Seeing Johnson in Ourselves

For plenty of former public schoolboys like me, it was impossible to witness Boris Johnson’s antics as Prime Minister and not see glimpses of ourselves

[I wrote this for a national in 2020, but the pandemic struck and it never got published. I didn’t know what to do with it – partly as it’s a little too revealing and personal; partly as Johnson is history. But I stumbled upon it recently, and it reads okay and speaks the truth.]

Single-sex boarding schools bestow plenty of unwanted gifts upon their inmates, even if there are some I wouldn’t give up for anything – among them a bond with my immediate contemporaries that’s the strongest I know outside family. Last weekend, two decades after we walked out of a private school in the south west of England for the last time, I had a visit from one of the five men I grew up with there, cheek-by-jowl, for six years.

Oliver now lives in Los Angeles. I live in Copenhagen. Over dinner in a restaurant the conversation turned – as it always does – to school. Same old same old; looking to absolve ourselves of guilt with eye rolling and head shaking, while benefitting from the release of just talking about it. About the overt homophobia and racism, the ritual bullying, the willing assassination of characters already so fragile in their half-formed state.

After our A Levels in 1999, I ignored an offer from a prestigious university I knew would be rife with people just like me, and went instead to study in Liverpool – a naïve bid to see something of the real world and its inhabitants (I can hardly believe I had the foresight). For many of us, university was a cleansing experience after the pressure-cooker of a single-sex boarding school – a clean break in a domain free from the daily grind of Project Survival and the tangle of hierarchies. After that, as wounds began to heal and strong bonds proved too valuable to cast adrift, we started to seek each other out again.

We talk often about the types of men our school created, but events of the past few years have rammed home lessons we hadn’t seen coming. Oliver and I are in happy relationships, probably for the first time in our lives. After too many years in the wilderness, we are settled and fortunate. That has helped us see the wood for the trees, but so has the rise of Boris Johnson – a man whose demeanor represents so much of what I have come to detest about the person I was at school, and in the years that followed.

By the late 2000s, Oliver and I were in London – single, free from serious responsibility, enjoying the low-rent party scene in Finsbury Park and the cheap corners of Soho. Hopelessly inexperienced despite a decade out of quarantine from women, we got by in much the same way Johnson does now: with baseless, flailing charm, a total misunderstanding of other people’s priorities and an extraordinary ability to inadvertently insult those we secretly wanted to resemble (or sleep with). Liverpool had made some difference, but not enough.

It was a vulnerable, shy arrogance that carried us through – a belief not so much in ourselves as in our prestigious and unorthodox background. We weren’t bankers or lawyers; we worked in art and culture. That was part of our shtick. We deployed our artistic credentials and fringe tastes in much the way Johnson does his Kipling poems and Grecian busts. It was proof that we were different, broad-minded, thinking. Proof that we wielded some hereditary moral power, however amoral our behavior. The only problem was a gaping chasm between the indiscriminate wisdom of the arts we liked to discuss and the cliquey, brainless and borderline misogynistic way in which we went about our lives.

What saddens me most about Johnson, and truly speaks of the isolation of the public schoolboy in the real world, is the hum of defensive politeness he emits whenever he finds himself around normal people. In Johnson, it is inbred and perhaps even involuntary – the white noise of one terrified he’s not going to please or impress. It was the same for Oliver and me. There we were, in the kitchen of a house party in Holloway Road, all faux-polite and deferential while firing off jealous barbs under the veneer of baseless charm. More often than not, the anesthetizing effects of alcohol saved us when things got sticky.

In our new countries, we have learned the truth about that cloying politeness – Oliver in a California where it is accepted as entirely necessary fakery; me in a Denmark where it simply doesn’t exist and never could. For products of the English private school system blessed neither with social brilliance nor an overriding arrogance, that politeness was always a millstone. It is a joy to be rid of it – or getting there, at least.

In the early 2010s, Oliver and I had sensed that the world was changing – that people didn’t judge you on various definitions of strength or wit, as they had at school, and that we might not have to keep up the act anymore. One Saturday night, Oliver’s Finnish housemate who sometimes joined us on a night out abruptly announced she’d rather hang out with the nerdy German guy who lived in the attic, the butt of many of our jokes. ‘He’s got his shit together’, she said. ‘You guys…well, you’re a bit pathetic, aren’t you?’ It took minutes, not hours, for the penny to drop.

And then, apparently in the blink of an eye, the public schoolboys were back in charge. At the 2015 election, one of our cohort from school was elected to parliament as a Conservative. That apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree, but he was always a man with the confidence to control the room and with a charm that felt more genuine, however dubious the motives and strong-arming the techniques. Now a Minister with a tough brief [still, in 2024], he endears himself to me far more on the Today programme than he did at school.

Johnson is different. Looking so out of his depth and childish as PM, he reminded me so uncannily of my graduate self: foundering in an industry dominated by women and in a world that expected more than a crass joke or obscure literary reference for discourse. With the benefit of Johnson’s prominence – and a little geographical perspective – perhaps Oliver and I have learned what it was in us that the downsides of the English public school system created, and how to grow into our natural selves. The parallel universe of politics has afforded Johnson no such opportunity.

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