How Boris Johnson’s book on driving was a warning to the public
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With Boris Johnson's authority taking a serious dent from his adviser's wayward motoring activities, NICK HOLLAND finds plenty of indicators of the prime minister's own reckless attitude in his 1999 book on driving.
As a writer of books and a voracious reader of books I have an eclectic taste when it comes to literature. I believe every tome has its merits, even if they only provoke an unintended laugh or two; and so we come to a book unlike any other I've read: Life in the Fast Lane, written by a 1999 vintage Boris Johnson.
Cobbled together from various magazine car review columns, it's the worst motoring book ever written, possibly (with the obvious exception of Jacob Rees-Mogg's history of the Victorian age, or as he likes to call it 'the present') the worst book ever written.
It's also essential reading, especially in the light of Dominic Cummings' recent indiscretions, as the future prime minister gives us his views on motoring laws, morality, women, and life in general.
As a non-driver at the time, I was rather surprised to be gifted a copy of Life in the Fast Lane 20 years ago; it was an eye-opening read then, and is even more astonishing when I read it back now.
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I wouldn't normally accuse Boris of being a visionary of any kind, but many of his mumbled attempts at bon mots within the book are incredibly prescient for the situation we find ourselves in today.
Just as Cummings seems to think motoring laws (which require a cast-iron certainty that your eyesight is up to the job), and regulations in general, are not for the likes of him, Life in the Fast Lane leaves little doubt that Johnson shares similar beliefs.
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On one level, it's a far too long confession of law breaking on a scale that we surely shouldn't have expected from a prime minister. Exhibit A, m'lud, is this charming description of Johnson's favourite place to park in Oxford: 'My favourite parking spot was on the yellow lines by the squash courts in Jowett Walk and sometimes, it is true, I got a ticket. But what did I care? The Italian Stallion [his Fiat] had a James Bond feature that enabled me to beat the fuzz. As a means of eluding the law, it was far better than a gadget that squirted the road with oil or tin-tacks, or rear-firing cannon mounted by the exhaust. The Stallion had Belgian plates. What were the poor parkies going to do? Contact Interpol? Ring up the Belgian police and ask them to track down my father's squash partner Sue? Ha, I snapped my finger at the parking tickets. I let them pile in drifts against the windscreen until the fines just disintegrated in the rain.'
Eventually, our, ahem, hero finds his car clamped, forcing him into another polemic: 'I felt a sudden constriction in the throat: a spasm of rage and amazement. How could they do this? By what right could the state take away my freedom of movement? Except that it wasn't the state that had clamped my car, but a hireling of the state, a ruthless cowboy.'
It may seem strange today to find Johnson espousing the merits of Belgium and freedom of movement, but his anger against motoring regulations is a cause he returns to regularly. The following passage from his book could have been written by Cummings himself: 'Our masters have decided to control our cars, and our lives, in ever more detail. They want to control how we drive and in what condition. They want to regulate what we do in our cars, where we park our cars, and now they want to tell us where we can drive, installing onboard computers to check up on us. We have got to the stage where you can be imprisoned for eating a sandwich at the wheel, for heaven's sake.'
We can see more than a hint of the defence Cummings has been making his minions (ie Conservative ministers) offer on his behalf in the following passage too: 'If I believe what I read in the papers – and of course I do – the boys in blue have decided that they have a new mission in life, which is to persecute and fine the middle class motorist.'
The only difference between 1999 Boris is 2020 Boris is a new title and a lot more children, for perhaps the creepiest parts of Life in the Fast Lane are the many, many times that he compares his car to a young woman, and on one occasion even the sat nav: 'Come on baby, I say tersely to the girl, speak to me for heaven's sake. You know how it is when you're relying on some chick to map-read and they go all silent and sulky? We are coming down New North Road and some key decisions are in prospect. I'm not getting the help I need so I give Carol a poke with my index finger, because that's the kind of relationship we have.'
When not lusting over his car, Boris lusts over the women he sees from his car, or in other cars, even, believe it or not, if they appear to be of the lower class sort: 'She was blonde. She was beautiful. She was driving some poxy little Citroen or Peugeot thing with enormous speed and confidence. And she had just overtaken me on the A24 on the way to Dorking. And let me tell you, I wasn't having it.'
On other times, Johnson, like Cummings on his way to the opticians, has trouble keeping his eyes on the road ahead: 'The girl turns to wave behind us, the sun glinting on her chic little pink sunglasses, and her chest is in my face and oooooof... Have you ever been in this sort of position? How can you tell how a girl will react? Shock would be all right: a spot of gasping, nun-like shock. I could live with that.'
Life in the Fast Lane is a motoring book that Donald Trump would enjoy reading, if only it had more pictures, and he would surely love our protagonist's championing of all things American. As we've come to expect from Johnson the motoring journalist his wording is outrageously offensive: 'I am a fervent pro-American. You say Big Mac is a culinary disaster, I say yum-scrum. You say Disney is an abomination, destroying old European fairy stories, rotting our children's minds. I say, I love you, Pocahontas, baby, and you too, Lion King. Come over here and rape our culture, you cute little Mickey Mouse, go right ahead, be my guest. I share the American dream, the get-up-and-go, Route 66, drive-by shootings, Have a Nice Day. You can keep your English breakfast, give me a pile of hamburgers with bacon and maple syrup followed by a flash-fried frazzfurter, washed down with lashings of root bear. I even quite like the look of Britney Spears. Yup, maybe it's because one of my great-grandparents was American, but there are scarcely any questions of taste or politics on which I will not defend America.'
If this book has one saving grace (which it doesn't), it's that Johnson 'treats' us to only one of his poems. 'Lines Written From A Morgan Aero 8 possesses surely the worst closing stanza since William McGonagall laid down his pen in 1902:
Now the leathery bucket is empty and bare
So I offer the seat to a girl with dark hair,
And the engine returns to its anapaest hum:
Titty tum titty tum titty tum titty tum.
The author is a man not for turning, except perhaps in a one-way street. Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are like two peas in a pod, they have drained their tanks of humility and filled up with privilege instead. Life in the Fast Lane does, however, contain one startling moment of truth, which Cummings has served to highlight with his recent actions: 'Cars make two-faced monsters of us all, and as the number of cars continues to rise, our hypocrisy will grow.'
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