From Nicompoopolis: The Follies of Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson's lovable maverick schtick has been to dissemble himself beneath a mantle of suet, to pretend to inarticulacy, to oik about as the People's Primate, to wear a ten year old's hairdo, to laugh it off - no matter what it is, no matter how grave it may be - and to display charm learnt at a charm school with duff tutors. This construct is going on threadbare. If one devotes such energy to a simulacrum of oafishness one becomes an oaf. The creature that his panto act was intended to occlude is evident in photographs of over thirty years ago when he still had cheekbones. In those days the young apprentice liar was only a rapier scar short of the full Heydrich. The supercilious confidence, the hubris, the arrogance of the entitled and the languid bully's hardly surpressed cruelty are deafeningly manifest.
George Orwell was perhaps wrong: Johnson is now a (spectacularly immature) fifty-three year old who doesn't have the face he deserves. Rather, he has the face he has struggled to create, a mask to gull the gullible Little Ingerlandlandlanders whose xenophobic legions - think, if you can bear to, of a million Andrea Leadsoms mated with a million beer bellied fans - are as ever-swelling as their idol. They feel no shame at belonging to the same species as the creature, no embarrassment. He doesn't make them wince. They applaud his blustering idiocies, his boorishness, his antinomian exceptionalism, his carelessness, his borderline criminality, his incontinent mendacity - a habit which, decades on, he has yet to stem. And his despoilation of London during eight years of insoucuant irresponsibility has till lately provoked astonishingly little concerted antipathy outside the milieu of urbanism conference delegates, infrastructural consultants, public space gurus, despised planners who know their job and megalapolitan studies majors. These people, no matter how distinguished and how clued up, were impotent in the face of an elected absolutist who listened to no one and would be in chokey for life were pig ignorance a crime. It's all very well spitefully damaging restaurants with your fellow sawdust caesars of the Bullingdon for loutish self-gratification. Spitefully damaging one of the great cities of the world, rendering it formerly great, for loutish self-gratification is a rather different matter. This was the mayor who shat laissez-faire on London, who marked his territory with heavy loads of fetid bling, whose faecal legacy it will take decades to clear. Unhappily the second hand water canons, Wasserwerfer 9000s, which Johnson, evidently in Mayor Daley mood and too indolent to check their legality, bought from some lackaffe on a back lot in Chemnitz, have been sold on. They weren't legal, the then Home Secretary Theresa May said so.
Johnson's was not normal autocratic behaviour. In 1977 Jacques Chirac was elected the first Mayor of Paris in a century: his 'predecessor' was Jules Ferry. He used his position to undermine the President, the amusingly pompous Valéry Giscard d'Estaing whose cabinet he had resigned from. So Chirac sacked Ricardo Bofill whom Giscard had chosen, by means of a rigged competition, to rebuild Les Halles (which ought not to have been demolished in the first place). Chirac denigrated Bofill's design as "Greco-Egyprian with Buddhist tendencies" and after that mouthful declared: "L'architecte...c'est moi." And preposterous as it may sound he was, insofar that he meddled and 'advised', and censored the designs of Jean Willerval whom he brought in to replace Bofill. Willerval was an accomplished brutalist who was ill at ease with the tepid post-modernism that Chirac prescribed. His 'umbrellas' would last less than three decades. Meanwhile Giscard was promoting the Gare d'Orsay as a counter to the Beaubourg, a project which he had wished to cancel when he was elected President. But once it was renamed the Pompidou Centre his hands were tied in enforced respect for his dead predecessor.
These were certainly proxy political skirmishes but they were also about surfaces: taste, design, style and the appearance of a city. Two decades previously Nikita Krushchev's denunciation of Stalin had begun with a vilification of his kitschy historicist funfair architecture. The subsequent krushchevkas were grimly functional, prefabricated, standardised, low cost, spartan, based on immediately post-war French models. No doubt Putin's zealous erasure of them is partly founded in their not being specifically Russian. Like Stalin, Putin understands the Russian sweet tooth for gaudiness. Further, the krushchevkas do not accord with the look that Moscow should present to the world.
In comparison with these politicians who, whatever their bent, recognised the importance of aesthetics and the politicisation of design Johnson is stylistically agnostic, artistically indiscriminate and not much concerened about a building's purpose. His campaign manifesto for the 2008 mayoral election includes a predictable boast about improving 'the aesthetic quality of new developments.' How, given that all evidence points to his aesthetic blindness, was this to be acheived? By the market of course; the market possesses 20-20 vision, it is always right. Apart from the grand destiny which awaits him it is the only thing that he believes in, though that could change, if it suits him to change. The market absolved Johnson of having to make choices. He waved through virtually every planning application that came before him. He 'called in' a number of applications that had been rejected. He overruled councils and local objections and sanctioned developments of which he had only the feeblest knowledge: plans and proposals demand a concentrated attention to detail that Johnson, by his own admission, lacks. He consequently created a city fit only for hedge fund bastards, south east Asian investors, oligarchs on the run and their amazonian hookers, known as 'Russian fur-trees'. Through sloth and indifference he exacerbated inequality and the housing crisis. Having claimed that he would not create Dubai on Thames he did worse, he created Houston on Thames, Minneapolis on Thames. He turned London into a building site, a catwalk of urban regenerators' bums. There is nothing less 'sustainable' than the process of construction.
