Boris Johnson ended up as prime minister of the United Kingdom. These things happen.
There’s an interesting angle to be explored there, on determinism vs existentialism vs individualism vs collectivism vs Godzilla or whatever.
Was it Boris’ destiny to end up in Number 10, or was this event the culmination of generations’ worth of hard work, compromise, hustle, deal-making, carefully selected brood mares and funny handshakes? Who knows?
This piece isn’t going to explore that angle, though (surely you measure an angle, anyway? Or calculate it, using a number with no end point? Start again, Pat).
Anyway – I have this fantasy about Boris Johnson. The one where everyone quite likes him. Even the people who see through him. Don’t worry, it still has a nasty ending.
I have a fantasy that he decided at some point to get out of politics. Roughly before he became mayor of London. He could have gone into broadcasting, the same way members of the royal family “go into” charitable endeavours. He’d have just strolled in the door. He’d have been a natural. Admit it. No lubrication needed. No cajoling. Straight in.
Because as well as having a distinctive look, Boris Johnson can read and write. This is well-known. He’s written plenty of articles in his career as a journalist. Lots of these were about the European Union, an issue which will define Boris Johnson’s life, unless he commits a major crime, which of course he wouldn’t.
Many of these articles are interesting because they provide examples of pre-internet, pre-mobile phone memes. Something spread in pubs and canteens and playgrounds. There was something he wrote about Italian condoms having to be scaled down in size. And that schtick he has – continued to the present day – about European Union officials rejecting bent bananas? It was absolute bollocks, of course, but the message seeped through. Readers and editors loved it. It was silly and got your attention. Lots of people have said that the young Boris Johnson was great fun in person, the life and soul of the party. And there were consequences to that.
I remember repeating that claim about bent bananas being rejected by EU bureaucrats on a school bus trip to Butlins. I said and did a lot of things as a teenager that I struggle to live down, and I suppose that’s one of them. Boris Johnson’s wee jest about how all this EU red tape is bad for us penetrated all the way through to an absolute punk from the Drum too poor to shave the bumfluff off his lip. Boris Johnson could only dream of having that kind of unquestioned, unchallenged influence through any sort of mass media today.
Something Boris Johnson started off as a joke in the early 1990s has become a deadly serious matter.
Dreams and the Drum. I dream about being back in the Drum a lot. I should stress that it isn’t a nightmare – I feel like I have come back home. I’m initially happy. And I am back at school. Except I know something’s wrong. I am in school but I don’t know anyone. I go back home, and the old family house is empty. I can still hear the wind whistle up the close.
I realise something has gone badly wrong. Round about this time, I wake up, and bang, I’m back in reality. I wake up and think, I’m not in the Drum, that’s over.
Every single day, Boris Johnson wakes up and thinks: I’m the prime minister… Ah god, I’m the prime minister! Imagine that. Like Superman wakes up and thinks: I’m Superman. No, wait, that’s an extremely bad analogy. Rather, it must be a long, drawn-out version of the heebie jeebies, an aggregate of everything you said and did over one drunken night when you lost control. And worse yet, the evidence for it is everywhere, in every newspaper, on every TV channel, on every social media platform there is, flowing from every mouth, hidden in every whisper.
I wonder what he dreams about? Maybe his dream is a little bit like my fantasy.
Boris Johnson would have been on BBC4 every other night, and he would have been great at it. You have to admit this. Better than Michael Portillo; he would have charged past his fellow Man Most Likely To Succeed in the Conservative Party as he chuffs away there on his trains. Boris Johnson would have been strapped to the front of a gleaming silver locomotive, rocketing past him, hallooing and yarooing in Doppler waves.
Toad of Toad Hall, with all the toys he could ever want. That would be one of his documentaries, in fact: Road Hogs – the first cars to appear on British roads. He would putter around on ancient Heath Robinson contraptions with knobs and levers and comedy poop-poop horns, and bantered with the collectors, and their wives. He might even have crashed one or two of them. It would have made fantastic television.
He would have taken his place in our affections as a BBC Voice In The Void. We need these, whether we can admit it or not. The familiar patter of long vowels, every consonant snapping neatly into place, good manners, and education worn on his sleeve. He would, as more than one colleague of mine used to say of him about 10 years ago, have been good “affair material” in the minds of lots of women. Bit like yon lad with the beard on the baking show. Isn’t that right, ladies?
Anyway – to my actual fantasy. Boris Johnson’s thing is the classics and literature, and he might have moved onto art, country houses, museums, history, that kind of thing.
So, he gets a co-presenting gig with Lucy Worsley.
They would have made a tour of country houses. They would dress up, of course – her in regal frocks, and him as Henry VIII. Admit it, he would make a great spoof portrait of Henry VIII. It would have been very funny. And they would have looked good together.
In my fantasy – should I share this? Why not, we’ve come this far.
In my fantasy, Boris Johnson and Lucy Worsley are in costume and they film a section where Boris chases Lucy around the grounds of a country house, Benny Hill style. They might even edit in that music later.
“Oh, Boris, stop it!” Lucy would giggle, hitching up her skirts, kicking off her shoes. “You’re terrible!”
“Terrible I may be, ma’am!” Boris Johnson would bellow, stripping his coat off down to a lace-front chemise. “But I am also determined!”
This goes on for far too long, like a play fight between school friends become serious. She runs into the grounds at the back of the house. They get lost in the woods. Lucy realises something is badly wrong when Boris doesn’t answer her back. He only breathes hard. And there’s no camera crew.
She hides from him. The sun goes down. And then she glimpses, through the trees, that Boris isn’t quite Boris any more. His lower teeth are long and sharp, jutting out in a canine overbite. His chemise is torn open to reveal a hairy blond chest. The same piss-yellow pelt covers his face and hands. He is a werewolf, and turning progressively wolfier as the full moon blinks open its great big eye above this bosky scene.
He’s drooling now, and growling, snuffling through the undergrowth, peering behind every tree, shredding the bark with his claws. He darts at, and catches, a fleeing squirrel; in an instant it’s a bloody pulp between his jaws. Gore streaks his face, stains the torn remnants of his shirt.
Lucy’s almost too frightened to breathe. Dare she run for it, or should she hide, and hope he goes away? He’s getting closer, closer…
Boris howls at the moon, terrifying every living thing in sight.
And that’s the end of my fantasy, basically. We shall go no further. Or dare I?
Boris Johnson could have taken a wee sidestep. Things would have been better for him, and for us. He would still have been making plenty of money, he’d have been a familiar face on television, and while he would still have been someone to make fun of, ask questions about or straight up hate on a visceral level, he’d have gotten away with it. He could have indulged his interests – and Boris Johnson can read and write, there’s no escaping that fact – and his passions, with little or no comeback.
I wonder if he dreams about that; of being the funny man on the telly with the daft hair and that strange, Wodehouse-esque manner. If you need a presenter for a documentary on duelling pistols, or the Victorian fashion for whiskers, or – better yet! – the ancient Greeks and the Romans (and Mary Beard is too busy), he’s your wolfman.
That could have been me, he might think, as he sees jolly old Michael Portillo having a nice packed lunch on a train at 7.30 on a Tuesday night. Portillo, who had his political career so memorably executed in public in 1997, dodged a bullet in spiritual terms. There would have been regret in this reflection for Boris Johnson, not a sense of triumph.
Perhaps he dreams of that life, every night he goes to bed as prime minister.
It is not entirely impossible that he only has a few days of this to go. We know we can’t rely on any polls at all – the polling firms and think tanks have gotten things badly wrong in the past four or five years, and they don’t know why – but I get this funny wee feeling that it is time to rekindle some light in this country, and elsewhere, and that some deluded voters are starting to wake up to this idea.
My funny feeling is that Boris Johnson will be out of Number 10 before he’s even had time to unpack all his stuff from the last move. That the orange slug across the Atlantic will meet a hedgehog with Nancy Pelosi’s face, and no route of escape, and be shoved out the door at the White House before he even gets a chance to inflict himself on the planet for another four years. That outcome, added to another five years of Boris Johnson starting on Friday morning, is a bill this planet cannot afford to pay.
What do I dream about? Well I try to fight cynicism, but it’s a losing battle. I think you have to imagine one worse than what you have. A minus one effect, in brackets.
I wrote a novel about a giant monster attacking London and a prime minister who was a racist, sexist, priapic dullard who had no grasp of the concept of consequences. I loved it, but no-one else did.
I started writing it when Tony Blair was the UK prime minister and George W Bush was US president. My inspiration was mainly Bush, not Blair, transplanted across the Atlantic. That book was very much about the war on terror. A couple of years later, it could have been about the financial crisis. Now it would be about austerity and Brexit.
That’s the great thing about monsters. They’re a good fit for any problem.
For my fictional prime minister – the true monster – I wondered: What if we got someone worse than George W Bush? George W Bush seemed like the sum of all fears back then. And the warmonger has a lot of blood on his hands – moreso than Trump. Those wee wars are a problem the world will be paying the price for long after we’re all dead.
And yet, in terms of personality and competence, we have ended up, incredibly, with someone worse than George W Bush as the US president. If the best thing you can say about someone is, “Well he hasn’t started a war yet”, then that isn’t really praise.
So I think – who could be worse than Trump? How could they be worse than him? Who could be worse than Boris Johnson? Are they out there right now? Are they on the playing fields of Eton as we speak, collecting money with menaces from the first years? Are they playing the frat boy in an American Ivy League college as we speak, with too much power and money from the very start?
Or should I dare have this new fantasy, my ultimate fantasy, of dawn breaking? Has Lucy Worsley defeated the beast and found the path out of the woods in bright sunshine? She has, she has. She’s in tears but she’s won. The goodie has won. Be reassured. Be emboldened.
I will hold on to this fantasy, for a few days yet. Five days, to be precise.
We need hope. We need change. We need the light. We need advent. Things can only get better – if only that was true.