Almost everyone seems to loathe Boris Johnson at the moment, from those who once hired him – Sir Max Hastings, formerly of the Daily Telegraph, said Boris “concerns nothing but his own glory and gratification” – down to one Irish priest friend who sent it I received an email yesterday that was about “the human horror that is Boris Johnson… that man represents evil in so many different ways”.
Oris even acknowledges his own unpopularity: he doesn’t endorse a successor for fear his endorsement would tarnish anyone’s reputation.
Still, I have a soft spot for the ousted British Prime Minister. It’s partly a tribal reflex: Boris is a rascal, but he’s an old journalist and I knew many like him when I was a rookie on Fleet Street in the 1960s.
Journalism has changed a lot over the course of my life: young journalists today are generally serious, competent, well-trained and pay attention to ethical issues. In the bad old days, trading (referred to as trading, not a respectable profession) attracted a slew of buccaneers, chancellors, reckless risk-takers, and entertaining rogues.
Legend has it that foreign correspondents submitted their expenses with the line item “Camel hire – $3,000.” Each morning, a half bottle of champagne was kept on hold for a star reporter to be opened at 11am. A famous columnist said: “No matter how plastered he is, he always leaves.”
On one occasion – the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 – a political commentator was too legless to use a typewriter, and a would-be reporter had to somehow take dictation from his incoherent mumbling.
A touch of this world is represented in Ben Hecht’s hilariously cynical farce, the cover, where an impending execution is considered a large copy. Evelyn Waughs scoop also imagines a conspiracy in which distant wars were welcomed, sometimes even fueled, by frantic scribes.
Boris first found his footing in journalism in the late 1980s, although by that time the old ways of buccaneers were mostly gone (and he was never a drunk in the Fleet Street tradition). An old-style hack might have “improved” a quote or “jacked” a story, but Boris completely made up a quote from a serious authority – resulting in his being fired The times. Then he went on to Daily Telegraph as a European correspondent – he had attended the European School in Brussels and knew the terrain.
It is clear that as a journalist, Boris was “sparing with the current affairs” and still did well.
Max Hastings, who hired him, found Boris’ Euroscepticism sharp – and he was. Boris enjoyed writing about the supposed standardization of condoms (allegedly Italians have smaller penises) or the EU plan to uncurl bananas for efficiency reasons or to interfere with the contents of British sausages.
All of this outraged European Commission officials, which was part of Boris’ intention. He wanted to cause chaos. He thought it was funny. And if every report wasn’t literally true, it was spiritually true that people like Jacques Delors and Martin Bangemann were harmonization zealots and didn’t take it as a joke.
It is clear that as a journalist, Boris was “sparing with the current affairs” and still did well. When he was editor of Viewers, editorial scenes were often chaotic and the air sizzled with risqué sexual affairs – including Boris’ well-witnessed affair with his deputy Petronella Wyatt. Despite this, the magazine was successful. And Boris might be an encouraging editor – he once called my son Patrick to thank him for an article he’d written about belief in fairies and said, “How did you find all this out?”
And so, via journalism, Boris got into politics, where again his larger-than-life personality helped him garner a large number of votes. Micheál Martin, not an admirer of Johnson’s policies, has generously agreed that he is “good company”. However, his character flaws – including his seemingly shady relationship with the truth – lost him the confidence of his party and eventually drew the scorn and loathing of so many.
I also see Boris as a Regency rake who lived into a more morally serious Victorian era. His misjudgments are rooted in his inability to take things seriously.
In the case of Chris Pincher – who eventually took Johnson down – I’m sure he thought it was “no big deal” that one guy groped another at the Carleton Club. Finally, Churchill joked when his hero, Winston Churchill, was informed that one of his MPs was illegally “in flagrante” with a soldier at St Englishman’s on a freezing winter night.”
Boris Johnson was probably never fit to be Prime Minister – his natural talents were those of an entertaining old-school writer. Now he wants to return to his old job and is said to be making more money than ever as a writer and TV presenter.
I’m always happy when a wordsmith gets a handful of dollars.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/everybody-loathes-boris-johnson-now-but-i-still-have-loyalty-to-a-rascally-fellow-wordsmith-41835199.html Everyone loathes Boris Johnson now, but I still have allegiance to a rogue wordsmith