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August 22, 2006

The recycling of Boris Johnson: Have I Got Views For You - Boris Johnson

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Have I Got Views For You
by Boris Johnson
London: Harper Perennial, 2006
Paperback, 7.99

This is a compilation of Boris Johnson articles. So serious Boris devotees will have read them before. But it is nice to have them gathered in book form rather than as a yellowing collection of press clippings. Some have already appeared in an earlier collection, Lend Me Your Ears. His website also, disappointingly, consists of reproducing his articles from the Telegraph. Talk about recycling.

Like all true celebrities there is a kind of Boris brand. How long before Boris - the DVD is released? It could have Boris on his bicycle. Boris in Liverpool. Boris on the stump in Henley. Boris giving speeches at Party Conference fringe meetings and in the House of Commons. His father Stanley could recall childhood anecdotes of Boris (or Alexander as he is confusingly known by his family).

Whether or not you like or agree with Boris, don't fall into the mistake to think that he is purely in the entertainment industry. He believes in what he says. There was no need for him to become a politician. But he wanted to be a player - not merely a commentator sniping on the sidelines.

An indication that he cares about making a difference comes in his introduction to this collection when he recalls a piece he wrote about Jacques Delors shortly before the Danish referendum on the Maastricht Treaty. At the time Boris was reporting in Brussels for the Sunday Telegraph. He wrote a piece which was used as the "splash" - the main story on the front page - it was about plans to centralise further power into the hands of the EU once the Maastricht Treaty was agreed. The story appeared under the heading: "Delors plan to rule Europe". Boris reminisces happily:

That story went down big. It may not have caused the dropping of marmalade over the breakfast tables of England but it was huge in Denmark. With less than a month until their referendum, and with mounting paranoia about the erosion of Danish independence, the story was seized on by the No campaign. They photocopied it a thousandfold. They marched the streets of Copenhagen with my story fixed to their banners. And on June 22, a spectacularly sunny day, they joyously rejected the Treaty and derailed the project.
It must have been a motivating moment for Johnson who has been swimming against the tide. For most of the years he has been writing the Conservatives have been on a losing streak. But now he senses a change. He says:
With that almost biological sense of rhythm, the British establishment is slowly preparing to establish its allegiance to a newer, shinier, greener, cleaner proposition. The Cameron Tory party. Still basically Tory - but also nappy-changing, bicycle-loving and kind to the ozone layer.
Here is Boris with a parody of children's classic The Cat in the Hat as he reflects on his efforts to interview the author of the story Ted Geisel:
All week I was hunting
By phone and by fax.
I used all the tricks
That are known to us hacks.
I rang the PR girls.
I looked low, I looked high.
I was hunting a cat and shall I say why?
I have already discussed on this site the comparison of Johnson's literary style with P G Wodehouse - and to the extent it exists, whether it is conscious or coincidental. In any event I was pleased that one of the pieces including was Johnson's "In defence of Wodehouse", a theme once taken up by George Orwell. He says:
If anyone thinks P. G. Wodehouse was a Nazi collaborator or, as the Independent described him last Friday, "a sinister character with extreme right-wing views and even Nazi sympathies", then that is a comment on the catastrophic illiteracy of the age. There can scarcely have been a more devastating portrait of a fascist than in Wodehouse's Code of the Woosters. You will recall the figure of Spode, the would-be dictator, whose eye could open an oyster at 50 paces, and whose followers went around in black shorts ("You mean footer bags?" cried Bertie. "How perfectly foul").

In the magnificent climax of this work, Bertie rounds on Spode, who has been behaving in an overweening fashion in the matter of the silver cow-creamer. Yes, for once in his career of masterly inactivity, Bertie Wooster lets another man have a piece of his mind.

"The trouble with you, Spode," he says, "is that because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of halfwits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone. You hear them shouting "Heil Spode!", and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: "Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?""

It is to Wodehouse's eternal credit that this satire of Mosley and fascism, and all their hysterical pomposity, appeared in 1938; which was the year of Appeasement, and the Oxford by-election. In that election there appeared on the pro-Appeasement ticket one Quintin Hogg, who in 1941 was to disgrace his family name by accusing Wodehouse of "treason".

This piece was from The Spectator and appeared in 1999. Naturally it is entertaining and informative but more than that it is campaigning journalism. Johnson has a burning sense of injustice. He is not just in it for laughs.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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