Book review: Johnson’s Life Of Land

MICHAEL Foot’s election manifesto in 1983 was described as the longest suicide note in history. This book is the longest personal manifesto since we had an elected mayoralty for London.

Every page is the coded plea: “Boris for Mayor”. That said, it would be a churlish reader who derived no pleasure from this romp through London’s history. Private Eye prints parodies of Boris but what’s the point when he so cheerfully writes parodies of himself?

Here is Pope Gregory “mooching about a slave market in Rome”. The Anglo-Saxons “were called names like Cathwulf and Ceawlin and, let’s face it, folks (or volks), they were essentially German”.

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Largely relying, he admits, on Stephen Inwood’s excellent history of London, Boris rewrites it in Borisese. Of course, as many people will have recognised, “with his bawdy, his mockery, his self-mockery, his pricking of hypocrisy and his terrible puns … we love him”. Geoffrey Chaucer, that is.

As the sketches accumulate, we realise just how like Boris all the London heroes have been. Take Dick Whittington. “Such was his prestige that he was elected Mayor again in 1406 and again in 1419, the fourth time, if you include his initial appointment by Richard II.” Dream on, Boris, as you look back on the banquets Whittington gave for the King. (“The Mayor laid on a fantastic binge. The wenches were as comely and as fragrant as any in late medieval London.”)

Others will have noted the points of resemblance between Boris and another Johnson, Dr Samuel — “Incurable show-off he may have been, but I hope I have convinced the reader that Samuel Johnson was a gentle and kind man.” Also, but naturally, “he was a passionate conservative in today’s language”.

A few pages on, and we are in the company of John Wilkes. Boris confesses: “I have a terrible feeling that as a 15-year-old I wrote a pompous essay on Wilkes … the gist was that Wilkes was a berk, a second-rate chancer, an opportunist, an unprincipled demagogue who floated like a glittering bubble on a wave of popular sentiment”.

Churchill, meanwhile, was distrusted by the Conservative leadership and was himself a fierce critic of the Prime Minister (geddit?). Then, in the hour of his nation’s need, the former “maverick”, hitherto seen as a self- indulgent, upper-class buffoon, was shown to be what Britain and the world needed. “I’m sure there are other charges laid against him … yet the interesting thing is how little difference they have made. We still love him.”

Of course we do, Boris. “And we all know that the popguns of revisionism have not left a scratch on the supercolossal Mount Rushmore of his reputation.”



Harper Press, 304pp, £20