A friend who belongs to an old-fashioned London club tells me that all anecdotes related within its walls are met with one of only three accepted responses: Great Fun, Rather Fun and Shame. Stanley I Presume is rather fun. It would have been great fun if the author was less discreet and less loyal and less scrupulous, because his life story — the first 40 years of which makes up the present volume — has been crammed with incident.
Stanley Johnson has worked as a spy, a pioneering environmentalist and a Member of the European Parliament. As a youth he rode from London to Afghanistan on a motorcycle, hitch-hiked across South America and won a prestigious poetry prize. He has been married twice and fathered six children, the current Mayor of London (and erstwhile editor of this magazine) the eldest of their number.
Students of Boris Johnson’s hair will be intrigued by photographs of Stanley and his first wife as youngsters, both of them blessed with copious locks. Stanley never seems to have worn a crash helmet during his motorcycling days: perhaps he couldn’t find one which would fit over his generous quiff.
Conservative in both politics and temperament, Stanley Johnson is the sort of man who hangs on to things. In the course of this memoir he tells us that he still has his mother’s Cheltenham Ladies’ College lacrosse stick, his own tuck-box from prep school and a letter from Winston Churchill’s office, thanking him for writing, as a boy of 11, to congratulate the Prime Minister on winning the election of 1951. Among the greatest joys of Johnson’s life is that he continues to reside in the valley near Exmoor where he spent his chldhood.
Johnson isn’t, I suspect, the sort of chap who would undertake psychoanalysis. Any hint of childhood unpleasantness (a prep-school headmaster may have been abusive, although not to Johnson) is glossed over: ‘I don’t want to over-egg this’, is typical. A boy crying on his first night at school is described as ‘snivelling’. I would contend, however, that much of this book demonstrates one of Carl Jung’s less batty ideas: that some children find themselves enacting the unlived lives of their parents. Stanley’s mother wrote a memoir about their Devon valley, which was never accepted for publication: her son devotes many pages (perhaps too many) to his own account of life in the same spot. Stanley’s father had a motorcycle, but seems hardly to have used it: his son travelled more than 4,000 miles on one, retracing the journey of Marco Polo. Stanley I Presume is dedicated to the memory of his mother and father, and it is hard not to sense that he has written it for them.
The second half — after he leaves Oxford — is unburdened by this sense that Stanley is trying to be a good boy and please his parents. It’s a better read. The prose becomes freer, more flowing, and there are more jokes. It is impossible to begrudge him the early good fortune which sees him awarded one lucrative scholarship after another; none of which he sticks at, as he freely admits. Impossible, too, not to warm to the man: Stanley Johnson is amusing, unconventional and genial. He never misses an opportunity to remember a kindness; practically everyone who has ever held a door open for him gets a mention. Stanley goes to America, Africa, China, Brussels and Strasbourg. He does important work for conservation and writes 18 books, nine of them fiction. He is clearly a doting father and grandfather and, as he himself might say, a thoroughly good egg.