Published on Bella Caledonia.
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 scepticism.
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?
It’s 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 ‘racist’ from 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.
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.