Published: 28/03/2015
ISBN: 9781784621827
eISBN: 9781784628444
Format: Paperback/eBook

‘Buster Johnson came by accident to the long, low farmhouse called West Nethercote and decided never to leave. Her evocative memories gather together an array of family and neighbours, plagues of rabbits, a mutinous ram and the shepherd calling to his dog from across an Exmoor valley. She vividly describes a way of life that was already passing away. Alas Poor Johnny is a splendid book. It deserves to be widely read.’
Tom Mayberry, Head of Heritage, South West Heritage Trust more

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About the Author

Irène Johnson (known as Buster) was born at Versailles in 1907, to a French mother and English father. She was 29 when she married Johnny, swapping her cultured upper middle class life for one of freq... read more

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Alas Poor Johnny
A Memoir of Life on an Exmoor Farm: Foreword by Boris Johnson
by Buster Johnson (edited by Birdie Johnson)

In 1951 Buster Johnson moved from Surrey to Exmoor with her husband Johnny, four children, a couple of dogs and a vanload of pigs and poultry. Naturally gregarious, she exchanges a life of domestic servants and bridge parties for a remote and spartan existence at West Nethercote, a farm in the heart of Exmoor national park. Alas Poor Johnny, written some ten years later, is her vivid and fascinating account of their life there, and of farming on Exmoor in the fifties, told with a strong sense of drama and of the absurd.

The void left by her lost cultural and social pursuits becomes filled by the minutiae of everyday life, and by her husband Johnny and their four children. Above all, it is filled by the animals. These take the place of absent friends in her affections, their personalities permeating the book. There is a small but strong supporting cast, including busybody Mrs Stevens at the next door farm; Arthur the ex-cowman who moves with them from Surrey; SRN Tommie, the butt of an aggressive ram – and Alby the rabbit catcher, who plays the mouth organ and dances wild dances, enchanting the children.

Finally, threading through all this with a glint of steel, is Johnny. He is her antithesis; strong and undemonstrative, generally preferring animals to people. Their relationship is the heart of the book.

Alas Poor Johnny is a first-hand account of life on a farm in the 1950s, written at the time but reading with the freshness of the present. It will appeal to anyone, whether interested in Exmoor and old farming practices, a lover of the countryside and of animals, or just wanting to cheer themselves up with a good story, well told. It is a delight to read, hugely funny and, at times, touching.

Buster and Johnny spent the rest of their lives at Nethercote. She died in 1987, without ever publishing her book. Her daughter Birdie, who herself lived there for many years, has now done so on her behalf. Boris Johnson, Buster’s grandson, has written a foreword.

Featured in The Bookseller, March 2015 Non-Fiction picks, Biography & Memoir.

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Boris Johnson announces his ‘Grannyfesto’ to a packed and appreciative audience of friends and family at the launch of Alas Poor Johnny, a memoir of life on an Exmoor farm written by his grandmother Buster (Granny Butter), Dulverton Town Hall, Easter Monday, 6 April 2015

“It is fair to say that no one in our family has much of a reputation for meeting copy deadlines – and indeed one of the reasons my brother Jo has had to zoom back to London this morning is that someone rang him before breakfast and reminded him that they needed 4000 words by 7pm for the Tory election manifesto – don’t worry – it’s going to be superb.

But Granny Butter has today beaten all comers by producing her book not just late but fully 28 years after her death – to call her the late Granny Butter is an understatement, my friends – and it is a triumph.

Her memoirs have been brilliantly edited by Birdie and every page of them evokes a world that has almost vanished – Exmoor in the 1950s. A world without television and the internet, a world without central heating and mains electricity. Where life is an elemental struggle to start the fire and light the tilley lamps and pull the cows from the bog and save the sheep from an appalling disease called blackleg, to which they invariably succumb.

And yet I am sure that Jo would agree with me that there is so much we can learn from this book. And in this tense pre-electoral period I believe it is time to cull the 10 key points and put them to the people.

Yes; here it is – the Grannyfesto.

