Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson - image by Mark Fairhurst

This article first appeared in Oxfordshire Life in March 2007

He’s the eccentric Conservative Member of Parliament for Henley, lives near Thame and offers odd shopping tips. How much of the real Boris Johnson do we know? Sandra Fraser’s still not sure…

Everyone has an opinion about that Boris Johnson, it seems. Whether it’s the Mummies in the playground – (“He’s rather shorter in real life than he appears on TV, isn’t he?” “Is he very funny?”) – or the school secretary – (“He’s as mad as a box of frogs…”). And this, from a very discerning friend – “He has the kind of looks that make you want to mother him.”

Ah, Boris. All that fluffing and stalling – and so self-effacing when I tell him people warm to him.

“Do they? Well it’s sweet of you to say so… really? Good.”

When he arrives – late – for this interview, he’s immediately invited to choose an on-the-hoof lunch. A pie, suggests his agent, Wayne Lawley, with chips? Mindful, perhaps, of his slip about parents pushing such devil-food through the school railings following Jamie Oliver’s healthy eating campaign, he resists – “A pie – no, no, a pasty perhaps. Not chips. Maybe a tuna sandwich?”

It’s the tuna sandwich that eventually turns up but it sits uneaten as Boris – one feels inclined to be on familiar terms even though his full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – parries my questions and throws himself around in his office chair while we chat over a cup of coffee. One would never have called his predecessor, Michael Heseltine, by his forename. Only Mister was good enough for Tarzan, I remember. But with Boris you can’t help feeling you know the man – that there are no barriers between him and his public.

Why is that?

“I think telly kills it all, people see that we’re all exactly the same,” says this Eton and Oxford-educated man.

It’s certainly a leveller. Who could fail to enjoy Boris’s disconcertion on “Have I got News for You?” at the hands of regular panellists Ian Hislop and Paul Merton. He’s been on the topical quiz show seven times, four times as guest presenter, and taken his chances with fellow Oxfordshire resident Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear. It’s great entertainment. There are websites hailing him, but he’s wise enough to suspect that his fans are equally matched by his detractors.

He’s so obviously intelligent and sharp on the inside – he’s written top-selling history books, one of which was turned into a television series, and was a Classics scholar at Oxford. But there’s his “woolly as a Merino sheep” front when he tousles his hair and throws his arms around for effect to avoid answering a difficult question or passing comment on a subject he’d rather not talk about.

Why does he do that?

“It’s a sheer defence mechanism, obviously. I don’t have the faintest idea what I’m about to say,” he confesses. “So I do burble and bumble, then my mistakes will be less obvious. That’s my calculation. I learnt it at a very early age.”

He trots out a joke about verbal baggage handlers going on strike and rather endearingly claims the House of Commons is a terrifying place to have this happen.

Serious for a moment, he was a King’s Scholar boy at Eton and is now the shadow Higher Education Minister, he talks about the decreasing opportunities for bright-but-poor students who want to go to university. Local schools are a very relevant point to this, he says, opining about good education increasing social justice. Then there’s the topic of so-called “easy” subjects and the lack of “crunchy” subject takers like mathematicians, scientists and English scholars and the lack of male teacher at primary level.

“These are all Conservative ideas. Not everybody in educational establishments will like the sound of this, but I think it’s got to be said,” he says, putting his very blonde head over the parapet, again.

Is he worried he might get into trouble (again) with the Tory Whips over this comment?

“I think it’s probably better for me to say what I think and keep going than to try to constrict it all,” he says, looking to Mr Lawley for affirmation.

He’s lived in Oxfordshire since becoming Henley’s MP, but he reckons his connections with the town go back further. He championed Henley’s tipple Brakspear’s bitter, the beer of choice at his school at Sunday lunchtime, in the Commons early in his Parliamentary career.

To add to his credentials as a “local” he says: “I want you to know, my grandparents met in Oxfordshire, on the playing fields of the Dragon School when they were about nine. My grandmother rugby-tackled my grandfather and knocked him over.”

Which brings up the question of his infamous football skills – or lack of them. Playing in a charity match last year, he rugby-tackled an opposition player to the ground – to the delight of the crowd and subsequent television watchers.

“I don’t have football skills,” he says. “Let’s draw a veil over that.”

So why did he reduce his journalistic commitments in order to become an MP? Seriousness returns to the man whose great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, was the last interior minister of the Imperial Turkish government.

“I didn’t feel quite satisfied with myself endlessly criticising people when I hadn’t offered myself up as a target or tried to do it myself,” he says, then worried he might have offended me, says that journalism is great.

In this mood he considers some of his constituents’ troubles.

