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The last refuge

Boris Johnson has sought refuge in Ukraine. But, Volodymyr Zelensky knows an act when he sees one

Boris Johnson with Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on April 9. Photo: Ukrainian presidency/ Anadolu Agency

It is always interesting to me to contemplate what I can only call the “safe space” of a prominent male figure. To watch a famous man retreat to a kind of fantasy world, in full view of the rest of us, is a fascinating and, in many ways, alarming thing.

Gauguin had his Tahiti. I say “his Tahiti” because the “native girls” that he painted did not exist – at least, not the way that he painted them in his various masterpieces. Instead of the nubile young females that he presents, the Tahitians had largely converted to Christianity by the time the artist arrived and would have been buttoned up and buttoned down in their Protestant clothes.

So Gaugin’s young women, ripe with innocence, are largely from his imagination and therefore an aspect of himself.

For Gaugin, who died in “his” Tahiti, this presentation of genius revolutionised art. Probably at the price of the young women he painted and their families as well. Because someone always pays the price in these matters, and it is rarely a powerful man in his safe space.

By the way: we care about that price now, it is the mark of our Age. Whether we will in future, whether we will become something else, one thing is for sure: Gauguin will remain because his genius broke through the hegemony of painting.

Hemingway had a finca – a farm – in Cuba up until the Cuban revolution at the beginning of the1960s. This farmhouse was where he wrote and bred cats, an activity not readily associated with a writer who once almost smacked down a critic for implying that he was not virile.

Also not readily associated with Hemingway was his interest and maybe even experimentation with the world of being transgender. On the finca, he could be Catherine, be called that name in bed, the name of the heroine of his first great novel, A Farewell to Arms.

Catherine is also the name of the woman in his posthumously published novel The Garden of Eden, a tale about a married couple who experiment with genders.

This writing, this soothing of himself, was done out of full view. The fantasy self that he could not and would not show in public became flesh and blood in the universe that he fled to. That he needed.

But neither Gauguin nor Hemingway gave us their safe spaces in full view.

Unlike Boris Johnson, whose safe space is Ukraine.

While Putin is musing in front of a group of students about “uniting” Russia, of being a kind of Czar in our time, the prime minister flies to Kyiv. He then tweets: “Thank you my friend president @ZelenskyyUa for hosting me in Ukraine yesterday. Mr president, Volodymyr, It is good to be in Kyiv again.”

Who knew that Zelensky, who many thought would be in real life what he played on TV – a bewildered president – would turn out to be the Winston Churchill of Ukraine?

The same cannot be said of Boris Johnson, who desperately wants to be Churchill but is not Churchill.

We Londoners knew all about Johnson thanks to his stint as London mayor, turning City Hall into ‘Clown Hall’ with ideas like a multi-million-pound flower-strewn “bridge to nowhere” and a proposed third airport to be located on an island in the already stressed Thames. This space was nicknamed “Boris Island.”

“But that’s Boris” was and is the refrain. Playing the lovable rogue, the charming schlemiel is one of his specialities.

Ukrainians probably do not care about this. Zelensky sees a man who can deliver arms as the leader of a (still) major nation. The fact that Johnson can speak Russian is another plus. A man fighting for the life of his country sees a useful friend in Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

And Boris Johnson sees a place to run to, to exercise his myth and beam it back to the country he is in charge of but which is slipping from his grasp.

For a man who, when he was a small boy, said his ambition was to be “World King”, the world has clearly always been, in his mind, of his own making. It is a series of havens and refuges, created by and for him, which can be imagined and which he leaves littered and soiled.

Like the hero of Jez Butterworth’s great play Jerusalem, he awaits the officials who will come and take him away from his mess of a world, one that he will leave behind for others to sort out.

The thing that we know, that we can count on, is that Boris Johnson is not going away quietly.

He snarled an angry sotto voce aside to Labour’s Dame Angela Eagle, a former teen chess champion whose intellect is at least as formidable as his own, in reply to the quite reasonable question that she asked on the floor of the Commons: “If 148 of his own backbenchers don’t trust him, why on earth should the country?”

What he said in reply was that he was doing his work and that he would not be stopped, “especially by her”. What he meant was that nothing was going to stop him. Not even the nation.

To paraphrase Michelle Obama’s famous comment about the presidency: “Being prime minister doesn’t change who you are. It reveals who you are.”

While the walls of his playpen wobble, especially after recent byelection results, he will flee more and more to a country whose own rich mythology, passed along from generation to generation, is one of the engines that sustains it. Zelensky salutes his country after almost every broadcast with “Glory to Ukraine.” Boris Johnson, bringing military and civilian resources to Ukraine, is seen as a hero there. It is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

No wonder he writes “It is good to be in Kyiv again.” It is good for him to escape a Britain increasingly of his own making. Brexit is him: a shambles covered over by lies.

But Volodymyr Zelensky knows an act when he sees one. Johnson’s British Beavis and Butthead act must surely amuse him and also reassure him.

The president of Ukraine’s first job is his nation and his people. He will take help where he can find it. But that ubiquitous photo of him looking admiringly on Johnson as they walk together also says something else:

It says: “I see you.”

And so do we.

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