A few weeks ago, Radio 4 was running a series of programmes looking back at the Nineties. I didn’t listen intently – apart from the one about the rave collective Spiral Tribe, because I knew them at the time – but had it on as a kind of background noise in which, from time to time, I would lose myself in reverie. Ah, the Nineties. I suppose that was my decade. Fond memories of the Groucho Club. Scraping novelists off the toilet floors after they’d passed out. Keith Allen stealing my Zippo and being made to turn his pockets out. Telling Alex James how to make a proper martini while pissed out of my mind. Frankie Howerd making a huge pass at me. And not just the Groucho, of course, but all the book launches, the raves in abandoned warehouses, schools shut for the holidays, the endless ingenuity of the party planners…
“Oh Nina, what a lot of parties… Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, circus parties, parties where you have to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and nightclubs, in swimming baths and windmills.” That was from Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, published in 1930 and which, presciently, ends, an unspecified time later, “on a splintered tree stump in the biggest battlefield in the history of the world”. That’s not how the parties of the Nineties ended up… not so far, at least.
I thought of all these parties, and the hedonistic days of the Nineties, as the revelations kept coming in about partygate. A couple of years ago no one was having any parties. Oh, except at one address. Now, that was Party Central. (There’s an accidental party in No 10 in Vile Bodies, and that makes the papers, too.) I will not add to the general outrage at and contempt for the Prime Minister because I don’t think I can take much more of it. Every day Boris Johnson provides us with something to disgust us a little more than the day before, and don’t tell me a continuous sick and impotent feeling about him for nearly three years isn’t going to have an impact on the soul. No: I’ll think instead about his psychology.
I think I have some insight into his character, or what passes for it, because I am only a couple of years older than him, and we were brought up in roughly similar environments. I went to a less posh school than he did, and not Oxford but Cambridge, but we both had, or in my case have, artistically inclined mothers and English fathers, although unlike his parents mine remained together until my father’s death. His parents’ divorce, and his father’s character, I think, account for a good deal of what is wrong with Johnson, although his siblings are not as visibly affected by it. If at all. But photos of Johnson as a boy almost comically suggest a child who will grow up to be – how best to put this? – a suboptimal human being. As for me, I want to abolish the public schools, believing them responsible for a huge number of the things that are wrong with this country; he is the living embodiment of them.
But boy, does he like a party. As do I, but, unlike the Bullingdon Club, to which Johnson belonged at university, my idea of fun never involved reportedly trashing a restaurant in tails or burning £50 notes in front of the homeless. I wonder if his bulk is down to not only his insatiable appetite (have you seen photos of him eating? To quote PG Wodehouse, an author I think he professes to like: “‘Have you ever seen Spode eat asparagus?’ ‘No.’ ‘Revolting. It alters one’s whole conception of Man as Nature’s last word.’” Spode, by the way, wants to be a fascist dictator), but to a love of alcohol that may even exceed my own.
Johnson wants to possess everything: women, power, and – almost heartbreakingly – the affection of others, and he will do anything to achieve this. One of the reasons people give parties is to make other people like them, and what better way than to let them have regular beanos (I bet you that’s the term he uses) at your place, which also happens to be your staff’s workplace? Maybe it’s not the most tactful thing to do while absolutely no one in the country is allowed to have a party, because of, you know, a dangerous and highly contagious disease, but who thinks about tact when they’re drunk? (I shall remind you in passing of last year’s discovery of traces of cocaine in 11 out of 12 toilets tested in parliament buildings, which makes you wonder: who was using the 12th?)
Of course, if you try to seek affection, people who feel they haven’t received enough will mistake it for affection themselves: hence some of his popularity. And now, as I write, the Chancellor has announced £400 off everyone’s heating bills. And I imagine the members of the Bullingdon Club, casually writing a cheque to the owner of the restaurant they have just destroyed, before they move on to the next one. So that’s all right.
This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special