I once wrote a book about Boris Johnson before deciding that I would rather have my teeth pulled than do it once more. I must admit that I have a certain amount of respect for a writer who, in his fourth book about the recently deceased prime minister, still gets giddy thinking about how he may “shock and outrage the Establishment.”
Gimson revels in the alleged victories of an Old Etonian charlatan over pitiful legions of “moralists,” the “virtuous” (they get a particular kicking here), the “serious-minded,” and the so-called “priggish middle classes” while the rest of us fret about the impending economic catastrophe. Since Gimson himself appears very moral, serious, and even good – and is, as far as I can tell, middle class – this is actually where I become perplexed.
Even though the forced retirement of his hero must have interfered with the publication timetable, his most recent (though not certainly final) book is virtually as elegantly written as its predecessors.
I would have enjoyed reading this ode almost as much as Gimson seems to have enjoyed writing it if Johnson had actually existed, a cavalier whose pranks did not harm the people around him.
Your reviewer needed to exercise extreme restraint to get through the 424 pages of admiration and sympathy because Johnson’s greatest contribution to politics was the introduction of the term “cakeism,” while every other area of public life was either degraded or in a serious state of crisis.
With its description of Johnson as “a statesman of amazing political abilities… driven by a passionate love of his country and a commitment to serve it to the furthest of his powers,” it was already difficult by page seven. Gimson states shortly after that “one hears it in his voice” and that “it would be wrong to dispute Johnson’s sincerity.”
With the insight that many of his opponents eventually realized Johnson’s shortcomings, they struggled to use them against him, and he at least re-establishes his connection to reality.
Johnson was eventually accurately, repeatedly, and generally labeled as a liar, which helped him. Gimson felt the need to defend him throughout the course of five lengthy pages, dismissing the overwhelming proof of deceit as being oversimplified.
Johnson possesses “the eye of a caricaturist, who exaggerates the facts.” That’s all well and good, but he wasn’t a stand-up comedian; he was the prime minister during a moment of great national danger.
An intriguing justification for Johnson’s appeal to the 170,000 primarily elderly Conservative party members who presently choose our leaders is that Johnson gave them “freedom from the rule of virtue.”
As Gimson once suggested to me on the radio, they were “grateful” for the frivolous and fantastical, or they “wanted to be lied to.” Virtue and the virtuous exist as perpetual opponents in this odd world, and any idea of public life as a bulwark of morality is scorned as uninteresting, “goody-goody,” or even sadistic.
Gimson recalls that in the past, swivel-eyed schoolteachers would beat their students to make them feel good, maybe from his own experience. Nowadays, however, “similar punitive needs” can be satisfied by criticizing Johnson.
Gimson is adept at reading his audience since he names Johnson’s ennobled and ardently appreciative writer Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph, as one of his closest friends and allies.
He acknowledges right away that recruiting new members for Johnson’s fan club would be a “vain endeavor” and that one of his own children called his topic a “vile, horrible human being.” Johnson may very well be considering a comeback, but Gimson should let go of his longtime idol and focus his undeniable abilities as a biographer on a new, more deserving subject.
The author of Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition is Sonia Purnell. Aurum is the publisher of Boris Johnson: The Rise and Fall of a Troublemaker at Number 10. Purchase your copy at guardianbookshop.com to support the Guardian and Observer. Delivery fees could be necessary.
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