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.
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.