He’s in a nostalgic reverie as we approach his mother’s old building on the corner of Waverly—apartment 6C, he says, counting the windows up the brick façade. The park “never used to be this crowded,” he remembers. “This used to be full of drug dealers. There used to be people on the corners saying, ‘Hash, smack, hash, smack.’ There was a morosity about New York then. There was a lot of fear of muggings. And now it’s just wonderful. Though you are still four times more likely to be murdered in New York than you are in London. Just for the record.” He wonders if the Häagen-Dazs is still nearby, or the Brentano’s bookstore. He asks me if Tom Wolfe is still alive, then raves about The Bonfire of the Vanities. “It was 25 years ago he gave the Masters of the Universe their first real kicking.”
Johnson’s London is, like Bloomberg’s New York, tidy, civilized, touristic, and polyglot, an unapologetically international finance center suited to haves of any variety. Early on in his book, he writes admiringly of the height of Roman colonial London, with its many gods and real-estate audacity. Not unlike in both of our cities today.
“The whole thesis” of his book, he says, “is about prestige. What makes people tick. We seek cities because there are a greater range of girls at the bar, of reproductive choice. Number one. Number two is there are better outcomes for health and wealth. And now we care more about the environment, and cities are better for the environment. But above all, talented people seek cities for fame. They can’t get famous in the fucking village.” Then he recites: “Fame is the spur which clear spirit doth raise / That last infirmity of noble mind / To scorn delights, and live laborious days.” It’s from “Lycidas,” the John Milton poem about a friend who drowned in the Irish Channel. “That’s what’s driving me. That’s the awful fact.” He mentions Benjamin Disraeli, another writer-politician, who once told another member of Parliament, “ ‘We came here for fame.’ And a city, by the sheer concentration of people, provides the most amazing opportunity to get that affirmation—which is what it’s about. The reason that so many ideas are produced in cities is not just that people are cross-fertilizing; it’s because they want to beat each other. They want to become more famous than the other person.”
So far, for Johnson, it’s working. He’s already the biggest celebrity politician in the U.K., and will likely be even more so after serving as maître d’ of the Olympics, with their Britsh-idyll opening ceremony featuring rolling meadows, 70 grazing sheep, fake clouds to generate rainy authenticity, and Sir Paul McCartney. Many think he’ll be called on to replace David Cameron as Conservative Party leader and perhaps even prime minister (the two have known each other since school, and are supposed to not get along; Johnson joked he won reelection “despite” Cameron’s endorsement). For what it’s worth, he thinks Europe needs to just dump the euro. “Better an end with horror than horror without end,” he says, deploying a German proverb associated with the last days of the First World War.
But since the mayor of London has no power over that, or much of anything other than housing and urban transit, for now he’s determined to achieve post-Olympian immortality with buses (he brought back the old hop-on hop-off double-decker bus), trains (a multibillion-dollar commuter-rail expansion), and, he hopes, a gigantic new airport in the Thames estuary. “London is the most commercially important city in Europe, and it’s the most populous city,” he says. “It should be for the whole of the European continent what New York is to America. That’s what it should be. And in many ways it is. We have to have a new airport. One of the only reasons I want to assume supreme power in England is to make sure that happens.” Pause. “For God’s sake, don’t quote me saying that.”