I’m preparing for my chapter on ‘Brexit and the Empire’ by reading the published works of Boris Johnson. I’ve finished his novel, Seventy-Two Virgins; not badly written, but not my kind of thing, and nothing relevant to me, apart from a few obvious stereotypes of brown people. Now I’m into his volume of journalistic pieces: Friends, Voters, Countrymen. It’s mostly about him on the stump, with some superficial political opinions, all of which can be easily attributed to his upper-class public school upbringing, or else to his desire to entertain – in his view the main point of journalism – and with no hint, therefore, of any serious or joined-up thought. The style – and even the content – are very redolent of PG Wodehouse. (I kept wishing Jeeves would come in to put him straight.) I found myself reading it in the plane to Stockholm wrapped in a newspaper, like one does (apparently) with pornography. I wouldn’t have liked my fellow passengers to think I was a fan.
But it got me remembering my own first venture into politics, in a ‘mock election’ at my school in the mid-1950s. The headmaster was very keen on civic education for the boys; he was liberal, public-spirited, the spitting image of Jo Grimond, if you remember him; and a stalwart of the local United Nations Association. We had candidates for all the main parties, including even the Communists – a weasily little boy who had to go around surrounded by a posse of bodyguards. Unfortunately I was too young to vote – it was sixth-formers only, and I was in the Fourth or the Fifth. But I had a school-wide reputation as an artist, and when one of the party leaders – a chap called Hutt: very keen on the school CCF; I think he joined the Army afterwards – asked me to design posters for him I was flattered, and agreed. Unfortunately I was an entire political ingenu at the time, and didn’t realise what the letters ‘RWNP’ represented. So I obediently produced posters graphically warning of the danger of the Russians taking over my country, the Church of England, the Empire, fish and chips, and all our freedoms generally, which were displayed around the school. (I think I still have some.) ‘RWNP’ stood, of course, for ‘Right-Wing Nationalist Party’. This is embarrassing for me to have to admit to today; but, hey, it’s out now; and I was only 14 or 15.
But that’s not the point of this post. The mock election started well, with serious candidates and serious speeches, and in fact an air of seriousness all round. The headmaster, who I believe chaired some of the meetings, was highly chuffed. But then, just a few days before the vote, a new candidate entered the lists. He was the school’s much-loved comedian; a tall gangly chap with an attractively lazy way of talking, and a fount of wit, who introduced his candidature on behalf of the ‘Intellectual Extremist’ party. I can’t recall his name, but for electoral purposes he went under the nickname of ‘Daddy’. His speeches were very silly (this was at the height of the Goon Show), and his party’s slogan was ‘Sideways with Daddy’ (as opposed to ‘Forward with…’ whomever). I can remember him now. (Just as I can recall long swathes of the Goon Show.)
And he won, by a landslide; to the huge annoyance of the headmaster, who saw his well-intentioned civics lesson collapse around him. He never I think repeated the experiment. But the image of ‘Daddy’ has been coming back to me as I follow Boris’s progress today. Moral: clowns should never be underestimated. Even ‘Hulk-ish’ ones. (See today’s papers.)
I can’t remember how well the RWNP did. I doubt whether my posters were very persuasive. They didn’t deserve to be.