Ask Marina Wheeler her most vivid childhood memories and she will recount a supper where she, her sister and parents took turns to say what they were good at. When it was the turn of her mother, Dip, her father, Charles, prompted her: “You are good at cleaning the lavatory.” A frustrated stay-at-home wife, Dip did not appreciate the joke. Instead she stood over him and insisted he take it back or she would pour ketchup on him. He carried on laughing so she did the deed. “It really was something seeing his shock and all this red gloop over his white hair,” Wheeler says. “I didn’t know I had it in me,” her mother told her afterward.
Her father was Charles Wheeler, then based in Brussels as the BBC’s Europe correspondent and a household name as one of Britain’s most distinguished foreign correspondents. Now, decades later, both her parents have died and Marina has written a book about her mother. “I wanted to bring her out of the shadows of my famous father,” she says.
It is hard not to see the parallels. At 56, Wheeler might have spent years as a barrister fighting important cases involving suspected Taliban commanders and radicalized children, as well as bringing up four children of her own, but she is better known as the long-suffering wife of Bonkin’ Boris, whose rise to become editor of The Spectator, then mayor of London, then foreign secretary, then prime minister, was accompanied by a string of affairs, extramarital pregnancies, lies and betrayals, all splashed across the tabloids. Wheeler may never have poured ketchup over that famous blond mop, but she often changed the locks on their Islington home and kicked him out.
Was she surprised when Boris — who as a boy dreamed of one day being “world King” — became prime minister? “Well, he’s been talking about it for a long time,” she says. Now, after two turbulent years that have seen the end of her marriage, her battle with cancer, the death of her beloved mother and her ex moving into No 10 and acquiring a much younger fiancée, a rescue dog and another baby, not to mention going into intensive care and almost dying from coronavirus, Wheeler has, she says, finally moved on.
Indeed, the door of her new terraced house in a trendy, cobbled part of east London opens to reveal a woman with a wide pixieish smile, fashionably dressed in a taupe silk shirt, swishy black pants with broderie hems and lace-up boots. She looks every inch the glamorous divorcée. She shows me through to a vast, light-filled room lined with bookshelves. Cozy sofas face windows overlooking a courtyard, and there is a coffee table with a cafetière and a tray of pastries. She bought the house after her divorce came through in February and moved into it in June, though she says with a shrug that there was “sadly no housewarming because of Covid”.
“I feel excited,” she says. “This, for lots of reasons, is quite a pivotal moment in my life. My long marriage ended, my last two kids off at uni, my parents no longer around, the shifting around of places … I took time out from legal work and now am going back. I feel I’m free to pick how I spend my time in a way I haven’t been for decades.”
Now, after her ex moved into No 10 and acquired a much younger fiancée, Wheeler has, she says, finally moved on.
She is also celebrating the publication of her book The Lost Homestead. It tells the story of the end of British rule in India in 1947 and its partition into India and Pakistan through the eyes of Indians, a timely read given the current reassessing of colonialism. Those Indians are her mother’s family. Because of her name, light olive skin and dark hair, people often assume Wheeler is Greek, but her mother, Dip Singh, was Indian, and she keeps a copy of the epic Hindu poem Bhagavad Gita in the guest loo.
Her book had a difficult birth. Last year her plans for going away with a friend to write were upended when a routine smear test revealed abnormalities. When a doctor at London’s Whittington Hospital told her she had cervical cancer, her reaction was: “I have no time for this. Quite apart from anything else, I have a book to write.”
“I never thought I’d die,” she tells me. “But the children were worried.” The diagnosis and three subsequent operations put paid to a writing trip to Russia. A reaction to the gas used in keyhole surgery made her appear like a “balloon … I looked like I was recovering from an amateur facelift”.
After she had recovered, her mother was diagnosed with bowel cancer and died in February. Then the pandemic hit, and in April Johnson ended up in intensive care. Their children have been reported as not speaking to him because of his behavior, but did go to the hospital. “It’s been quite a time for them. My mum had just died. They’ve had a lot of difficult things.” On the issue of the children not speaking to their father, Wheeler says: “That’s a matter for them. I try hard to not speak for them.”
