Tuesday, 27 August 2013

How Blonde Was Blanche Du Bois

Finding myself in Melbourne during the Melbourne Writers' Festival, I decided to take the opportunity to see Boris Johnson give a couple of talks - I was going to say 'see Boris Johnson in the flesh' but somehow the word 'flesh' in connection with the words 'Boris Johnson' conjures too many worrying half-formed thoughts and images, at least for me.

I was interested, partly because Johnson - (I can't bring myself to call him Boris - the matiness such familiarity implies gets in the way of really standing back and looking at him clearly) -  has established a reputation for being entertaining, but also because he is touted as a future Prime Minister of Great Britain. What most intrigued me was whether the clown/would-be leader combination could actually work.

My first Johnson outing was to Melbourne Town Hall, where he was to deliver the keynote address for the festival. It was a wet and windy evening, but still hundreds of Melburnians - including several women in wedding dresses protesting at something they thought Mr Johnson had said about university educated women, (which the next day he claimed he did not say [it was just a matter of 'assortative mating', Your Honour]) - turned out to listen to the London Mayor's thoughts, (or, in the case, of the bridal wear ladies, to shout outside and not listen to him).

Those of us there to listen were herded into the magnificent central hall of the Town Hall and given the pleasure of: a) Auntie Carolyn's reflections on the Kulin Nation; b) Heidi Victoria's reflections on the arts and Victoria; c) the director of the festival's reflections on the excitement of having Mr Johnson come amongst us; and d) Mayor Doyle's surprisingly interesting reflections on Napier Waller (see footnote)

Then, at last, the man himself - Johnson that is, not Napier Waller - appeared before us. The world's blondest blond bombshell bounded breezily onto the stage,. He's shortish and stoutish and those features, combined with his eagerness to be loved, created the impression of a slightly overfed golden retriever.

'I couldn't believe my luck', he boomed at us in fluent Fink-Nottle, 'when I got this invitation. My secretary had already drafted the refusal when I leapt across the office and tore it up.' Gorgeous Australia, couldn't resist coming here, such a great country, do you all know how lucky you are: on he rattled, clearly aware of how susceptible we Australians, (in common, I suppose, with all humanity - but possibly a little more so?), are to flattery. Sure enough, we lapped up every word.

Which is possibly why the small matter of Johnson's speech having nothing at all to do with its advertised topic - The Power of the Word - seemed to bother no-one, (except me). Most of us were transfixed by his compliments about our marvellous ingenuity.

We listened spellbound as he recited an admiring - and alliterative - list of our nation's inventions, including: the pacemaker; penicillin, (actually I think he missed that one - the British do prefer to think it was Alexander Fleming's achievement all on his own); the polymer banknote; and the Polly waffle, now vanished, much to Johnson's chagrin, (bought up by a Swiss company and deliberately extinguished, according to Johnson's theory , before its popularity could eclipse that of the Toblerone, [and, to go off on a digression worthy of B Johnson himself, can I just say that it has suddenly occurred to me that, were it still in existence, Tony Abbott would not have needed to comment on Rudd's prolixity the other day; he could just have produced a Polly Waffle with a flourish and offered it to his opponent]).

Anyway, he - Johnson - went on, very entertainingly, waxing lyrical on the remarkable qualities of our nation, drawing attention to our two countries' never-ending interchange of talent - while we gave the UK the matchless gift of Patricia Hewitt,  they managed an ingenious retaliatory donation to us in the form of Julia Gillard - and then, finally, launching into the main body of his address

It was about cities and how great they are, especially London. With the hasty addition of the odd Australian reference - brief asides re Banjo Paterson; the colonisation of Australia, (which arose from the growth of London, he argued); the popularity of RM Williams clothing (which he -Johnson, not RM himself - thinks represents a romantic yearning for the country) - he gave us what I would bet my bottom dollar is a stock speech usually trotted out for London Mayoral activities. Dressing the thing up with a few decorative Australian tassles and flounces was as much effort as he'd been prepared to make.

So, in exchange for air tickets and accommodation and being shown a really good time, Johnson gave us flannel. And when he'd finished, and the director of the festival reemerged beside him, he staged a little pantomime of mock contrition for having ignored the topic of his speech.

'Oh cripes, lor, lummy, I was supposed to talk about the power of the word, wasn't I,' he cried. A flurry of hair tousling followed as he stuttered out requests for forgiveness. It looked a wellworn performance to me, a joky, faux grovelling gambit that he knew he could get away with.

'I mean, gosh, you know, I did mention Shakespeare and Banjo Paterson', he protested. 'You will be understanding won't you?' If he'd been a woman I might have said he was simpering, but never mind - the fact is the whole absurd carry-on worked an absolute treat. Everyone adored him, everyone indulged him - that is everyone except for me.

The following day at lunchtime, I went to the Sofitel on Collins Street and viewed Boris Johnson for a second time. This time he was to be interviewed by Annabel Crabb, who began by asking Johnson to comment on a lovely bit of Byron by telling us what his favourite thing about being English was.

At first, Johnson responded by obfuscating, recalling instead what Stanley Baldwin and John Major had come up with in answer to similar questions and how hopelessly outdated their nominations now appeared. Pressed by Crabb, he eventually identified: a Cornish pastie on a cold winter's day on Reading station; a sense of humour - lots of other countries try to claim a sense of humour, he said, but none successfully; and hopeless embarassment, epitomised by the figure of a man trying to undress behind a towel in the wind on a beach and falling over.

From then on, Johnson skilfully diverted the interview, ensuring that it constantly meandered and never reached a point where he could be pinned down and made to give anything away. Crabb asked good questions but Johnson ducked and wove, parrying each of them by turning everything into a joke. He launched successive charm attacks on Crabb - which she admirably resisted; deployed his new 'Mmmm? mmmm?' variation of the Georgian 'What, what' style of ending sentences; digressed into anecdotes, including one about John Redwood, (who Johnson claimed predicted the GFC, years and years before anyone else), which led to a discussion of how to fudge the Welsh National Anthem - sing, 'My hen laid a haddock on top of my head' - followed by the horribly accurate assertion that  'Every government gets elected on a programme to bribe people with their own money' and then a discussion of assortative mating.

From there it lurched off towards the subject of education and Johnson's belief that boys achieve more when faced with an adrenalin inducing regime of regular competitive tests. Ski machines, fizzy drinks and the importance of studying the Classics - the Greeks and Romans produced the greatest literature, philosophical and political works the world has ever seen, Johnson reckons - plus the revelation that he is known as 'Boris' because people at school liked Boris more than his first name and he was 'too pathetic' to object, were all stations on the  way.

The result was often terribly funny, but, amidst all the hilarity, one thing became clear - Johnson relies heavily on 'the kindness of strangers' .An expectation of forgiveness and understanding, (already observed the evening before), is fundamental to his strategy for life. For instance, when Crabb quizzed him on his style, which she described as unusual for a politician in this era of ever-vigilant and instant media coverage, Johnson admitted that, while he has tried being buttoned up and cautious in the past, it has always been a disaster. He said that the only way to behave is to be unafraid and keep saying what you think, taking a, 'Bugger it' approach in your political life. While you will 'always eventually come a cropper', he argued, 'people are forgiving and understanding'.

Again, later, after asserting that 'People want politicians to get on and do the job; they want to have a sense that the politicians have got a vision and are more or less in command of their brief,' he once more mentioned that people 'are forgiving and understanding'. As the words rang in my ears for the second time in the space of an hour, I saw the narcissistic figure of Blanche du Bois rise before me, superimposing itself on the tailored dishevelment of the London Mayor.

By that stage, I should add, Johnson was in full flight, quoting huge chunks of the Iliad from memory - or at least that's what he said he was doing; given his wizard wheeze re the Welsh national anthem and his evident lack of thoroughness the night before, I was suspicious that he was actually pulling the wool over our collective eyes.

But never mind - he was by now in his element. Almost an hour of our rapt attention had replenished his reserves of energy. He'd sucked up the love in the room with the urgency of a vampire. His charm and wit had provided him with our admiration and he was drinking it in.

But that's the trouble with charm and wit - so often they are a tool used as a means to an end. In my experience, people who are charming tend not to see others as individuals. Charm dazzles us, but it is needy and self-centred, and I don't trust it. And I especially don't trust it in a politician.

From politicians, (and also doctors and engineers and plane mechanics), I want substance and application and thoroughness. I expect them to work hard to earn my respect, but I don't expect them to crave my laughter. People like Boris Johnson, who wing their way through their lives, thirsty for admiration and reliant on the power of their personalities, are fine if they stick to being entertainers. When they go into politics though, I suspect they go in for the wrong reasons. Instead of wanting to make things better, they do it to make themselves feel better. That is no use - at least it's not to me.

Footnote re Napier Waller - Doyle explained that he was the artist who created the murals in the great hall - he went to France during World War One, was wounded at Bullecourt, lost his right arm, returned to Australia, retaught himself to draw with his left arm and then became so skilled that he was able to create the murals that surrounded us, a parable of artistic determination, according to Mayor Doyle.


  1. Coriolanus is a long time gone. In an age of electoral politics, I don't see how one does without charm, or if you will charisma. The discipline of the Republican Party can elevate a Richard Nixon or a George H.W. Bush, but they were at various times beaten by Kennedy and Clinton.

    As for Byron, "taxes when they're not too many" might well have suited the mayor.

    1. There's charm and then there's being all things to all people, which is what I suspect Johnson is inclined to be. Plus it's possible to be charming and thorough. He is sloppy and presumes on us to forgive him when he is, distracting us by making us laugh