Most helpful critical review
on 25 August 2014
You've seen, perhaps, those books that look more like books than books. Extra thick pages. Big type. Chunky hard covers. The kind of book you might receive at Christmas and put in the loo. Not-quite books.
Boris Johnson reminds me of this kind of book. He’s a not-quite politician.
When he was appointed shadow Arts Minister in May 2004, his response was: "look the point is...er, what is the point? It is a tough job but somebody has got to do it." Rhetoricians - of which Boris is undoubtedly a very practised example - will recognise that he is cleverly using anacoluthon and erotema - interrupting the syntax of the sentence with a rhetorical question - in order to give a carefully calibrated impression of idiocy.
Boris himself calls this style 'imbecilio'.
"Boris," says Harry Mount, in an introduction that's rather more interesting than the rest of the book, "is in fact a brilliant calibrator." In particular, his "magical gift for surreal, amusing apology" works "like a sort of bulletproof armour." When Eddie Mair called him "a nasty piece of work" earlier this year, Boris drew the venom with relative ease. "If a BBC presenter can't attack a nasty Tory politician," he suggested the next day, "what's the world coming to?"
By holding up a mirror to our own prejudices, Johnson implies a level of honesty that actually increases his credibility. He knows that the only politician the public will now believe is a parody of a politician.
Johnson's rhetoric is the fruit of an expensive, classical education. What Eton and Balliol failed, apparently, to instil in our man is any "capacity for long, concentrated periods of work" (Mount's words). When he missed a First, they say he went alone to the cinema and cried. When he was writing for the Daily Telegraph, he consistently failed to file his copy on time. When Mount asked one of Boris's old classics tutors about his chances of making it to Number 10, the man replied:
"Capax imperii nisi imperasset."
This is Tacitus on the Emperor Galba: "He was up the job of emperor, as long as he never became emperor."
What matters is why people vote for him. His style taps into a very British contempt for anything outstanding. "Boris," claims Mount, "manages to pull off the trick of being ambitious and successful, at the same time as implicitly mocking ambition and success. You end up forgiving him his ambition, and not begrudging him his success, because the whole act is so funny and endearing."
Wit and wisdom for our time, indeed.
A longer version of this review appears here: