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

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle