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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era