“The problems you have to deal with are problems of prosperity, very often, like the excessive cost of housing and overcrowding on the railways because everyone wants to commute.”

He feels very strongly about rural Post Office closures and mentions the local postmistress by first name as he complains about Government policy.

“I’m a free marketeer, I’m not in favour of subsidising loss-making businesses, but there are lots of services that the Post Office could equally offer which it’s not being allowed to offer. Like giving out pensions…” his vehemence tails off as he wonders exactly which services are still in place. But the sentiment is there. Communities need centres and the Post Office is one such.

He’s quite guarded when it comes to talking about his family weekends and confesses he turns off his mobile phone and doesn’t have a landline at his Oxfordshire home.

“I live near Thame and we had a long stretch there over Christmas and it was fantastic,” he says. “I’m a militant supporter of shopping in Thame.”

He offers a playful tip for next year’s Christmas shopping by stating that the best place to get five brilliant presents for people of all ages in the space of five minutes is Autoparts – a tiny shop whose name describes its trade.

His typical weekend involves getting up, buying a paper and some buns, playing with his four children, opening a fete or two and generally pottering around, he says.

But he’s adamant the one family thing he’d never do in Oxfordshire is cycle – which is surprising as he cycles to work at the Commons.

“I don’t think the roads here are safe enough for family cycling. There are not enough decent cycle lanes,” he says seriously. “I couldn’t take my kids out on the roads, it would be madness. London’s safe as houses. I cycle completely without a worry – well, I did hit a French guy in Knightsbridge – he was looking the wrong way.

“We have friends over for drinks…” (not the Gibbs, of BeeGees fame though, he assures me, asking where exactly Robin lives in Thame), “…we do loads of gardening, I’m doing up a shed… it’s that kind of life. I’ve got an airgun. I shoot squirrels, though I haven’t got one yet. I try to hit the rabbits…”

So Boris’s Oxfordshire life – what’s the best thing about it?

He earnestly declares he loves meeting his constituents (I believe him) and enjoys the rush as he views the county through the gorge on the M40 motorway.

But most of all he loves the stars.

“I love being able to walk outside and look at the whole night sky. I grew up on a farm in Somerset and though this isn’t as rural, I love the countryside.”

That Boris Johnson, he may not say all the right things, but there’s no mistaking his heart’s in the right place.

Remembering Rupert Hamer

Just as there are trustworthy news sources, there’s a certain kind of journalist, whose quest for truth and justice puts them, literally, in the firing line. I’ve worked with a few who have gone on to such careers and I know enough about myself to know I’m not one of them.

Last night, when the name of Rupert Hamer came up on the BBC television news I wasn’t quite in the room.

“Rupert Hamer? That’s the lad who used to suck his thumb in the office!” I exclaimed, walking in and looking to see why he’d been mentioned.

“He’s dead. Killed in an explosion in Afghanistan,” said my husband, gloomily, instantly making me feel an insensitive old hack. I watched the rest of the bulletin in silence. Rupert wasn’t the young man I had known. He was 39 years old, with three small children. He was working as defence correspondent for the Sunday Mirror. We all move on and his career, ambition and drive had taken him to places I would have run away from – fast, without looking back or asking a single question.

Being small and shy, Rupert appeared very young for his age when I worked with him at the Eastern Daily Press, then the country’s biggest regional morning paper. Fresh out of the company’s training school and learning his trade at a district office, he could be very unsure of himself, hence the occasional thumb-sucking when he thought no-one was watching. Rupert could be also be irritating in the way that only a work colleague who reminds you of your much younger brother can be.

“Can you stop sighing?” he once asked. “Every so often you breathe a heavy sigh and you’re putting me off.”

Unaware that I was doing such a thing, taken aback even, I don’t think I retorted with a darkly sarcastic remark, and though I can’t remember what I said, I do remember feeling conscious of the effect I was having on my colleagues. I was pregnant, working irregular hours and frankly, felt knackered and useless most of the time. Looking back, Rupert would have been about 19 or 20, the age the baby I was expecting then is approaching now. And I had the utmost respect for Rupert’s tenacious approach to life. He, like me, had tried, unsuccessfully, to get on to the company’s training scheme (my excuse – it was the year the company re-trained former printworkers to be journalists, leaving no room on its course for outsiders). Unlike me, he hadn’t gone on to one of the NCTJ’s very few training courses elsewhere in the country, but had become the news desk runner, essentially, the tea-boy, messenger and lackey, to show his willingness to learn more about the job and give himself a better chance of acceptance when he applied the following year. His doggedness was the key to his success.