Throughout his excellent and often shocking Nincompoopolis Douglas Murphy is level-headed and generally reluctant to attack Johnson ad hominem - which might be regarded as self-censorship or simply an act of courtesy (which would improbably be reciprocated). He does not then consider the possibility that Johnson, in his overwhelming eagerness to leave a mark which would live on beyond his mayoral term, was often had. Far from being a caïd he was a readily biddable patsy, a soft touch. Developers, vandals in all but name, circumvented planning procedure by going straight to him and his chummy rubber stamp safe in the knowledge that he would not have considered the ramifications of their latest offering. He had a scattergun approach to his wretched 'legacy'. If you permit everything, something is bound to stick. He refused only seven of the 130 applications that came before him.
One of these was for an extension to London City Airport which had been approved by the local authority. Murphy surmises, not unreasonably, that Johnson's refusal to endorse the scheme was on spurious grounds (noise, pollution) because he was entertaining a half-witted dream of an airport on an artificial extension to the Isle of Grain at the foggy confluence of the Thames and the Medway. The creature's amour propre and faith in his own judgment is so powerful that he quite overlooks or dismisses the project's environmentally catastrophic effects not to mention that construction would involve disturbing the liberty ship Richard Montgomery which famously sank off Sheerness in 1944 with 1400 tons of ordnance aboard. Their explosive status is disputed. That of Grain is not. It is a beguiling wilderness. And its value is increased by its proximity to London. It requires protection from chancers' duff wheezes. One might say that London itself also requires that protection, though that would have precluded John Nash a chancer of genius, thus an exception. Johnson is not even in the premier league of chancers. His estuarial airport was partly recycled from the Heath era scheme on the Essex shore at Maplin Sands which excited derision at the time. Much of north Kent is a valuable reminder of England before it was Thatcherised. Johnson, like Thatcher, is not, pace Murphy, really a Tory, let alone a shires Tory - do those beasts still exist? If he must be classified it is as a mutant Manchester Liberal. Like Thatcher and like Trump, whom he is twinned with and whom he embarrassingly calls 'a great global brand', he displays, as Murphy observes, 'a vocal contempt for the state but a consistent eagerness to use it as a source of funds and protection'. Funds, for instance, to promote his follies - which give follies a bad name. They are crude whims and coarse caprices such as the garden bridge. Leave aside Thomas Heatherwick's mediocre design. The evasion of normal procurement processes, the disappearance of millions of pounds, the creepily cosy relationship of Transport For London with the engineering behemoth Arup, the emergence of Joanna Lumley as an urban theorist, and the 'casual disregard for the boundaries of public and private' - these call for criminal investigation.
Johnson's mayoralty was a consistently splendid demonstration of what used to be called the OPA (Old Pals Act) in its full, grubby pomp: Heatherwick, for instance, evidently the court designer, was also responsible for the disastrous new buses. He appointed as 'a senior advisor' the far from distinguished former editor of the Evening Standard Veronica Wadley whose support of his electoral campaign had been as laughably parti pris as her denigration of Ken Livingstone's. Subsequently he bent every conceivable rule of public job selection to secure her appointment to the Chair of Arts Council London, a post for which she had absolutely no experience. Johnson's perplexing anxiety to please Wadley was such that he re-ran the selection process once the Tories had returned to power in 2010 and obliging Jeremy Hunt was on hand to approve the appointment which his predeccessor Ben Bradshaw had declined to do. Was this quid pro quo? A big drink? Was it down to friendship? To a belief in Wadley's (previously untried) abilities? No. More likely by far it was a self-interested ruse to deter Wadley's husband, the biographical attack-dog Tom Bower, from writing about him. In all likelihood it will turn out that Johnson has miscalculated and Bower will slip his leash, teeth bared. As Murphy, a rather more nuanced writer, repeatedly shows, Johnson has an unerring aptitude for misreading situations. He is a hostage to his own wishfulness. He wants a new toy, a toy he will share with the little people. A £60 million cable car kind of toy. In his access of solipsism he has assumed that the world would want to play with the toy that he has so generously offered them. But the wretched ingrates are indifferent to his gift.
