On your bike, Boris
The Mayor of London takes us on a merry romp through history as he cycles around the Olympics host city
WEhavebeen across the same box junction three times in the past hour. The first time, as Boris Johnson was trying to explain how a big-breasted Essex girl became Britain’s first banker-basher, a bus came within inches of bringing our interview to an early end.
The second time, I swerved to avoid Boris who, in pursuit of some remnant of a long-forgotten 7th-century bishop, cut meup. The third time, we cracked it.
‘‘You realise we’ve crossed this junction three times already?’’ I shout, because Boris is always ahead since he is on his own bike and I am on a ( public sharing scheme) ‘‘Boris bike’’.
‘ ‘ I’m giving you the tour chronologically, not geographically,’’ he shouts back. ‘‘It makes perfect sense. How are you finding the bike?’’ ‘‘Heavy.’’ ‘‘That’s why nobody nicks them. Everyone uses them but nobody nicks them. They are the least cool objects in London. It’s fantastic.’’ ‘‘Wanker!’’ shouts a pedestrian. Boris has written a book on ‘‘the people that made the city that changed the world’’, and his publishers thought it would be fun if he re-enacted it for me. The plan was to start at the Monument at 7am, but within three seconds of arriving, the plans change. Boris announces we should start at Bishopsgate with Boudicca. ‘‘Oh, we’ve gone the wrong way,’’ he says, two minutes later.
‘‘Let’s just do a U-turn here — we’ve got to break the law a bit. Although, just for the record, I want to say I wasn’t actually breaking the law. That was a perfectly legal manoeuvre.’’
Some time later we’re on Bishopsgate as sort of planned and, with renewed composure and a crumpled suit flapping in the chill morning breeze, Boris asks me to imagine the wooden houses of AD60 instead of the glass and steel of 21st-century London.
‘‘Act I, Scene I. This is where Suetonius Paulinus met the poor inhabitants of the colony — well, actually, the town. Colchester was the colony; London was already up-and-coming. And here he is, poor old Suetonius Paulinus. He’s come all the way down the A5 from North Wales.’’
‘‘Boris!’’ shouts a man on a bicycle. ‘‘Morning!’’ shouts Boris to the biker. ‘‘The Iceni are coming with a big-breasted Boudicca. An absolutely brass- bosomed, bonkers Boudicca — an Essex girl. A wronged woman. Suetonius Paulinus meets the Londoners and they beg him. They say, ‘Suetonius, help, we’re going to get massacred.’ And he says, ‘Sorry, folks, there’s nothing I can do.’ ’’
‘ ‘ Morning, Boris!’’ Another biker. ‘‘Morning! Right, off to the next place.’’
If he hadn’t been re-elected, he would have fitted very well into a minor public school’s history department — scatty, chaotic, enthusiastic to the detriment of domesticity and dry- cleaning. And he talks about breasts a lot. There would be much sniggering at the back.
The next place, as it turns out, is a cafe. It has no historical relevance but it does do bacon sandwiches. Boris has been up since 4.30am doing his mayoring and he isn’t the sort of man who can cycle on an empty stomach. I’m guessing this isn’t the first bacon sandwich of the week. Or even the third. Even for a tow-headed 47- year- old, he looks pale and podgy. He clocks up many miles on his old Marin, as evidenced by the shiny-thin seat of his trousers, but there’s no denying the bacon sandwiches have taken their toll.
‘‘Boris! Boris! Boris!’’ chorus the three chirpy Italians behind the counter. ‘‘So then Hadrian arrived and London really got going . . .’’
‘‘Awright, Boris?’’ yell the construction workers at the back of the cafe. So I get the coffees while he scurries off to shake their hands. Half our time is up and we’ve only done Boudicca and a bit of Hadrian.
Howwill we ever get as far as his rock hero Keith Richards?
Back the way we came and somehow we’ve reached the church of St Magnus the Martyr on Lower Thames Street in one piece. Which is more than you can say about the Martyrs of Magnus.
With relish in his voice and ketchup on his lapel, Boris is now talking about votaries cutting off their balls in ecstasy.
‘‘I’ve got a scoop for you,’’ he says when he’s finished with the balls.
Today, Boris finds himself running a city, but he’s still a journalist at heart.
In his book, he profiles one person per chapter, from that Essex girl to Richards, and pretty much all of them appear to be inveterate shaggers, cheats, con men and powercrazed, tax-dodging eccentrics. Even Shakespeare, the venerable Bard, is portrayed as a vain, competitive show-off who buys his own coat of arms.
And now he’s offering a scoop. I pause to think of all the scoops he could give me.
