BONNIE GREER: Beware wide appeal of Boris Johnson's retro charm
PUBLISHED: 09:00 18 August 2018
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Boris' cheap shots are part of a pantomime - allowing him to discover who his real troops are, says BONNIE GREER.
Mark Twain once said: “The trouble ain’t that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain’t distributed right.”
I thought of that quote as I watched a crowd standing in awe in the Great Court of the British Museum, listening and watching the then mayor of London: Boris Johnson.
He was regaling the throng in both Latin and Ancient Greek, using a bunch of corny jokes which sent chuckles of delight through the crowd.
I wondered what was delighting these people, what did they see standing before them? I saw nothing, and that is when Twain came to mind and I knew that all the Johnson phenomenon was is an example of when “the lightning ain’t distributed right”.
Every nation has myths of its own. If an individual can embody those unconscious stories, that individual has struck gold.
Johnson became mayor of London on the back of this ability to mine this cultural gold. His rotund form astride his bike every morning, travelling from his North London redoubt to City Hall, made people forget the earnest, saturnine Ken Livingstone. Johnson’s tenure was not Town Hall, but ‘Clown Hall’. But he knows that it is important to never underestimate the need of most people to be entertained.
During his time he closed fire stations; tried to get a garden bridge made that looked like an illustration from some Edwardian lady’s magazine, and – oh yes – he wanted to build an island. There were other things, too. Real things, no doubt his supporters will point out. But whatever they are, or were, the real world was never of importance to Johnson. Because that is where he would have to measure up, stand next to real people doing real things. Real things have never been his thing.
Of course, he is an MP, parachuted into a safe seat, the tried and tested method for those who might be called to serve in government. He was once the nation’s top diplomat, a possibility once thought a reality only on the satirical website The Onion, or an episode of The Simpsons; or maybe a con that Del Boy would have dreamed up on Only Fools and Horses.
But it did happen, if just for a fleeting moment because to have Johnson inside the tent was preferable to the opposite. He is a tent-burner, not a tent-builder.
Just the thought of him as PM (and it is possible now, don’t fool yourself) has people weeping – some with joy; some in fear; some in rage.
Maybe he did invent the iconic mental and emotional idea of the ‘Brussels Banana’ that euro-monstrosity which is evoked from time to time. Maybe he even invented Brexit itself and the notion of leaving Europe altogether. Just for the sport of it.
He has been on both sides of the fence which can easily lead a reasonable person to assume that he is an opportunist. But that would be to not understand the grand edifice that he is.
He is a character carefully honed on the playing fields of Eton and also from his interesting paternal past.
He has described himself as a “one-man melting pot” – with a combination of Muslims, Jews, and Christians as great-grandparents. This is fascinating because what he projects – his ‘imaginarium’ – is that of some amiable, but reckless and brilliant, chancer, born and bred in the Tory shires.
This is opposed to the reality of an infancy spent in an apartment opposite the louche Chelsea Hotel in midtown New York. Two years before Johnson was born, the artist Yves Klein wrote at the hotel his manifesto which reads, in part: “It is necessary to create and recreate a constant physical fluidity.” Johnson must have breathed that in with his mother’s milk.
He is the Snow White to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Rose Red of a kind of English Construction Myth. That myth is built on an England part Rudyard Kipling, part Churchill’s ‘Finest Hour’, part idea that England is Great Britain and Great Britain is the world.
Johnson satisfies several camps at once: he is the dreamed-of spawn of the Pall Mall clubs, places where old men snooze after lunch in libraries where the carpet hasn’t been cleaned since Victoria was on the throne and the air smells of feet. He is, at the same time, the privileged of the Bullingdon Club.
In one famous picture, Johnson poses with his mate/rival David Cameron, both clad in waistcoats, the gaze of the future foreign secretary steady, like a kind of predator.
Cameron, the future prime minister, looks like a poseur, a fraud as he gazes into the distance. Johnson looks straight ahead, a bit vicious, a bit confident. Destined to rule over us.
Johnson – like Lord Byron and the Krays, to name a few – understands how England worked. Not the real England, where real people live and work and die. But the myth, that thing out there shimmering in the mists. That tiny last breath that must have issued from Nelson after the French sniper got him at Trafalgar.
For a few years, I sat on the government’s First World War committee, set up to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the conflict. It was full of military figures and military historians, fine people, but many of them clad with an idea of glory. I realised, through them, that a story of England had come to an end. John Osborne knew it too and this is one of the engines that fires his masterpiece, Look Back In Anger.
But it was Dwight Eisenhower’s phone call to Anthony Eden, to withdraw from a war over the Suez Canal, that was the real end.
Brexit is yet another attempt – the last attempt – to revive the England of Nelson, Churchill and that feeling of ‘the sun never setting’.
Johnson and his cohorts and adherents, his acolytes and worshippers, are dangerous because they traffic in nostalgia. It is interesting that the concept of nostalgia was first coined as a condition, one which described the feeling of 17th century Swiss mercenaries fighting far from home.
Its root is Greek: nóstos, meaning ‘homecoming’, a Homeric word to describe being out to sea, and álgos, meaning pain or ache.
The business of Johnson, and those like him, is to manufacture nostalgia. Why? Because, for them that is all there is left. And where they can maintain control.
Johnson is making one last push to take the nation, which he and his cohorts consider only to be England, their England, backwards. But that place no longer exists.
His burqa cheap shots are a dogwhistle, a ruse, a pantomime. It is his way of discovering who his troops are. Who will fight with him. Who will join him on the march back.
Like the Trump Train, Boris Johnson represents the last gasp of a past. And as with a dying beast, the last gasps are the dangerous part.