‘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,