Boris Johnson: the interview

In 2004, I interviewed Boris Johnson, shortly after his political novel, Seventy Two Virgins appeared. I was surprised by the man I found. Looking at it again now, in 2018, it feels quite prescient.

So you are now a novelist. What’s that about for you? Therapy? Crusade? Vanity? Money? A bit of all four?

Vanity. I’ll settle for vanity.

And is being a novelist harder than journalism?

Harder. Harder. Harder. There’s more of it.

You play many different games. You are an editor, an M.P., a TV celebrity –

Up to a point perhaps – a B or C-list TV celebrity.

And of course now a novelist. Is this all by glorious accident or cunning design?

Sheer unwillingness to settle for any particular thing and a desire to keep my mind constantly spinning over. If you can find lots of little engines to spin your own hamster wheel, then it takes a lot of mental effort away. Because I do so many different things, I never have to worry about what I am going to do next, because there are so many things that I just have to do next, a lot of them in the next couple of hours.

I have an everlasting agenda of things to do, which is a brilliant system for avoiding introspection, and brilliantly dispenses with the need for all abstract contemplation about the meaning of existence – or the purpose I might have on this planet.

I remember when I first became editor of The Spectator. There would be this time on Thursday afternoons when I had made all the phone calls I had to make, and I’d suddenly be conscious of the black cloud of depression moving in from the west, and it was really about not having enough to do, and that’s partly why I do it.

To be honest, I was always a little like that at school and university. I would always ceaselessly and pointlessly engage in just about every activity going. The debating society, rugby, acting – all mental displacement activity, but I don’t think there’s any harm in that. I don’t believe a life of abstract contemplation is necessarily suited to me and I’m very happy just blasting on. As Bismarck says, “He goes farthest, who knows not where he is going.”’

You seem to fear introspection.

I probably do. I just don’t dare look under its stone. And I won’t. The cupboard will remain locked. I will never go to that terrible fridge marked ‘psyche’. I’ll never open it. No, forget it. Someone else can do that. Sod it. The truth is, it’s probably like Peer Gynt. I’d probably find nothing there anyway. That’s what I’m terrified of.

Or you might find something better than you could possibly imagine.

I might.

I see two sides of you. There is the benign Boris, overflowing with buffoonery and camaraderie, in public at least. And then there is the quite profoundly angry Boris.

I have got a bad temper sometimes, actually. It comes through in my writing. It can be quite savage. I don’t know what it is. I’ve always had natural aggression. If there was a ball on the ground in rugby, I had to go for it. I just loved that feeling of flinging myself at it. It’s the cave man thing, I suppose, and I think I am largely composed of it.

I have moments of imagination and intelligence. I’m acutely conscious of my mental equipment being pretty good, but it’s not as good as some people’s. I’m not a brilliant mathematician or anything like that. So energy and aggression is a great help. After school and university, where you merely compete on an academic level, it’s the energy you need, it’s all about energy…and taking exercise. That’s incredibly important, because it’s all hormonal.

The secret of life – and here’ I’m afraid, I take a completely reductionist view of things, an approach I find very useful – the secret of life is that we are all composed of drugs. Our mood swings are entirely generated by our own personally selected pharmacopoeia.

And the human soul?

The human soul might be another way of describing the same thing. I’m convinced that rather than taking artificial drugs, you can become aware of the naturally occurring substances in your body. There are lots of things which affect our moods, and if you are cunning, you can create them in yourself.
There is a bloody good book waiting to be written about this, a fantastic super-seller, How to make your own mood.

I think we should think more positively about manufacturing our own moods…and how to deal with that five o’clock paranoia after you’ve been drinking at lunchtime which is the worst thing. If you drink a bottle and a half of wine at lunchtime, five o’clock comes round, and God, it hits you. And you cannot bear it, you know everyone wants to kill you. Paranoia, self-disgust, horror.

And is it all gone by six o’clock?

If you start drinking again, it goes.

There’s a stain of inner bleakness across all this.

I suppose there must be. Bleak, bleak, bleak. But I do believe in people’s goodness. I think people will tend towards good.

Non-chemical goodness?

Yes, oh certainly. It’s fascinating to watch. Each generation faces different sorts of moral problems, and we all fumble towards solutions.

And is it possible for a good person to succeed in party politics?

Sure. I think Blair in some ways is quite a good person. Michael Howard is a good person – a very good person. These are not bad guys. I think the public would find them out quite quickly if they were bad.

I’m very struck by people in the House of Commons, by how hard working they are, and by how much they know about things and care about things you wouldn’t expect them to take an interest in. I have a higher regard for politicians now than when I used to be a journalist.

The accepted line in Britain is that they are idiots, scum, self-serving twits, and I don’t think that true at all. Obviously they are all driven by their ego – their ego desire to feel important and liked, and in a certain sense, these are vices…but maybe they can be made to work for the public good.

Are the egos of politicians any different than those of the rest of us? Or is it just that more massaging goes on the nearer you get to power?

I think their egos are getting larger. They do swell under substantial stroking. But we all need an ego massage. We all have people who do that for us, otherwise our lives would be hell.

Unless we said goodbye to our egos. Then they wouldn’t exercise that power.

Very hard to do. And not what is required necessarily. I don’t think God demands that we say goodbye to our egos.

I’m not talking about God. I’m just pondering how to find happiness as a human.

I don’t know about that. To say goodbye to your ego and try to be happy? I’ve never tried that.

Ego puts us on a treadmill of pleasure and pain.

Yes it does, yep.

And if you are happy with that treadmill –

I’m always interested in the Stoic idea, living free from care, benign – what’s that like? I can’t imagine what it would be…tranquil, undulating trance. But for myself, I want to stay on the treadmill, because I enjoy it. It’s great fun.

Except sometimes at five o’clock.

Boris laughs.

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