Summers always have to come to an end. As the children went back to their respective schools, I realised I needed a London base.
I thought it would be best to avoid Hampstead so I wrote off to some estate agents serving the Paddington area. Paddington, I felt, was convenient. There were good trains to the West Country from Paddington.
In any case, I already had use of a pied à terre in Paddington.
When I left the European Commission on being elected to the European Parliament in June 1979, Crispin and Penelope Tickell had very kindly lent me their flat in Blomfield Road, which runs alongside the Union Canal near Paddington Basin. Crispin served as Roy Jenkins’s chef de cabinet when Jenkins took over the Presidency of the Commission and was still en poste in Brussels, but Penelope, who happened to be in London that day, volunteered to come with me to inspect a maisonette on Maida Avenue, the road which runs along the canal on the opposite side from Blomfield Road.
We met outside the house. It was a large, imposing, stucco-fronted building, looking out onto the canal. Boatmen glided past on barges. They didn’t call it Little Venice for nothing. My spirits soared after the débacle on Exmoor. Perhaps I could survive living on my own in a place like this.
The house was three storeys high, with the maisonette occupying the second and third floors. According to the particulars, it had three bedrooms and a large L-shaped sitting room looking out over the water. Just the ticket, I thought.
The maisonette was empty, but the agent had given me the keys. I suppose we had been looking around inside for about twenty minutes when the flat’s own doorbell rang. Though the maisonette was reached through the main entrance, as was the ground-floor flat, it had its own door at the top of the stairs leading up to the first floor.
I ignored it. It sounded again. More urgently. ‘I wonder who that can be,’ Penelope said.
I opened the door, and looked down the stairs into the hall to see a slim, dark-haired woman gazing up at me with a cross look on her face.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
I don’t know why I didn’t give the obvious answer. I could have told the cross young lady that I was a potential tenant on a tour of inspection. But there was something about the whole situation that irked me. I didn’t like being put on the spot.
‘Actually, I’m a burglar,’ I said. ‘I’ve just broken in, and quite soon, I’m going to start a fire.’
Fast forward several weeks. I have made my apologies to Jenny, the young lady from downstairs. As a matter of fact, I have fallen for her. But I don’t think she has fallen for me.
Before Christmas, Jenny fled to Barbados. But I tracked her down, flying out to the Caribbean myself on the next available plane.
I went wind-surfing that first afternoon. I am not particularly good at wind-surfing. I crashed heavily on some rocks. When I dragged the wind-surfer back in to shore after a disappointing stint, Jenny pointed out that the little toe on my left foot was sticking out at right angles.
‘You must have dislocated it.’ She didn’t sound very sympathetic. I think my sudden appearance in Barbados, when she thought I was safely back in London, had rather thrown her.
Having a dislocated little toe is surprisingly debilitating. You can’t wear normal shoes, for example. Your feet look odd, even in sandals, because there is this solid lump of flesh sticking out at one side.
‘Stop worrying about how it looks,’ Jenny advised. ‘You need to have that seen to soon, otherwise they’ll have to break it and reset it.’
I realised then that Jenny, apart from being an absolute stunner as far as looks were concerned, was an extremely practical person. She helped me (hobbling) into her rented car and drove off at speed.
‘Where are we going?’ I asked.
‘There’s a vet’s surgery halfway to Sandy Lane.’
‘No time to lose,’ she said.
Half an hour later, after a couple of quick, if painful, wrenches from a man who obviously knew what he was doing, I was right as rain.
After a few more days together, we flew back from Barbados to London. Jenny, recently widowed, had two dogs. Douglas was a large chocolate Labrador; Jimmy was a Cairn terrier.
I carried my bags upstairs to my maisonette. Jenny went straight into her downstairs flat and firmly shut the door.
Most days, as I looked out of my first-floor window onto the canal when I was in London (which wasn’t often since the Euro parliamentary term had begun again), I would hear the front door slam and, seconds later, see Jenny stride down the path into the street, being – literally – pulled by the two dogs. Jenny clearly gave the dogs their money’s worth because it would often be more than an hour before she returned.
I met her once on the doorstep. Douglas slobbered over me, while Jimmy nipped at my heels.
‘Where do you take them?’ I asked.
‘Hyde Park, usually,’ Jenny said. ‘I have to keep an eye on them though.’
‘I’ll take them tomorrow, if you like. I don’t have to go to Strasbourg till Tuesday this week.’
Jenny looked doubtful.
‘No, I mean it,’ I insisted. ‘I’ll be delighted.’
Truthfully, when I made the offer, I didn’t for a moment foresee any problems. I had grown up with dogs. There were always dogs on the farm. They were a basic part of my parents’ life and of my own childhood. At meal- times, if you didn’t want to eat the fatty bits, you could surreptitiously flip them onto the floor for the dogs.
