If anything could make me feel sorry for Boris Johnson, it’s meeting his father, Stanley. Before we met, he sent me a great list of press cuttings about his appearances with the Extinction Rebellion campaign, and ordered me to watch his recent reality show Celebrity Hunted on Channel 4 and read his latest novel, Kompromat. (The former, where celebrities become ‘fugitives’ and go on the run, was excruciating. But the novel — soon to be retitled The Brexit Conspiracy — is good fun, containing thinly disguised portraits of Putin, Trump, Murdoch, and also an ex-London mayor ‘whose ebullient exterior concealed a razor-sharp mind and a pronounced streak of political cunning’. The underlying thesis is that Putin is basically running everything, including our elections.) Stanley agrees to meet for coffee at the Ritz but not for two weeks because he is just off to Berlin, Jordan, Puglia, and trekking with bears in the Abruzzi.
When we finally meet, he asks if I caught him on Good Morning Britain earlier. Alas, no. Don’t worry, you can watch it on catch-up, he reassures me. ‘They offered to send a car but I thought look, here I am, one of our longest-standing environmentalists, poster boy for Extinction Rebellion, it’s about time you started practicing what you preach, so I went on my bike.’ Did he also cycle to Berlin, Jordan, Puglia, the Abruzzi, I wonder? No, he says, it’s OK to take a plane when he’s on important business. He was invited to Jordan by Prince Gazi to talk about the environment and he met the King — he shows me a photo of him plus King on his iPhone, and then several dozen photos of Petra, rose-red city half as old as time, etc. What about the bears? Has he got any photos of the bears? No, he hasn’t actually, because he didn’t see one, but he shows me a photo of a ‘watch out for bears’ road sign with bullet holes in it. He was invited to the Abruzzi by a re-wilding charity which is trying to enlarge the bears’ habitat, but the locals don’t like it and shoot at the road signs. Then he flicks through several million more photos on his iPad. One of them is of Nancy Dell’Olio. What’s she doing there? ‘Oh, she invited me to Puglia because she is now ambassador for Puglia and she organized a tour in a l960s Alfa Romeo.’ The iPhone on which he has all these photos is covered in Extinction Rebellion logos.
He seems happy to show me photos all morning, but I remind him that we’re here to do an interview. He says he prepared for it by making a list of his four proudest achievements. The first was winning the Newdigate Prize (for poetry) at Oxford. His poem was called ‘May Morning’ and he wrote it on his mother’s typewriter in about three hours after going for an early morning walk with a girlfriend. It was a long poem, 98 lines in Chaucerian rhyme royal, and he quotes me a chunk — ‘Soft on that hilltop we awoke, soft on the climb…’ — but says I can read it in full in his autobiography, Stanley, I Presume? ‘And I sent it off to Oxford and got this amazing letter back from Robert Graves, the Oxford Professor of Poetry, saying congratulations on your wonderful poem.’ The prize was 21 guineas, which he put on a horse but the horse lost. Anyway, winning the Newdigate was his first great achievement but he spends so long telling me about it that he forgets to list the other three, so I have to remind him.
‘Oh yes. In 2015 the World Wildlife Fund held a big ceremony in Brussels to celebrate 25 years of EU legislation on nature protection, and — because I’d pushed through much of this legislation when I worked for the European Commission — I was awarded the “World Wildlife Fund Leader of the Living Planet” award. Can you imagine? You can arise and be carried up to heaven on the strength of that! So that was the second one. The third — I’ve only got four — was in Berlin in l998. A novel I wrote called The Commissioner was made into a film and shown at the Berlin Film Festival and at the end the audience applauded and shouted out “Author! Author!” And number four — I lasted a long time on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!, and either Ant or Dec said nine million people had voted for me to be prime minister of Downing Creek! So those are the four achievements I’m proudest of.’
Erm. Hasn’t he forgotten something? ‘Have I?’ Isn’t he proud of having a son who is prime minister? He doesn’t quite say pish and tush but that seems to be the gist. ‘Oh I’ll throw that one in. But you know, it’s only a matter of custom that we think politics is something special. I don’t subscribe to this notion that a political career somehow outranks other careers…if someone said one of your children could be Palmerston or Picasso, you might very well say Picasso. I mean I’ve still got this idea — thanks to winning the Newdigate Prize all that time ago — that I wouldn’t mind producing a volume of poetry that stood the test of time. That would be something wouldn’t it?’ Yes indeed. How many poems has he written? ‘Not as many as I should, maybe two or three.’
