Petronella Wyatt: I’ve been turned into a curiosity – and Boris is to blame

13 July 2019

9:00 AM

13 July 2019

9:00 AM

I am beginning to feel like a sort of fairground curiosity: one of those pickled things in jars that Victorians stared at. It is Boris’s fault. Because I once had a close friendship — all right, all right, a tendresse — with Mr Johnson, I am pointed at, photographed, and harried in the aisles of shops. Soon members of the public will be tearing off bits of my clothes — something Russian peasants used to do with anyone who had met the Tsar, as if this would bestow some of Batiushka’s divine status. Tabloid journalists doorstep me, believing I have the answers. I am a female Zoltan Kapathy; not so much an imposterologist as a Borisologist. My present policy is to pretend that I am insane. Just as no insane person could be executed under the law (until Henry VIII changed it), I operate on the premise that no journalist will bother with a person who isn’t playing with a full deck. Earlier this week, a red-top reporter rang my doorbell. He asked me whether Boris would be a good prime minister. I stuck my head out of the window and tilted my head. He waited for the oracle. ‘Better than Pitt the Younger and Pitt the Elder.’ This engendered some confusion. ‘Erm, were they one person or two?’ I laughed maniacally and rolled my eyes like Marty Feldman. The poor booby pressed on. ‘But what about Boris’s faults?’ ‘What faults?’ He made a slow recovery from this, but then played what he thought would be a blinder. ‘But what about all the women?’ ‘What women?’ This time I had got him. ‘Sorry to have troubled you, Ms Wyatt.’

Rod Liddle tells me I should do a documentary about Boris. I am. But the documentary I am making, of which I am co-producer, is about Boris Karloff. Karloff’s real name was William Henry Pratt. Born in London, he came from an Anglo-Indian family and had unusually dark skin, which led to speculation about his ancestry, a subject he didn’t care to talk about once he became a Hollywood star. This was not surprising. Merle Oberon, who was half-Indian, was forced to pretend her mother was her maid. But back to Boris. Orson Welles once said that in order to become a star, an actor must have a face that lends itself to caricature. Karloff looked like a lovesick Satan and had a voice to match. Yet his manner and clothes were not that of his garish trade. He preferred reading Joseph Conrad to parties, and even after his sensational performance as the monster in the 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein led a modest, if eccentric, life, pruning his roses attired in swimming shorts and a top hat. Unfailingly polite, he was, for want of a better word, a gentleman. A fine dramatic actor, Karloff brought a rare sensitivity to the horror genre, elevating his films to existential masterpieces. Guillermo del Toro calls him ‘my messiah’. Of all the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, only Karloff and Humphrey Bogart are of greater cultural significance now than when they were alive.

At a recent lunch in honour of my former employer and friend Conrad Black, I was asked if there was anyone whom I hated. I was unable to rise to the challenge. I often feel my failure to hate is due to a defect in myself. In the face of another person’s choler, I am inert as a deaf person at a concerto. I remember Boris telling me that Max Hastings disliked me (incidentally, I suspect Max’s well-publicised hatred of Boris is in part caused by sexual jealousy). This caused me no distress. The real reason for this does not lie in any acquired virtue. It lies in the fact that I am extremely conceited and, as a corollary, couldn’t care less.

I live in the shadow of my dog, a Papillon bitch called Mini. As she is less than one foot high this can be galling. But I suppose that if you have been called Mini all your life, you would want to throw your weight about. She has a Twitter account with more followers than mine. Mini likes to tweet from Soutine, the new Corbin & King brasserie in St John’s Wood, where I live. It is a beautiful place, an homage to the Art Nouveau artists who lived north of the park. Mini has acquired a sort of celebrity status. Last week she was photographed by Vanity Fair, and is now positively insufferable.

The other morning, my attention was jerked from Soutine’s perfectly cooked bacon by a conversation at the next table. The occupants were in the funeral trade. They were complaining. Their chief gripe was that ‘people don’t plan their funerals with the same enthusiasm that they plan their weddings’. The senior of the group, a youngish bloke whose face was as pink as a marzipan pig, proposed a PR overhaul. ‘The trouble is the journey we take our clients on. It’s too depressing and tedious.’ God help us. Are some of these people still alive? Do they sit up in their coffins and object to the logjam on the A40?

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