Baby Boris: all blond hair and dipped in ink
By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Sunday Times, Sunday 15th March 2009
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Stanley Johnson, the father of the London mayor, recalls the magical rural home where he grew up, how he left his new bride undressed in a hotel corridor and mistook his newborn son for an African-American
My mother was by nature an optimist. I remember being woken by her one night when I was about four years old. My father was a pilot in the RAF during the war and we were living in a little cottage near the runway at Chivenor in north Devon.
“Look, darling! Come quickly!” She hustled me to the window. “There is a wonderful bonfire on the runway! A plane has crashed and, quite soon, the depth charges will explode!” I can’t remember whether the depth charges did explode that night, but I recall the knock on the door the next morning. It was the RAF padre. He took off his hat. “Mrs Johnson? I’m afraid I’ve some bad news. Your husband . . .”
The spectacular plane crash we had witnessed had involved my father, returning home from trying to spot enemy U-boats. His Wellington bomber had clipped a telegraph pole and crashed on the runway. He had been severely burnt.
“The good news,” the padre continued, “is that your husband is still alive.”
My mother thrust her chin out. “I didn’t doubt it for a moment.”
“Daddy’s crash” was one of the milestones of my childhood. He received extensive plastic surgery (and a DFC for extricating his crew from the burning plane) and spent the rest of his life with one leg 2in shorter than the other.
My parents bought a smallholding near Horsell in Surrey after the war. We kept livestock, including pigs and poultry. For a time, my father resumed his prewar life as a timber broker in the City, while trying to keep an eye on the animals at the same time. Each evening, on returning from London to Surrey, he would drive an old open Lancia Lambda around various restaurants in the Woking area collecting vegetable and other waste, which he would then boil in an iron vat and serve as swill to the pigs.
It frequently fell to us children to keep the fire going under the vat, by feeding it with logs and brushwood. Failure to do so, my father explained, meant the swill would not be properly cooked and the pigs would suffer. I remember one spectacular eruption when my father, returning home from the pub for Sunday lunch, discovered we had let the fire go out. He was an immensely strong man and for a moment it seemed as though he was going to pick up the entire dining-room table, laden as it was with crockery, cutlery and the Sunday roast, and hurl it across the room. In the event, he brought the carving knife hard down on the table, causing splinters to fly.
My mother had a fine sense of drama. Far from being disconcerted, she applauded. “Bravo, Johnny!” she exclaimed.
She later explained to us that my father had been in a bad mood not so much because of our lapses but because he couldn’t stand working in London. “He simply hates it,” she said.
While my father grew increasingly frustrated with a suburban existence, my brother and I went off to prep school in deepest Devon. It is entirely thanks to this that he was at last able to escape the life he loathed in London and, at the age of 40, take up an existence he had always longed for. The purchase in 1951 of West Nethercote, a 250-acre hill farm in west Somerset, has probably been the single most important determinant of my life and of the kind of person I am.
The White Horse, Bampton, was a pub where my parents would stay on their annual visit to see my brother and me at school. My father became friendly with the landlord, Mr Collacott. In the summer of 1951, soon after the parental appearance at sports day, Mr Collacott telephoned to say that an old boy called Stanley Blake had walked into the pub from his farm (10 miles as the crow flies, more by road) and in the course of a long evening had intimated that he was thinking of selling up.
Next day, my father took the day off from the unloved timber brokers, hopped on his Norton motorcycle and drove 200 miles to find out what Mr Blake’s intentions were. It turned out there was not just one Mr Blake. Stanley had a brother, Ernest, with whom he was not on speaking terms, though they not only shared the old partly medieval farmhouse, and worked the farm together; they even shared the same bed. There was also a Miss Blake, their sister, who did the housekeeping and who acted as an intermediary in the event that Stanley had, absolutely, to communicate with Ernest or vice versa.
My father always maintained that he knew from the first moment he turned off the Winsford–Exford road to follow the River Exe for two miles up the bumpy, potholed track to Nethercote that this was the place for him. I know how he must have felt. Even though I have now lived there for 57 years, I can still sense the magic every time I drive across the little bridge over the river to enter what for me is the most special valley in England, if not the world.
Our valley has become a treasure house of wildlife. Apart from the butterflies, we have loads of dormice, barn owls, heron, kingfishers, woodpeckers, buzzards and kestrels galore, not to speak of red deer, foxes, badgers and bats. Sometimes, our au pairs would complain about bats flying around in their bedrooms at night and even being tangled in their hair. Once I sought my mother’s advice. “Tell them to put a saucepan on their head when they go to bed!”