1. Abolish VAT on hearing aids.

2. Apply to the UN for immediate recognition of the superior intelligence of rats, geese and other animals.

3. Create a fourth emergency service, staffed by volunteers, to perform that humanitarian function essential to any civilised society of pulling your husband, and his landrover, from the river when he has had one too many at the Royal Oak.

4. Institute forthwith an NHS for animals, funded out of general taxation, to help cope with the appalling and vaguely obscene consequences of terrier tail baldness.

5. Admit asylum seekers from Italy and other Eurozone disaster areas on the strict understanding they speak English and help with the lambing.

6. Bring back hunting to Exmoor. While always respecting the feelings, and indeed the wishes, of all animals involved.

7. Relax planning bureaucracy so that hard pressed hill farmers can build attractive tractor sheds for machines that ceased to function at least 20 years ago.

8. Negotiate an immediate opt out from all burdensome and intrusive EU legislation on vacuum cleaners and other electric appliances, because sometimes the wood is so wet that the only way to get the fire going is the old Electrolux on reverse thrust, and put it to the people in the form of an in-out referendum.

9. Make scrabble an Olympic sport, provided that joey with a small j is globally recognised as a valid term for a baby kangaroo.

10. Finally, above all, bring back MANNERS, in young people. So that they stand up when all grown-ups, particularly ladies, enter the room. And so that they eat crisps in the proper way, with a knife and fork, as Granny Butter was taught to do when she was brought up in the Pavillon du Barry, Versailles.

That is the Grannyfesto my friends, these are the ten key policies that I think will carry this country, or indeed any country, on May the 7th. If you seek any further elucidation it is all here in this wonderful book, for which we thank Granny Butter, as indeed we thank her for so much else. So well done Birdie on a brilliant job – and forwards to victory with Granny Butter.”

Alas Poor Johnny by Buster Johnson
Edited by Birdie Johnson, with a foreword by Boris Johnson
paperback £7.99 and ebook £3.99. For more information go to

West Somerset Free Press

The Exmoor Magazine

K9 Magazine

K9 Magazine

Persephone Books


Boris Johnson's 'Grannyfesto'

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Mid Devon Gazette

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Congratulations - this book is excellent! I received it last week from the Publisher and read it in one gulp! I highly recommend it to everyone interested in Farm life

by Johanna Jaenne

A memoir about life on an isolated farm on Exmoor. The writing style seemed a little unpolished, but this is only my opinion.

by Polly Halicki

Welcome to Exmoor and to the life of a farm in a remote valley during the 1950's. Read about the highs, lows and everything in between. The world of animals and the people passing through. A lovely, lovely book!

by Irene Appleby

With Boris Johnson not being my favourite person I approached this book with a bit of a negative attitude...especially when I realised he had written the forward. However it completely won me over. Held my attention and interest throughout with the most interesting part being the history of the area and I loved some of the very funny anecdotes.
It was surprising in many ways and very refreshing.

by Collette McGaahan

Irene (known as Buster) was a French war bride who married Johnny, a no-nonsense Englishman in 1936. She traded her higher education and upper class life to undertake life on an out of the way farm in Exmoor, England. You wouldn't expect Buster to adjust to this primitive life but she does so whole heartily and with undying determination and good humor. This is a delightful description of their life on the farm as told by Buster. It was in 1960 that she was invited by her sister to join her in the West Indies for a four-month holiday during which time her sister painted and she wrote about their life on the farm and what a wonderful author she is! It wasn't until years later that her long-forgotten manuscript was taken from its place on top of a cabinet by her grand-daughter, Birded, and submitted it to a publisher. Unknowingly, Buster has written a family treasure to be read and enjoyed by all. I'm only sorry Buster never lived to realize her talent but you can be sure she would be proud.

by Mary Hughes



Such an amazing woman to learn to cherish a life so different. Her story is quite inspiring and the English countryside delightful!

by Jennifer Brown

3 out of 5 stars

I was captivated by this book; such an interesting story. From a life of privilege to living in a remote place in a basic and spartan way, this is a tale of life in the 50's on England's Exmoor. An interesting twist is that it is the life of Boris Johnson's grandmother; the book was published, after her death, by her daughter.

A touching a remarkable account of a life gone by. I highly recommend it.

by Patricia Bishop


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