The first time I saw Boris Johnson being interviewed I concluded that he was a Buffoon. Never have I been so wrong.
A few days later, in the window of Richmond’s second hand bookstore, my wife, spotted a novel by Boris Johnson. As luck would have it, it was still there a few days later when I made it to the store during business hours. We both thought it must be another Boris Johnson; but no, it was the real deal; his first novel, published in 2004. At that time, he also had a non-fiction book to his credit.
He was an MP at the time that he wrote the novel, and also shadow arts minister. This didn’t tally with my first assumption that Johnson was amusing, but not that bright.
Soon after starting the book I was in awe of his intellect. What surprised me was the breadth of his knowledge. Allow me to share this passage to illustrate:
“His answer, of course, was Cupressus leylandii, the nuclear weapon of suburban hate. When Dennis planted them, ten in a row, at the bottom of the garden, they were only eight feet tall. In two years they had almost doubled. Upwards, sideways and diagonally groped their spongy, aromatic fronds, dwarfing and in some places crushing the original wooden boundary fence. Twilight descended on the sunny little room where Price would take his breakfast”.
This tickled me, because it is Cupressus leylandii that tames the wind on Eyebright’s north and south boundaries. I know, however, to give those hedges a severe trimming at least every second year.
Boris’s tale of the Cupressus leylandii was inserted into an action drama which has Islamic terrorists seizing the US president and, on live television, threatening to blow up themselves and the president lest certain demands are met. Digressing onto random topics is how Johnson talks as well as writes. It’s central to his comical demeanour.
From 2008 to 2016 he was the mayor of London. Subsequently when he re-entered national politics, he was appointed foreign secretary. All the while he found time, energy and brain power to write a further seven books. His disheveled manner and appearance belie his intellect.
He was born in New York in 1964, the first son of a pairing of academics. They were in New York while his father studied at Columbia University. Later they moved to Washington DC, but when Boris was five they moved back to the UK and then Brussels where his father became a Eurocrat.
In Brussels, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalised. Boris, his younger sister and his brother were sent off to preparatory schools in the UK. From prep school Boris progressed to Eton, Britain’s most prestigious boarding school. Eton is an incubator for leading British politicians (of the Conservative persuasion). Names like David Cameron, William Hague, Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt are ones you would have heard of. They are all Eton old boys. Unless you are rebellious or conspicuously sub-par, Eton almost certainly led to responsibility, respect and a healthy income. Johnson was well above par. He was an outstandingly fast learner, hence his breadth of knowledge.
He followed a well-trodden path from Eton to Oxford, and studied classics. He co-edited the university's satirical magazine Tributary, and in 1984 he was elected secretary of the Oxford Union.
Johnson was sacked from his first job as a journalist when he fabricated a quote, but the old boys network came to his rescue, and he was given a job at the Daily Telegraph. He had known the editor at Oxford.
In 1989 he returned to Brussels, this time as the Telegraphs man on the ground at the European Commission. There he remained for five years growing ever more disdainful of the Commission.
Johnson is not averse to massaging the truth to suit his ends. Most recently he claimed that membership of the European Union costs the British taxpayer £350 million a week. That’s not a lie, exactly, since the UKs annual contribution to the EU is £20 billion, which works out at about £350 million a week. But it fails to take account of the £10 billion or so that they get back each year in the form of rebates and subsidies.
Johnson seems to have an unassailable confidence in himself. He seems not to give a jot what people might think of him. In that interview where I formed my first impressions of him, he told the interviewer that he entertained himself in the evening by painting boxes with smiling faces to represent happy people travelling in buses. I was totally taken in and was thinking this was like the movie ‘Being There’, where Peter Sellers plays a simpleton who ends up on track to become the U.S. president.
Johnson had a charmed run as London mayor. To win the mayoralty and be a Conservative was extraordinary, and then to win a second term was unheard of. During his tenure, London’s murder rate halved, and there were reduced traffic fatalities. The city embarked on an ambitious house-building program, introduced a popular rent-a-bike scheme and did a fine job of hosting the 2012 Olympics.
Johnson married twice. His second marriage being twelve days after divorcing his first wife. Five weeks later his second wife gave birth to the first of four children they have had together.
PC he is not. In response to a comment by Barack Obama that Britain should remain in the European Union, Johnson said that Obama's views may have been shaped by an "ancestral dislike" of Britain owing to his "part-Kenyan" background. These comments were howled down as racist and idiotic.
So why is Boris such a strong advocate for Brexit? Why is he determined to cut the UK adrift? Is it that Johnson can see a brighter future going alone while most of the rest of the world see the opposite? It is tempting to abandon critical thinking and say “Boris is pretty smart, so maybe he’s right”. I think not. Five years in Brussels, close to the European Commission and slanging it at every turn, surely must have galvanised his position. That is what I believe we are seeing when Johnson speaks. No doubt the deadening hand of Eurocracy must have often been frustrating and seemingly irrational, but never has isolationism led to prosperity.
Boris is smart, but even the smartest of us are fools in some areas. It would be a mistake to assume that because he is right about some things, that he is right about all things.