This portrait of London gives a picture of its author.
Aug 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 45 • By MICHAEL F. BISHOP
When asked as a child what he wished to be when he grew up, Boris replied, “World king,” and this ambition has carried him to fame, fortune, and the largest personal mandate in British politics. In his essay on Winston Churchill, Boris’s powerful drive is apparent, and he writes that during a tour of the Cabinet War Rooms, the prime minister’s subterranean redoubt, he settled eagerly and presumptuously in Churchill’s chair, to the evident discomfort of his guide. His analysis of Churchill’s leadership, though admiring, is balanced. Most politicians offer only bland, anodyne tributes to distinguished leaders, but Boris, in a fit of self-recognition, scores him for his opportunism and occasional bad judgment. Yet, in the end, he admits, “We still love him—I love him; and we all know instinctively that the popguns of revisionism have left not a scratch on the supercolossal Mount Rushmore of his reputation.”
Boris has an eye for more than politics. Few American politicians would write books containing such close observations of the female form; the women he encounters tend to be “impossibly tall, thin, and yet somehow curvaceous.” (More chaste is his portrait of Florence Nightingale, “the little lace-capped angel.”) One detects a trace of envy in his account of Keith Richards’s amorous adventures. Risky stuff, especially for one whose own appetites are, well, Olympian and well chronicled in the tabloids. One can hardly imagine a contemporary American politician carrying on so, but then, they don’t even write their own books.
Moreover, Johnson is more admiring of greatness than of virtue. To him, London is “a cyclotron of talent: drawing bright people together and then bouncing them off each other in a chain reaction of energy and emulation until—pow!—there is an explosion of genius.” This full-throated embrace of elitism and achievement is bracing, and surprisingly appealing: Boris is a toff with the common touch. His celebration of urban life, “the cross-pollination that is more likely to take place with a whole superswarm of bees rather than a few isolated hives,” and all its professional, economic, and romantic possibilities, is infectious and persuasive.
Johnson also shows that London has long been a crossroads of the world, a seething cauldron of humanity. And, with the mass immigration of recent decades, even more diverse and cosmopolitan (and fractious and divided) than ever. As a prominent Tory columnist of my acquaintance puts it, “London is a multicultural republic with a mayor as its president. It has nothing to do with the rest of England.” The city hall of such a metropolis might seem an unlikely perch for an outspoken conservative, but Tories ideologically starved by their national government are gorging on the red meat dished out by the mayor.
Michael F. Bishop is the former executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.