What, then, about an aggressive lump of soi-disant sculpture to Johnson-Up the Olympics on whose pristine site he had yet to evacuate himself? The supersalesman connects well. He is lanyarding around the World Economic Forum in Davos when who should he run into but Lakshmi Mittel, then the richest man in the UK. No foreplay, straight to the point: Lakshmi, old son, I have a vision...The consumation was immediate. Mr Steel (Murphy's epithet) coughs up. But for what? Johnson is a highly unoriginal thinker: his vision was, typically, pre-loved: his vision was for the kind of structure that endured long after the forgotten expos, the world fairs and the previous Olympics they had originally embellished. Compulsorily vertical - like the Eiffel Tower, or the Seattle Space Needle, or the Olimpiaturm in Munich. Paul Fryer's fine Transmission, somewhere between totem pole and Cross of Lorraine was the first work associated with this scheme. But Johnson, au fond an off-the-peg, immeasuarably vain politician, craved a 'landmark' (his drearily hackneyed word) and a big name. He convened a jury the far side parody. The curatocratic nomenklatura : Nicholas Serota, Julia Peyton-Jones and the ineffable Hans Ulbrich Obrist engaged if his perpetual struggle to parse a sentence. These institutionalised champions of the ancient avant-garde are nothing if not predictable. They arrived at a shortlist of three of their cronies. This time they chose crony Anish Kapoor and his collaborator, crony Cecil Balmond, the engineer whose job is to make sure dummkopf visions don't collapse: this is a man who never lacks for commissions. It might be argued that the ArcelorMittal Orbit is in the tradition of eyecatchers built in the form of ruins. That would be to exonerate those culpable for the mess. It appears to be the site of a major roller coaster disaster, a multimillion pound structural failure. This, presumably, is not what was intended. But it does stand as an apt and unwitting summation of Johnson's London: an ugly man's ugly legacy of chaos concentrated in a single ugly object.
Throughout the years of Johnson's reign Douglas Murphy was making or trying to make a career as an architect. He lived a life of gas-meter fiction and Gissing-like penury. He casually contrasts his lot - the lot of the many - with that of the few, of Johnson and his privileged milieu, his privileged background. Murphy is not sparing in his use of 'elite' and 'elitism'. So what? There is something terribly wrong about a society which allows attention-seeking freaks like Johnson to rise and rise. This is a man who'll do anything for a photo-opportunity. Bite off a live European chicken's head? Why not? Dance in union jack patterned Pampers? Of course. Eton is obviously partly to blame. Its very existence depends on bolstering the inequality and exclusivity which endow its charges with an unmerited sense of superiority no matter how crass the little tossers may be. There are exceptions. Orwell of course, and Neal Ascherson who recently observed that when he was there his fellow pupils treated their teachers as servants. They very likely still do. OEs such as Robin Cook (aka Derek Raymond), Jeremy Sandford and Heathcote Williams also saw through the contaminatory place and despised it. They belong to an honourable tradition of treachery towards the old school.
Johnson, like the wretched Cameron - a poltroon who, extraordinarily, inflicted even greater harm - is not an aristocrat. Were he an aristocrat he might have some conception of noblesse oblige. He is a paltry, utterly conventional, upwardly mobile, morally squalid parvenu who yearns to be taken for what he isn't. There is a parliamentary history of such creatures who believe themselves to be characterful cards - Gerald Nabarro, Norman St John Stevas, Leo Abse, the rapists Nicholas Fairbairn and Cyril Smith. But no party leader was ever daft enough to appoint any of them to an important post.
Until recently I had hoped that Johnson would, in homage to his doppelganger Herman Göring, crack open a cynadine capsule in his cell whilst awaiting trial for gross abuse of publc funds: where are they? I must apologise. We should humanely encourage him to hang himself with a towel attached to a toilet pipe like another characterful card Robert Ley, director of KdF (Strength Through Joy).
From You Aren't What You Eat: Fed Up With Gastroculture.
This is a bloody, brutal and necessary sacred cow hunt. Heston, Jamie, Gordon and the entire gruesome galere of mononomial foodists are mocked, derided, exposed and forced to endure the echo of their vacuous ‘philosophies’ and inane dicta. They are allowed so much rope that they suffer multiple deaths. Steven Poole shows about as much mercy as an abattoir shootist. Unlike such an operative however he is brilliantly and consistently and winningly funny: his is a great comic performance, and evidently hurtful. Or, rather, it would be hurtful were his multiple targets to possess his acuity and be able to understand what he writes. It’s all too probable that they simply won’t get it, they won’t realise that they’ve been well and truly rumbled. And even if they dimly perceive that this man is taking multiple pots at them he can be discounted because he is not part of the guzzling ‘community’ which listens only to its own because it is cultishly ingrown.
