Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Johnson's Life of London by Boris Johnson

An odd book, but enjoyable.  The first thing I noticed was the bald faced lie on the cover.  A book on tape, read by the author.  Well, I know what Boris sounds like.  He may have read the first cd, a chapter in the middle, and a bit at the end (all with the sound of the photocopier in the background, amusingly), but the rest was written by someone defiantly not Boris, and definitely not credited.  I hope his Mayorship doesn't bring this kind slap-dash, half-baked approach to running one of the greatest cities in history.

This is - like Boris - a very self consciously old-fashioned yet modern history.  Most of it is portraits of the great men and women who've made their mark on London through the ages.  Boudicca, Chaucer, Dick Whittington, Shakespeare, Churchill and......Keith Richards?  Not that I've got a problem with an old school "great men" historical approach, and certainly not that I've got a problem with Keith Richards, but this is an affectation too far for me.

It's sometimes a bit too much like Boris setting out his political stall.  On one hand he gives a staunch defence of arch-conservative Samuel Johnson, but he also shows great affection for the radical rabble-rouser and freedom nut John Wilkes.  Mary Seacole (aka the Black Florence Nightingale) is a figure of annoyance to some on the right (and left) who see her as a PC icon, who's come to dominate the Crimean War in the classroom, but Boris gives sterling support to her rehabilitation.  The Churchill chapter lists his many faults, mistakes, prejudices but concludes that, despite all this evidence, he was fantastic.  Again, not there's anything wrong with any of this, but there's more than a touch of inclusive, touchy feely Vote for Borisism about it all.  This becomes ridiculous when he starts talking about a new airport for London and - good grief - Routemaster buses.  

The bits I liked best were a step away from politics, like the fitting tribute to the natural philosopher, architect and drawer of fleas Robert Hooke, who appears to have been the only man more eccentric and misanthropic than his rival Isaac Newton.  The highlight for me, though, was the passage on the life and paintings of J.W. Turner, someone I've previously known next to nothing about despite loving his pictures.  Turns out he was another weirdo.

So, it's kind of all over the place this book - more a collection of essays with London as its theme than a history.  Entertaining and informative though, which is always a plus.  I just wish Boris had read the whole damn thing.  Which isn't something you'd say about Ken.

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