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

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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