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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Tuesday 22nd April 2008

Rachel Johnson

For a journalist writing about Rachel Johnson, this was the Holy Grail.

We were talking on the phone in advance of the interview and I had tentatively asked if the publisher of Shire Hell, her forthcoming novel, had prepared any publicity material that she could bring along -- a press release, a biog, that sort of thing. Instead, she offered to bring her "cuttings book". I couldn't believe my luck! Within journalistic circles, Rachel Johnson's cuttings book is the stuff of legend. It is a repository of everything that has appeared in print about her, as well as every article she's ever written. No item is too insignificant to leave out, apparently, even a mention in Londoner's Diary.

"But aren't you coming on your bike?" I asked.


"Well, if you're bringing your cuttings book, won't you need an articulated lorry?"

She laughed -- her famous, naughty, libidinous laugh.

"That's it," she said. "I'm not bringing it now. I know you -- you'll put it in the piece."

Too late, Rake. It's already in.

I should confess that I've known Rachel for almost 25 years. She arrived at Oxford in 1984, the year after me, and instantly became known as a "pushy fresher". Sexy, ambitious, effervescent, she was a little blonde dynamo -- Patsy Kensit with a library ticket, as Julie Burchill called her. She was at the centre of everything, organising parties, producing plays, editing the university magazine and somehow finding time to secure a 2:1 in Classics. She was one of those high-achieving, over-confident undergraduates who make the rest of us feel inadequate.

Her ability to put people's backs up -- "I'm a professional irritant," she says -- was never more apparent than when Weidenfeld and Nicolson published The Oxford Myth in 1988. This was a collection of essays by "prominent undergraduates" that George Weidenfeld asked her to assemble following the death of Olivia Channon by a drug overdose in 1986. The contributors included several people who have gone on to pursue careers in journalism, including her brother Boris, Sebastian Shakespeare, Aidan Hartley and, of course, yours truly.

"It got 45 bad reviews," she says. "The only person who gave it a nice one was Matthew Paris. All I cared about were the people who reviewed it. I thought, 'If I've got William Boyd, Joanna Coles and Alan Rusbridger reviewing my book, that's all I care about. I don't care about what they say.' The fact that it all got up their noses so much that they had to devote space to it -- sorry, I call that a success. I remember Elizabeth Longford coming up to me and saying, 'Darling, congratulations on all your reviews.' What counts is getting reviewed. Wouldn't it be much worse not to be reviewed at all? I mean, really, really sad. I was thrilled -- I literally was thrilled."

It is fair to say that Rachel Johnson is pretty keen on publicity -- a trait she has in common with her brother Boris, her father Stanley, her little brother Joe, her half sister Julia ... the list goes on. It is one of the charming characteristics of the Johnson family that while they appear to be pillars of the Establishment -- Rachel was educated at Oxford, lives in Notting Hill and sounds like a character in a PG Wodehouse novel -- there's nothing remotely stuffy about them. They're ambitious for social and political power and they don't care who knows it. They're toffs in a hurry, if such a thing is imaginable -- and Rachel herself is like a cross between Jilly Cooper and Victoria Beckham.

"I envy women who are happy homemakers and actively enjoy baking cookies and fingerpainting with the children and standing by the swings for several years at a stretch," she says. "But the thing about the Johnsons is, we don't have any money. We have to earn our keep."

That is certainly something Rachel has been doing from a very early age. While the Oxford Myth was not a success, she didn't allow the bad reviews to knock her off her stride. She now has two bestsellers under her belt and is about to publish what promises to be a third. In addition, she has worked for the Financial Times, the Foreign Office, the BBC and currently has a high-profile column in the Sunday Times. Yet in spite of her glittering career, not to mention her happy marriage and three blonde children, she still has the work ethic of a Chinese immigrant. It is as though she suffers from what Martin Amis calls "tramp dread" -- the belief that if you take your foot of the gas, even for a second, you'll end up living in a cardboard box. In the words of her husband -- Old Etonian PR man Ivo Dawnay -- she's a "thruster".

"It's the human condition," she says, refusing to accept that there's anything unusual about her energy and ambition. "People feel satisfaction only in comparison with other people's level of attainment. That's why billionaires are driven to become richer and richer and richer. There's never a moment when you say 'Enough is enough.'"

One clue to the Johnson clan's extraordinary drive is that they only settled in this country about 85 years ago. Rachel's great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, was the last Interior Minister of the Ottoman Empire and ended up being stoned to death on the orders of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. His son -- Rachel's grandfather -- fled to England in 1922 and took the name of Wilfred Johnson. After being decorated for bravery during the Second World War, Wilfred became a hill farmer on Exmoor, working the land that Rachel herself now owns, having bought her father out eight years ago.

"That's Ivo's theory as to why I'm so driven," she says. "His family have proved all they've got to prove, whereas we haven't proved anything. Where's my family seat, he says. 'Where's your family seat and my dowry?' Ivo's descended from the poshest of the posh --he's unbelievably blue-blooded. He tells people he had to marry me to introduce some thick peasant stock into the Dawnay family gene pool."

To date, Ivo has proved remarkably easygoing about Rachel's ability to turn their lives into fodder for her novels and columns. The only thing he didn't much care for was the sex column she used to write for Easy Living.

"My whole family hated it," she says. "After I wrote about road-testing the Rampant Rabbit my children were teased at school and when I took my clothes off for a photoshoot my husband didn't speak to me for ten days. In the end, I had to sack myself because in two years the only column I hadn't written was about anal sex and that was the one the people at the magazine most wanted me to write."

Rachel's willingness to poke fun at herself is a central part of her charm, but these displays of vulnerability aren't merely a device to win people over. At some level, Rachel clearly believes that she hasn't yet risen to the dizzy heights of which she's capable. This status anxiety is at the heart of both Notting Hell, her roman-a-clef about life in London's most desirable postcode, and Shire Hell, a sequel set in Dorset. The central character, Mimi, seems to be permanently on the edge of a nervous breakdown because her neighbours are fractionally richer and marginally more successful than her. Indeed, we're asked to sympathise with Mimi because of the "privations" she has to endure, such as not having a helipad at her country house and the fact that she doesn't have her own line of venison-and-fennel sausages.

"Mimi moves from Notting Hill to Dorset, hoping to lead a more simple life, and then she finds that in the country there's a whole other set of standards to aspire to," she says. "In London, your child's got to be in the chess team. In the country, you're child has to play polo. There's no escape."

Of course, there is an alternative -- Mimi could move to a less fashionable part of the world, such as Suffolk -- but if, like Rachel, you are hard-wired to be the most successful, most glamorous, most socially in-demand woman of your generation, then, in a sense, there is no escape.

"As I say in Shire Hell, I envy people who live in houses in the country not just with six bedrooms and stables and gunrooms, but boot rooms and ha-has and walled gardens and landscaped, Poussin-like vistas," she says. "But even so I wonder whether I'd go mad if I actually had to live in one and look after it. I'm told that in order to survive, one has to shag, drink or ride -- or, in most women's cases, all three."

Luckily, none of her country neighbours are going to be able to identify themselves in Shire Hell. "I'm safe because I located it in Dorset and I live miles away in Somerset," she says. This is partly as a result of the problems she ran into with Notting Hell in which virtually all her neighbours -- Peter Soros and Flora Fraser, for instance -- were able to identify themselves simply by reading the dustjacket.

"They think I am very naughty and bad and have made me swear on my children's lives I will never write about my communal garden again," she says.

A clue to Rachel's competitiveness -- indeed, that of the whole Johnson family -- is supplied by her half-sister, Julia. In Andrew Gimson's biography of Boris, he quotes from an email Julia sent him describing the atmosphere in the Johnson household when she was growing up: "My father has six children, of which I am the last but one, and as long as I can remember there have been cut-throat meal-time quizzes, fearsome ping-pong matches, height, weight and blondness contest, and, of course, academic rivalry of mind-numbing magnitude."

The portrait of Rachel's father that emerges from Gimson's biography is of a respectable version of Joe Kennedy, with Nethercote -- the windswept farm on Exmoor that Rachel now owns -- standing in for Hyannis Port.

Within the Johnson clan, Rachel's most direct competitor is her older brother whom she calls "Al", but whom the rest of the world know as Boris, the Conservative MP for Henley and the Tory candidate for Mayor of London.

"At my 40th he made a speech saying something like unless I had been born a year after him he would have never done anything because by nature he is quite slug-like and contended," she says. "But then I arrived a year after him and I could read before he did and, suddenly, he thought, 'I better get a move on.' It was a generous thing to say on my 40th birthday, but I think there's a grain of truth in it."

She denies feeling remotely competitive with him -- "He sells more books, he wins prizes for his column, he's an international megastar" -- but the presence of such a successful older sibling must have made her anxious to prove herself. I remember once giving a speech at a Spectator party and as soon as people started laughing, Boris, who was then editing the magazine, immediately shouted me down. Afterwards, Rachel took me to one side and said it had been the same story all her life. Even at her birthday parties, she said, the moment Boris sensed that he wasn't the centre of attention he would elbow her aside and start hogging the spotlight.

All of these factors -- they dominant older brother, the madly competitive father, the genteel poverty in which she was brought up -- might have left a lesser person with what the Americans call "issues", but not Rachel.

"I'm very uncomplicated," she says. "I like everything. All food is delicious, all cars seem perfectly fast and reliable, all schools try their best, all clothes are lovely and wearable, holidays -- especially ones I don't have to pay for -- always seem idyllic, and I swallow everything I put in my mouth. Literally. I am highly uncritical, which probably means I'm never going to trouble AA Gill for his restaurant column."

In spite of the overwhelming pressure she feels to succeed -- or, rather, to continue succeeding -- she remains remarkably good-humoured and ebullient -- the sort of person who is a delight to sit next to at a dinner party. I'm proud that I have been able to call her my friend for the past 25 years and I hope to remain friends with her for the next 25.

Shire Hell is published on May 15

Tatler, May, 2008

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