Rachel Johnson: 'As a child, I wanted to be a wife and mother. Boris wanted to be world king'

Rachel Johnson
'I never thought I would turn into the sort of person that people would recognise' Credit:  Darren Gerrish/Getty Images Europe

We asked the novelist and journalist, 52, what her younger self would make of her today...

Growing up with three boys [brothers Boris, 53, now Foreign Secretary; Leo, 50, Radio 4 presenter and PwC partner; and Jo, 46, Minister for Transport] was brilliant for me, because I never thought of myself as in any way different. There was nothing they could do that I couldn’t do. I played cricket and rugby, was sent to an all-boys’ school [Ashdown House, Sussex], and my father [Stanley, 77, writer and former MEP] was very, very good at conveying to me the sense that I could be anything I wanted to be.

It was only my mother [Charlotte Johnson Wahl, 76] who reminded me that I was female and that I shouldn’t forget about having a husband and children. When I was about five or six, and Boris, who was known as Alexander then, was seven or eight, a family friend asked us both what we wanted to do when we grew up. I said I wanted to be a wife and mother; Boris, however, said he wanted to be “world king”. 

Rachel Johnson at the age of 13 Credit: Handout

I thought: so boys can be world king? What about girls? In that moment I realised I had to set my sights a bit higher. The role of wife and mother is a very honourable and exalted one, but you don’t necessarily change the world. So the next time I was asked what I wanted to be, I said I wanted to be a photojournalist. It sounded glamorous – I’d got it from somewhere like Paris Match. And Tintin was a journalist, of course. We were all avid readers of Tintin.

So I don’t think my younger self would be that surprised at how I’ve turned out. When I was in my 20s, I had a list of lifetime ambitions: I wanted to have four children, I wanted to write a novel, and I wanted to present Woman’s Hour. I’ve now had three children, written four novels, and although I haven’t presented Woman’s Hour – why did I want to do that so much? – I’ve presented things.

The young Rachel would never have expected to be someone who went on the telly, though. I never thought I would turn into the sort of person that people would recognise, partly because, growing up, I didn’t think I was a looker. I dressed like a boyish punk and I had a bit of puppy fat. I’m a bit slimmer now and while I’m basically still a boyish punk, I hide it. 

That stage in my life, spending my teens at a boys’ school during quite a difficult period at home, conditioned me to have low expectations about the future. If things are quite weird during your childhood, then, in your adult life, you can’t believe that you’re allowed to make your own happiness, because so much of the happiness of your childhood is determined by other people. 

A young Rachel (second left) with Leo (left), Boris (right), and their mother, Charlotte Wahl Credit: Handout

I’ve always felt unbelievably happy to be an adult and to be a self-determining adult, and I think my younger self would be pleased that things have turned out so well. I like the life that I’ve made for myself, and after a childhood in which we moved house a lot, I like stability and living in a nice part of London. I was very determined to do that, but I think my younger self would be both amazed and gratified that I ever make any money out of writing and speaking.

It hasn’t all been a piece of cake, especially being a parent. With each of my children, there have been things that have been very frightening or testing or challenging. Parenthood is incredibly raw and panicky, and that’s not something you think about when you’re a kid looking forward to it.

As you get older, you realise that the compensations are that you are more confident, you are more certain, and you don’t give a s--- as much. You stop caring about all those things you were anxious about as a teenager – that everyone’s having more fun than you or is thinner than you. Apart from the last bit, which seems to me not to have much to be said for it, life is very cleverly organised.

Rachel Johnson, author of Notting Hell and other novels, will be speaking at Queen’s Park Book Festival, June 30 - July 1; qpbookfest.com

Interview by Tom Ough