Next day I set off in the car with Jimmy and Douglas. I parked near the Serpentine. It was a bright, sunny day.
Jimmy and Douglas, once released from the leash, took off and disappeared into the distance. Within seconds of letting them out of the car, I had man- aged to lose both of them.
I wouldn’t say I panicked, but it certainly wasn’t a happy moment. I headed off on foot in the direction I thought the two dogs had taken. I asked passers-by. ‘I say, you haven’t by any chance seen two dogs, Jimmy and Douglas? Chocolate Labrador and Cairn Terrier.’
Two fruitless hours later, I drove back to the house on Maida Avenue and parked the car on the concrete pad in front of the garage.
I rang Jenny’s doorbell. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to break the news.
Jenny opened the door just a crack. This wasn’t Penelope welcoming Odysseus on his return from Troy.
‘I hear you lost the dogs.’ She sounded cool, if not icy. ‘Someone rang up. They were both of them found in Hyde Park earlier today. Near Park Lane, actually. Not the best place for them.’
Jimmy and Douglas obviously had no hard feelings. They pushed their way out into the hall and greeted me enthusiastically.
One morning, I went downstairs to the front hall to collect the morning mail. On the mat I found an extraordinary communication. It was from James Scott-Hopkins, a former MP, now an MEP, whom Mrs Thatcher had asked to serve as the leader of the sixty-one Conservatives MEPs.
During the course of the discussions to be held in Rome later this month with Italian colleagues from the Christian Democratic Party, Members of the European Democratic Group will have the honour of being received by His Holiness the Pope in the Vatican. Wives are also invited. Mantillas should be worn.
By then, Jenny had forgiven me for losing her dogs in Hyde Park. She had even driven down to the farm with me for the weekend with the dogs in the back. She had met my parents, who approved of her enormously.
The dogs as well as Jenny were a total success. When Douglas killed a duck on the pond at West Nethercote, my father patted him approvingly.
‘Every dog is allowed his duck,’ he had said.
I was still in the hall, mulling over Scott-Hopkins’s intriguing message, when Jenny came out of her own ground-floor flat to pick up her own post.
‘Do you have a mantilla?’ I asked.
Strictly speaking, the invitation to meet the Pope applied to MEPs and their wives. It didn’t say anything about ‘partners’ or ‘girlfriends’. And anyway, Jenny, when I invited her to join me on the trip to Rome, said she wasn’t sure that she wanted to meet ‘a whole load of Tories’. She hadn’t met a lot of Tories in the past. I had a feeling she disapproved of them.
‘Do come,’ I urged her. ‘How often are you going to have an audience with the Pope?’
Two weeks later we found ourselves in Rome, being ushered into the gilded Papal reception rooms in the Vatican.
Scott-Hopkins, a tall, imposing man, made the introductions.
‘This is Lord Bethell, Holy Father,’ Scott-Hopkins said. ‘This is Lady Douro. This is Sir Fred Warner and this is Lady Warner. This is Sir Henry Plumb and this is Lady Plumb. This is Sir Jack and Lady Stewart-Clark. This is Sir David Nicholson and Dame Shelagh Roberts…’
Jenny and I shuffled slowly forward while the Pope greeted the grandees. Eventually, it was the turn of the ‘plebs’, to use that now fashionable term.
I saw Scott-Hopkins look at me and then look at Jenny. He seemed doubtful. He had obviously forgotten her name.
‘This is … er … Mr Johnson, Holy Father,’ Scott-Hopkins mumbled, ‘and this is, er, in point of fact…’
When Jim lost the thread, as he sometimes did, he ‘in point of fact’ed quite a lot.
The Holy Father looked at our puzzled leader. He looked at me. He peered at Jenny under her mantilla. He obviously decided to help Scott-Hopkins out.
‘Well, this is Mrs Johnson, I suppose,’ he said.
The Pope was not speaking ex cathedra but he might as well have been. When it was all over, and the Pope had gone back to the Papal apartments, and the Conservative MEPs and their wives had dispersed in various directions, Jenny and I scooted off to have a pizza in the piazza.
Jenny tucked the mantilla into her bag. ‘Well, what do you think?’ I asked.
She studied the menu. ‘I’ll go for the pizza napolitana but with extra anchovies.’
‘No,’ I persisted, ‘what do you feel about being “Mrs Johnson”? The Pope seems to think it’s a good idea.’
Jenny and I were married on 27 February 1981, which, at the time of writing (June 2014), is more than thirty-three years ago. I have a lot to thank the Pope for.
This is an extract from the second volume of Stanley Johnson’s memoir: Stanley, I Resume published by the Robson Press, 2014.