Reviewed: Boris Johnson - the Irresistible Rise

Buller for him.

I slightly mistrust people who purport to despise Boris Johnson. All this shows is how little they know about top politicians, who are mostly quite mad and quite dull. Yes, I know. Strange to be mad and dull at the same time, but there you have it: I’ve interviewed loads, including the last three prime ministers, and this is how they strike me. Even as the alarm rises in your chest, you’re stifling a yawn.

Whatever else he is, Boris isn’t dull. He is also fairly sane, in the way that you do tend to be if you have a little sister like Rachel Johnson, a woman who would no sooner stop taking the piss out of him than she would give up breathing. Thanks to her, he is never going to be allowed to drink his own Kool-Aid. She will always be there, telling the world about his loony childhood ambition – “World King!” the boy Boris would answer, when adults asked him what he wanted to be – from beneath her My Little Pony fringe. No wonder Michael Cockerell made her a star turn of his unnervingly entertaining film about Boris (25 March, 9pm). It was like watching someone who’d ingested too much tartrazine perform The Prince as rewritten by Dr Freud – and I mean that in a good way (I think).

Johnson was the ideal subject for Cockerell: Alan Clark, with added nice bits, a bigger brain and a real chance of becoming prime minister (though perhaps a little less real since Eddie Mair set about him with his scalpel on The Andrew Marr Show). Maybe this was why his film made me feel so nostalgic. As a politician, Johnson seems to belong to a different, more interesting generation. It’s not only that he has a hinterland and a bulging manila folder of a private life; it’s in his attitude, too. After his affair with an art adviser called Helen Macintyre became public – she is supposed to have had his child – Andy Coulson, then David Cameron’s director of communications, advised Boris to hold a mea culpa press conference. What did Boris say? Stuff that for a game of billiards. Like most voters, he knows there are few things more repulsive than the sight of a politician sniffling insincere apologies into a microphone.

Cockerell had so much wonderful material. I loved Boris’s mother’s description of the baby Boris, who emerged from the womb looking “ready for prep school”. Ditto her account of her son’s face as, aged 18 months, he first caught sight of his new sister: “Shock, disbelief . . . fear.” In old cine films, mini Boris was preposterously unselfconscious, beating his bare belly like King Kong. Rachel observed that while her brother got to wear some sort of swanky waistcoat at Eton and was made head boy, David Cameron achieved neither of these things – and that this tells us everything we need to know about their relationship even now. Did I believe her? Yes, especially when Boris, recalling Dave at school, described him as “this tiny chap”. Boris was definitely not tiny – and any bits that might have been mistaken for tiny, he soon dealt with. For his Eton leaver’s photograph, he’d done something creative with his scarf, wrapping it round the tops of his thighs so that it pushed his fly into a codpiece. Being extremely childish, this made me laugh – though if we’re going to be honest, it looked more like a tube of Rolos than a jet plane.

Boris is usually difficult to embarrass: this is his superpower, politically-speaking, which makes Mair’s achievement all the greater. Cockerell had a go, flashing up on three huge screens the notorious Bullingdon Club photograph (the one Dave wishes would disappear forever). “Oh, that is a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness,” said Johnson, shamefacedly. Cockerell mentioned that he’d heard Johnson still greets other members of the club with the cry “Buller, Buller, Buller!” Johnson grinned. “It may be that I do – in a satirical way,” he said. He then allowed himself a titter, a snicker that said: yes, I’m embarrassed, but not half so much as Cameron and Osborne are.

As I watched this masterclass in dealing with Grim Stuff From One’s Past, I thought of the politician I met recently who, when I brought up his membership of a gruesome student dining society, told me all sorts of fibs along the lines of: I never wanted to join, not really. Not classy at all. Better to gild one’s squirming with laughter than with lies, don’t you think?

 

Boris Johnson. Photograph: BBC/Jeff Overs

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism