The Curious Tale of Boris Johnson’s Heart

I want to tell you a story about Boris Johnson’s heart. There’s a woman involved, but this isn’t what you’re thinking.

It’s a story about an encounter between the Prime Minister and some members of the public, but there’s no shouting, and no selfies, and no phone camera footage of who said what.

It’s kind of a mythic story, because it takes place in an ancient landscape, at one of the special seasons of the year, with a suggestion that those involved are caught in the play of old powers, in a struggle to break a spell – and also because I can’t prove to you that any of it happened.

Let’s call it an episode from the political X-Files. To be clear, I’m Mulder here, I want to believe – if not in the spells and powers, then at least in the account as I heard it – but there’s a Scully voice hissing in my ear, insisting on the need for skepticism.

The thing is, I whisper back, it doesn’t matter if these events actually happened, or if they only happened in someone’s head, or if this is some live art social fiction project no-one let me in on, because there’s a truth in the story itself. A truth that asks a question about politics and what we think it is.

Stay with me and I’ll tell you what I mean.

*   *   *

There was a clear blue sky over the Ridgeway, the weekend of the autumn equinox. They say it’s the oldest road in England, though road is stretching it: a path on high, dry ground that tracks southwest through the Chilterns, across the Thames and on along the Berkshire Downs to Avebury and beyond. Near Wendover, the modern walking trail parts company from the old route, diverted to preserve the security of the Chequers estate, the Prime Minister’s country house.

The group had agreed to meet at 10.30 that Saturday morning, but people were late. By the time they set off, there were seven adults, two dogs, five children and a baby. The invitation had been clear: ‘We are going to sing here on the Equinox [with] the sole intention to open up the hearts and minds of those in power.’

Tori Lewis is the woman who made the invitation and it was her account of these events that I stumbled on, through a post on Facebook that led to a YouTube video shot a couple of mornings later. She sits in the grass, glowing with her sense of the mystery of the way it all aligned.

The circuit they walked took them up Beacon Hill, where they sang their songs to the land, and around to Coombe Hill. They had come together through a community that gathers at Lewis’s family home, dedicated to honouring the earth, celebrating the turning of the year and supporting activism that is grounded in the sacred. This year, their focus has been drawn to the work of Extinction Rebellion, the climate action movement which brought parts of central London to a halt for half of April. The pilgrimage over the equinox was a preparation for the next round of rebellion, due to hit the streets on 7th October.

They walked barefoot, singing as they went. There were unscheduled stops for nappy changes and sore legs and to look at the baby pigs, so it was long after lunchtime when they made it back to the Buckmoorend Farm Shop and Kitchen, which lies up an unpaved lane, a quarter of a mile from the gates of Chequers. The kitchen is a caravan in the farmyard, the shop itself not much more than a shed, with room for a handful of customers at a time.

A guy called David was the first of the group to go in. He emerged moments later and whispered loudly to the others, ‘You won’t believe this, but Boris Johnson’s in there!’

Tori and her friend Zoe looked at each other.

‘Which song are we going to sing, then?’ Zoe said.

There were three of them who entered the shop, singing as they went. Tori’s legs were shaking. She remembers hiding from Johnson’s gaze for the first minute, until she caught sight of Zoe standing right beside him. After that, the power of singing took over and she went calm.

The song they sang was simple, two lines repeating and repeating, based on a chant from Taizé, the Christian community of reconciliation born in the darkness of the Second World War. The English version was written by the singer Sophia Efthimiou, and it goes like this: ‘Listen to your heart, listen to your heart. Let love guide you!’

The women stood around Johnson as they sang. There were tears in his eyes, Tori remembers, his mouth was open and he had his hand on his heart.

‘I don’t…’ he began, bewildered. ‘I don’t know what…’

A third woman, Annabel, went up to him and put a hand on his shoulder, the way you might with a little boy in need of comfort. They went on singing.

They saw his defences begin to come up again.

‘Oh,’ he said to Tori, ‘do you live locally?’

‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘Listen to your heart…’

The whole scene lasted around four minutes, before he broke away and left the shop, getting out of a situation that could be awkward or even dangerous. His security detail was in the yard outside. He went over to the caravan to order some food.

Another of the walkers, Laura, was waiting for her order at the caravan and she overheard Johnson saying to his girlfriend, ‘Where have they come from? It’s like they’ve emerged from the earth!’

‘Yes,’ Laura said, turning to him, ‘and they have a message for you.’

At which, the Prime Minister began to repeat to himself the words of the song: ‘Listen to your heart, listen to your heart. Let love guide you!’

And then, he left.

*   *   *

Well, that’s the story as Tori Lewis tells it. How do you imagine Boris Johnson or Carrie Symonds’s version of events would go? I don’t suppose we’re ever going to know.

I said at the start, I can’t prove that any of this happened. But one reason why it has a ring of truth to me is that I’ve been a singer. I know from experience that music has a power to slip past the defences of our cleverness, to touch us deeply when we least expect it. I didn’t go in for singing in rituals at ancient sites, but I grew up singing in folk clubs around the northeast of England, and the first way I ever earned a living was ten months busking on street corners all over Europe, from Norway to Turkey and back again. There were years in my life, on the hinge between adolescence and adulthood, when singing was the only outlet I could trust, the only carrier I had for my feelings. If, as the notes he makes on Downing Street memos suggest, Boris Johnson is stuck in some endless loop of adolescence, then I can imagine that the encounter with these singing women who seemed to have sprung from the earth might touch him in a place where he is almost never touched.

‘Well,’ I hear a whisper in my ear, ‘that worked well, didn’t it? His heart sure seems wide open now!’

Squint a little and maybe you could see the weird speech Johnson gave at the UN, three days afterwards, as the words of a Macbeth still shaken by the encounter with these three sisters. By the following night, back at the despatch box, he was serving up a cauldron of hate, crying humbug at the way his words are recycled into death threats and making shameless use of the memory of a murdered political opponent.

All I can say is that, a few times in my life, I’ve walked someone up to the edge of their worldview and seen them moved deeply by an experience that makes no sense according to the heartless logic of the world as they have known it. I’m not talking about anything obviously shiny and spiritual here, only the humble magic of what human beings are capable of when we come together for reasons beyond the calculus of profit or coercion, the matrix of the market and the state. What generally happens next is that the person concerned goes back to where they came from and finds a way to renarrate the experience through the lens of cynicism. What else could they do, when to put faith in that strange experience would be to feel the solid ground of their status and all it cost them crumble beneath their feet?

To be touched, touched deeply, is not nothing – but nor is it always, or even often, enough. There’s a reason they say the addict needs to hit rock bottom.

*   *   *

Look, I told you this was leading to a question – a thought worth sitting with, whatever you make of synchronicities and sacred singing, whatever did or didn’t happen in that farm shop – so here it is: how do we imagine our opponents? When you think of Boris Johnson’s heart, what comes to mind?

Back in our twenties, a good friend of mine was invited to lunch at The Spectator, then edited by Johnson. I remember she told us afterwards it was the closest she had come to being in the presence of pure evil. I’ve told that story down the years and I’ve used that kind of language to express my anger at those whose politics I oppose. Looking at my Facebook feed, it seems as though the language in which we share our opinions is saturated with such totalising moral statements, and that’s before you even get to Twitter. Doesn’t it satisfy some fierce part of ourselves to talk this way? It satisfies some fierce part of me.

How easy to imagine our opponents as black-hearted, to think of the throb in Boris Johnson’s chest as a pulsating epicentre of evil. What the strange story of his encounter with the singing women suggests is another possibility, one that I wonder if we know how to take seriously: the possibility that a politician’s heart might be the site of an unfinished struggle. What does politics even look like, if it includes the struggle for the heart?

Now, you might say I’m coming on all Russell Brand. For the record, I’ve a great fondness for Russell and the way he wears his flawed heart on his sleeve. But this heart talk is not the preserve of meditating comedians who’ve been to Hollywood and back. It’s there in the thought that comes to Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag, as he lies rotting on the prison straw:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line between good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.

It’s there in the language of Martin Luther King and bell hooks and Bayo Akomolafe, whose essay ‘Homo Icarus’ was written in the days after the white supremacist rally at Charlottesville in 2017 that ended in the murder of an anti-fascist activist and the gross equivocation of a US President claiming there had been ‘very fine people on both sides’ that day. Is it enough, Akomolafe asks, to call this evil? Or might some further move be called for?

Its a radical thing to say and a most dangerous notion to admit: that in some non-mystical way, I am practically entangled with those people I would rather demonize as white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers. The dual framework permits us to separate the racistfrom the non-racist, to install a fundamental distinction between their absolute depravity and our detached moral coherence, and to defer and deflect responsibility. There are not too many places to go from there: when we begin from this set of assumptions, incarceration, conversion therapy and reverse oppression are the responses that almost always follow.

If I turn back to Boris Johnson, with Akomolafe’s words still echoing in my thoughts, what comes to mind is the work of the psychotherapist Nick Duffell with those he calls ‘boarding school survivors’. In a system set up to produce an elite to rule an empire, the British upper classes and those who aspire to join them subject their children to a kind of ‘normalised neglect’. This is not just an education, but an upbringing inside an institution, instead of a family: a life shaped not by love and relationships, but rules and conventions. What does this do to a boy sent away to school at eleven (as Johnson was) or even earlier? ‘He has to lose his childishness,’ Duffell says, ‘he has to lose his emotional self.’ This treatment breeds a ‘pseudo self-sufficiency’, a ‘strategic survival personality’ that is relentlessly upbeat, cut off from empathy, with a sense of entitlement that serves as ‘compensation for irredeemable loss’.

There is a limit to the sympathy such stories are likely to elicit, I realise, and I don’t suggest we hold a telethon for the survivors. What we might do is reframe the recent proposal to abolish Eton, not as an act of class war, but as the overdue dismantling of a system of organised child abuse whose consequences – for all of us – are hard to overstate. (The end of this system would also be a decolonial act that takes us well beyond the symbolic overthrow of statues, often statues of these schools’ old boys.)

*   *   *

Two days after their encounter with the Prime Minister, on the morning of the equinox itself, Tori Lewis and her family greet the rising sun as its light pierces the stone passage of West Kennet Long Barrow, a 6,000-year-old burial mound near the further end of the Ridgeway. Later that morning, she sits in the grass by the River Kennet to film her story. ‘We’ve been in ceremony since Friday,’ she tells the camera.

I don’t know as much about ceremony as Tori and her friends. My sense of the sacred is less outspoken; it mostly starts at the place where words run out.

I send the video to my friend Charlie, who used to be features editor at a trendy London magazine. ‘That’s absolutely bonkers,’ he writes back. ‘And if I hadn’t read and been involved in so many absurd stories and hilarious coincidences, I’d say she was recounting a dream. But I do actually know that life can easily be that bonkers.’

There’s a voice in my ear that says to tell the story in Charlie’s terms and leave out the bit where Tori talks about ‘the Great Mother’. You can watch the video and judge for yourself. I’m conscious, too, that I’m a man telling a woman’s story, a story already loaded with gender dynamics. Before I start writing, I reach out to Tori, and she tells me she’d love the story to be shared far and wide. ‘It’s a story of connection and the truth of spirit and validates our work as spirit workers,’ she writes.

I doubt I’ll ever shine with the truth of spirit the way that Tori Lewis does. My work is murkier, the storyteller as trafficker between worlds, smuggling photocopied packets of truth. But when it comes to it, you’ll find me with the ones for whom the heart is a site of struggle, for whom there is that in each of us which goes beyond the people our lives so far shaped us to be, for whom the world is under a spell that needs to be broken.

Dougald Hine, Västerås, 3 October 2019





I’ve never found myself needing to declare an interest at the end of a piece of writing, but having used strong words about the British boarding school system, I should add a word about my own education. Most of it took place in state schools, with the exception of two periods of two years each in which I was a scholarship student at an independent school. During the first of these, I was also a boarder, albeit at a school made up mainly of day pupils and a long way from the social milieu of Eton. Nick Duffell’s work with boarding school survivors makes me wonder how this shaped me, though what sets my experience apart is that I was not ‘sent away’ to school: it was my own decision at eleven, against my parents’ better judgement, and two years later it was my decision to come home again and go to the local comprehensive. But that is a story for another day.

Comments (11)

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  1. Alastair McIntosh says:

    That’s an astonishing piece of writing, Dougald. It reaches to the core of spiritual activism. Nick D. will be thrilled by it.

    1. Dougald Hine says:

      Thank you, Alastair. There’s no one who’s taught me more about spiritual activism than you. I still remember the early draft of the Handbook you shared with me back in 2004!

  2. MBC says:

    Doesn’t Carrie Symonds work for an environmental organisation? Apparently Boris likes animals.

    I don’t think Boris is evil, sorry. I don’t think his heart is twisted. I think he is misguided and misdirected and lies and manipulates as easily as he breathes, but I don’t think he is inhumane or cruel like Saddam Hussein, Stalin or Hitler were cruel. I don’t think even Trump is evil, I think he is deranged with a monstrous ego so is capable of inflicting intense damage on a world he barely understands. Someone once said, ‘think how much destruction and damage an angry baby could mindlessly wreak on the world, if only it had the capacity to do so’ – and that is Trump. But he is no more evil than a screaming furious baby having a meltdown is evil. He is utterly selfish and lacks emotional maturity and self examination. This still means he is dangerous of course. It means he could do things that were evil, but without having a high level of evil intent.

    I often think that the greatest damage that people do is not through evil, through having a black heart, but through sheer folly.

    Boris isn’t evil. He lacks a well developed conscience.

  3. MBC says:

    You’re right though, that spiritual growth, moral development, a well developed conscience, comes from the heart more than the head. It comes from a sense of awe at the miracle of life and of the smallness and insignificance of human beings amidst the wonder and intricacy and vastness of creation. This world, this life, it’s only as great as your own heart. It starts with humility.

    Modern people confined to tiny cheating lives don’t do awe or reverence. That’s the real pity.