A Tale of Partition
Wheeler’s mother was born in the Punjabi town of Sargodha, the fifth and youngest child of a Sikh doctor who ran a clinic for the poor but was also president of the municipal committee that organized the town for its British rulers. A prosperous man, he owned farmland and an ice factory, producing blocks of ice used for air conditioning in the summer heat. Home was an opulent house with Italian marble floors, many bedrooms and rose-filled gardens, which Dip described as “idyllic”.
When Dip was 14, however, the family was forced to flee amid the chaos and violence unleashed by the division of India, which saw their side of Punjab end up in the newly created Pakistan. They left behind their comfortable life — and the bike she had just been given for her birthday — and moved to Delhi. They were among 15 million displaced — Hindus and Sikhs going one way and Muslims the other — and more than a million were killed. Partition also set off one of the world’s most dangerous rivalries between two countries — India and Pakistan have both been nuclear powers since the 1990s — which has seen three wars, horrendous terrorist attacks and a recent hardening of attitudes on both sides.
“Incredibly, here was this enormous catastrophic event of the 20th century yet I knew hardly anything about it,” she says. “My mum didn’t talk about it. Growing up I watched The Jewel in the Crown [the television series about the last days of the Raj], which is wonderful, but it is essentially through British eyes. So it was interesting for me to get to know my grandfather and mum’s lives, but also to see what a privileged Indian family was living through at that time.”
The project came about after she mentioned her family history in a review she wrote of the film Viceroy’s House, on the 70th anniversary of the partition in 2017, and an editor contacted her suggesting a book. The result is a charming memoir that weaves the story of Indian independence and the tragedy of the partition with that of her mother’s own escape from an unhappy marriage — a union that was “never consummated … she didn’t admire her husband and he showed her no regard” — and daring quest for personal freedom. Eventually she married Charles, whom she met while he was posted in Delhi, and followed him around the world.
“Growing up I watched The Jewel in the Crown, which is wonderful, but it is essentially through British eyes.”
I mention the parallels between her mother living in her father’s shadow and her own marriage. She immediately stiffens. “That’s my least favorite subject,” she says. It’s not hard to understand why. Johnson had a long-standing affair with Petronella Wyatt, his deputy at The Spectator, who twice became pregnant, the first time having an abortion, then the second time miscarrying the baby they had apparently decided to have. Later came the art dealer Helen MacIntyre, with whom he has another child, and Jennifer Arcuri, the Californian tech entrepreneur who gave him “IT training” in her Shoreditch flat with its pole-dancing pole. Arcuri finally confirmed they had an affair last month. And now of course he is engaged to Carrie Symonds, who at 32 is only five years older than Johnson’s eldest daughter.
Johnson and Wheeler finally separated in the summer of 2018, just before he resigned as foreign secretary over Theresa May’s Brexit deal, and they moved out of a grace-and-favor Carlton Gardens residence for separate destinations. In the book her only reference to the split is: “Six months into all this … my life hit turbulence, ending my marriage of 25 years.”
She is not about to shed light on why she stayed with him for so long, despite his infidelities. “I feel strongly that my family — especially children — need some calm, quiet and privacy to take stock and find a way ahead,” she says. We do know, however, that infidelity had also been a recurring theme of Johnson’s own parents’ marriage. A new book by Tom Bower claims Johnson’s father, Stanley, had a string of affairs.
A Brit in Washington
Wheeler’s childhood was far more stable. She was a baby when they moved to Washington, where her father was posted, a time she describes as “idyllic”, living just up the hill from Georgetown in a clapboard house with a cherry tree in the garden, which she used to climb and “ping the pips” on her elder sister Shirin’s head.
It was a fascinating time: Charles Wheeler made his name covering the race riots, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the protests against the war in Vietnam, and Watergate. “The whole America period was an exhilarating time,” Marina says. “When Martin Luther King was assassinated I was very young, but I vividly remember the Apollo missions and Watergate. We absorbed lots of politics. We went to a little school that had a concentration of people linked to politics in some way. One of my best friends was Tracy Magruder, whose father, Jeb, was involved in the Watergate cover-up. They were this shiny wholesome do-no-wrong American family, then their lives collapsed around them. He had lied on behalf of Nixon and I remember kids at school taunting Tracy, ‘Your daddy’s goin’ to prison.’
“My mum was a homemaker at that time so was very present. My father traveled a lot, but we didn’t really feel an absence as he would come back with presents and tell us about the places he’d been, which really opened our eyes.”
