The working-class boy, the Balliol bar and an encounter with the young Boris Johnson

A nasty story from the Prime Minister's university days has reminded me that it is a fallacy to expect progress in those younger than you. 

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One of the things that has been keeping me going, as a kind of substitute for socialising, is Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg’s handy little platform for selling ourselves to the world. While I have long thought that Zuckerberg is a creep (one of his first sites, you may know, offered a way of rating the attractiveness of female students at Harvard), I cannot gainsay the site’s being a handy way of both keeping in touch with people and making friends. As I do not know any neo-Nazis, flat-Earthers or anti-vaxxers, my experiences have been fairly benign.

The worst that happened recently was when I accepted a friend request from someone with whom I had 95 mutual “friends”. As the friends I interact with are on the whole a decent bunch (and I know many of them in real life) I thought I’d accept. Also, he described himself as a “polo photographer”, which sounded rather exotic. Reader, I should have realised that not everyone connected with the sport of polo is as fair-minded or tolerant as I or my friends. For by the time the afternoon rolled by, he put up this post, written entirely in capitals and on, for some reason, a mauve background: “I am struggling to keep 1 of my new years resolutions, not saying to plebs and morons, you are a pleb and a moron!” (The gap between “morons” and the comma following was there in the original.) And thus ended the “friendship”. I decided not to point out to him that a) if you are going to call someone a moron, it is best to use unimpeachable grammar and, more importantly, b) using “pleb” as a go-to insult is not going to make me like you much.

[See also: I never expected to see snow in Brighton but it’s here – aimless and not settling. Sound familiar?]

I was reminded of this the other day when I saw a post from someone I do not know in real life, who quoted a 400-word post from someone else I know even less, a man called Damian Furniss, a writer and health and social care worker based in Devon. It described his time at Oxford, where, he writes, he encountered David Cameron and Boris Johnson. He confesses to quite liking Cameron, whom he describes as a laid-back slacker into cheroots and prog rock, and with the memorable line: “Even when I sabotaged his college beagle pack he took it in good humour.” (When someone sabotages my beagle pack, I hold the grudge for decades.)

But when he gets to Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson the tone changes. He met Johnson, he writes, in the Balliol College bar on the eve of his interview. Johnson – halfway through his college “career” and three years older than the writer – was with a group of cronies. Bear in mind that Furniss was a working-class rural boy with a stammer. He imagined that Johnson would act as a kind of ambassador for the college. Instead, he alleges, Johnson’s “piss-taking was brutal. In the course of the pint I felt obliged to finish he mocked my speech impediment, my accent, my school, my dress sense, my haircut, my background, my father’s work as farm worker and garage proprietor, and my prospects in the scholarship interview I was there for.”

[See also: A reader accuses me of banality. I object to being singled out like that: aren’t we all banal now?]

I mention this not just as part of my ongoing campaign against our Prime Minister, and to remind you that he has always been a loathsome excuse for a human being, but also to express a kind of wonder that Johnson was there in the first place. I used to visit friends at Balliol – the college had a reputation for being left wing – and I never met a more genial bunch of amusing, open-minded socialists (as far as I know, they’re all still on the left). The other wonder is that Johnson is younger than me, by a year. So, as it happens, is Nigel Farage. What happened between May 1963 and June 1964 that turned these people into the despicable examples they are now? I was educated privately but it didn’t take me long to realise that the system was responsible for much, if not everything, that is wrong with this country. I dimly assumed that this would become increasingly apparent to everyone. This has not been the case. Evidently.

I suppose it is a fallacy to expect progress, that just because someone is younger than you that they will be, in some ways, better than you. Johnson and Farage are, I suppose, better, if your only metric is public profile.

I remember at my university there was someone who had a large poster of Margaret Thatcher in his room. This was in 1982 or 1983 I suppose. Everyone thought he was a weirdo. I can’t remember his name even though he reported me (falsely, for at the time there was none to be had for love nor money) for smoking dope. I have a horrible feeling he might be in the cabinet by now, or  doing something horrible to the country in some small, mean way. Anyway, this is why I’m no longer accepting Facebook requests. One of them might be him.

[See also: I’m not much of a peeping Tom when my fixation is a bearded sexagenarian doing a jigsaw]

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 24 February 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks

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