Modern politics is confusing and alienating. I know this because, earlier this year, Adam Curtis told me across eight hours in Can’t Get You Out of My Head. But, while this show entertained and educated, nothing was explained. I kind of wish Curtis had done more than demonstrate that we’re trapped in a maze. What we really need is a way out.
For me, the essential riddles of recent British politics focus on a few specific strange incidents. I don’t know if I am insane, but I am convinced that these odd moments might explain… everything. One of the political riddles is Daniel Hannan’s lie about taking a walk in the English countryside. I’ve talked about this in depth and if I survive the pandemic I will have more to say about this (much, much more, as I’ve still not published my 10,000 word essay on the subject). Another example is the news footage of Boris Johnson telling an angry parent at a hospital that there were no press there – while on camera. The thing is, I finally found an answer to another riddle and it turned out to be far stranger than I expected, and no help at all.
Back in June 2019, before the pandemic, before Brexit, Johnson was campaigning to be leader of the Conservative party, which also meant being selected as Prime Minister. He’d just been caught up in a scandal where the police were called to an argument between him and his partner (now wife) Carrie Symonds. Shortly after, he was interviewed by TalkRadio and was asked what he did to relax. Johnson replied:
I like to paint. Or I make things. I have a thing where I make models of buses. What I make is, I get old, I don’t know, wooden crates, and I paint them. It’s a box that’s been used to contain two wine bottles, right, and it will have a dividing thing. And I turn it into a bus. So I put passengers – I paint the passengers enjoying themselves on a wonderful bus – low carbon, of the kind that we brought to the streets of London, reducing C02, reducing nitrous oxide, reducing pollution.
Now, this seems a very odd statement from a politician. There is little evidence that Johnson really does this – and certainly no pictures of these buses. There was a doodle of a bus sold in a charity auction. Many journalists, including the Spectator, found the whole idea preposterous. To quote Guardian sketchwriter John Crace’s description of the footage:
Even Johnson looked as if he had surprised himself. It was such a pointless, obvious lie. One there had been no need to tell. But he just couldn’t help himself. Lying was what he did. Lying was what he had always done.
Some people even saw the statement as arrogance mockery of the public, including TV show runner Simon Blackwell:
Only just caught up with the Boris Johnson model bus interview. Feels like a screw-you status thing – “I can literally say any old unbelievable shit and still become PM.” Like Trump’s “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
One theory, a connisseur’s insider theory, provided a logical explanation, that the strange admission was a stunningly clever SEO (search engine optimisation) trick designed to hide the mentions of the Brexit bus in Google’s index. Johnson had long been linked to this outrageous lie during the Brexit campaign. There was even a widely-ciculated post from an SEO agency discussing this in detail. I’ve worked in agencies, and there’s always a drive for newsworthy blog posts that might go viral.
But I’m not sure how realistic that is, since Johnson was running for leader of the Conservative party, having reached the last two. It just seems a lot of effort to go to for a constituency that are not going to be so bothered. And there are far worse lies in Johnson’s past he’d likely prefer to hide. (Back in June 2021, Dominic Cummings was asked about this on his substack and replied: “You don’t know Boris! This was not a cunning SEO plan, honestly“)
I finally found an answer in Tom Bower’s recent biography of Johnson. I’ll talk about that book in detail elsewhere, as it’s both interesting and very poorly-written. But it did get to the answer about Boris and the bus, and it’s a stranger, sadder story than I’d expected. I now think Johnson was telling the truth about painting buses.
Bower’s biography of Johnson paints Stanley Johnson, the PM’s father, as the villain of the piece, and Johnson’s faults as the result of an unpleasant childhood. Bowers tells about how amusing celebrity Stanley Johnson once broke his wife’s nose, and would hit her in front of the children. How he deserted his family for a time in an old farmhouse, where the iron in the water pipes made them sick. “‘We were all lying ill on the floor,’ says Charlotte. [Johnson’s mother] Compounding that sickness, Boris often screamed with pain from agonising earaches caused by grommets.” Amidst this grimness, Johnson suffered periods of deafness.
Bower’s book later says: “Despite being a mother to three young children, Charlotte went to art classes and encouraged her children to paint. Boris seemed particularly keen on drawing and painting buses in oils.“
That line might be a little too on the nose for some people to find it believable. But despite the flaws in Bowers’ book (almost as many as his subject), it made Johnson a sadder, more sympathetic figure. I could imagine him painting as a way of revisiting some of the better moments of a harsh childhood. And, it turns out, there is other evidence of Johnson painting for fun, in this case, cheese boxes:
You get Brie and Camembert in these lovely wooden boxes. Now it might sound cretinous – and I’m not a very good painter – but I enjoy it and find it therapeutic. I paint the whole thing white with a tube of children’s paint and I look for something to paint. The last thing I painted was a picture of one of my family in front of the Colosseum in Rome. I also like painting whisky bottles.
So, having read Bowers’ book, I now have an answer to the riddle of Johnson and the bus. On balance, I believe Johnson was telling the truth. It’s not the answer I expected, and a far sadder story than the obvious one.
Here’s a picture of a banana Johnson painted in March 2021: