Sunday Express

‘I saw the virus coming


STANLEY JOHNSON speaks so much like his slightly more famous son that conversati­on can be a little distractin­g. He has the same blend of can-do enthusiasm and positivity coupled with a certain haziness when it comes to the finer details.

True his sentences have a tendency to trail off more frequently, but then Johnson Snr turns 80 next month.

Cornish-born Stanley seems to embody the “hail fellow well met” spirit. He’s bright, likeable, and, I suggest, hardworkin­g too.

“I’m the idlest man in England,” the Prime Minister’s father tells me. How so? You’ve been an MEP, a civil servant, a spy, you’ve written 27 books...

“I’ve been going a very long time,” Stanley chuckles. “You can pack a lot in over so many decades. You can credit old age with some of that.”

Stanley is of course a millionair­e, with properties in London and Greece (to which he recently jetted off – against his son’s essential travel only rules). Beneath the affable, laidback exterior – as seen on I’m A Celebrity and Celebrity Hunted – lurks a formidable intelligen­ce, and a short attention span.

His latest and timeliest novel,the Virus, is in fact his tenth book, 1982’s The Marburg Virus, re-packaged and republishe­d for these trying times.

You might call it opportunis­t; I couldn’t possibly comment.

Long out of print, the thriller centres on a sex-crazed epidemiolo­gist out to develop a vaccine to fight a deadly virus that breaks out in New York’s Bronx Zoo. It’s based on real events in a German university town in 1967. The killer virus was a hemorrhagi­c fever similar to Ebola.

Stanley says he’d been considerin­g writing a poem about lockdown and then remembered he’d already written a virus-themed thriller. He found it online and, as he devoured it, he recalled driving to Marburg to research background facts about the outbreak.

“I found the clinic. I discovered the virus started in a duelling fraternity. It was tragic, totally lethal. It was spread by airborne transmissi­on.

For the book I traced it to monkeys in the Bronx. My angle was ‘imagine an outbreak inamerica’.the sword was the disease; the shield was the vaccine the hero was pursuing.”

In a new foreword, Stanley concludes that government­s,

including our own, “need to be ruthlessly focused on the search for an antidote or vaccine”.

He wrote The Virus in five weeks. “I write quite quickly,” he says. “I took my four children off on a holiday to a little village in the south of Rhodes and I wrote several hundred words every morning. I found a huge tree on the beach and wrote under that until 11am when the kids arrived.” (They were his children, including Boris, with first wife, the artist Charlotte Fawcett; he had two more with his second wife, Jennifer Kidd).

Thevirus is one of three republishe­d Johnson novels. “It’s not a trilogy, it’s a thrillogy,” Stanley beams. “They’re all exactly as I wrote them but I’ve added a preface. The second is The Warming, about global warming, the third is The Anomaly.”

Johnson’s fiction career began with 1967’s Gold Drain; his latest was 2017’s Kompromat – Russian for compromisi­ng material.

“It’s well worth looking at,” he says, modestly. “It’s political satire. The Russians were behind Trump’s election... those Hillary Clinton emails at the last moment, 11 days before the election.there’s a complete explanatio­n of how that happened in the book. It was a put-up job.”

PUTIN is thinly disguised as Popov in the novel. During a hunt, he shoots the US Presidenti­al candidate in the backside with a tranquilis­er dart, whereupon FSB spies plant a secret transmitte­r in the wound.

“Channel 4 paid a lot of money for the TV rights,” Stanley tells me from hiswest Somerset farmhouse. “It’s going to be a six-part series.”

Another novel, 1987’s The Commission­er, inspired a 1998 film of the same name starring John Hurt as a British commission­er to the EU who discovers that a German company, run by a former Nazi, is making chemical weapons.

“That made the most money,” he says. “And it was a good film. But I hope The Virus does well. It’s in the top 10 medical thrillers as we speak.”

Stanley’s first notable piece of writing was a poem, May Morning, that won him the Newdigate Prize for poetry (previously won by John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde) at Oxford University in 1962.

He ditched Classics for a creative writing course in Iowa, then left that for an economics degree. A year later, back in Oxford, he was tapped up by MI5, accepting the opportunit­y to undertake “the most intensive training in clandestin­e techniques known to man”.

In his autobiogra­phy, Stanley says “Most of these techniques remain, even today, so secret that I would risk running foul of the Official Secrets Act were I to reveal them.”

He details a number of training missions, including planning to blow up the power station in Blyth,

 ??  ?? STAR: Extinction Rebellion capture a fake Stanley for a Boris protest, and on I’m A Celebrity...
STAR: Extinction Rebellion capture a fake Stanley for a Boris protest, and on I’m A Celebrity...
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