You learn very early on as a news journalist that we all have a tenuous grip on life. My first week of work, far from being a slow introduction to the job in a rural market town sub-office, included three stories that were splashed across the nationals. An older farmer took a shotgun to his young wife before turning it on himself, she having put herself in the firing line to save their baby; a jet plane crashed in a field narrowly avoiding a school – fighter pilots always narrowly avoid something to make the headline writers’ jobs easier – and two local teachers on a cycling holiday in France completely and mysteriously disappeared – their mutilated bodies turned up months later. You go to inquests and quickly discover that a car crash can destroy life in an instant, wrecking the lives of survivors as well those who die; that fires kill the occupants of thatched cottages no thanks to rodents chewing through electricity wires; that it’s not the water in the Broads that’s deadly, but the mud, which will suck you in and keep you under; that you can die by swallowing an aspirin the wrong way (it burns a hole in your windpipe); that one careless decision or freak moment can end it all, instantly. You see the dark criminal underbelly of a pleasant English market town as you report court cases; discover ordinary nice-looking people can be paedophiles; that lawyers and successful businessmen beat their wives; that there are wives who beat their husbands. You may become cynical. You may become more reckless. In my case, I became more determined to live whatever life I was being metered out to the full – safely.

Journalists get a bad press, justifiably so, in some cases. They’re not known for being sensitive caring types and there’s an image of them as baying paparazzi. In reality, there are hundreds, thousands of working journalists who really care about getting to the bottom of a story and writing it in as truthful a way as they can. If they get their facts wrong or skew their impartiality, they’re likely to bump into their readership in the pub or the street within the next week and to be told of the error of their ways. Without newspapers there would still be news – it would be delivered in half-truths and gossip over garden fences and in shop doorways. Personally, I like being able to believe what I read in certain dependable newspapers and on certain websites.

And just as there are trustworthy news sources, there’s a certain kind of journalist, whose quest for truth and justice puts them, literally, in the firing line. I’ve worked with a few who have gone on to such careers and I know enough about myself to know I’m not one of them. If you ever meet them what you’ll find most striking is they’re not adrenalin junkies, or lacking a self-preservation gene, they’re just more dedicated than the rest of us and believe, wholeheartedly, that certain stories should be told first-hand, regardless of personal safety. They don’t do it for their reputation or glory but to ensure such stories are told in a way that allows you to make your own considered judgment on the matter. Without such reporters and correspondents we’d know nothing of Watergate, Tiananmen Square and the Afghan conflict.

I never really returned to news reporting after starting a family. Oddly enough, the initial few hours of my first labour were spent watching the 24-hour news reports of the opening few strikes of the first Gulf War and being dimly aware that another former colleague was firing questions at a US Defence representative at an international press conference while I wondered what I was doing, bringing a child into such a world. My focus switched to the far friendlier hours and more saccharine stories being run by the features department and from there to the new magazines that Archant was setting up countrywide.

The last I’d heard, Rupert was working for a national newspaper and I’d vaguely taken my hat off to him for “making it” as he’d always hoped to. Last night and today, reading the reports of the journalist he had become and his path from boy to man, I said a silent thank you for his work and thought of his wife and his family. Some journalists make a difference to the world and deserve our respect for their commitment. Though I didn’t know it until last night, Rupert Hamer was one of them.

On-line shopping V the high street

Despite working in an on-line media environment, I’ve never really trusted the Internet when it comes to shopping. As the mother and stepmother of four teenagers and two tweenies, I recognise this is a failing on my part and definitely not a cool attitude to buying. Why go out in the cold and wet, pay exorbitant parking fees, and stand toe-to-toe and elbow-to-elbow with crowds only to end up foot-sore and grumpy?

You might well ask, especially if you’re under 30. The answer is, once you’ve put something in your basket, stood in a queue and paid for it, you know it’s bought. You can tick it off your to-do list, your gift list or your shopping list, delete it from your Blackberry or your mental checklist. If the purchase is for you, perhaps a little black dress for all those pre-Christmas, pre-New Year parties, it’s sorted. You know it fits, you know what it will go with, you can buy matching shoes, boots, hair clips, stockings or whatever takes your fancy to make it an outfit rather than just a pipe-dream. Dammit, you can even leave the shop wearing it if you like it that much. Barring a mugging on your way back to the car park, it’s yours to put in your wardrobe or to give to your lucky friend or relative if it’s a present.

Contrast this with the on-line shopping experience. If all goes well, you surf suppliers on the net, find your chosen item, bundle it up with other purchases so that you only pay one lot of P&P, then make a coffee, sit back and relax while other people run around a warehouse, get in their vans and bring your gifts and purchases to your house. That, of course, is only the theory. The reality goes something like this in my experience.

