I felt guilty even buying this book, in all honesty. Putting yet more money into the coffers of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson seems like a foolish way to spend one’s hard-won farthings. On the other hand, I was in a bookshop on holiday (one of my favourite places to be, in truth), and wanted something light to read (despite having brought books with me, as I always do). I’d already picked up a book on Colorado geology, so a history seemed appropriate. And what is pop history, after all, if not geological in its own sense? Sifting through the layers of time, always digging deeper to find what came before… that’s not too torturous of a metaphor, is it?
As it happens, of course, what came before London was an unpromising swamp.
I’ve read the odd book or two on the history of London before, of course, so Johnson’s Life of London presented much that was familiar, if told with a Borisovian twist. The approach is quite conventional: begin at the beginning, and work one’s way forward. And it was as I found myself grudgingly enjoying some of the book that I felt my suspicion begin to grow. I’ve been lulled into a false sense of security on a few occasions in my life, and I’ve never forgotten the feeling.
It isn’t that Boris conceals his point of view or shies away from being, well… Boris. No matter his post, he seems to be the sort of man who is not driven by any particular consuming desire or ambition so much as by inertia, the inertia conferred on him by class, schooling, and a natural propensity for buffoonery. He occasionally pops up even on American telly, always looking as though he has just lost a battle with a hedge, yet the breathless American presenter / newsreader / blow-up doll regularly intones the words “Mayor of London” with a gravitas never afforded to Ken Livingstone or any other mayor since Dick Whittington. It is a gravitas completely misplaced in Boris’ case. That he long ago adopted the guise of the Wodehousian Drones Club escapee as a calculated deception is practically certain. It is what is concealed behind this guise which should give us pause, both as readers and as citizens.
Not that the history, in its bare bones, is fundamentally flawed. Presented as a series of bio-historical sketches of key figures in the history of the metrop., Johnson progresses with crisp journalistic pace from the Roman era to the end of the Anglo-Saxons in five moves, effectively dealing with the first thousand years of London’s history in roughly fifty pages. Granted, literary sources for this period are a bit thin on the ground, but also, there’s a lot more to get on with.
In the Middle Ages, Boris picks up steam with Chaucer and Richard Whittington, the Mayor of pantomime fame, before dashing on to Shakespeare and Robert Hooke in the 16th and 17th centuries. The 18th century (keep up) is represented by Samuel Johnson and John Wilkes, the latter of whom was largely unfamiliar to me, and should make for an interesting subject on whom to follow up. The 19th century is represented by J.M.W. Turner, Lionel Rothschild, Florence Nightingale & Mary Seacole, and W.T. Stead, who, in Boris’ estimation, invented tabloid journalism (and I’ll defer to the expert opinion of the former editor of the Spectator on this point).
Finally, the 20th century is represented by Winston Churchill (though there are scores of books on Churchill and probably an equal number on the Second World War and its impact on London), and then, Keith Richards and finally the Midland Grand Hotel, which is not a person at all and is therefore cheating. The Keith Richards chapter is one of the more annoying in the book, not only for the alternating usage between “Keith” and “Keef” (ah-ha-ha, I see what you did there, pity it’s not a better gag). For Boris, his tame admissions of smashing up a bit of furniture while under the Bacchic influence of a couple of cans of lager (sorry, probably a half-bottle of a rather decent claret, in reality) and the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” (an abysmal song *before* Microsoft co-opted it for their pathetic Windows95 launch) are frankly ludicrous. As to the author’s analysis of the roots of jazz and blues and rock-and-roll, and Britain’s place in selling back to America a modified version of American popular music, he seems rather out of his depth, and one is left with the inescapable conclusion that he’d probably be more comfortable analysing Gilbert & Sullivan. Or “Parsifal.”
One of the most annoying features of the book is the editorial decision that was taken with regard to the “vignettes.” These are short sections of two to four pages on various topics, from the Bow Street Runners to Bazalgette’s sewers to the Routemaster bus, and for some reason, some idiot has placed them *within* the chapters, rather than between them. This made the regular flipping back and forth to pick up the thread of narrative more than a bit annoying, and I can’t imagine how irritating it would be on a Kindle.
What we are left with is a book of sweeping scope but light touch, with just enough of a hint of Tory politics to make the whole thing appear slightly suspect. I won’t say outright that any of Boris Johnson’s conclusions are wrong, but for me they enter a substantial enough grey area that I would only feel comfortable echoing *any* of his views after having found corroboration in other sources. And, as he claims at the end of the book that “I have truffled through far too many books to list them or to acknowledge their authors,” it would be a long haul to properly critique and evaluate every statement in the book that left me with a feeling of vague unease.
The book is entertaining enough, filled with Boris-isms and the cycling references that one might expect, and an uncritical reader might well mistake that entertainment for reliability. But when dealing with the chimera that is the Conservative character, broadly speaking, then the affable, avuncular, slightly-naughty-schoolboy tone can also conceal hidden depths. It isn’t simply that Boris overtly praises, in large part, bankers, speculators, and usurers. It is that the underlying premise of his history seems therefore to be flawed in its soft-right biases. Indeed, it is flawed to such a degree that for me, it defeated the whole purpose of being an easy, quick read for my holiday. If you’re a fan of light-weight history and not overly political, you may be able to read Johnson’s Life of London without much concern. But if you are constantly looking for the meaning behind the words, this one will at the very least leave you shaking your head and questioning the author’s assumptions. Two and a half stars.
Originally reviewed 3 September 2015.
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