‘I’m not trying to play politics with this book’
The arrival of Stanley Johnson’s new political thriller couldn’t be better timed, he tells Gerald Isaaman
20 July, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman
Stanley Johnson. PHOTO: MARK RUSHER
STANLEY Johnson is, above all, a blond-haired patriot who loves his country dearly and a gentleman politician who accepts others hold distinctly differing points of view.
That includes his would-be prime minister son Boris, universities minister son Jo, and his coruscating columnist daughter, Rachel.
The 76-year-old author of Kompromat, a compelling and equally complex satirical new political thriller, is an ardent Remainer. As a former Tory MEP, he manages to sneak in the suggestion that we do need a second referendum on whether to quit Europe.
He does it politely as we talk about the dangers of Brexit in a troubled world and in the wake of Tony Blair’s declaration that Brexit must be taken off the table with the UK joining a reformed EU.
Stanley’s novel, his 10th, has been published with perfect timing following the first ever meeting between presidents Trump and Putin, codenamed Igor Popov and Mrs Mabel Killick in the saga, though Stanley finds it interesting to speculate whether this is true first shaking of hands.
“Yes, it is a perfective time to publish,” he told me. “This story too is going to roll on and on because thinking about it all in UK terms people start questioning the validity of the referendum and will then come on to say ‘How about a re-run? What about a second referendum?’”
And he then adds teasingly: “Obviously, I’m not trying to play politics with this book. My deep ambition here is just to write a readable book people can take on their summer holidays.
“And for heaven’s sake, nothing is worse than writing a political treatise designed as a novel.”
He points out that his basic plot, in which China plays a vital role as a country that doesn’t want to see the EU disintegrate, is about the Leave campaign led by a prime minister who is a covert Remainer.
“So I’m saying that, if deep down you are a Leaver and you feel passionately that this country’s future does not lie in Europe, then of course you’re going to be delighted,” he says.
“I am not beginning to say that is a wrong position to adopt. If you go back a few years you will remember Hugh Gaitskell’s powerful speech when he announced his opposition to Britain joining the EU and said: ‘I’m not lightly going to throw up a thousand years of history’.
“That’s a tenable position. Nobody is impugning the motives of the other side. So within my family, for example, I wouldn’t begin to impune Rachel’s motives saying she wants to stay in the EU or Boris’s motives for saying he wants to leave.
Going up in the world
STANLEY Johnson is seeking a walk-on part for himself in Channel 4’s forthcoming six-part TV version of his intriguing new political satire Kompromat – and so emulate John le Carré, who had a cameo role in the TV adaptation of his thriller The Night Manager. In what may be seen as a bid to outshine his headline-hunting son Boris, Stanley says: “There is a crucial scene where someone gets into an elevator in the Hotel Kempinski in St Petersburg. I don’t actually say in my book there’s an elevator operator – I didn’t get that far. “So I don’t see why there shouldn’t be one. And may be I can have that role.” He has yet to talk to Noho, the Fitzrovia-based company that is making Kompromat, and added: “As far as I know they haven’t cast anyone for the series yet. So there’s plenty of time…”
“So far as the novel is concerned, I’ve just had a bit of fun with it. And I’m so glad you saw some laughter too. I thought the whole question of the Russian president shooting a dart into the backside of the American presidential candidate had some hilarious mileage – and it goes on throughout the book.”
Indeed, he is delighted to bring some joy back into the volatile political arena with his initial five pages listing his pseudonyms for his characters from no fewer than nine countries – Louise Hitchcock is his BBC political reporter – plus top spy organisations and even animals such as Chinese tigers and Australia’s deadly funnel web spider.
And his own wit comes over as, towards the end of his novel, Stanley writes: “Popov turned the TV off! ‘Pah! Fake News! God, how it hate it!’ he exclaimed. ‘They’ll be writing Fake Books next!’”
In fact the idea for Kompromat – a Russian word for compromising disclosures about a politician – came from his role as an environmentalist originally tackling world population and his trip to Moscow in 2015 as a UN delegate.
This was at the personal invitation of President Putin as part of a campaign to save the world’s tigers from extinction. “And I was rather impressed by this man,” said Stanley. “He had invited the presidents of China and India there, the heads of all the affected states.
“You know he spent three days on it and took it all very seriously. And I said to myself: Here’s an immensely able man and how surprising it might be if he got involved in the Brexit election’. And then I worked out this fairly complicated plot for the novel with interlocking themes.”
But it wasn’t until February this year that he started work on it and completed the 90,000-word manuscript eight weeks later. “Yes, but I had it all absolutely in my head,” he explains. “At the start of the process I would get up at two o’clock in the morning and write until six o’clock and then go back to bed again until breakfast.”
Stanley believes his classical education at Sherborne, where he was brought up on Greek and Latin, and at Exeter College, Oxford, where he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for Poetry, provided his triple interests in writing, politics and the environment. It has given him an international career during his decades in Camden and his admiration for the Camden New Journal as “a wonderful newspaper”.
He has even climbed Mount Kilimanjaro twice, initially to raise funds for the Camden Town-based Gorilla Organisation, whose president he is. “It does a fantastic job protecting gorillas in the Congo, Rwanda and in Uganda,” he explained.
Do we need a politician with gorilla dimensions to lead the UK out of its current chaos?
“Yes, I think that’s a good idea. Mind you, gorillas are rather tender, loving family animals,” Stanley replied. “Chimpanzees are tougher, more aggressive when you’re talking about the great apes.”
You bet when it comes to politics!
• Kompromat. By Stanley Johnson, Point Blank, £14.99
• Stanley Johnson is in conversation with Jon Snow in aid of the Primrose Hill Community Library at Cecil Sharpe House, Regent’s Park Road, at 8pm for 8.30pm on July 25. See 020 7586 2022 or visit www.primrosehillbooks.com