  • You surf the net, find what you want, order it, pay the P&P charge, sit at your desk hoping the item is in stock and awaiting a confirmation e-mail.
  • You receive the confirmation e-mail and start tracking your parcel, wondering if it’s safe to go out for a walk with the dog. You ensure one person in the household is on door duty, just in case.
  • Your parcel doesn’t arrive on the appointed date.
  • You start to wonder where it can be, you ask your friendly postal worker (they’re still friendly around here) – he or she hasn’t seen hide nor hair of it.
  • You send an e-mail to customer service.
  • They send a standard e-mail back confirming they’ve despatched your goods and telling you to check with your postal worker.
  • You start wondering if you’ve been out when a delivery was due and make a mental check-back to establish no, you haven’t been, and though you may have visited the loo at an inopportune moment, you know the dog would have thrown herself against the door the moment the post was delivered or the bell was rung.
  • You search outbuildings, speak to neighbours (if you have any, we don’t), and tape a message to your gate with very clear instructions about what you’re waiting for.
  • You send another e-mail to customer services to ask when can you expect your parcel. They tell you to check your garage, check with your neighbours and ask if you’re sure you’ve been in 24/7.
  • They tell you they can’t find your house. You tell them to put your postcode into Google maps.
  • This e-mail table-tennis continues for several days…

Add a few inches of snow into the equation and you have the perfect excuse for customer care not to take your enquiries seriously.

“It’s the weather,” they cry, fobbing off your disappointed teenagers. “Give it another 24/36/48/60 hours.” The teenagers’ faces drop a hundred miles, yet trusting beings that they are, they resolve to go out to a party in a borrowed dress/tell their friends that their present has been delayed/ make the best of their disappointment and believe the line that is being spun, so build their hopes up again for the next party/occasion/purchase.

By contrast, we 40-somethings start hopping up and down when something doesn’t arrive and we’ve exhausted our reserves of politeness. We start looking on-line for a telephone number to talk to a real person. None of this “standard reply” nonsense for us. Except that’s the trouble. There is no telephone number. Only an e-mail address – this is modern technology in action. Why say in one minute what will take three text messages/e-mails to establish? IE “My parcel isn’t here” and “We’re too busy to care.”

Top of the delivery pops? The good old Royal Mail, whose postal workers trudged through snow and searched their vans to placate a near-weeping teenage girl the day of a VIP (Very Important Party); and to the CityLink Amazon delivery driver who arrived on the doorstep wet, cold and snowed on, but was still cheery enough to wish us a Happy Christmas as he dropped off the last of the on-line purchases.

Chief culprits for giving negative experiences this year are Next and Asos. Though Next’s final apology was accompanied by a £20 gift voucher – the shoes, dress and waistcoat ordered for the tweenies for our wedding simply failed to turn up – they couldn’t even deliver the right order to their own shop a few days later adding exasperation to pre-wedding nerves and the need for yet another shopping trip. Even last week, two months after the order was placed, I was still having to insist I didn’t owe them any money for goods undelivered.

As for Asos, my 17-year-old daughter’s experiences with them would have driven another teenager to tantrums. Let’s just say, it’s now 13 days and counting since she ordered that special dress and it’s just appeared in their post-Christmas sale, £10 cheaper than the price she paid. It’s in the post, they’ve just told me. I’ll keep you posted on its progress, which is more than you’ll get from Asos.

*Update December 30th – With the power of Twitter and the help of Red mag editor Sam, and blogger LibertyLndnGirl, the dress arrived at lunchtime today, 15 days after the order was placed. My daughter looks fab in it and seems unfazed by her experience. Good job as her grandmother had bought her an Asos gift voucher for Christmas.

**Update December 31st – The same dress has been delivered again today – You have to see the funny side!

Dan Snow – hot property

Dan Snow

I was asked to interview Dan Snow and finally caught up with him between flights (his, not mine) for a lightning chat. Here’s how it turned out…

Though Dan Snow’s rise to television presenter celebrity status seems to have been meteoric, his pedigree for the job couldn’t be finer. Here he reveals he might well have pursued a Royal Navy career. Interview by Sandra Fraser (Kessell).

Dan Snow is rushing between airport terminals. He’s flown overnight from Canada, it’s Monday morning and he is in the process of catching another plane to Malta. In true jet-setting style he’s conducting this interview in-between. Behind his familiar voice is the noise of tannoy announcements and baggage trolleys and he sounds a little tired as he negotiates other travellers but he’s a seasoned campaigner and used to pushing himself beyond his limits.

