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.