After Washington her father was posted by the BBC to Brussels and the girls went to the European School there. This is where she met Boris, who was the same age and studying at the school while his father was head of the European Commission’s newly established Prevention of Pollution division.
In the book Wheeler’s only reference to the split with Johnson is: “Six months into all this … my life hit turbulence, ending my marriage of 25 years.”
It was in Brussels that Wheeler says “slightly randomly, at the age of 12, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. At that time my mum had got quite interested in feminism — women’s lib as it was called then — and I was quite caught up in that as well. I remember reading the Erin Pizzey book Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear [a groundbreaking account of domestic violence] and jumping on a sofa and thinking I am going to be a women’s rights campaigner. Of course I didn’t, but I thought it would be good to become a lawyer to do that and just fixed on the idea.”
Back in the UK the family moved to Garden Cottage, a country home in West Sussex that her parents had bought years earlier. The two girls were sent to the independent school Bedales, in Hampshire, as weekly boarders. Bedales is known as a progressive school, but Wheeler’s time there was her “phase of rebellion” and she ended up getting suspended. “I broke almost every rule there was, but I think on that occasion there might have been a little bit of drinking on a sand quarry. In fact quite a lot of drinking. So much so that teachers had to be called …” She was sent home and later punished by having to do the washing-up in the school sanatorium every Friday evening.
She read law at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, then did a master’s in EU law back in Brussels and began working there as a barrister. There she again crossed paths with Johnson, by then The Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent and busy causing trouble with his often fantastical Eurosceptic stories. He was also breaking up with Allegra Mostyn-Owen, his first wife and fellow Oxford graduate. Wheeler’s leftist friends from Cambridge, such as the lawyer Philippe Sands and the writer Sonia Purnell, were horrified. Wheeler was already eight months pregnant when the couple married in 1993. In his usual chaotic fashion Johnson managed to get his divorce papers signed just in time. Lara Lettice, now 27 and a fashion journalist, was the first of their four children. Then came Milo Arthur, now 25, Cassia Peaches, 23, and Theodore Apollo, 21. One was born every two years as Boris moved on to editing The Spectator and then, in 2001, becoming MP for Henley.
Now of course Johnson is engaged to Carrie Symonds, who at 32 is only five years older than his eldest daughter.
It can’t have been easy juggling four children and work? “I was very lucky with a lot of support,” Wheeler replies. “We had a nanny, Nicola, an Irish Catholic who came back with us from Brussels and worked 16 years and is still in our lives. She was a brilliant combination of being funny, quirky and strict, and was an appalling cook, but I took the view it didn’t really matter if they had burnt broccoli or overcooked pasta as long as she kept them safe, I’m not the best cook either. We also had Luz [their housekeeper] for 20 years, who helped with house stuff and kept everyone in order.”
Even so, “if you talk to my kids they will each regale you with horror stories of things I failed to do,” she admits, laughing. “I forgot induction day for Cassie, so she arrived at school when everyone else had made friends, and I remember taking Milo to watch his Christmas play, thinking, great, I am so efficient, but it turned out he was actually meant to be in the play. My youngest son, Theo, has his birthday on the fourth of July and I’d just gone back to work and was sent off on a death-in-custody inquest, which tend to be long and far away. So we decided to pretend his birthday was later, as he was young enough not to know, but one of the others told him. So now there’s always this thing on birthdays: ‘Oh well, let’s make it the sixth …’ ”
Their children have been reported as not speaking to Johnson because of his behavior.
Johnson began his affair with Wyatt around this time. When the news came out, he denied it as “an inverted pyramid of piffle” until Wyatt’s mother, Verushka, lost patience and went public. It was the first time Wheeler changed the locks and took off her wedding ring. Wasn’t it hard dealing with this? Again she stiffens. “I think I pretty much got on with things,” she replies coldly. I try another tack to get her to shed some light on their relationship — did he ever help out with the housework? “He’s my least favorite topic of conversation,” she repeats, stonewalling me. “Ask me about my mum.”
Her mother, who did a degree in Russian then years later an Open University degree in experimental psychology, sounds a remarkable woman. She worked for years at Amnesty International as a researcher, catching the 7am train to London each morning. Though she wore saris and cooked Indian food, Dip never talked about her past life. “Most of her stories stripped out the difficult stuff,” Wheeler says. “It was a mystery.”