The son of journalists Peter Snow and Ann MacMillan, he’s often announced as The Historian Dan Snow, along with the biographical detail that he’s a 6ft 6in Oxford Blue rower. He admits his interest in rowing and sailing could have seen him end up in a number of other careers, had life taken a different turn. Dan grew up in London, the perfect base for his parents’ careers, and living by the River Thames made it natural that water pleasures should beckon. He learned both to row and to sail while still a schoolboy.

“I got into sailing because I had a family who sailed – Mum and Dad sailed,” he says, walking between terminals, as bleeps and announcements go off in the background. Like so many keen sailors, he started with Optimists and Wayfarers, honing his skills as he went along.

“Sailing teaches you patience. It teaches you to think in a certain way – how to use the elements efficiently – you can’t will the boat to go faster – all good life lessons. It teaches you self-reliance,” he says. “And sailing with a crew teaches you great teamwork.”

Dan went to school at St Paul’s, which offered rowing on its curriculum.  He was encouraged by teachers to use his long arms and legs – efficient levers – to good effect, though he jokes it was because he wasn’t much use at other sports. He joined the Sea Cadets around the age of 12 as an extra-curricular activity.

Young Dan would hop on his bike and cycle to meetings, or parades, as they are more formally known.

“I loved the discipline and learning things about the water – well all sorts of things really – hostage situations, first aid – on a Friday night in Putney. I like to think I learned a huge amount. You have your limits stretched by the Sea Cadets,” he says.

“I could have ended up in the Navy, it’s funny how life goes,” he says.

From St Paul’s, Dan went on to Oxford University, where he studied Modern History and became a member of the Oxford rowing squad, earning a Blue for rowing in the Cambridge-Oxford boat race three years running. He also became the boat club President, though his crew lost in a year he has described as both his best and his worst. His break into television came when the BBC asked if he and his father, best remembered for his Newsnight presentations on election nights, but also a serious journalist of long-standing and distinction, would make a programme together. Though Snow Senior was initially reluctant, the programme was made and Snow Junior’s career path was set.

Combining Dan’s twin interests of history and water pursuits is his idea of double pleasure and he has plenty of ideas up his sleeve if programme-makers have budgets to pursue them. He has already made many programmes about seafaring and ships, including the sinking of the Ark Royal in 1941, the history of the Spanish Armada and a soon-to-be-screened series about the D-Day landings. There have been times during his programme-making career, he reveals, when his Sea Cadet training has come in handy.

“You join the Sea Cadets and you push your own limits. You discover things about yourself. It opens up options and whether you go on to command an air craft carrier or anything else you can use those lessons,” says Dan, recalling trip to St Kilda in stormy weather.

“We were on a little rig heading to St Kilda, going towards the Hebrides, when a big Atlantic storm blew up,” he says. “I remember thinking, this is just like being in the Sea Cadets!”

He loves his job and enjoys being busy, taking all the tiring travelling in his stride.

“No two days are the same,” he says, “I’m off to Malta today and the next day I might be in a library.”

It’s a description that could have matched his seafaring career, had he pursued one.

“I could definitely have gone into the Royal Navy proper or the Marines,” says Dan. “I often look back and wonder what life would have been like.”

He recently joined the crew of the TS Royalist and put his skills to the test once more, posting Tweets on the social networking site, Twitter. In fact, his followers will see many of his posts revolve around his water adventures, and he mentions Trafalgar, HMS Caroline and rowing a boat down the Thames, retracing Nelson’s young footsteps.

Dan Snow’s passport may have him down as an historian, but while young men may grow out the Sea Cadets, you can’t take the Sea Cadets out of the grown man.

Dan appears regularly on The BBC programme, The One Show and has a Twitter page. http://twitter.com/thehistoryGuy

His latest book DEATH OR VICTORY: The Battle of Quebec and the Birth of Empire is published by HarperPress, price £25.

Dan’s BBC2 programme Empire of the Seas is being screened in November.

What’s in a name?

I’ve kind of grown used to the name Sandra Fraser, I’ve had it for more than 20 years, so when my long-term partner proposed marriage and asked me to take his surname instead of my ex-husband’s I admit, I wrestled a little with the idea. It’s a name I share with my children, for one thing, and a name by which I’ve become known professionally. But as he pointed out, it’s not my maiden name and he’d like us to share a surname as well as our life together. So here I am, four days after my wedding, trying to get used to it and hoping I’m not confusing my small following.

In this day of internet, mail redirection and websites, I’m hoping that whoever goes searching for me will find me as easily under the letter K as they did under F.

If you click here you’ll get taken to my old blog. Nothing else has changed, I still smell as sweet…