Boris Johnson and the unfortunate nature of his reality
I am, on balance, glad that Boris Johnson exists. He has a blond dandelion of hair that is forever falling in his eyes. He says ‘cripes’. He’s somewhat stout. He’s an old Etonian but forgets to tuck his shirt in. I find him comforting in the same way that I find Jeeves and Wooster comforting. It would be even better if he had a monocle which kept falling into his soup, and if a young scamp called Toby kept on tying his shoelaces together whenever he sat at the dining table, and then cut the buttons off his braces so that his plus fours fell down when he stood up. He needs a long-suffering sidekick, an Austin 10 and series of scrapes which culminate in fat old Sergeant Barnes chasing him across a field which unbeknownst to them contains the most ferocious bull in Hertfordshire, leaving them stranded in the same tree and becoming firm friends until later Barnes discovers that it was Boris who inadvertently tipped off barmy Lord Abercrythe that the sergeant had eaten the last of his favourite fruitcake when he was supposed to be guarding the duke’s eccentric doily collection.
I suppose what I’m really saying is that it would be better if Boris Johnson were a fictional character, as then we could enjoy his improbable bumbling charm without having him fuck our largest and most important city to dust.
In the immediate aftermath of the election I was quite impressed with Boris. I had, I admit, been expecting a cataclysm – some debilitating piece of public-school whimsy like the introduction of a metropolitan fagging system, whereby new Londoners have to make toast and crumpets for the seniors, or a compulsory series of London-wide playoffs of the biscuit game.
But none of that happened. I wondered if his supporters might be right. During the election I had met a Tory councillor who was canvassing for Boris, and he told me that the official line was that Boris had changed: that New Boris was serious and sensible, on-message and determined to toe the party line. This seemed a remarkable tack to take. They were asking a whole city to believe that a person’s life history and their established character and public pronouncements mean nothing – that what’s really important is what they’ve been compelled to say in the previous twelve weeks.
What’s more, they were asking people to ignore the things that they like about Boris – he says what he thinks (after all, Scousers are whinging losers and it is still completely acceptable to call African children piccaninnies), and beneath the privilege he’s just like the rest of us (haven’t we all, if we’re honest, helped a friend to beat up a critical journalist?).
I would never have imagined it could work, but everyone either obligingly forgot all the terrible things Boris has done and said or they treated the mayoral election as though it were a reality show. A man in my newsagent’s said that he was going to vote for Boris ‘because he’s a muppet’. I don’t know if he meant that in the Cockney sense of ‘amusingly incompetent’, or if he had just really seriously misunderstood what was going on. In the man’s defence, Boris is one of the few politicians in the world who could appear in Avenue Q without needing a costume.
Now, my initial relief has gone. After being lulled by the lack of an immediate cataclysm I’m worried again now. I think I might stop reading newspapers for a bit. I didn’t mind the stuff about his deputy – after all, anyone can find they’ve appointed someone who may have borrowed £45,000 from elderly and infirm people while acting as a priest, someone who’s since been banned from acting as a priest, and someone who can’t quite remember whether or not they’re a Justice of the Peace. (I have difficulty remembering this myself. On Wednesday I turned up to hear a case and it was only after I’d delivered the verdict that I recalled that I’m not a JP. No one took it amiss – though I had a red face, I can tell you.)
But now he has scrapped the extra congestion charge for the most polluting cars, and stopped the least polluting cars getting free entry to the congestion zone. Maybe he’s realised that we don’t need any extra inducement to cut carbon emissions beyond the survival of our species, or maybe he’s a dick. It’s impossible to say.
And then there’s the Routemaster bus. I used to love the Routemasters because they gave me the comforting , irrational feeling that I was living in a cosy version of the past. I loved them even though they were uncomfortable and squashed and dangerous. Now Boris wants to bring them back, at a cost of some massive number of millions of pounds, except redesigned to be new and safe and easy. I can’t think what will be left, after they’ve done this, of what people loved – we’ll have something new and soulless but hampered by a pointless conductor, stairs at the back and a funny-looking front end. Surely we’d be better off just renaming one of the new buses that we already have.
The Routemaster reminds me of the eccentric, privileged, characterful politicians that Boris Johnson evokes – like the languid Arthur Balfour, who wrote books on golf and theology in office and said while prime minister, “Nothing matters very much, and few things matter at all”. Like the Routemaster, these politicians work better in fiction than in life, because there is no way of getting the cosy ideal of them without the crippling reality. It was Balfour after all who casually promised the Zionists a Jewish homeland in Palestine, not really thinking about whether it might upset the Arabs a bit.
All in all, I think we should take the £100 million or so that Boris is planning to put into the new Routemaster and spend it instead on developing a fictionalising machine. We could even insist that it have a conductor and be open at the back. Then we could transport Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson out of reality and into fiction, where he’d be much more at home and we could appreciate him.