Thus began a quest involving six trips to India and two to Pakistan, as well as many visits to her aging mum, who lived alone in Sussex following Charles’s death, to try to get her to open up — particularly about her sexless first marriage in India in the 1950s, which she upped and left one day. She later met Charles while working as a social secretary at the Canadian Embassy in Delhi. “I didn’t really know how she would take to doing it because she had always been so private,” Wheeler says. “But I learnt a lot about her and it helped me think through a lot of things. And I didn’t know she was going to die, she suddenly took a downward path at the end of last year, but it was kind of wonderful seeing her move from being quite cagey to enjoying telling me some stories about the past. Some she tried to dodge and dive, like her first marriage.” Like mother, like daughter, I can’t help thinking.
“He’s my least favorite topic of conversation,” Wheeler says of Johnson. “Ask me about my mum.”
Wheeler has had a front-row seat at Britain’s most important events of recent years. She was Johnson’s wife when he was the mayor of London and hosting the 2012 Olympics, and later when he led the battle for Brexit. Given her background, I would have had her down as a remainer. However, in the run-up to the 2016 referendum an article she had written was published in The Spectator that was seen as sticking a knife in David Cameron’s EU reform deal, providing a harsh critique of the legal implications. Reportedly it was one of the factors that persuaded her husband to come out for Leave. Did she influence him? She deflects the question, like the skilled QC she is: “I didn’t write in The Spectator, it was a long piece I wrote on our chambers’ UK human rights blog about the charter for human rights. Fraser Nelson [The Spectator editor] saw it and they took out all the cases and evidence and just left the argument.”
So is she in favor of Brexit? “It’s now become such a difficult subject, I don’t even call it Brexit, I think we just need to focus on what our relations will be with the rest of continental Europe. The thing I feel strongest about, I feel unhappy the country is so divided and people aren’t really listening to each other properly. I hope next year things will be different when the technicalities are sorted out. Just as with views on Covid, it feels like a fractious, angry time and I don’t like talking into that atmosphere. It’s so noisy.”
Wheeler was Johnson’s wife when he was the mayor of London and hosting the 2012 Olympics, and later when he led the battle for Brexit.
Family get-togethers must have been interesting, with her sister describing herself on Twitter as a “proud Europhile” — after leaving journalism she was a spokeswoman for the European Commission and now works for the European Investment Bank. “I wouldn’t call it awkward, though we did disagree strongly on many aspects of the EU. But I too consider myself a Europhile. I grew up with the EU, I went to European School in Brussels and did a masters in EU law. And I favor deep and extensive co-operation on all things, cultural, political and so on. I just think it’s a mistake to merge political institutions.” She adds: “I disagree with my sister on everything, but don’t find it hard to say I love you …”
She seems to enjoy a close relationship with her children. She describes in the book how her eldest son, Milo, went with her on the first trip to Pakistan and her youngest, Theo, joined her in India, where he was on gap year before heading to Cambridge. “They all went straight to the index to see how much they are mentioned,” she laughs. “Speaking of which, their names are wrong [in the book],” she tells her publisher who is sitting close by. “It says Johnson but they are Johnson-Wheelers.”
I try one last time to understand why she stayed in the marriage for so long. “These are such complicated questions and I am not going to go there,” she says. “Honestly there’s a lot of mulling over stuff, it’s all quite recent and I think my mum’s technique is not a bad one. She didn’t speak for years about what happened to her. Some things you need to put to one side — maybe like government papers, come back in 20 years or so.” It can’t be easy to ignore when he is on TV and newspapers every day? “It’s not ideal but … I think I’ve managed.”
She tries to distract me with a photo of her and her sister as young girls on the SS France with her parents, and her grade 2 cello certificate that she found recently while sorting out her parents’ papers at the house in Sussex. Once she is finished with that, she has lots more projects she would like to get stuck into. Now fully recovered from cancer, she plans to become involved with the Eve Appeal in raising awareness about the need for regular smear tests, particularly during the pandemic. She also mentions working with refugee women and perhaps writing another book — though not on life with Boris. “I think my marriage is the least interesting thing about me,” she says. Like her mother, poised with that ketchup bottle, she refuses to be defined by a man.
The Lost Homestead: My Mother, Partition and the Punjab, by Marina Wheeler, is out now in the U.K.