true of his father, by his own account. The cover of Stanley, I Presume features the author looking like a younger, fitter, better-looking Boris. The marketing people know what they're doing. And when Stanley comes to the security gate of his elegant Regency home in London, there is the same unruly hair (grey in his case). There is the bicycle. There are the meandering sentences, peppered with quotations from ancient Greeks. There are the jokes, too, although Stanley is nowhere near as funny as Boris. Take this side-splitter about his days as a Euro MP. "I once found myself sitting across the aisle from Jacques Chirac. 'Bonjour Monsieur Chirac,' I said. 'Bonjour,' he replied. That was as far as our conversation went." Boom boom. Alan Partridge goes to Brussels. That is a man who has been told once too often that he is – as it says on the dust-jacket – "a sparkling raconteur".

Today, though, Stanley lacks fizz. The 68-year-old recently came back from Tasmania where he was "working on the albatross". For most of his life he has toiled away in remote or stuffy places, combining work as a serious, pioneering environmentalist – winner of a Greenpeace prize – with duties at the World Bank, UN and European Union. "I don't think he wants to hear about the albatross," says his wife, Jenny, excusing herself, and she's right. I'm interested in the showbiz Stanley who has elbowed his way into his son's spotlight in the past few years, as well as in what his memoir says about being a Johnson.

There are six sons and daughters, despite Stanley having written authoritatively about the dangers of over population. He's not embarrassed about that, he just treats it as a bit of a joke. "The population explosion was taking place in the Third World." The implication is that the planet should be jolly glad to have so many Johnsons. Their money comes from an ancestor who left the family farm on Exmoor to find his fortune in the City of London. They have genetic links to Turkish politics and George II.

Stanley's account of going to prep school at the age of eight reveals the family attitude to sentimentality: they don't go in for it. Boris has been accused of not really understanding other people's problems, and we read of young Stanley lying awake on his first night, "listening to a boy in the next bed snivelling". His reaction? "Well, I'm sure I missed my mummy too, but that didn't seem to be the point."

The word snivelling is used several times, although Stanley disputes it. "I will take any bets that you will not find another use of the word." One such refers to a victim of the regular beatings by prefects as "some poor snivelling sod". Stanley is mortified to be wrong, but still won't be called unsentimental. "On the contrary, I went to see Chariots of Fire and found myself in an effusion of tears." Sometimes the tactics go wrong, as when a former schoolmate told him the headmaster abused some of the boys: "He never made a pass at me." Bad joke, Stanley. To his credit, he realises it now.

"I have had a charmed life," he says, and he's right. Before university he set off with a friend to follow, by motorbike, in the footsteps of Marco Polo, with no idea of how to get petrol and no visa for China. They made it. At Oxford he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize with a poem written on the morning the competition closed.

The birth of his first child, when he was just 23, was equally haphazard and blessed. Stanley and his heavily pregnant first wife, Charlotte, were out of money in Mexico when a rich Russian gave them two first-class tickets back to New York. They gave the baby his name, although everyone in the family calls him Alexander or Al. Boris has often seemed to be making it all up as he goes along, confident of getting by on charm. The story of his birth suggests it's the family way.

Is it all front, an act to mask ambition? Naturally, Stanley denies it. "I do reject this idea that life is, in any way, an effort." But Julia, one of his daughters, said of her upbringing: "As long as I can remember there have been cut-throat mealtime quizzes, fearsome ping-pong matches, height, weight and blondness contests and, of course, academic rivalry of mind-numbing magnitude." If anyone did well enough to come second, father would ask who was first. When his son Leo was captain of cricket at school, Dad captained a Fathers' XI. Leo came to the crease, full of pride. Stanley bowled him out first ball.

Well, now I have a googly to bowl at Stanley, who senses it coming. "The answer is no," he booms, shooting off to reheat the contents of our cafetière. "I have no idea how that came about and as far as I am concerned it is totally absurd. Will that do?"

I haven't even asked the question yet. It's about women. His first marriage ended in 1978, and he blames himself. His second has lasted more than 20 years, but still people use a certain word to describe him. Stanley, are you a philanderer? "I have just answered that question." He did know then. "It's complete garbage. You track it down to something which was said in Andrew Gimson's book, and if you go into it there is no substance."

There is a quote in Boris from Charlotte calling Stanley "completely unfaithful", and another from a friend of hers calling him "one amazing womaniser", and one from a friend after his son was caught having an affair: "How could Boris do the same thing to his wife that his father did to his mother?" Yet another friend blames Stanley for setting a bad example: "I'm saying that Boris got the idea you could walk all over females and didn't have to take their feelings into account." Boris, of course, called the idea of an affair with Petronella Wyatt "an inverted pyramid of piffle" and "complete balderdash". Those words come to mind as Stanley describes his alleged philandering as "complete garbage". The difference, obviously, is that Boris was lying.

It now occurs to me that Stanley has not mentioned the name of his eldest son once. He may not like it, but surely the audiences at book signings and after-dinner speeches see Stanley as Boris's dad? "Well," he says grumpily, "the time will come when they will say this is Rachel's dad, or Leo's dad, or Julia's dad, or Jo's dad, or Max's dad."

Does Stanley feel overshadowed by his son, a better writer and politician than he? The response is pure Boris: the stare into the middle distance, the hand poised as if to make a point. The hesitant, superficially courteous answer. "Hey. Do you know, I don't think... much as I appreciate your asking that question... erm... I don't think I'm going to go down that route." Why not? The sunshine and the scent of the garden drift in through the open French windows behind him. "No." He thinks for a moment. "If the most wounding barb people can think of throwing is that I have been piggybacking on my children's success I would say (a) I don't think it's true, and (b) if it is, aren't I jolly lucky?"

Stanley still has political ambitions, even after defeat in Devon at the last election and the rejection of his offer to take over the seat vacated by Boris. "I have written serious books about environmental policy, and a novel called Icecap about it. Don't tell me there would not be some possibility for me to make a contribution. Even as a backbencher, you can do that."

Is he on the list of potential candidates? "Oh yeah. I never took myself off it." But many constituencies have already made their choice. He is running out of time to serve a party that is in his blood, but when he tries to explain you realise what Tory high command is afraid of. "I am a gut Conservative," he says. Unthinking, in other words? "Unthinking, that's it," he says, falling into the trap quite cheerfully. "I'm an unthinking Conservative."

Oh dear. That won't be on the side of any battle buses. We should be grateful to Stanley, though, for showing us – however inadvertently – what lies behind the charm. Not that it makes much difference. They will continue to win through, the father and the son who made him famous. They always do. "I have, on the whole," says Stanley, "found things to be a piece of cake."

'Stanley, I Presume' is in the shops this weekend, published by Fourth Estate