It is difficult for instance to imagine that such titans of contemporary thought as Prince Charles and Mr Sting will be dissuaded of their support for the Soil Association because its founder, Jorion Jenks, was a member of the English Mistery and British Union of Fascists : astonishingly, he continued to correspond after the Second World War with the then imprisoned Richard Walther Darré, the Reich Minister of Agriculture, the ideologue of blood and soil and ‘theorist’ of lebensraum. To point to Jenks’s sources, beliefs and penpals is not an ad hominem criticism for those beliefs remain at the very heart of this cranky, luddite and – as Poole makes clear – misanthropic organisation, which values mineral earth over humankind. Darré must be beaming with pride in whatever circle of wholemeal hell he inhabits. Poole correctly discerns a strong element of misanthropy and first world exclusivity throughout the entire bio and organic racket which, like any dumb religion (and is there any other kind?), puts reason to sleep in favour of dodgy nostrums with no bases other than those of ‘faith’.
A hapless fellow called Craig Sams is quoted. He believes that meals become ‘imprinted on our DNA’, that they become ‘part of your heredity’. The book is littered with such professions of pseudo-science. But hold on: maybe Sams has a point, for it turns out that he is some sort of fairtrade, holistic, ethical, carbon-sequestrating, cacao-growing, allotment-digging, tomato-avoiding macrobiotic entrepreneur. Could it be that his diet has so scrambled his brain that he has come to actually believe such guff? Or is Poole closer to the mark, and more forgiving, when he suggests that Sams’s theory is a ‘marvellously subtle form of moral blackmail’ for what you eat will affect not just you but ‘your as-yet-unborn children, who will inherit your disgustingly screwed-up beefy genome.’
The personae whose wings Poole gleefully picks off belong to many and different gastronomic subcultures. They are nonetheless bound together by their extremism and their hyperbole. There is no place in these milieus for balance, for doubt, for self questioning - let alone for the self knowledge that might provide a bulwark against loopy mendacity (‘if you cook these recipes, you will be rewarded with good times, brilliant weekends and big smiles all around the table’), against childish chemistry experiments, a wearily hackneyed lexicon (‘drizzle’, ‘source’, ‘forage’, ‘artisinal’, ‘heritage’, ‘proper’, ‘real’), preposterous claims of provenance, grossly sentimental ancestor worship and the delusion that cooking is an art. It’s not. It’s at best a craft.
Attempts by persons of little learning to elevate it are risible. The sheer bollocks that chefs spout is startling. This is a caste drained of all irony, all wit. The chef Anthony Bourdain writes of the chef Thomas Keller: ‘You haven’t see how he handles fish, gently laying it down on the board and caressing it, approaching it warily, respectfully, as if communicating with an old friend.‘ The old friend, should we not have noticed, is dead. Are we to suppose that Keller is a medium? Or is he a necrophiliac fish-fiddler, a Jimmy Savile of the deep? Rather bizarrely, Poole, succumbing momentarily to an injurious relativism, claims that Bourdain is ‘a serious, and seriously good, writer.’ Had ‘writer’ been suffixed ‘for a chef’ that contention would have been apter.
Still it’s a forgivable lapse given the sheer bathos which he is obliged to wade through. Virtually every page yields some startling sample of food world’s self congratualtion, its pompouness, its pretension, its sheer wrongheadedness. Franc Roddam, who invented MasterChef in 1990, claims ludicrously that ‘at that point good food was only for rich people. It was like, “No hang on a second. Let’s democratise this.”’ So that’s what he was up to, putting food on the poor’s table by telecommunic ation. That ‘It was like’ is, incidentally, a sexagenarian’s priceless essay in the very ‘democratisaton’ he is claiming for his debased telly format. Still, it cannot be denied that Masterchef has given us some glorious moments such as this voiceover: ’This is fine dining now, so Steve must remove the outer skin from each individual pea.’
Any sentient adult will wince at the construction ‘fine dining’. Poole is not afraid to quote stuff that will cause us to cringe. Us. For every us there is a them. Nor, it appears, is he afraid to court accusations of snobbery. Here is an intelligent, well read, highly educated man with a heightened sensitivity to language having a whale of a time poking fun at a brigade of tocque’d unfortunates who are less intellectually favoured than he is, mostly sub-literate people who talk with their frying pans rather as footballers talk with their feet, people who are largely incapable of realising how absurd they appear to those who are not fellow believers.
Two hundred years ago Steven Poole would have been an assiduous guide to the horrors of Bedlam. We should be thankful that in a more humane age the patients have been released and are now available to be gaped at in restaurants, magazines and on telly. All the time.