Magazine | December 31, 2014, Issue

Writing the Coattails

The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, by Boris Johnson (Riverhead, 384 pp., $27.95)

About halfway through Britain’s long Blair nightmare, I went to two dinners where Boris Johnson was billed as the guest speaker. Each time he was eagerly awaited: a man on the rise, a gifted journalist, an engaging and eccentric television personality, a Tory MP. Each time he was late. When he eventually turned up — all scarecrow hair and unconvincing excuses — he explained that he’d left his notes behind. He pressed on regardless in that blend of Drones Club and High Table that he has made his own. Both speeches were funny, sharp — and more or less identical. Johnson knows, as Winston Churchill knew, that a spontaneous speech takes plenty of preparation.

A book by Boris on Winston — first-name politicians both — ought to make sense. Like Churchill, Johnson is phenomenally ambitious, unusually resilient, and remarkably skilled at using showmanship, élan, and his pen to build, refine, and reshape his image.

It’s a shame, then, that The Churchill Factor is not very good. The grand old stories roll on grandly by, but there’s little that’s new for those who know their Churchill, and not enough depth for those who don’t. But if you’re interested in Johnson, this book is well worth a look. If Boris was someone to watch back when I listened to him make one speech two times, he is much more so today. He has since twice won election as mayor of London — no small feat for a Conservative — and is poised to reenter Parliament in the 2015 general election. From there he will be well placed to run for the Tory leadership in the likely event that David Cameron has just led his party off a cliff.

Johnson’s success owes a great deal to the manner in which he has defused his potentially toxic poshness. Like the hapless Cameron, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson went to the wrong school (Eton) and the wrong university (Oxford), and then capped the whole disgraceful gilding by joining the Bullingdon Club, an Oxford gang of the rich and sporadically destructive brought to politically tricky national attention some years ago when an ill-wisher leaked the club’s 1987 photo — a snapshot of archaic finery, Flashman attitude, and Sloane Ranger hair, a photo in which both Cameron and Johnson appeared.

Cameron has tried to deal with this embarrassment of privilege by recasting his public persona (very) gently downscale. The more charismatic Johnson, gambling that Brits take more pleasure in eccentricity than in reverse snobbery, has moved in the opposite direction, putting on a display of wild toff rococo — a bit of Wooster, a spot of Biggles, a touch of Raffles — that has left class warriors too amused to be chippy.

It’s a performance that rests heavily on Johnson’s way with words. His speeches are punctuated by slang, dated terminology, and madcap verbal construction. An accusation of infidelity was famously, if inaccurately, dismissed as an “inverted pyramid of piffle.” But what works in a sound bite palls over the course of a book. Tootling, monstering, wonky, squiffily, tosser, prang, perv, titfer, snortingly, bonkers, bunging — crikey, Boris, hold the shtick already. Unnecessary adjectives and superfluous adverbs run wild. Metaphors meander. A promising description of Churchill’s house — crammed with researchers, writers, and secretaries — as “one of the world’s first word processors . . . a gigantic engine for the generation of text” dragged on so long that all I wanted was the delete button. To be sure, there are splendid moments (“the French were possessed of an origami army: they just kept folding”), but they are swamped by verbosity.

So it’s ironic that the best section of the book is Johnson’s superb analysis of how Churchill’s oratory was put together, what it was meant to convey, and why it worked as well as it did. Sadly, Johnson himself ignores two key Churchillian tricks — short words over long, “Anglo-Saxon pith” over intruders with Latin and Greek origins — burdening the readers of this book with such treats as chiasmus, philoprogenitive, and eirenic, words that probably played little part in the small talk of Alfred the Great.

But these ten-guinea words are sly demonstrations of erudition, deployed for political, not literary, effect. Boris may play Wooster to beguile the plebs, but he wants them to understand that he is no upper-class twit. At the same time, he needs his audiences to feel that he is an inclusive sort of fellow, with them if not necessarily of them. So he brings his readers alongside him on trips to the sacred sites — to Chartwell, to the House of Commons, to kind Nurse Everest’s grave — while throwing in glimpses of a life that he invites them to share, if only by proxy: lunch at the Savoy, a birthday bash for a hedge-fund “king” at Blenheim Palace. Condescending, yes, but cleverly disguised. Only rarely does the mask slip, and the text sprouts tics more typical of history books written for the late-Victorian nursery: “Those were the days, you see, when there was no moral pressure on MPs to have a ‘home’ in the constituency.”

“You see”? Well, I suppose I do. Thank you, sir.

Notionally, Johnson has written this book to revive ebbing memories of Churchill and to remind his readers that, whatever some cruder Marxists might have to say about history’s being driven by “vast and impersonal economic forces,” one man can make a difference. Based primarily on a fine retelling of the events of 1940, Johnson makes a strong, if unsurprising, case that Churchill was such a man.

But Boris’s real objective in writing about Churchill is to promote Boris. Wisely, he doesn’t try to push Churchill comparisons — hosting the London Olympics doesn’t quite rank with seeing off Hitler — but there’s enough there for a satisfactory subliminal message. So Johnson tells the story of a man comfortable in his unorthodoxies, a statesman who was larger than life, and, like a certain twice-elected mayor of London that I could mention, larger than party.

In recent years, Johnson has positioned himself as offering a more robust, less politically correct version of David Cameron’s “modernized” conservatism, more libertarian, not so committed to environmentalist piety, pro-immigration (for its purported qualities as an agent of economic growth), and a booster of London’s cosmopolitanism, too, but not so respectful of multiculturalist orthodoxy. Johnson portrays Churchill, not unreasonably, as an early-20th-century Whig, an optimist, a Progressive of sorts.

But the old imperialist is not safely pigeonholed. Johnson defends his hero against the accusation that he was a warmonger and — as he should — places some of Churchill’s rougher views within the context of his times. Occasionally (not as uncharacteristically as fans of the allegedly plain-speaking Johnson like to believe), Boris simply dodges the issue: There is nothing on Churchill’s response to the Bengal famine of 1943, startlingly callous then and now.

Johnson — clearly conscious that times have moved on for the island race — takes care to signal that, despite his obvious admiration for Churchill, he himself is no reactionary. He distances himself from some instances of the more “unpasteurized” Churchill, but not too far. The last lion is still idolized by many of those who will be picking the next Conservative leader, an election evidently on Johnson’s mind. Why else tread quite so carefully on the question of Churchill’s complicated views on a united Europe, that most treacherous of Tory topics?

But tread carefully Johnson does. He has his eyes on the prize. Churchill would have understood.

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