Mark Mason

Opening salvos ...

Text settings

Johnson’s Life of London

Boris Johnson

Harper Press, pp. 322, £

When a man is tired of Johnson, he’s liable to vote for Livingstone. Boris has decided to head Londoners off at the pass by writing a book about them, or rather about 18 of their famed predecessors. From Boudica and Alfred the Great, through Shakespeare and Robert Hooke to Winston Churchill and Keith Richards, we meet people who shaped the city of their birth and/or residence. The stories of both the subjects and the city are brilliantly told. It just so happens that, in passing, we learn such facts as ‘London’s buses are carrying more people than at any time in history’. When Boris visits the Midland Grand Hotel he notes that the traffic outside is ‘flowing smoothly’. By sheer chance one chapter takes a moment to observe that London remains ‘one of the world’s most important centres for these creative culture and media industries’.

The research that has obviously gone into this book might actually have  counted against Johnson at the polls. ‘Shouldn’t he have been running the city rather than reading about it?’ would have been the cry. Boris, as you’d expect of a seasoned London cyclist, swerves skilfully around this danger by acknowledging the help of Stephen Inwood, author of ‘the most readable, thoughtful and interesting one-volume book’ about the capital. The finished product shows an eye for detail that would do Savile Row proud. J.M.W. Turner spoke in a strong Cockney accent. The Tube and the theory of nuclear chain reaction were both invented in London traffic jams. The founder of modern tennis, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, originally wanted a court shaped like an hourglass. A 1631 edition of the King James Bible printed the ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’ commandment without its ‘not’.

But even though he’s got 2,000 years of such promising material to work with, Johnson, proud capitalist that he is, takes care to add value of his own. The quality of the writing is Shard-high. Winston Churchill was the ‘Chancellor of the University of Life’. London is ‘fame’s echo chamber’. Noting the old ‘we know almost nothing about Shakespeare the man’ chestnut, Johnson comments that ‘every fact or factoid is a frail peg from which is suspended a vast duffel coat sodden with conjecture’. The Borisisms are there (the Lord Mayor who ignored the Great Fire is a ‘municipal mugwump’), as are the gags. Discussing the lyrics to ‘Honky Tonk Women’, Johnson remarks that as a veteran of Tory gatherings he has met all sorts of ‘gin-soaked bar-room queens’.

There’s substance, too. Many of the chapters — for instance those on Churchill and Boris’s namesake Samuel — resist easy caricature to paint complex pictures of flawed humans. The portrait that really stands out, though, is the one of John Wilkes. He was the scholar of Latin and Greek, who turned from journalism to politics, who ‘associated sex with intellectual creativity’, who ‘like most sensible authors’ spent advances before writing the books, who was a ‘highly effective’ Mayor of London. Always nice to feel an empathy with your subject. Johnson just happens to throw in the detail that Wilkes, an irresistibly popular figure who the voters insisted on returning to parliament, spent one period ‘serving as an MP and Mayor of London at the same time’.

I only noticed one error in the book — the Colony Room isn’t ‘still going’, much as Boris might wish it to be. Perhaps the most intriguing detail comes as the author pleads and begs to be allowed to sit next to Keith Richards at an awards ceremony. The Human Riff has long been his hero, the 16-year-old Johnson even buying a pair of tight purple cords in tribute (‘a sheen of sweat’, he notes, ‘appears on my brow as I write these words’). Of course Boris succeeds — but only after Stephen Fry has failed. The reason? Keith’s minders thought that Fry was David Cameron. Interesting that that happened. Even more interesting that Boris included it.