Boris Johnson: ‘The five women who have shaped my life’
For IWD, Grazia asked the PM to nominate the women who have inspired, impressed and influenced him most
I was sitting with Malala Yousafzai in my office in City Hall in about 2014 when I had a peculiar floaty feeling. I suddenly started to think she was unlike anyone I had ever met before. She was so brave, so right and so luminously idealistic that I could see I was in the presence of a modern-day saint. You must know the essentials of her story: she was an 11-year-old schoolgirl in the Talibandominated badlands of Pakistan when, with the help of the BBC, she started a blog. She campaigned for a right that seems as natural to us in Britain today as the right to breathe – and yet which was (and is) bitterly contested by members of the Taliban: the right for girls to go to school. In October 2012, she was on her way home on the bus after taking an exam, when Taliban gunmen shot her in the head. Incredibly, she survived. She came to the UK for surgery, then stayed for school and university. She now has a Nobel prize, and an international foundation and her campaign – for female education – is the fastest and best way we could change the world. In parts of South Asia, female illiteracy is at 60%; in parts of Africa it is nearing 80%. Think what a difference it would make – to poverty, infant mortality, climate change, you name it – if every girl in the world had 12 years of quality education. Men in suits: listen to Malala.
There is a simple reason why my grandmother ranks as a heroine of mine: her sheer unconquerable optimism. She was an Oxford graduate who fetched up high on a rainy Exmoor hill farm. She had no central heating and no mains electricity. The nearest neighbour was literally miles away. Her communication with her half-turkish husband was difficult partly because she was very deaf, but also because he spoke almost entirely with his pipe in his mouth. But for Granny Butter (as we grandchildren called her) the sun was always shining, or about to shine, and everything was pretty well marvellous. The Exe Valley was so enchantingly beautiful that it was a privilege to live there. Her 13 dogs were not brilliantly house-trained but, according to
Granny Butter, they were all of the very highest intelligence. Our food was so special that potato crisps had to be eaten properly – with a knife and fork. She mixed Uncle Ben’s rice with tomato, onion and tuna fish and called it ‘risotto’. It makes me hungry to think of it. It didn’t matter that we had no TV. We had ‘Granny Butter’s sofa game’, in which one team would hide under blankets and cushions, and the winners would be those who could keep still for longest while burying their noses in the dog-scented crevices of the sofa. Above all, she had the greatest human gift of all: of being overjoyed to see you. It didn’t matter what you had done. ‘Darling,’ she would cry, ‘how wonderful!’
Boadicea. Bonduca. Boudicca. It doesn’t matter how you spell her – what a woman. It’s about 60AD, and there she is in East Anglia. The Romans have just beaten her up, raped her daughters and seized her kingdom. And what does she do? She attacks. She lays waste to London and St Albans; she slaughters tens of thousands of fawning new Romano-britons – and why? Partly for simple vengeance; partly because she couldn’t stand the way usurious Roman bankers were ripping everyone off. But mainly, Boudicca was driven by a simple desire for freedom. She was a Romanosceptic, a proto-brexiteer. They say she looked magnificent: tall, with long gingery hair and a voice that could carry over a battlefield. She would mesmerise her troops by reaching into her dress and pulling out a live hare, which she would fling to the ground. Depending which way the hare ran, she would forecast the outcome of the battle. Her luck, alas, eventually ran out (hare today, gone tomorrow?). The legions were too strong, her end grisly. But look at that great bare-breasted bronze monument of Boudicca and her daughters on the Embankment, and the proud inscription: ‘Regions Caesar never knew Thy posterity shall sway, Where his eagles never flew, none invincible as they.’ Yup: Boudicca’s posterity ended up with an empire seven times bigger than the Roman empire at its vastest. And who can say her spirit is not alive in the country today?
Munira Mirza and I started working together 12 years ago, and I rapidly realised that she was extraordinary. She is young, Asian, state-educated and of Oldham Muslim origins. She has a background in the arts and wrote a PHD on some cultural theme before becoming, in 2008, London’s Deputy Mayor for Culture – a notoriously prickly world. She soon won them over. The arts world trusts and likes her partly because – in a way that simply eludes me – Munira is capable of being hip, cool, groovy and generally on trend. And yet I don’t think I have ever met anyone so efficient, and with such a horror of wasting taxpayers’ money. She hates cant; she hates frippery; she hates political correctness. She has, all told, the most powerful nonsense-detector I have ever seen. And that is why I am so proud today that she is Director of the Policy unit in Number 10. This is a Government that must be focused on delivery. We are on a mission to deliver huge improvements in health care – 40 new hospitals, 50,000 more nurses. We are here to fight crime, with 20,000 more police. We are here to defeat homelessness with a vast and beautiful programme of home ownership. To do all this we need a head of policy sharp and ruthless enough to take on the vested interests. We need someone to crack the knout and set the pace – and that person is Munira.
As I come to my last heroine, I have to admit that it has been a struggle to decide who to pick. I could have gone for another great female leader – from the Queen to Margaret Thatcher to Indira Gandhi. I have been toying with Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Byron who has been credited with devising the first computer code. There are all sorts of female sporting legends, from Jess Ennis-hill to Christine Ohuruogu. They are all of them inspirational figures – yet none of them has actually stirred my emotions as much as the great female musicians of our times. But who is the greatest? Is it Joan Armatrading? Is it Debbie Harry? They are both geniuses. But there is one British artist who wrote what is surely one of the world’s greatest ever pop songs, part of the soundtrack of my adolescence. There are moments when I simply can’t understand what she is saying; moments when she is warbling, moments she is staccato, birdlike, and then sometimes she produces a crashing bow-wave of noise unlike anything written before or since. I don’t know why the moors are wiley. I don’t know why she hops around in that red chiffon thing. But for the sheer staggering originality of Wuthering Heights – and plenty of other songs – my final heroine is Kate Bush.