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The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson, edited by Harry Mount - review

The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson, edited by Harry Mount - review
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The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson

Harry Mount

Bloomsbury, pp. 224, £

It’s just a guess, but I suspect that the mere sight of this book would make David Cameron gnash his tiny, perfect dolphin teeth until his gums began to bleed. What on earth can he do about Boris Johnson? What can any of us do? There’s something inexorable — irresistible even — about his progress,  and this slender volume of drolleries represents another small step on the increasingly well-lit path to ultimate power: what may come to be known as the ‘Boris Years,’ or even the ‘Boris Hegemony’.

This book thus becomes more than merely amusing and entertaining (it’s both, needless to say); it becomes potentially significant. Future generations may ask themselves, who was this Boris Johnson exactly? Will Self has described him as ‘an enigma wrapped up in a whoopee cushion’; but as this book shows, Boris isn’t really a man of mystery at all. On the contrary, he is the acknowledged master of hiding everything in plain sight. His intelligence is obvious, his charm legendary and his ambition terrifying. He is also bone idle (say some), libidinous to the point of priapism (say all) and ‘the right man to lead us back into the 17th century’ (says Paul Merton).

And throughout his strange and still golden career, he has assisted future historians by writing literally millions of words of journalism, most of them at speed and a few of them quite stunningly ill-judged. ‘In the Tory Party we have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing, and so it is with a happy amazement that we watch as the madness engulfs the Labour Party,’ he famously wrote in 2006. And a few days later: ‘I mean no insult to the people of Papua New Guinea, who I’m sure lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity in common with the rest of us. I’m happy to add Papua New Guinea to my global itinerary of apology.’ Which, of course, is funny and delightful.

The words are his none-too-secret weapon. He is as natural and talented a comic writer as we have; or rather, he is as natural and talented a comic talker — for like Christopher Hitchens, he can write so fast because he is only writing down what he would have said. The rest of us have to work at our words.

For Boris the flow of invention appears to be ceaseless. He sees the joke early, and times it out of the middle of the bat every time: ‘I find I don’t have much difficulty getting people to listen to me seriously when I want to,’ he told the Independent in 2004. ‘I think it’s important to remember that most people find politics unbelievably dull, so I don’t see any particular vice in trying to sugar the pill with a few jokes.’ Thus, at the general election the following year: ‘Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chance of owning a BMW M3.’ To the CBI last November: ‘We need to abandon the rhetoric of austerity, because if you endlessly tell businesses to tighten their belts and eat nut cutlets and drink their own urine, then you will be putting a big downer on growth and enterprise.’

That’s not only a very nice example of the rule of three, but also an illustration of the main lesson Boris has learned from P. G. Wodehouse: mix it all up (Latinate and Anglo-Saxon, formal English and schoolboy slang), bung it all in and see what happens. ‘The hills and dales of Britain are being forested with white satanic mills, and yet the total contribution of wind power is still only about 0.4 per cent of Britain’s needs. Wave power, solar power, biomass — their collective oomph wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding.’ You could quote here from almost every page.

In a comprehensive introduction (a quarter of the book’s length), Harry Mount tries his best to appear even-handed and to show Boris in all possible lights. But let’s be frank: this is an adoring volume, tinged with hero-worship. ‘This book has the full support of Boris Johnson himself,’ says the blurb, with almost indecent gratitude. His enemies and rivals can only rage and rant, and weep with despair.