On your bike, Boris

The Mayor of Lon­don takes us on a merry romp through his­tory as he cy­cles around the Olympics host city

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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

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