My week: Stanley Johnson
As told to Audrey Ward. Published in Sunday Times 25th April 2010
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THE ANCIENT MARINER
This past week has been a terrific adventure. Despite the volcanic ash I have just returned from a trip to Latin America. We went through the Andes, stopping off at Machu Picchu, and then it was on to the Galapagos. We spent a day on Española, one of the Galapagos islands. Española is famed as the home of the waved albatross. It also has an important colony of large seabirds known as Nazca boobies. There are always people on these trips who make jokes. “How many boobies did you see today?” they ask. I’m an environmentalist and I’ve been around long enough to avoid that one.
A PASSAGE TO BRAZIL
My Latin American journey took me back to my gap year in 1959. I was walking down Bishopsgate in London in the month of May when I spotted a small, discreet bronze plaque on the side of a building. It read “H Clarkson Shipping (Brazil) Limited”.
“Can I speak to the managing director?” I asked the receptionist. She told me he was in a meeting. “That’s all right,” I said. “I don’t have to go to university until October. I’m willing to wait.”
When the MD arrived, I asked if there was any chance of working my passage to Brazil. He told me rather gruffly to leave a note with his secretary. “Dear Sir, please may I go on one of your boats? Yours sincerely, Stanley.” She made me change the word “boats” to “ships”.
Four days later a letter arrived from the ship owner. He said there was absolutely no prospect of me working my way on one of the ships but offered me the owner’s cabin for £1 a day. What a blag! I was jolly well delighted to take him up on his offer.
We were meant to fly straight home but because of the ash in the atmosphere we learnt that our flight from Ecuador was certainly not going to London. We found ourselves offloaded in Madrid instead. When we arrived in the Spanish capital on Monday the airport was a complete shambles.
Picture those stock exchange boards when all the stocks are going down and the whole board is red. The slats on the indicator boards were flipping over to the word “cancelled”. The trains to Paris were booked for weeks and hiring a car cost thousands.
I wasn’t sure when I would get home but I didn’t worry about clean clothes as I had some travel-wash with me. You get a small shampoo bottle of the stuff and it’s jolly easy to wash your socks and underwear in the sink. I even do my shirts as well but I don't iron them. That would be going too far.
From the airport, my wife Jenny and I made our way on a bus to Santander in an attempt to catch a ferry to Portsmouth. We had got word that HMS Albion was going to be there to pick up about 500 stranded British servicemen on their way home from Afghanistan and our hopes soared.
Lo and behold, the officer in charge decided to take us on board. I did resent one newspaper saying that I got on the list only because I was deemed “elderly and vulnerable”!
I don’t want to give away any military secrets but the Albion is a ship from which you launch huge tank-carrying landing craft and so there is masses of space. Some of the Royal Navy cadets and soldiers returning from Afghanistan cleared out of their cabins to make way for us and slept in the vehicle hold.
I felt guilty but the soldiers said that what mattered most to them was getting home. They had already lost three days.
The crossing was dreamy, the Bay of Biscay was glassy calm and at midday on Wednesday we began to see the land emerging: Guernsey, Jersey, the chalk cliffs of the Isle of Wight. That night we nosed into Portsmouth harbour. Helicopters buzzed overhead, people waved and shouted. It was a glorious homecoming.
TOO FRIENDLY TO WIN
Life jolly well isn’t dull but I was disappointed not to be fighting a seat in this election, no point in denying that.
I remember reading an article saying that “Stanley’s charm may lose him the Tory nomination in Wycombe”. I think they felt I was too friendly with the chairman. I’d say my luck has run out on the political front but I was born with a cheerful disposition and my instinct is to get cracking on something else. It’s the journey, not the arrival, that matters. I’m not sure my wife takes the same view.
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