105 Minutes With Boris Johnson

Photo: Danny Kim

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, arrives sweaty in a rumpled blue suit, with a middle-school nerd’s backpack, accompanied only by his pretty book agent, Natasha. The plan for this muggy Sunday afternoon, proposed by someone—it’s not clear who, and Johnson certainly doesn’t take credit for it—is to go on a bike ride. Cycling is a well-greased branding point for the Conservative party member, but given the weather and his suit, which he is planning on wearing on The Daily Show the next day, a bike rental seems too much of a bother. Instead, he suggests that “we pretend that we did it. And if anyone asks, we lie.”

Johnson’s an unusual politician, more of a personality, really—an Oxford-educated classics major playing a buffoonishly triumphant super-twit role he’s written for himself. And he can write well, too, having made his living as a journalist for most of his life, even editing the Spectator when he was first elected to Parliament. Now mayor, he’s still a £250,000-a-year weekly columnist for the Telegraph, and he was reelected a month ago, even as his fellow Tories lost big. This was partly because he seemed more fun than conservative—the errant, untucked toff with whom you’d want to have a pint or six, though he might drink too much and possibly make a pass at the waitress. He’s in New York on a kind of victory lap—to promote, Marty Markowitz–ishly, his city, which is home to the Olympics this summer, and his latest book. It’s called Johnson’s Life of London: The People Who Made the City That Made the World. “It’s concealed manifesto,” he says. “A hymn of praise for London.” But also a cautionary tale: “One of the points of it is that it can go backwards as well as forwards. In the middle of the twentieth century, London went backwards, and New York did too.”

The book is set up as a series of great-man profiles through history, Londoners he admires or identifies with in some way: Dr. Samuel Johnson, John Wilkes, Winston Churchill, Keith Richards. As such it’s an elaborated justification for why he can be who he is and be in charge. Take his bike commute across London Bridge, which opens the book. Yes, being a cyclist started as a way, after he was elected to Parliament, to get from the Spectator offices to a vote in just eleven minutes. But “it’s a very good way for a conservative to nuke his opponents. People are sort of flummoxed when you turn out to be a militant cyclist. They associate that with kind of whippet-legged dreadlocked anarchists,” he says. “I’m not particularly politically correct, so I tend to reflect what I think are the terrible realities of life, which I think are generally speaking conservative.” He quotes the dissolute eighteenth-century public intellectual Dr. Johnson (for whom he feels a “heroic admiration” and whom he calls the “father of compassionate conservatism”): Mankind is happier in a “state of inequality and subordination,” since “it is better that some should be unhappy than that none should be happy, which would be the case in a general state of equality.” Mayor Johnson seems determined to be happy. Uncoincidentally, he’s also a resolute defender of bankers.

Johnson is far too arch to be an American politician, but he was born in New York, where his father worked at the U.N. (The blandly English family surname comes from his half-Turkish grandfather Osman Ali, who became Wilfred Johnson.) After a stint in Brussels, his parents divorced, and his mother moved back here and married an NYU professor. When I tell him Washington Square is just a few blocks up West Broadway, Johnson insists we head that way. “I remember vividly coming here in 1980 when I was 16,” he says. “This is the first time I came back here since.”

We jaywalk across Broome Street, and I tell him not to worry, he won’t be recognized here when breaking traffic laws, as he was running red lights on his bike in London. “Increasingly I am,” he corrects. “Outside your office someone said to me, ‘You were at the ball game last night with Mayor Bloomberg.’ That’s recognition.”

Bloomberg is another of Johnson’s heroes, and he keeps saying that he can’t understand why he isn’t running for president. Even after the soda ban? “I think he had a great success with the smoking-campaign thing. Philosophically, I’m against it. But in practice, I might be in favor of it. I think one of the mysteries of politics is: ‘There’s a reciprocal pleasure in governing and being governed,’ as Dr. Johnson put it. Which is disappointing for a libertarian anarcho-Tory like me. People really do need and want to be governed. And I think Mike Bloomberg is sort of on to that. The question is where do you draw the line.” His answer? “Obesity is a new problem. It’s a problem of affluence and acrasia, moral weakness. You know, it’s associated with debt—there’s a strong connection between the fattest societies and the most indebted societies. Or the most emotionally incontinent societies and the most improvident and the weakest wills.” He pauses. “I’m not sure if that’s totally true, actually, but there’s an argument in there somewhere.” Bloomberg blurbed his book.

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.”

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105 Minutes With Boris Johnson