Ken vs Boris: my verdict

After interviewing both mayoral contenders in one day, I found Ken candid and Boris canny.

Boris Johnson, according to a poll, is the person with whom most Londoners would like to have breakfast. Last Friday, I had mine with Ken at a café in Hampstead, after which I had lunch at City Hall with the popular mayor himself.

The Ken-Boris contest used to boil down to policy v personality. It was Ken, though, who turned out to be an interviewer's dream -- indiscreet, careless, outspoken and funny. Box Office Boris has been banished for the duration of the electoral campaign, replaced by an on-message Conservative politician and media-savvy former journalist, painfully conscious of how he will appear in print and of how his comments will be reported.

For such a notorious maverick, I found Boris maddeningly cautious and unforthcoming and it made him less fun to interview than I had anticipated.

The fact that he knows every journalistic trick, after a lifetime spent working as a hack, may well turn out to be one of Boris's greatest advantages over Ken. He is constantly vigilant, on the lookout for the tripwire that will land him in trouble. Once a quote-jukebox, he answered my questions with non-sequiturs, flattery, prevarication, diversion and digression. He even "pleaded the Fifth" to avoid answering in a way that would give the papers a headline. He stuck frustratingly to his mantra about his achievements and plans.

Boris's dilemma is that what makes him popular is also what stops him from being taken seriously as a politician. It's the likeability factor, though, that got him elected. Boris has always been bafflingly bullet proof. Every past gaffe and glitch has propelled Bounce-Back Boris on to greater glory. The public don't seem to care. In a superficial age, he has always seemed fun, telegenic, the anti-politician. He has by far the highest approval rating of any Tory.

Whereas once Ken was seen as competent and Boris charismatic, I found Ken candid and Boris canny. In the hour I spent with him, Ken told me the following: the BBC director general, Mark Thompson, is "a moral imbecile" for vetoing the word "Palestine" in a protest song; bankers' bonuses are "like penis extensions, among a smaller league of men - mine is bigger than yours"; Margaret Thatcher was "clinically insane" when in power; the Daily Mail "has done an awful lot for making us a more embittered people". Henry Kissinger "wasn't going to get laid until he was powerful, you know".

Spoiling for a fight, he was irrepressibly controversial, despite his press officer's best efforts. It's no surprise that he called his memoir You Can't Say That. After all this is the man who called an Evening Standard journalist, who was Jewish, a "German war criminal", for which he refused to apologise and was given a one-month suspension for bringing the office of mayor into disrepute.

Ken talked more about Boris than Boris talked about Boris -- and even though he usually doesn't talk about his children, he couldn't resist a dig: "We both have five, I can admit to all mine." He was referring to his rival's rumoured illegitimate two-year-old.

What did surprise me about Ken was that for someone so politically intransigent, he was open about regrets and failings in his personal life. I got a glimpse of what this self-confessed "workaholic", currently without a job, who still wants to change the world but who admits that "politics takes over your life", is missing. "No one would ever want to marry a politician," he tells me. I know I say. And I do.

It's hard to imagine Ken ever switching off from politics. He is most alive when he's talking figures, policies, plans. And despite once saying that a mayor should serve only two terms, his plans seem to extend well beyond the next four years. Even while gardening, he told me, he talks through issues to himself out loud.

I have heard people say often that they like Boris but they worry about his ability to run London. I worry about Ken's ability to work with a Tory government in a time of economic crisis. For him, the office of mayor is not just about London: it's about changing the system.

Ken is a revolutionary, by nature. That worries me. It's also why I like him.

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage