At the start of the Summer Olympics last month, the eyes of the world were upon London, and millions caught their first glimpse of the unruly blond thatch that is the trademark of Boris Johnson, the city’s recently reelected mayor. A portly, rumpled presence, he stood in sharp contrast to the glittering royals and sleekly groomed cabinet members surrounding him. And whether he is mocking Mitt Romney before an audience of 60,000 in Hyde Park or dangling from a zip wire with a Union Jack in each hand, the mayor is a master of politics as entertainment—the epitome of the conservative populist. But the artfully tousled hair and shambolic demeanor conceal a formidable intellect and ferocious ambition, both of which are amply displayed in this sparkling book.
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, or plain “Boris” to fans and detractors alike, came to prominence as the euroskeptic Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, and later as the editor of the Spectator. Televised appearances on the satirical Have I Got News for You burnished his fame, and, while still editor of the Spectator, he won a safe Tory seat and embarked on a rocky, colorful parliamentary career. He boosted his literary credentials with a stream of books: collections of articles, a campaign memoir, a meditation on the Roman Empire, and a goofy yet compelling thriller about the American president being held hostage by Islamic terrorists in Westminster Hall. Missteps and scandals that would have derailed a lesser politician hardly slowed his rise; to the consternation of many of his colleagues, he ran in 2008 for mayor of London against the incumbent, “Red Ken” Livingstone. And Boris, famed for his absentmindedness and comic eccentricities, unseated the old leftist after a focused, disciplined campaign. In May of this year, after a blazing rematch, he beat Ken once again.
The most popular politician in Britain, Boris Johnson has achieved the feat of leading a Labour-leaning city while making the Tory faithful purr with pleasure. His weekly Telegraph column is a feast of euro-bashing, the surest path to the hearts of middle England. Prime Minister David Cameron, shackled by the constraints of coalition government and his own cautious nature, seems a wan figure by comparison. The thought of Boris in Downing Street long evoked incredulous laughter among insiders, but few are laughing now. The process by which parliamentary candidates are selected makes finding a safe seat a simple matter, especially for a celebrity; and a return to Westminster by Boris would no doubt lead swiftly to a leadership contest.
Johnson’s Life of London contains 17 incisive sketches of Londoners past and present, but the dominant personality in the book is the author’s own. And it is an eclectic company of worthies he chooses to celebrate: from Emperor Hadrian to William Shakespeare, J. M. W. Turner to John Wilkes. Artists, politicians, and businessmen are commemorated in prose that has you laughing one minute and reaching for a dictionary the next. In an era of dumbed-down politics, Boris flourishes his Oxford education, sprinkling his writing and speeches with polysyllabic terms and classical allusions.
Boris is a booster, of course, and, as a mayor running (at the time) for reelection, doesn’t skimp on the flattery of his constituents: “London is just about the most culturally, technologically, politically, and linguistically influential city of the last five hundred years,” he writes. But then, as he acknowledges, “You would expect me to say this.” This is vintage Boris: forceful and opinionated on the one hand, witty and self-deprecating on the other. As Ronald Reagan showed, that is a devastatingly effective combination, and, as other politicians make depressingly clear, it is rare in politics. In his books and journalism, Boris disarms his critics by making them laugh, and wins votes from legions that would otherwise be indifferent or even hostile to his old-fashioned Toryism.