The announcement, despite all the denials, of his intention to run for the Tory leadership, perhaps? Or the definitive love-child confessional — who, when and in the back of which taxi. Or the truth at last about that terrible night with the Buller men of Oxford, about Dave C, the crate of Bolly and the wronged waitress whose silence couldn’t be bought.
Alas, none of the above. ‘‘Someone just said to me yesterday that they had found in their roadworks in Borough evidence of another set of baths,’’ he whispers like he’s Deep Throat and we
are in an underground car park. I look disappointed. ‘‘It’s a world exclusive,’’ he protests. ‘‘We’ve long known about the baths in Huggin Hill and at Cheapside, but we’ve never known any south of the river [Thames]. Don’t you see? What that means is that Roman London was much bigger than people think.’’
Is this an act? Much has been written about how, beneath the dufferish, Woosterish Boris of comic television appearances and politically incorrect one-liners hides a ruthless politician destined for the top.
He’s a wolf in particularly fluffy sheep’s clothing. But not once in our morning together do I see any ruthlessness amid all the hellos and handshakes.
Or perhaps this is the real Boris that lurks beneath the ruthless politician beneath the Woosterish Boris? And it’s just another Woosterish Boris, one who really is quite obsessed with the past.
Whatever layer of Boris we are on, it’s an eccentric one. This is the man, after all, who felt the urge to apologise to the Pope for our rejection of Christianity 1600 years ago when he met him at Heathrow in September 2010. ‘‘Yes, I felt very bad about it,’’ he says when I ask if it could possibly be true that the first thing a mayor of London might feel compelled to bring up with a pope was something that happened in the Dark Ages.
‘ ‘ [ The Pope] arrived on Alitalia fully kitted out in his vestments and was surrounded by cardinals — it was one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever done, in a hotly contested field. But you couldn’t help but think
of the historical echoes. I did feel a bit like a representative of these sinful tribes.’’
‘‘Morning, Boris!’’ shouts a man who quickly identifies himself as Swedish. We are standing on the cobbles outside the Guildhall, having accelerated down Poultry and through the past 800 years of history.
‘‘Morning!’’ replies Boris. ‘‘We wanted to get to the Middle Ages, and here we are, we’ve made it.
‘‘We are here because this is where Dick Whittington had his great moment, when he absolves the king of his debts.’’
‘‘It’s a free country,’’ says a man who isn’t Swedish but may be a nutter.
‘ ‘ Er, right. Morning!’’ replies Boris.
‘‘I follow all the politicians,’’ says the man, ‘‘and really, this could go either way.’’
‘ ‘ Jolly good,’’ says Boris and extends a hand.
For an Etoned, Oxforded Tory who makes little attempt to disguise his privileged upbringing, he does have a way with people. We should hate him. Lots of people do. But many more don’t.
The potential nutter turns out not to be a nutter at all — he works at the Guildhall and he’d be happy to show us around.
‘‘Does this happen a lot?’’ I ask when he and three others have had their bit of Boris.
‘‘Yes, all the time. It’s a continual, rolling focus group. Now, where were we?’’ ‘‘Dick Whittington?’’ ‘‘Right. He was the Goldman Sachs of his day. He was an absolutely amazing guy — but there is a sermon in his story.
‘‘If you are fortunate enough to be stupendously rich, and you’ve made money by bankrolling the state, the only way you can really sanitise your reputation is by giving on a stupendous scale.’’ ‘‘A philanthropic banker?’’ I say. ‘‘Shall we go to St Paul’s next? To see the people who want to chuck out the bankers, Boudiccastyle? It would be apposite.’’
‘‘I could preach a sermon,’’ says Boris before deciding it’s probably a bad idea. As we skirt around the cathedral, I ask if we are about to witness another time when the ordinary people rise up and chuck out the financiers.
‘‘I don’t think so,’’ he says.
‘‘There are hundreds of thousands of people who don’t earn stonking amounts of money, but whose lives depend on financial services. There’s massive resentment of the bonuses, quite rightly, and some of the behaviour has been absolutely disgusting, but I can’t see us running them out of town like Boudicca.’’
‘‘Morning, Boris!’’ says a rather attractive, rather breathless woman in pinstripes and running shoes. ‘ ‘ I’m very late but I j ust wanted to say hello.’’
‘‘Morning!’’ says Boris with a grin he may or may not reserve for the ladies. And I may or may not be reading a lot into it but the woman flushes a little.
‘‘Aren’t human beings funny?’’ he says, apropos of something I think one of us was saying earlier, as the woman runs off. ‘‘Obviously a lot of them are driven by sheer fascination with what they do. Florence Nightingale, Turner, Hooke, Johnson, Shakespeare, they’re all thinking about reputation and prestige and these sorts of pagan values. It’s a sort of basic, ancient culture.’’