In 1959 I went up to Oxford. By the beginning of my third year, I had a fair number of undergraduate women friends. We tended to meet at the Cadena in the Cornmarket for tea, went to the cinema in Walton Street or concerts in the Sheldonian.
This was all very satisfactory. I was an innocent boy from Exmoor. I couldn’t help noticing, however, that some of my contemporaries at Exeter College had regular girlfriends with whom they were seen around college or in town. Bill Gissane on Staircase 5 had a devastatingly beautiful blonde ladyfriend called Zena, who would stretch herself languorously like a cat in the front quad after breakfast in his rooms.
Then there was an American called Brad Hosmer, who had rooms on Staircase 2. A serving member of the United States Air Force, he parked a Studebaker in the Turl and at weekends drove out to the USAF base at Brize Norton to keep up his flying hours. I would sometimes pass his latest comely squeeze on the stairs.
“What’s the secret, Brad?” I asked him. “Dead simple, Stan. Just find something you have in common.”
“What kind of thing are we talking about here, Brad?”
“Well, take apples,” Brad explained. “You meet a girl. First thing you do is ask her if she likes apples. Nine times out of 10, she’ll say, ‘Yes, I like apples’.”
“Then what?” I asked. “Then you say, ‘Hell! That’s amazing! I like apples too. Let’s go to bed!’ ” Soon after this conversation, I had to go to London for the day. On the train, on my way back, I found myself sitting opposite a very attractive young woman called Sarah, who was at Lady Margaret Hall (LMH). I had seen Sarah around the college, being squired by Chris, a lawyer in my year.
“How’s Chris, then?” I asked. “Fine, thanks.” The ice broken, we chatted away. Soon after the train had left Reading, I remembered Brad’s advice. Find some point of common interest. “Pretty awful place, Reading?” I nodded in the direction of the passing Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory. “Paris is much nicer, isn’t it? Do you like Paris?”
“Yes, I do like Paris!” “Hell!” I exclaimed. “I like Paris too! Why don’t we meet at Heathrow airport next Friday morning, catch a plane to Paris and spend the weekend there?”
In those days, the bus from Orly airport brought you to the terminus at Les Invalides. Sarah and I made our way along the Left Bank towards the Pont Saint-Michel. I left her sitting with her bag in a cafe on one of the little winding side streets. “You stay here,” I said. “I’ll go and find a place for us to stay.”
I probably sounded more confident than I actually felt. Sarah and I hadn’t discussed the “modalities” of our little expedition before setting off. When I found a suitable hotel, was I going to ask for two separate rooms? Or was I going to ask for one room, with two beds? Or one with a double bed?
When I found a sweet little hotel off the rue de l’Université, I decided to go for broke.
“Une chambre double, s’il vous plâit.” I handed over my passport.
“Et le passeport de madame?” “Madame a toujours son passeport.” “Il faut la chercher, monsieur.” I went back, feeling nervous, to fetch Sarah and her passport. What would happen, I wondered, when we returned and they realised we weren’t man and wife?
As it happened, my anxieties on this score proved wholly superfluous. I tried to retrace my steps to the Pont Saint-Michel, only to find myself hopelessly lost.
Fifteen years later, quite by chance, I met Sarah at a reception in Brussels. She still looked tremendously pretty. When she saw me, she gave a start, then smiled frostily: “Oh, hello! Whatever happened to you that day in Paris? I waited for ages but you never showed up!”
Soon after the disastrous trip to Paris, I met another student from LMH, Charlotte Fawcett. She wore a waistcoat made of rabbit fur and, in general, had a bohemian air about her. I managed not to make a mess of this relationship and we were married about eight months later.
We went potato-picking in Kent for our honeymoon. (It seemed a good idea at the time.) But we had a second honeymoon a few weeks later on the Queen Mary, bound for New York. I had been awarded a Harkness fellowship to travel and study in the United States.
On our first evening in New York, Charlotte and I celebrated our arrival in America by ordering room-service dinner at our hotel: jumbo prawns and giant T-bone steaks. When we had finished, I rang down to reception to tell them to pick up the trolley outside our room.
The trolley was so large and there was so much debris on it that Charlotte, who had undressed for bed, had to help me to manoeuvre it into the corridor. As she did so, the door to our room shut behind us.
“I’ll get another key from reception,” I said.
“Be quick! I’ve got no clothes on,” Charlotte urged.
