Boris Johnson on Churchill, immigration and Canberra

January 2, 2015 – 11:45PM

Natasha Rudra

Life and entertainment editor at The Canberra Times

Blonde ambition: Boris Johnson - uber toff, writer, mayor of London - now has his sights set on Parliament and possibly No, 10.

Blonde ambition: Boris Johnson – uber toff, writer, mayor of London – now has his sights set on Parliament and possibly No, 10.

Boris Johnson is apologising for this interview being so late at night. But it’s hardly his fault – he’s in London, taking calls from journalists about his book The Churchill Factor, and it’s about midday over there, which translates to 10.20pm  here in Australia.  “What’s the weather like? Somebody said it was a bit drizzly in Sydney,” he says. I explain that I’m in Canberra and that it’s a warm summer’s night “Summer! Beautiful! Good!” he says, recalibrating to account for this new information.  “I love Canberra, I once spent a night sleeping in a roundabout in Canberra.”

Sorry, Boris, you did what?

“I was driving there and I was about 18 and I got totally lost and I dossed down for the night in a roundabout. Well, I woke up and discovered it was a roundabout,” he explains. He pitched his tent on the roundabout in the middle of the night – an experience that went about as well as you’d expect for a young British kid sleeping in the middle of a Canberra street in the 1980s. “It was terrible. I thought it would be OK, then I got woken up by the traffic and then I looked at my hands, my hands had swollen up like blown-up washing up gloves because I had been so badly bitten.”

Boris Johnson in Melbourne

Boris Johnson in Melbourne Photo: Joe Armao

The only way this story could be more Canberra would be if a kangaroo had come down Mount Ainslie and boxed him. But no. “All my transactions with kangaroos have been enjoyable.” He’s quite firm on this point.

In the scheme of bizarre things that have happened to Boris Johnson, the roundabout incident’s fairly tame. He’s been stuck on a zipwire for the London Olympics. He’s been a meme. He kissed a baby crocodile named after Prince George. Earlier this month he dissected a cow in Malaysia. He manages to look hilariously awkward and yet chummy in all his photos. There’s the famously floppy straw-coloured hair. And the jobs – editor of The Spectator, mayor of London since 2008, soon to stand for Parliament.

He comes across as an amiable toff, sportingly ready to look silly, full of posh talent. But the amusing anecdotes don’t change the fact that Johnson is a raging Tory pin-up (he once said he cried in the street after learning Margaret Thatcher had been ousted in 1990). There are the quotes about the lower classes – families with lower incomes have children “more likely to become hoodies, NEETs and mug you on the street corner”; and women who go to university (“they’ve got to find men to marry”).

The Churchill Factor.

The Churchill Factor.

So who better to write a book about that other Tory pin-up boy, Winston Churchill? Johnson was approached by Churchill’s estate to write The Churchill Factor to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the statesman’s death. “It was a joy to write and I found as I went along so many incredible things about Winston Churchill that are in danger of being forgotten today,” he says. “The point of the book was kind of to explore his character, how he came to be the guy who stood up against the Nazis in 1940, what gave him the psychological strength to make that decision. But also it was a chance to remind people of some of his more extraordinary achievements before 1940: inventing the tank, founding modern Israel, all the stuff, the welfare state, going up in a plane [Churchill was taking flying lessons just 10 years after the Wright brother’s first flight].”

The book isn’t a biography,  more a collection of essays examining what Johnson sees as the key aspects of Churchill’s character, life and career. The invention of the tank is one. The concerted charm offensive on Franklin Roosevelt to get America to join the British war effort is another. There’s a chapter on Churchill the visionary of Europe. Another on Churchill the social changemaker, father of the dole. Of course, Johnson declines to draw any links between the man and himself. “I have as much in common with a kalamata olive or a three-toed sloth as I have with Churchill. He’s unique, he’s a one-off fellow, I don’t really feel I can hold a candle to him. I think most modern politicians can’t and that’s a good thing in a way because the times required someone like Churchill and thank goodness our times are rather more peaceful.” And, he says, he does try to deal with Churchill “warts and all and all his catastrophic cock-ups one way or another. I think he did attract… he had huge numbers of enemies but I genuinely think his qualities were outstanding and in the end you’ve got to come down on one side or another. The revisionists, who’ve tried to sully his reputation, attack him for this or that have proved overwhelmingly to be wrong in their facts or missing the point.”

Johnson devotes one chapter to those cock-ups, rating events such as Gallipoli and the disastrous overvaluing of the pound, on a “fiasco factor” of one to 10. On the question of India, for instance, Churchill “doesn’t come out of it at all well”, calling Mahatma Gandhi a semi-naked fakir and holding to the firm belief that the British Raj was a great civilising influence. Johnson is all for the cause of the Commonwealth – in fact, he’s advocating to make it easier for Australians and New Zealanders to migrate to Britain. What would Churchill have made of Britain’s relationship to its former colonies today?  “I think Churchill would have been absolutely appalled, the way modern Britain has decided to neglect parts of the Commonwealth,” he says. “I was in Australia not so very long ago and the cultural affinities are so strong and the ties of kinship are so strong and the blood ties are so strong. One of the things I’m campaigning for is greater freedom of movement between Australia and New Zealand and Britain.”

Which is great stuff but the empire was much more than Australia and New Zealand – what about, say, people from the former colonies of India, Pakistan, the West Indies, south-east Asia? This appears to be an issue on which Johnson feels much less strongly. “That is the problem, how would you do it? And indeed people say why not us,” he says, vaguely. “I just think it’s odd that you’d have one rule for 27 European countries and a ban – a very difficult regime for Australians and New Zealanders who fought so heroically.”

You get the sense, reading the book, that writing it was no special hardship for Johnson – a subject he adores, no shortage of research material, his undeniably excellent literary skills at full flourish. He had free rein at Blenheim, the Churchill family palace,  cycling down to forgotten cemeteries to visit graves and wandering through the backstairs of the palace to see the tiny room where Churchill was born. Johnson, understandably, devotes a chapter to Churchill the uber-Tory, describing with great vim his halo-like effect on generations of young, ambitious Conservative lads who copy his style, call on him for good luck as one would a favourite saint. And there’s plenty of material for Churchill the lad – his bravery under fire, the derring-do  in various wars, his success with the ladies.

Even his writing. “[Churchill]  would drink phenomenal quantities of wine – red, white – at dinner and then he would have brandy, whatever, and then he would get up from dinner with a cigar and he would go and and dictate absolutely perfect stuff, peerless prose hour after hour.” An army of secretaries took his dictation at all hours of the night, transcribing the Churchillian prose even while the man himself sat in the bath. “I can’t think of anyone who can do that, I mean, can you do that?” Johnson asks. It would be splendid to try, but the Fairfax accounting system is diabolical enough without trying to explain to some bean counter why there are receipts for hot baths, cigars and a bevy of amanuenses.

Johnson himself has a much more sedate writing style.  “I write at my desk, normal methods of composition: pen, paper, and then type,” he says. “I don’t do what he did.” Boris might be the man of the moment but even for him Churchill will be a hard act to follow.

The Churchill Factor, by Boris Johnson. (Hachette. $32.99.)

Source : The Sydney Morning Herald

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