Friday, February 24, 2006

Borising Around Henley-on-Thames (Or, the Greatest Tory Ever Told)



My flatmate, who also happens to be my landlord, is something of a lefty. We've got into arguments about Whitlam, Howard, and the comparative merits of the Herald Sun and The Age. Plus, his sister once invited me to a Labor Party fundraiser in Brunswick. I figure, though, since I can't do much about it, I can at least try and take advantage of the situation. Next time he asks for the rent, maybe I can assert, 'Hey comrade! Property is theft!' or something. Then again, he's not from the extreme left, and would probably laugh at me. And I'm hardly Josef Stalin myself: he's got me there, the swine.
Still, in the meantime, I've been redistributing some of his wealth - ie, borrowing a book from him. It just so happens to be,

FRIENDS, VOTERS, COUNTRYMEN: JOTTINGS ON THE STUMP

Boris Johnson.

And it's fucking good.

In case you were wondering, here's a quick Borisography. Child of upper-middle-class parents, he gained a scholarship to Eton and became middle-upper-class. Sometime after graduating, he became an apprentice journalist for the right-wing-leaning national paper, The Daily Telegraph, before going on to work for the even-more-right-leaning international magazine, The Spectator. During 1997, he stood as the Tory candidate for the Welsh electorate, Clwyd South (lost), and in 2001, for Henley-on-Thames (won). At the same time, he was also a columnist for The Telegraph, and writer and then editor of The Spectator.
As a politician, he was once labelled as 'The Worst Candidate In The World' by the Sunday Times. Despite this recommendation, he failed to lose a safe Tory seat in the following elections. As an editor, he is said to have had an affair with Petronella Wyatt, one of his columnists.
And as a writer, he is exceptional:

"That's it. The gun is fired. We're off. With a glint in his eye Stuart Reid, deputy editor, seizes the reins at the Spectator. My Telegraph column is prorogued. Chris Scott has drawn up a compendious battle plan, beginning with a walkabout in Henley high street."

The comic deflation in the last part of the last sentence is wonderful. But 'compendious'? Who the fuck uses the word 'compendious' nowadays? 'Big', 'Large', 'Jolly Huge', 'Gigantic', or even 'Comprehensive' all seem to be simpler options.
(Then again, I suspect that Boris sometimes doesn't like to be understood. He once described rumours of an affair between him and Spectator writer Petronella Wyatt as being an 'inverted pyramid of piffle'. Right, Boris. So, did you root or did you root?)

Apparently, the book 'makes no pretensions to being a work of political economy'. Perhaps not, but at one point he writes:

"... if I may be permitted a political side-swipe."

That's just plain weird. If you are trying to become a member of parliament, then aren't political side-swipes are expected of you? Anyway, it's obvious to anyone with the most basic knowledge that The Spectator, which Boris edits, is a Tory magazine. It is written mostly by Tories, published mostly by Tories, and read mostly by Tories and Labour Party hacks looking for something to laugh at. Once Boris meets a voter who tells him -

"... with a glassy stare that he is going to vote Lib Dem, because they are the only ones who are absolutely sure to keep the pound.
No they're not, you say. Yes they are, he says, robotically. Has he, perhaps, been hypnotised?"

I'm no expert in Australian politics, let alone British politics, but I don't think the Liberal Democrats ever endorsed hypnotism as an election strategy. At another point, Johnson confesses to a 'morbid fear' that the Liberal Democrats will beat him in the elections. At various times he says the Labour party are 'liars', and that their leader, Tony Blair, longs for popularity and public approval. He agonises over the polls for his own party: 'Unbelievably awful. The hostility to William is very depressing.' And he seems particularly depressed over his own nasty right-winger reputation:

"I once went on Question Time and said that if gay marriage was OK - and I was uncertain on the issue - then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men; or indeed three men and a dog. Was that the remark that cheesed them off? Or was it the time when I said that among the factors responsible for the Paddington railway disaster - the fat cats, the Tories, Railtrack, etc. - you could not altogether ignore the role of the driver, who had gone through several red lights and ignored two warning buzzers in his cab? Was that what did it?
What had I done, I whimpered to myself, as I was overtaken on the running circuit by the sprightly grannies of Islington, to earn this obloquy?"

But he is often disarmingly honest. He often comes across arguments that he can't counter; and he admits to the failings of the Tory party - and his own failings - repeatedly. And sometimes, his arguments hit home. He is good on Britain's socialised National Health System - the notorious NHS - showing how it has consistently lower success rates with cancer and heart-attacks than the French and German health systems.
At several points, he offers sharp insights into the political and journalistic professions. He is visited by journalist, Jeremy Paxman, who is at that time writing a book:

"The thesis of the book, as it turns out, is that politics and politicians don't really matter that much these days. Politicians, Paxo will argue in his new book, are not worth a pitcher of warm spit, especially not compared with multinational tycoons and the Olympian journalist figures who nightly mould the mind of the country ... why am I doing it, Jeremy? I tell him: it's 30 per cent a desire to be of public service or use, or however you want to express that with minimal piety. It is 40 per cent sheer egomania; and it is 30 per cent attributable to the belief that the world ought not to be run by swankpot journalists, showing off and kicking politicians around, when they haven't tried to do any better themselves, hmmm, what, hmmmm?"

Towards the last quarter of the book, there is disappointment as the realisation sets in that public opinion is not turning in the Tories favour. One person Boris meets tells him that he is going to be the 'Socrates' of the Conservative Party. 'Needless to say, he is wearing a VOTE LABOUR sticker'.
But as engaging as Boris is, what really makes this book live are the people he meets. The pages overflow with thousands of people: spritely grannies; tired, middle aged mechanics wiping grease from their hands; embittered journalists spitting out insults veiled as questions, questions veiled as insults, or just plain insults; the workers and customers at a Viagra clinic; clannish university students enraged at something (they're never sure what); citizens, constituents, voters. And Boris faithfully records it all.

What other book is there like this, really? Nothing in Australia, certainly: Mark Latham wrote a diary while in politics, but only published afterwards; Lindsay Tanner publishes the occasional column in The Daily Telegraph. I suspect that if an aspiring politician wanted to publish a work similar to this here in Australia, the party would overrule him. Politicians over here are obsessed with things like 'conflict of interest' - maybe because they don't think politics should be conflicted with interest. Or maybe politicians are just interested in conflict. A pity, really. There's something fascinating about this book. Never has the transition from person to politician been made to seem - well, almost natural ...

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