‘‘And the pursuit of fame? You admire that?’’
‘‘I think it’s an inevitable and forgivable human vice. Insofar as it motivates people to do wonderful things. It is defensible.’’
‘‘Are all the people who helped to make London eccentric? Like you’re eccentric?’’
‘‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.’’ Boris is good at that. He likes to drop in a quotation to dodge a line of questioning that has the potential to get tricky. His wit and bluster — and occasionally a splash of Latin — have got him out of many tricky situations.
But when I suggest that one of the more crooked timbers, the politician and j ournalist John Wilkes, reads just like him, Boris doesn’t have a quotation to hand. He just looks pensive.
In the book he says that he once thought of Wilkes as ‘‘a berk’’, ‘‘a second-rate chancer’’ and ‘‘an unprincipled demagogue who floated like a glittering bubble on a wave of popular sentiment that he did not really share’’ ( which is pretty much what Boris’s critics say about him).
But then he revised his view. He came to admire Wilkes for his courage and his dynamism. This is how we are meant to see the new Boris of public administration, isn’t it?
‘‘I hadn’t thought of it that way, I have to admit. Wilkes is a prodigious fellow; I would love to identify with someone like him. I think that his achievements were really massive.’’ A dodge, but there are all sorts of similarities.
A mischievous hack and a rogue of a parliamentarian, he was a scholar of Latin and Greek and he had a considerable romantic strike rate — there were two wellborn mistresses, ‘‘neither of whom seems to have resented each other’’. He was involved in a secret sect in which high-class hookers and adventurous ladies of fashion were invited to dinner and more.
Then, the ‘ ‘ libertine demagogue morphed into a highly effective London politician, and eventually mayor of the city’’.
In case you are confused, this is Wilkes Boris is talking about, not himself. I ask if you have to have blemishes in your character to be a great man of London.
At this Boris senses a trap and remains speechless for an unprecedented 10 seconds.
‘‘All human beings are complicated,’’ he says eventually. ‘‘I think we all have blemishes of one kind or another. Wilkes pushed the envelope a few times, certainly.’’
Pedalling past the Gherkin, we get lost again and we cut through a red light because we’re discussing which century Boris would most like to visit .
‘‘I always wanted to check out the 18th century. It’s so predictable, why did you even ask me?’’
Only half an hour late, we end up at the Tower. Boris is positively hopping about with excitement as he recalls the great surge of progress in Victorian London.
If it wasn’t for the tankards of ale, the buxom wenches and the wild dinner parties you get when you take your time machine back to the 1700s, I’m pretty sure he would have settled very happily for the 1800s.
‘ ‘ Man for man, woman for woman, pound of flesh for pound of self-mortifying flesh,’’ he writes, ‘‘I reckon you could argue that the Victorians beat all previous generations for their energy, their ambition and their achievements; and on the face of it you could argue they beat us too.’’
‘‘Hello, Meester Johnson, can we take a picture?’’ As at least 1000 Portuguese tourists descend with their camera phones, I wonder if it’s healthy for a mayor to be so nostalgic. When I suggest his love of the past might not be conducive to running 21st-century London, he gives me the patter about how we can learn from the past and how the best is yet to come for the capital. He talks of entrepreneurial spirit and new airports and how he’d like to get his hands on the southeastern train network.
Its politician- speak and not nearly as convincing as when he’s talking about 4th- century castration. And yet Boris, in his second four-year term as mayor, is at least partly responsible for the next chapter of London’s history.
Boris is staring out across the Thames, admiring the Shard with the same exuberance and awe as my five-year-old does.
And although everyone refuses to believe Boris when he says he isn’t interested in the next big step up the political ladder, I believe him, or it might just be true. He couldn’t run the whole country and stop on every box junction to think about the Romans or the Saxons or Keith Richards. It’s bad enough having to run London.
‘‘If it’s not going to be you,’’ I ask, ‘‘will your brother be the next leader of the Tories?’’ Jo Johnson, another Eton-Oxford polymath, is MP for Orpington and on paper looks to have all the ambition his older brother claims not to.
‘‘I wouldn’t rule that out at all,’’ says Boris. ‘‘He’s the man to watch. Have a swift bet now; put your money on him.’’
And with that, the Mayor of London cum tour guide cycles off to catch the Tube to open a Waitrose depot in Acton. ‘‘Boris!’’ yells another cabbie. ‘‘Morning!’’ Johnson’s Life of London (HarperCollins) is available ($24.63) from fishpond.com.au and from British online booksellers, including The Sunday Times Bookshop.
Boris Johnson, above, cycles outside Guildhall in the City of London and, below, with Olympic torchbearer Tyler Rix at Hyde Park last week
Boris Johnson near London’s Tower Bridge earlier this year