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London - The man responsible for launching London mayor Boris Johnson and his look-alike siblings on the world is holding forth on the modern obsession with parenting. “I was brought up on a farm,” he says.
“Sheep have lambs, cows have calves, humans have babies. You don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to bring them up.”
He sounds positively affronted at the very idea of parents agonising about the best way to raise a family.
“I didn’t give it any thought at all, absolutely not.”
This seemingly laissez-faire approach to parenting has proved remarkably fruitful. Stanley Johnson has raised six staggeringly bright children, all of whom got into Oxbridge: Boris the London mayor; Rachel the journalist; Leo the eco-entrepreneur turned film-maker; Jo the Conservative MP; Julia the singer and Latin teacher; and Max, who has just joined Goldman Sachs.
With little parental interference they have all grown up to be bright, funny and fiercely ambitious.
Rachel, editor-in-chief of The Lady magazine, has written a chapter in her new book, How Rude: Modern Manners Defined, that advises the world to ‘unparent’ - to stop being so hands-on and fussy with our children and to follow the example of her own parents.
She attributes the success of the Johnson children to benign parental neglect.
“My father was more proud that he had never been to a parents’ evening than the fact that all six of his children got into Oxbridge,” she says.
The Johnson childhood she describes was one of minimal TV, grim, chilly holidays spent collecting firewood on windy Exmoor and bouts of corporal punishment.
Despite such privations, she advocates her parents’ hands-off approach as typical of a lost ideal of restraint and good sense.
Her father recognises much of what Rachel describes in her book, but fiercely objects to her claims of corporal punishment.
“I can imagine a smack if they ran into the road, but that was that,” he says.
Stanley Johnson, 72, traveller, environmentalist, novelist and political animal, became a father at just 24. It was the Sixties and when it came to being a parent, he recalls, “things were much easier then”.
“When Alexander [Boris is his second name] was born, I was on an academic scholarship in America,” he says. “For four months we travelled around the US in an air-conditioned Chevrolet Bel Air.
“Boris had just been born and a week or two later we set off. Then you could just put the baby on the back seat - it was much easier before health & safety.
“You could have a lunch in a restaurant, leave the baby on the back seat in the car park, come back and he was still there. It was all perfectly straightforward!”
Stanley is not trying to claim all - or any - credit for his progeny.
“Let’s be fair, I’ve had two wonderful wives who have done all the things that wives do, so I have been fantastically lucky,” he says.
His first wife, Charlotte, with whom he is still friends, lives in Notting Hill, West London, and is a talented painter and mother to the eldest four Johnson siblings. His second wife, Jenny, is mother to Julia and Max.
Education was paramount when it came to the children. Stanley says he was always around for the big decisions, such as whether to send one of them to boarding school.
“There are some aspects of education that are too important to be left to mothers,” he says half-jokingly.
But he is dismissive of the idea that having six children go to Oxbridge is in any way noteworthy. “It never struck me that was particularly remarkable,” he says.
“What do you expect if you send your kids to Eton and St Paul’s? I assumed that’s where they would go.”
The odd thing about the Johnson parenting technique is that it was part laid-back and hands-off, and part pure “Tiger Father”. Extremely high expectations were a given.
His youngest daughter Julia once said that if they ever came second in Latin, their father would say: “Who came first?” It became a standard catchphrase in the household, and a vigorous deterrent against being anything except top.
The six children were fiercely competitive, and when Jo got a first at Oxford, which Boris had failed to do, Rachel famously rang him to break the “terrible news”. Boris set a formidable academic standard, and his siblings vied to match or beat his achievements.
Stanley describes his eldest son as “the great prodigious tree in the rainforest, in the shade of which the smaller trees must either perish or struggle to find their own place in the sun”.
He is unrepentant about creating a competitive atmosphere. “Why shouldn’t they come top - if they can’t, who can?”
Stanley went to Exeter College, Oxford - on a scholarship to read Greats (classics) - but today he laments the state of schools and education. He worries that there are fewer and fewer opportunities for bright children whose parents can’t afford the fees of schools such as Eton and St Paul’s.
“The political point is that the schools where you can send your kids are fewer than they were 50 years ago because you hadn’t had the closure of the grammar schools then,” he says. “Now everyone is scrabbling around for places.”
He believes, as Boris does, that the demise of grammar schools “was a big mistake. The Tories should reverse their policy and support and expand them”. He is also evangelical about the role good schools can play in children’s upbringings.
“I would argue that parenting is far too important to be left to parents,” he says. “What on Earth do they know? Whereas, in fact, there are some perfectly good people out there who are doing perfectly good things at schools. Let them get on with it.”
When the Johnsons weren’t in school, they were engaged in “cut-throat mealtime quizzes”, as Julia describes them, or engrossed in books.
