Boris Johnson famously raved about how he likes to paint buses, although he has yet to unveil his personal collection of hand-painted models to the world – which he apparently makes himself out of wine crates.
Our hobbies say a lot about us – but what hobbies, esoteric or otherwise, have the previous occupants of Number 10 had?
When he wasn’t crying into his daily press briefing or taking a private meeting with Edwina Currie, the Grey Man loved a nice game of cricket. “Cricket is a Universal healer,” the ex-Prime Minister said in 2019, in a rare break from bemoaning the result of the EU referendum. Major’s love even extended to writing a book – “More Than A Game: The Story of Cricket’s Early Years”, available now on Amazon for 73p. He did show a dash of class after his 1997 election defeat – announcing to the press after his resignation speech that he would be going with his family to The Oval to watch Surrey play cricket. Indeed, cricket seems to be a popular pastime amongst former occupants of Downing Street – Clement Attlee, another quiet man, was also a devotee, as was Alec Douglas-Home.
The Iron Lady was not known for her cultural hinterland. At work late into the night – often with a whisky beside her – she had little time for hobbies or outside interests. She was, however, interested in fashion, and enjoyed cooking, making a note of numerous recipes. Some of them sound more appetising than others… Okay, okay, they all sound dreadful. A mousse made from beef consomme, cream cheese and curry powder was very much of its time, as I suspect was her trademark ‘courgette maison’.
Chris Collins, historian at the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, remarked: “I don’t think she was genius in the kitchen. But she was game. She actually liked doing things like that. She liked anything where you had to have a method, and you put effort into it… I actually think she did rather enjoy doing it.”
Still, as long as the cook is enjoying themselves, who cares about the people who have to eat it? No wonder Denis liked a snifter or two before dinner. She also, apparently, ate 28 eggs a week. Which I guess explains what she kept in her handbag.
Blair never talked openly about his hobbies but according to Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle in The Blair Revolution, the former PM used his free time to take his children swimming and play tennis and guitar. As his efforts for Sports Relief show, his forearm isn’t half bad, and perhaps his prowess on the court inspired his successors: both Cameron and Johnson are known for their love of the sport and enjoy a (mostly) friendly rivalry on court.
“You mustn’t expect prime ministers to enjoy themselves. If they do, they mustn’t show it – the population would be horrified.” A lonely and awkward figure, Heath was at his happiest either on his yacht, Morning Cloud, or playing music. His home, Arundells, featured a Steinway grand piano (he owned three), and an abiding image is of an ageing Heath, whiling away the evening, lost in Schubert or Strauss.
His passion for music was stoked when he went up to Balliol, Oxford and won an organ scholarship. Although his Politics and Economics degree was more a chore than a pleasure, Heath’s main comfort and abiding pleasure was music. He considered becoming a professional musician, but decided to become Prime Minister instead. Perhaps he would have been happier had he followed his calling. Many of his contemporaries recall with nostalgia watching him play with his organ during Balliol’s nightly Evensong.
Harold Macmillan was most associated in the public eye with a fondness for hunting and shooting (famous pictures abound of him proudly brandishing a brace of grouse) – but his real love was literature. Whilst his publishing career was lucrative, it was also a passion. Indeed, whilst Prime Minister, he would often try to clear his afternoon diary so he could sit in his study and read Trollope or “Miss Austen” – a pursuit he thought was of greater benefit to him, and the nation, than taking meetings or dealing with paperwork.
A skilled, and somewhat machiavellian politician, Macmillan was scathing of Margaret Thatcher, who he regarded as modish and lacking in culture. Unlike Thatcher, nobody knows how many eggs he ate a week, but something must have inspired his famous ‘wind of change’ speech.
Cigar smoker and brandy drinker (past-times also indulged by Harold Wilson, despite the pretence of being a Yorkshire everyman with a pipe), Churchill was a man of high culture. Writer, bibliophile – Churchill also loved painting. Indeed, it was painting which sustained him through the bouts of depression – “the black dog” – that plagued him throughout his life; painting that helped him recuperate from physical illnesses; and painting that comforted him in his declining years. It is ironic, perhaps, that the foe he spent his entire premiership fighting – Adolf Hitler -also wished to paint; where Churchill’s paintings are emotional and involving, Hitler’s were cold, synthetic and clinical.
Maybe what Prime Minister’s aren’t prepared to reveal about their hobbies also gives us an insight. David Cameron was keen to obscure his love of shooting. Stanley Baldwin pretended he was a parochial countryman. And Boris, apparently, is suspiciously quiet about his liking for serious art. The parallels with Churchill run deep. Though I still think Boris should finesse his image by lighting up a cigar each time he walks out of Number 10. A Homburg would suit him well.