Stanley Johnson | He’s biked in Afghanistan, picnicked with Buddha and survived a safari with Boris, Interview by Caroline Rees
The Times, 29th July 2018
I’m extremely interested in the classics, so I’m fond of Greece and Italy. In the early 1980s, I was driving from England to Corfu and decided to stay with some friends in their villa in Tuscany. Arriving with four kids for several nights, I thought I’d bring a present. So I bought a whole wheel of parmesan cheese. It must have been 40 inches in diameter and would barely fit into the fridge.
I was anxious to tuck into this cheese, but day after day passed without it appearing. On my last night, I sneaked into the kitchen and tried to hack off a piece in situ, but the pressure of my hand caused the shelf to collapse, onto the next and the next. It created havoc. The next morning, my hostess said,
Good heavens, what has happened to the fridge? I didn’t own up.
We have a house in Greece now, built about 15 years ago. My ideal holiday is there, at Irene Villa, named after my mother, on the wonderful Pelion Peninsula. You walk down through olive trees to the sea. It’s a wonderful place to write.
In practical terms, for family holidays, you can’t always take everybody to Antarctica or Kilimanjaro, though I remember taking my four older children on their first safari to Kenya in 1976. We drove west from Nairobi to the Masai Mara, then south into the Serengeti, east to Ngorongoro and across to Lake Manyara.
It was enlivened by me losing my bag, which bounced out with my passport, money and tickets. I had to drive back to look for it and, amazingly, Mary Leakey, the archaeologist, had found it and put up a notice. When I got there, she said,
Stanley, I presume?
I’ve had wonderful encounters with wildlife. One of the best was when I went with one of my sons to visit an Earthwatch project in the Pantanal, the extraordinary wetland in the west of Brazil. We stayed on a plantation, surrounded by hyacinth macaws. Out on the river in a canoe, it was wonderful to encounter not just caimans by the thousand, but a troupe of giant river otters. I’ve been to the Amazon lots of times, but that was totally exciting.
Despite the war going on around, when I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I got escorted to see eastern lowland gorillas. I had a close encounter with one that wasn’t totally habituated, it seemed to me, to the presence of human beings. He charged, and I’m not sure I didn’t pick up my pygmy tracker and interpose him between us.
I’ve been to most places. In the summer of 1961, I rode a motorcycle from Oxford with the hope of getting to China, following Marco Polo’s route from Venice. It was a huge adventure. There was me, Michael de Larrabeiti and Tim Severin. We’d wake up, kick-start the motorcycle and head off across the Persian desert or up into the mountains of Afghanistan. We’d sleep on the roof of a teahouse or by the side of the motorcycle. There were plenty of hair-raising aspects, including hitting an oil patch and coming off at speed. We started off with two motorcycles and ended up with one after Severin crashed.
What stands out for me was when we drove into the Hindu Kush to Bamiyan, where the gigantic statues of the Buddha were. We climbed up inside the hollowed-out cliff and had a makeshift picnic on top of the Buddha’s head, looking out over the valley.
Stanley Johnson, 77, is an environmentalist and former Conservative MEP who has written nine novels, the latest of which is Kompromat. He stars alongside Selina Scott and the Krankies in the new series of The Real Marigold Hotel, which starts on BBC1 at 9pm on Wednesday. He lives in London with his wife, Jennifer, and has six children, including the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson.