HE looks very much like his eldest son. Or the son looks very much like him. He has the same cheeky schoolboy’s face and a mop of hair falling over his forehead.
But Stanley Johnson is not just the father of Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London, ex-British Foreign Secretary and a central player in the Brexit maze. Stanley Johnson is also a former politician, an environmentalist and a writer of 25 novels and non-fiction books.
Yet this week, the Englishman’s snow-coloured hair has been glimmering under the Australian summer sun, as he visited his sister and brother-in-law, Hilary and Peter Heanly, on their farm in a remote valley outside the village of Stroud.
“I think this is the most wonderful valley,” Johnson says, as he gazes over paddocks dissected by a creek.
He recounts how he has been going into town to swim in the public pool, he attended the local Carols at the Rotunda, and he loves Stroud’s historic buildings.
“It gives a real feeling of being an 1850s, 1860s place,” Johnson says. “It’s a wonderful place to be.”
As well as visiting family, Stanley Johnson has been in Australia for work – as a reality television star.
“Basically, reality TV is standing around, acting in a normal way,” he explains.
In Britain, Stanley Johnson’s face has become almost as widely known as his eldest son’s. Last year, he was a contestant on the UK version of I’m A Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!, a TV show that involves people of varying levels of fame surviving challenges in a jungle, and the whims of the viewing public.
The 78-year-old has returned to the production set in the “jungle” near “Mur-will-um-bah” (and he pronounces each syllable of the northern NSW town’s name as though he is carefully rolling a crystal around inside his mouth), as a guest on the program.
“That is the most important place in Australia at the moment,” Johnson says, “because that is where most of the eyes of Britain are now focused, because the issue is, ‘Who is going to come out of that jungle at the end of this week?’.”
Stanley Johnson has appeared in a string of British television reality and quiz shows, including The Real Marigold Hotel, The Chase,“and, worryingly, I’m on a program called Celebrity Mastermind”.
When asked why he appears on so many television programs, Johnson cheerfully replies, “At my age, you’ve got to do something. You can’t sit in a garden in Stroud, moving cows from place to place!”
Johnson’s principal workplace has been Britain and Europe. He was a Member of the European Parliament, and he has held high-ranking positions in the European Commission. He has stood on the conservative side of politics. His sons, Boris and Jo, until recently the British transport minister, are Conservative Party representatives.
Yet Johnson’s politics, and his world view, have been heavily shaped by his passion for the environment. That passion flowed through much of his work for the European Union. That passion has taken him around the globe to remote places, and it has fuelled many of his written words. One of his books, for instance, is titled, Where The Wild Things Were: Travels of a Conservationist.
“I probably still think of myself as mainly an environmentalist,” he says.
Johnson has been a regular visitor to this part of the world. As he says, he is “quite familiar” with Williamtown airport, and he doesn’t need a GPS device or map to find his way to Stroud.
And he has been coming to Australia for long enough to chart change.
Johnson says he is “devastated” to see the nation’s population increasing so rapidly, as it approaches 25 million.
“How can this be?,” he asks. “Don’t the people living in this country realise they have a very, very scarce resource base, in terms of the land and the water and forest? And can they really afford to continue with population expansion at this rate?
Stanley Johnson dismisses the idea that population growth is needed for an economy to grow: “In my view, if you can manage to keep a stable population, then the desperate need for continued economic growth is much smaller.
“All of this has to be seen in terms of the global environmental constraints here.”
Johnson talks about greenhouse gas emissions. He recalls representing the EU at the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in the 1980s and is dismayed at how long it has taken to turn words of warning into action. While world leaders meet at the United Nations climate change conference in Katowice, Poland, Johnson appeals, “Please let the Australian delegate in Katowice this week make a strong plea for urgent action.”
“Actually, Australia’s unbelievably well placed, isn’t it? Think of the amount of solar panels you could install in this country. If you didn’t need to dig up more coal ... you could probably meet most of Australia’s energy needs through solar energy.”
During our conversation, Stanley Johnson has brought the argument close to home.
“I have known the Hunter Valley for 20 or 30 years, and I’ve driven up through the Hunter Valley,” he says. “And I do say to myself, ‘How can it be that this perfect valley is now subject to this massive expansion of coal production, at a time when everybody is saying coal is no longer king?’.
“OK, there are internal economic pressures, but I go back to what I was saying. If Australia itself was not so gung-ho for economic expansion, those pressures wouldn’t be so great.”
I wonder how, as a prominent British Conservative, he has reconciled within himself holding some of these views that must be very lonely on his side of politics.
“It’s an interesting question. I never myself have seen a basic contradiction between the word ‘Conservative’ and ‘intelligent’,” he says, bursting into laughter.
However, Johnson goes on to say that the great power of conservative regimes most of the world over is the business forces behind them.
“So, yes, I would say I am pretty unusual in this.”
Johnson worries about what has already been done, or not been done, with the environment, and what the future holds. He recalls looking at the school students attending Stroud’s Carols at the Rotunda and thinking, “How angry the younger generation must feel … about how my generation have totally screwed things up. We have really, really made a mess of their future. That’s how I see it. And they bloody well ought to be angry, as they grow up.”
Back in Johnson’s homeland, there is a lot of disagreement about Britain departing the European Union. This massive continental shift is simply known as Brexit, but there’s nothing simple about it.
The British people may have voted to leave the EU, but it is not a done deal. So the Brexit debate goes on across the nation; in the UK Parliament, in political parties, and in families, including the Johnsons’.
“Well, I’m in a really difficult situation, because I have one son, Boris, who is the leader of the ‘Leave’ campaign, and I have another son, Jo, who has come out as being the leader of the ‘Remain’ campaign,” says Stanley Johnson. He has supported Britain remaining in the EU.
The Brexit debate has also applied pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May, prompting talk, not for the first time, that Boris Johnson could be the UK’s next leader.
The father is diplomatic in the face of that speculation.
“If there was a strong sense in the country that we want to have a clean break [from the EU], OK, then I think it might well be that Boris turns out to be the leader of the ‘clean breakers’,” Johnson muses. “If, on the other hand, it turned out there was a strong sense in the country that we wanted to stay in, a ‘remainer’ might emerge.”
But here we are at the start of the season of goodwill to all. So surely the big question of whether Britain should remain in, or leave, the EU will be left off the table at the Johnson family Christmas dinner.
“When you’ve got the turkey in front of you,” the father of six says in a serious tone, “the key question is, ‘breast or thigh?’!”
“Who will be carving this year?,” I ask.
Stanley Johnson laughs, before he assures, “Well, I think I’ll be carving!”