The Mayor of London’s heritage is almost as diverse as that of the capital itself. “Like honey…or indeed British sherry,” says Boris, “I am the produce of more than one country.”
Growing up, Boris was aware of his paternal grandparents’ intriguing ancestry. His half-French grandmother ‘Granny Butter’ was happy to regale him with stories of her aristocratic antecedents, the de Pfeffels. His grandfather, ‘Johnny’, however, remained tight-lipped about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of his father, a Turkish journalist and politician named Ali Kemal.
Determined to find out more, Boris travels to Istanbul in Turkey, where Ali Kemal was born and received his education at a traditional Muslim school. Boris is unnerved by the parallels he finds between his ancestor’s career and his own – Ali worked as political columnist for a newspaper, writing with a frankness that often landed him in hot water. “The imperative to be read, to be punchy and provocative, can conflict with your political cause,” Boris reflects.
Ali Kemal also made the move from print to politics, becoming Turkey’s Minister for the Interior. But his strong views lead to a disastrous clash with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, and left him a marked man. In 1922 Ali was lynched and murdered by Atatürk’s aggressive supporters.
Though saddened by the circumstances of his death, Boris is clearly proud of his ancestor’s unyielding sense of principle, the way he “stuck to his guns.” Ali’s brutal end also goes some way to explain Johnny’s reticence on the subject. “It must have been very, very tough for my grandfather…Maybe it was just too ghastly for him.”
Boris’s grandmother Irène Williams, on the other hand, was vocal about her heritage. But was ‘Granny Butter’ quite as posh as she thought she was? A sceptical Boris returns West to find out.
Although one tantalising clue from his childhood – a chest thought to contain the de Pfeffel family silver – has long since been sold, Boris uncovers an heirloom in many ways more precious. This handwritten document takes him back a further three generations, to Baron Charles de Pfeffel and his wife Caroline von Rothenburg – German nobility.
Boris heads to Munich to dig deeper and finds himself on the cusp of an even more exciting discovery: the paternity of Charles’ wife Caroline. “Are we about to find a dark secret …something deeply embarrassing? My ancestors have carte blanche to commit whatever acts of fornication they want, as far as I’m concerned,” says Boris, his interest piqued.
The paper trail takes him to the archives of Augsburg then Stuttgart, where he finds his answer. Caroline was the illegitimate daughter of Prince Paul of Württemberg – German royalty, and the original owners of the ‘de Pfeffel’ family silver.
Next Boris visits the family seat, the grand Baroque palace of Ludwigsburg. At its heart is a portrait collection, the Gallery of Ancestors, where he discovers a few more of his own, including none other than Britain’s King George II. “I’m more than surprised, I’m stupified,” says Boris. “I’ve always felt like the product of newcomers to Britain, so it’s totally bizarre and surreal to be told that, in fact, my eight times great grandfather was George II. Not even Granny Butter in her wildest dreams could have come up with that one.”