Boris Johnson and the terror of hidden things

In 1994, I sat down with Boris Johnson in the offices of The Spectator magazine, which he edited at the time.

He had agreed to be interviewed as part of a series of conversations with the moderately famous, which, at that time, he was.

Our topic was the meaning of life.

If you’d like to see the interview, you can find it here.

But I write now of my memories of the man I encountered. I do this because he is now a great deal more famous than he was then; though still the same man. 

He is no longer the Say-What-I-Like journalist of those days, with a brief to shock, delight and upset – but our nation’s Prime Minister, with people’s lives in his hands.

In some respects, he is an average man and of no great note. There are many Johnson-esque figures in homes and offices across the land, struggling with themselves and others.

But Boris Johnson deserves closer scrutiny because of the influence he now wields in his party and the country. 

And my first experience of him – when we sat down together after a boozy Spectator journalists’ lunch – was his anger.

Here is an angry man who is only a moment away from coming for you, if you cross a line. He has noticed this himself, as he says in the interview.

Various testimonies exist from people who have experienced his rage, those who have worked with him – particularly women. They tell of Johnson shouting in their face; and then not talking to them for days.

Anger, though, is a result, not a cause. And from a psychological perspective, the cause of the anger is not difficult to see; though whether Johnson ever will, is open to question.

As he reveals in the interview, he is wholly committed to denial of his past; which, in many ways, is understandable.

There is an abyss inside him which he has no wish to look into. It is an abyss of no self-worth – and who would wish to look there?

What a terrible feeling for two-year-old Boris – to feel meaninglessness, the lack of value in the world; and to know the self-blame that forms and grows around such perceived deficiency.

Johnson speaks of this ‘self-disgust’ and the ‘horror’. He will struggle to say ‘sorry’…

Something else develops around feelings of meaninglessness – cynicism. If I am worth nothing, then the world is worth nothing, truth is worth nothing.

The only thing that’s worth anything is pleasure and the brutal journey to power, to acclaim, to public attention: ‘I will be noticed!’

It is often said Johnson’s relationship with truth is distant; if related at all. I suspect he wouldn’t even bother denying this; but just grin and wink.

What is truth for his two-year-old self – other than getting out of this hell by any means necessary?

Virtue is often crucified early in life. And Johnson hasn’t bothered to reclaim it.

His ‘boosterism’ is another feature of this narrative; his over-inflated language, in which everything is ‘fantastic’ ‘brilliant’ ‘turbo-charged’ ‘corking’… and, as with the rather disappointing test and trace system in the UK, ‘world-beating’.

Everything has to be bright, because Johnson cannot face the darkness.

As he says in the interview, “I will never go to that terrible fridge marked ‘psyche’”. He fears a Pandora’s box of terror.

And we are back with the two-year-old, acting-out. Only he’s also Prime Minister.

This starts as a personal issue for the man; his own business and that of those who share his private life.

But it becomes more of an issue, a public issue, when an unresolved past is shaping public life.

Bleak is the lie. And when no one can believe anyone, what is left of political discourse, international relations or democracy?

In this regard, he creates a dangerous climate; and doesn’t care, as long as it suits him.

People sometimes say to me, ‘Isn’t self-reflection just self-indulgent navel-gazing?’

And motivated by the horror of hidden things, Johnson would probably agree.

Any excuse not to face himself.

But for me, his story is a morality tale pointing in the opposite direction. Self-reflection saves us from ourselves; and saves others from ourselves.

Johnson’s past is his present; and, because of his status, our present also.

For him to ponder the legacy of his past would not be self-indulgent; but rather, an act of service to himself and to his country.

Little Boris is still very angry.


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