    What Jesus said: what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul.

  4. john burrows says:

    While I read your piece, I was reminded of a commentary in Hannah Arendt’s work Banality of Evil.

    “Eichmann was constitutively incapable of exercising the kind of judgement that would have made his victims’ suffering real or apparent for him. It was not the presence of hatred that enabled Eichmann to perpetrate the genocide, but the absence of the imaginative capacities that would have made the human and moral dimensions of his activities tangible for him. Eichmann failed to exercise his capacity of thinking, of having an internal dialogue with himself, which would have permitted self-awareness of the evil nature of his deeds. This amounted to a failure to use self-reflection as a basis for judgement, the faculty that would have required Eichmann to exercise his imagination so as to contemplate the nature of his deeds from the experiential standpoint of his victims.”

    Alexander Johnson has been driven, since his youth, to achieve the pinnacle of power. He has been actively encouraged to do so by his peers. Especially in what passes for their version of the “free press.” The only problem for him is he has no idea what to do with it, only that he needs to hold onto it. His vanity requires it. The mediocrity of his political career is the best proof we have of his lack of imagination. He would have had no more success than any others, if not for the constant indulging of his personal fantasy by his peers who govern the BBC/Sky/ITV, or edit the worst gutter press in the free world.

    Brexit has simply been the vehicle for Johnsons ambition. His lazy approach to it amply demonstrates he is not invested in it. It is simply the flavor of the month that he can tie his ambition to. Like Trump, he just wants to be loved and still be a callous bastard, surrounded by adoring crowds, giving him standing ovations for the errant nonsense that spills from his confused mind.

    While human suffering has been a direct consequence of Johnson and Trump’s ambitions, I agree that these are not their primary motivations. Unlike Trump though, Johnson can at least be shamed when confronted by his own shamelessness, as the incident at the hospital demonstrated. His sliver of humanity can sometimes be reached. But his shame is superficial, and quickly forgotten, as his enablers ring the wagons for him and provide him the cover he needs to regain his comfortable indifference . As it always has been within the society from which he springs. The indifference they all learn at Eton, Oxford and Cambridge. It is a constant wonder to me, that institutions which purport to teach the classics, fail to convey to their student’s Socrates powerful invocation that the unexamined life is not worth living.

    Like you, I accept we all have this capacity to be indifferent to the consequences of our actions. Our petty lusts and larcenies accumulate in our souls as the years pass. For the average person, it can lead us down dark paths as we age, depending on how well we develop the skill of self reflection. But the average person has little ability to harm more than their immediate circle, when the do turn to the dark side, while Johnson and his peers can menace the lives of millions.

    The model of the Public school system rejects self reflection as a discipline. It inculcates the morally repugnant belief that its alumni are trained to govern. This entitlement insulates their graduates from the consequences of their actions and allows them to maintain the dangerous fiction that they can do no wrong. Even when confronted with their failures, they suffer no consequences. The old boys network in Britain has had a thousand years to refine the techniques of dodging responsibility for the incompetence of the ruling class.

    But these institutions have now become a clear and present danger to Britain. They have simply become factories for sociopaths. They should be banished from the body politic, for everyone’s sake. The have outlived any usefulness they may have ever had. Inequality can never be properly addressed in the UK, if these institutions are allowed to maintain their hegemony over society.

    1. Justin Kenrick says:

      Thanks for this John

      At last April’s Extinction Rebellion occupation of Parliament Square, I was waking back in the early hours after being released from a police station. Above the camp, waving in the breeze of the light night, was a banner that said ‘Empathy’ with a picture of a bee. That is a revolution I can commit to.

  5. John McLeod says:

    This is a really wonderful piece of writing. Although the subject of the story is Boris Johnson, in truth any of us would have been affected in a similar way. We all have our inner Etons. The human voice, and the capacity to sing, bring us together. Please keep writing for Bella!

    1. Hey John – you can read more of Dougald’s back-catalogue here:

  6. Justin Kenrick says:

    So relieved to read this truth telling. In tears with relief to hear someone else telling it how it is.

    So appreciative of the complex singular truth it tells of the situation we are in.

    Is the implication that we need to bear in mind two contradictory truths as we take to the streets of London this week:

    1. The powerful are utterly shaped by the system that produces us (and if you are reading these words on this site then to some extent you are probably one of those powerful), and

    1. To the extent we can recognise and accept this, we can use these shapings in the service of liberation, if we choose to side with the well-being of all not with self-righteous privilege

  7. Douglas says:

    I recall seeing a graffiti in Lavapiés neighbourhood in Madrid which read: “The Heart Is Not A Metaphor!!!”….

  8. Grace says:

    Thank you for the article, the link to the video and for inspiration.

    How wonderful that they sang to Boris and he received their song on International Peace Day ! (21st September) …

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