To hear Labour tell it, Boris Johnson is a “toff” who had a gilded childhood, pampered and spoilt rotten in the lap of luxury. The reality was rather different. The Johnson kids endured a regime that would have made Sparta proud. No treats, no holidays, no mollycoddling and regular beatings made them what they all are today, huge successes. Far from resenting the lack of spoiling, the Johnsons all say that this tough regime was the making of them.Boris and his three siblings, Rachel, Leo and Jo, were provided with the essentials, then pretty much left to their own devices. There were masses of books, but no toys or gadgets. From earliest childhood, they fought for everything. The result was they all grew up as fiercely independent thinkers, with inner resources, and they all succeeded in getting into Oxbridge (in Boris’s case, he won scholarships to both Eton and Oxford. At Eton, he was a Kings Scholar, the intellectual elite, and won the Wilder prize for Theology.
Rachel says in an article in The Times that the punishment for any naughtiness was a beating. Once her mother broke a stick over her legs and on another occasion, dragged her over the road by her hair. Their parents were so hard up, they holidayed in England on a primitive farm in Exmoor, where the children “wooded” for fuel and swept up endless leaves. All the kids were made to do menial jobs, for a pittance, to learn the value of money. Because both parents had demanding lives to lead, the kids were frequently left on their own, to cope as best they could, and from an early age, they travelled abroad alone to fend for themselves.
When Boris was fourteen, his parents divorced (described in the book “Boris” by Andrew Gimson, pages 35-38). Possibly the pain of this time led to Boris becoming adept at playing the clown. When Boris’s mother was married to Stanley, they moved 32 times. One terrible time was when Boris’s mother had a series of severe nervous breakdown and went into hospital for months, first when Boris was 9 years old.
Stanley Johnson, always a adventurer with an abundance of energy and love of travel, has though imbued his kids with the motto “Family first”. Although highly competitive, the Johnsons are an exceptionally close family.
In an article in the Daily Mail, Rachel said “‘There was not the expectation of having every wish granted, as there is now, and that is the best thing that my parents could have given us.’ Stanley Johnson has written an entertaining article for the Daily Mail too.
Rachel says none of the kids was harmed by this benign neglect, and deplores the “wet parenting” of today, but she admits she cannot repeat this harsh regime of character forming deprivation with her own children. Boris’s childhood made him compassionate, understanding of the frailties of others and exceptionally non-judgmental. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the way he was brought up, his reputation as a great survivor, an invaluable quality in politics, probably stems from that time.
The entire Johnson family was inspired by the optimism and enterprise of Boris’s adorable grandmother Grannie Butter. Read his hilarious article on his much love nan here.