I was quick but not quick enough. The man came for the trolley while Charlotte was still crouching behind it.
One of the requirements of my fellowship was that I should travel around the United States for at least three or four months. A few weeks after our arrival Charlotte realised she was pregnant. It seemed sensible to get some of the travelling done before the baby was born.
“Let’s head for Mexico!” I said. “Olé!” Charlotte replied. The Harkness rules said we weren’t allowed to take the car across the border, so we left it in Laredo, Texas, and caught the Greyhound bus south.
It took 20 hours to reach Mexico City. Charlotte was suffering from morning sickness and the altitude didn’t help. She didn’t welcome the prospect of the long ride back on the bus to the United States.
One night, a man called Boris Litwin and his wife invited us to their beautiful home in San Angel. Boris was a Russian who, like Trotsky, had come to live in Mexico. Trotsky had been murdered with an ice pick, but Boris was still going strong. His daughter, Barbara, was the girlfriend of one of my Exeter College friends.
At that first lunch, I mentioned to the Litwins that Charlotte and I were planning to return to the United States the way we had come. By Greyhound bus. All 20 hours of it, barring floods, earthquake, ambush or mechanical breakdowns. Boris didn’t say anything, but he looked accusingly at me. I knew what he was thinking.
Two days later the Litwins invited us again, this time for dinner. They showered us with presents. I remember a shawl, a wicker basket, a poncho for Charlotte and some silver ornaments.
Just as we were saying goodbye, overwhelmed by their generosity, Boris thrust two Mexico City–Laredo air tickets into our hands. “You can forget about the Greyhound bus now!” he told us.
It was Charlotte who, on the spur of the moment, came up with an idea for repaying his kindness. “If our baby is a boy,” she told him, as we gratefully accepted the tickets, “we’ll call him Boris!”
Our home in New York was a spacious loft in West 23rd Street. It contained a bath on stilts and a yellow out-of-tune piano with the motto “Vive La Fun!” painted glaringly on its lid. The lavatory, with a marble hand basin, was concealed from the rest of the room by some large abstract canvases.
Birdcages hung from the ceiling and soot crept in through the windows.
There was a terrace at the back populated by metallic sculptures. It was easy enough to climb up from street level. Once I woke to find a large black man standing over the bed. “I say,” I protested, “we’re trying to sleep. You wouldn’t mind leaving us alone, would you?”
Happily the man took the point and climbed back through the window onto the terrace. It was often too hot to sleep with the windows shut. Having the occasional unwanted visitor was a small price to pay.
On June 19, 1964, five months after we moved in, Charlotte gave birth to the long-anticipated baby in New York hospital, situated by the river around East 70th Street.
In those days there wasn’t so much pressure on expectant fathers to be present at the birth of their offspring. I had no objection in principle. Unfortunately, however, I missed the birth because I had stepped outside for a moment to get a pizza.
When I got back, I was told that the new baby was already safely wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the nursery in a cot, along with half a dozen other new arrivals. As I peered through the glass, I found it difficult to determine which our child was. The babies were lined up so that all I could see was the soles of their feet, which were uniformly black. Just for a moment I thought there had been a mix-up and somehow Charlotte had given birth to an African–American or Puerto Rican child. I asked a passing nurse for guidance.
“We dip the feet in ink to take their footprints as soon as they are born,” she explained. “We want to avoid mix-ups. You can’t use the babies’ fingerprints. Not when they’re newborn. They’re too soft.”
A few minutes later, another nurse entered the crèche, picked up one of the bundles and carried it along to a tearful but joyful Charlotte. I realised with relief, as she cradled the child, that all was in order. Even then the blond hair was unmistakable. We registered the baby with the US authorities, as well as with the British consulate, thus ensuring future dual citizenship. Next day, I wrote to Boris Litwin to tell him that the new arrival had weighed in at over 9lb and was doing well.
“We have named him Boris as we promised,” I wrote, “as a small gesture of recognition for your kindness to us in Mexico. The full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.”
Mr and Mrs Litwin have died, but I am still in touch with their daughter, Barbara, who lives not far from us in London. The last time we met, she told me that every time she sees Boris Johnson on television or reads one of his articles (or presumably now hears a London mayoral pronouncement), she is reminded of her father.
© Stanley Johnson 2009
Extracted from Stanley I Presume, by Stanley Johnson, to be published by Fourth Estate on March 19 at £18.99. Copies can be ordered for £17.09 including postage from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0845 271 2135
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