Did he think Boris was the brightest of his children? ‘Oh, there’s no way I can answer that. I don’t have access to any data of that kind. I’ve got six children, four with Charlotte, two with Jenny, and they’re all fine. My line has always been that basically you rely on our Rolls-Royce educational system to deliver the goods. And I feel proud that all six of my children got into Oxbridge, though one switched to UCL.’ His reverence for traditional education is apparent from his memoir. His father (who incidentally was Turkish and changed his name from Kemal to Johnson) left school at 13, but he sent Stanley to Sherborne and Stanley in turn sent his sons to Eton. He says he never even met a grammar-school boy until he went to Oxford.
Anyway, he won’t talk about his children, beyond reminding me that Rachel got chucked out of the Big Brother house on the first vote, whereas he lasted to the fifth vote in the Celebrity rainforest. Does he ever give his children advice? ‘A fight?’ No. Advice. ‘Of course not,’ he says. ‘I’m 79, some of them are verging on middle age [Boris is 55] so they don’t come to me for advice. I thought of a good joke: my role is not so much Pater Familias as Patter Familias! I suppose they might learn from me by osmosis or something. I mean if I went around with a completely droopy look on my face the whole day, that’s one form of advice; on the other hand, if I have a rather enthusiastic approach, that might be another form.’
Yes. I noticed that in Kompromat the word he kept using about the Boris character was ‘ebullient’, which is obviously something he approves of. ‘Yes, broad sunlit uplands! I think ebullience is a pretty important attribute, OK? Now, looking at my own particular life, I have no reason not to be ebullient, because life has dealt me this fantastically brilliant hand. I was brought up on this wonderful farm on Exmoor, I’ve had two totally successful marriages, I have immense admiration for my first wife and immense love and loyalty for my second wife, I’m thrilled with all the kids, and my work involves doing exactly what I want to do — I travel round the world. So I feel that I have no right not to be ebullient.’
The trouble with ebullient people, I always find, is that they can be depressing to be around — they seem to suck the air out of the room. ‘Well, according to the Times today, you can take an aspirin for depression. I showed it to Jenny.’ I wonder how she took it. His first wife, Charlotte, had a nervous breakdown. Would he say that he has emotional intelligence? ‘No!’ he laughs heartily. ‘I’d be pretty hesitant to say that. I mean if I was absolutely pushed, of course I could be sympathetic. But I see it almost as a moral duty to be cheerful.’
Do his children like him doing shows such as Celebrity Hunted? ‘Look. In the most ruthless way you have to say to yourself — all this idea that 79-year-olds have to retire is nonsense. Why shouldn’t I do telly? You have no idea what fun I have. When I did The Real Marigold Hotel I had to spend a month in India with — think of it! — Selina Scott, Susan George, Stephanie Beacham and the Krankies! How can you say no to these sorts of things? Do you think old people should just hide themselves away?’
Of course not. But I’m just thinking, given that you started out with such high hopes, winning the Newdigate, getting a Harkness scholarship, perhaps people expected your career to be more…? ‘Substantial?’ Yes. ‘Ha! But don’t think I’m not a very serious person. I say that in my book: deep down, I am a horribly serious person. But you do have to dig quite a long way to find it.’
Still, it is obvious from his memoir that he never sticks at anything. He went up to Oxford intending to be president of the Union, to get a double first in Greats and to win a rugby blue, but achieved none of them. He planned a motorbike expedition with a friend following Marco Polo’s route from Venice to Beijing, but they gave up in Afghanistan. He went to the US on a two-year Harkness scholarship to study creative writing at Iowa, but switched to economics at Columbia and dropped out after a year. He was a supply teacher for a while but then, he claims, was recruited as a spy and sent on intensive training for six months. It was all so hush-hush he couldn’t even tell his wife Charlotte what he was doing, but he remembers being taught ‘Never try to blackmail an Egyptian’ and being fitted for a Gieves suit with space for a shoulder holster. (Judging from Celebrity Hunted, he certainly didn’t learn any ‘tradecraft’ — he kept using his own debit card to buy petrol.) No sooner had he completed his spy training than he joined the World Bank and worked on international project planning for two years, but blew it with an April Fools’ Day spoof recommending building three more pyramids in Egypt. He was head of the prevention of pollution division at the European Commission from 1973 to 1979, then MEP for Isle of Wight and Hampshire East. But that was his last actual job. Since then he’s described himself as a writer and environmentalist.
He signs off saying: ‘Lovely to meet you, Lynn. You’re a legend.’ A couple of weeks later he emails me from Rajasthan. He must have used more air miles while I was writing this article than I’ve used in a decade. But of course he is a great environmentalist. And, as he told me, ‘a very serious person’. Pinocchio lives.