Stanley recalls taking them on safari once in Africa and pointing to a leopard with its kill in a tree - a very rare sight. When he turned around, Boris, then ten, Rachel, eight, and Leo, six, were engrossed in their books and barely looked up.
As for TV, it was limited and hardly worth the trouble.
“On Exmoor, where we sometimes spent the holidays, it was quite a complicated thing getting the generator going,” says Stanley.
“You had to go out to the barn, squirt something called Easy Start into a cylinder box and start turning a handle. If you did get it going then it was a black-and-white TV that flickered like mad. I vaguely remember Dixon Of Dock Green.”
Given that his offspring’s childhood involved bucolic holidays in one of the most beautiful parts of the West Country, he doesn’t buy Rachel’s thesis that they had a tough upbringing.
“They never had to spend a day shearing, for example,” he says. “The operations of a sheep farmer’s calendar - lambing, docking, shearing - all those things require sheer physical toil. I very much doubt that any of the kids ever had to do anything like that.”
And what about the allegations of unaccompanied childhood travel?
Rachel recalls that she and Boris, then ten and 11, crossed Europe alone - leaving Brussels, where Stanley was an MEP, and making their way with their trunks by trains and ferry back to school, dodging sweet-proffering paedophiles along the way.
“I can’t see anything wrong in that,” says Stanley.
“OK, let’s talk about the paedophiles. Don’t you think people exaggerate this whole thing?
“Why is everything jammed up around Primrose Hill in London at 4pm? Because it’s all these mothers driving. What on Earth is wrong with kids walking to school? When we lived in Regent’s Park, Max walked to school at the age of nine.”
There was certainly no pandering to childhood whims. Rachel remembers a total lack of choice in all matters, apart from what to read. Certainly, there was no picking and choosing at mealtimes.
“Quite right, too,” says Stanley. “When I grew up on the farm, you had eggs for breakfast and eggs for tea - you might have something else in the middle of the day.”
He looks at me in disbelief when I admit I sometimes give my children a choice. “Are you saying that kids now say I won’t have this or that?” he asks. “Good God, I wouldn’t put up with any of that!”
His family ate out only once, at a Happy Eater on the A303 where the children were allowed to choose spag bol from the children’s menu. “The whole concept of restaurants!” Stanley muses.
“It’s taken me a very long time to get used to the idea. I go back to my childhood on Exmoor. In the Fifties and Sixties there were no restaurants there. And if there had been, you wouldn’t have been seen dead in them.
“If a farmer wanted a drink, he went to the pub, but he certainly didn’t go to the pub to eat. It is a bizarre development that you can’t have a drink in a pub because everybody is having a meal.
“The reality is that if you are bringing up four, or six, children, you are not going to go to restaurants.”
When the family went on ferries, Stanley booked the cheapest crossing in the middle of the night, with no cabin. “We slept in the car and Rachel is probably right in her recollection that even in the front seat I used to put my pyjamas on.
“I’ve just been sleeping in the desert in Turkmenistan, where I was following the footsteps of Tamburlaine the Great, and I don’t like waking up in the previous day’s clothes. So I dare say I did that in the car, which she rightly remembers as being an Opel Kadett.”
And is it true he never went to a parents’ evening? “I went to one, though I only lasted 15 minutes. I wouldn’t have made a habit of it,” he says.
“Though I did once address the girls of St Paul’s on the subject of birth control when Rachel was there.” (The first four of his books were about how to control the world’s population.)
Stanley couldn’t resist a joke: “I said to the girls: ‘The crucial thing in life is to control your fertility, even if it means putting a book between your legs!’ “
When Rachel was older, she threatened to stay on a kibbutz with a handsome Israeli shepherd rather than go to Oxford.
She was put off by her father’s response down the phone from his office in Brussels: “Great scheme!” The effect, as she tells it, was to take the fun and glamour out of the idea immediately.
She must have inherited her nomadic instincts from her father. After failing to win Teignbridge for the Tories in 2005, Stanley spent a few years globe-trotting in search of endangered animals and vanishing tribes. His entertaining new book, Where The Wild Things Were, chronicles his travels.
Remaining in one place has never appealed to Stanley. His first wife complained that they relocated 32 times during their marriage.
“What’s wrong with that?” he says.
And when it comes to the modern business of “self-conscious parenting” - agonising about every mealtime and trip to the playground - Johnson is also pragmatic.
“Basically, we’re all just trying to get through the day, aren’t we, without a disaster? It’s true with our children and it’s true of marriage.
“People think that the object of the exercise is to be happy. What total garbage that is. Why on Earth should it be?
“I would have thought the object is for people to stretch themselves in every possible way in accordance with their abilities.
“Now we seem to be transfixed with the idea that we need to produce a happy child.”
So, happiness may be optional - but coming top is a must. Bear that in mind the next time Boris denies he wants David Cameron’s job. - Daily Mail
* WHERE The Wild Things Were by Stanley Johnson (Stacey International)