:: Article

The Ironic High Style

By Max Dunbar.


Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition, Sonia Purnell, Aurum 2012

A piece in the Independent a few weeks back marked the resurgence of aristocratic fashion. The Burberry clothes label, once associated with brawling Cheshireites outside the kind of sports pub you cross the road to avoid, is now modelled by respectable upper middle class names like Emma Watson and Otis Ferry. The creative professions are dominated by public school boys and girls, and their styles have filtered down into general hipster fashion. The journalist Harriet Walker sums up this trend:

There’s a certain tribe – one that includes the likes of Alexa Chung, as well as models Alice Dellal and Daisy Lowe – whose indie influences have exerted pressure on the posh trope and turned it into streetwear. Floral tea dresses and sailor shifts worn with brogues and loafers, Barbours and tweed worn with denim, and battered leather satchels and briefcases that look like they may have accompanied their owners to prep school: all have helped re-appropriate and re-circulate the sartorial ticks of the upper echelons, thereby rehabilitating them for the rest of us plebs.

As the editor of the Tatler says: ‘It’s a fabulous time to be posh.’

None of this is new. Walker has a fascinating digression about the historic convergence between aristocratic and hipster fashion. Nor is the aristocratic style all a bad thing. Ruthlessness, disdain, command, insouciance and oratory are good things and should be turned against the elites. I’m thinking again of Lionel Trilling’s words on Orwell – that ‘he must sometimes have wondered how it came about that he should be praising sportsmanship and gentlemanliness and dutifulness and physical courage. He seems to have thought, and very likely he was right, that they might come in handy as revolutionary virtues.’

The first thing to take from Sonia Purnell’s stunning political biography is that aristocratic background need not be played down if you want to succeed. David Cameron is an Old Etonian, related to the Queen, who has filled his cabinet with people of similar income, background and views. His policies hit the working class hardest, yet people seem happy watching Downton and attending the odd royal jamboree. The public were sick of the Islington liberal bourgeois that had been running the New Labour show. They had also been screwed over by Square Mile barrowboys. Liberal-left attacks in terms of background – out of touch, Bullingdonian, racist etc – had a negligible effect. In the Crewe byelection in 2008, Labour activists ran around in top hats and tails to demonstrate that the Tory candidate was a ‘toff’. The Tories took this solid Labour seat on a 17.6% swing.

No one personifies the ease of the aristocratic style like Boris Johnson. Haphazard, overweight and disorganised, London’s mayor seems to have climbed to the top of media and politics without really trying. I could spend the rest of this piece listing examples of improvised buffoonery from Purnell’s book. His speeches are unprepared rambles full of ad-libs, self-deprecations and classical references of barely tangential relevance. On appointment as shadow arts minister, he gave journalists an off-the-cuff manifesto: ‘Look, the point is… er, what is the point?… On coming to power I am going to institute a Windows spell check in English… The Greeks are going to be given an indistinguishable replica of all the Parthenon marbles… Fourth? I can’t remember what point four is. Ah, yes. We are going to convene a summit with Damien Hirst and the rest of the gang, at which they are going to explain to the nation what it all means. Let us have a national ‘mission to explain’ by the Saatchi mob, which will be massively popular.’

His journalism was no less chaotic. Paul Goodman, then comment editor for the Telegraph, reconstructs a typical conversation:

– What are you going to write about today, Boris?
– Aaaarrrrgggghhh! Cripes! Erm…
– Well?
– I thought… sort of… eeerrrhhhmmm.
– Sorry?
– I mean… um… Blair.
– What about him?
– Sort of… gosh!… Europe… and…
– And?
– Hague… I mean, Hague!… er… sort of…
– So, I’m to tell the Editor that you’re writing about sort of Blair, Europe and Hague, sort of?
– No… well… um… Yah… er… That’s it!

And seven hours or so later, an immaculately composed and piractically arresting essay would appear.

Before writing his weekly column Johnson used to brainstorm his staff about what kind of piece was most likely to kill his career, composing a draft intro that began ‘one thing that has become apparent to me in my years of Parliamentary service is that David Cameron is a complete cunt’ and an article pitched as ‘Why I Believe in a European Superstate.’ (My favourite Boris story is his decision to write a broadsheet column in favour of selling the bomb to Iran, on the basis that the mullahs were bound to develop a nuclear capacity anyway and we might as well get some trade benefits from it and press for democratic reform. As Purnell says: ‘It was one of those moments when a Boris-watcher gasps and asks: Is this for real?’) Post-expenses, he is the only contemporary politician to command near-universal public respect, his sex life could rival a Flashman or Don Draper, and he walks away laughing from controversies that would kill most public figures stone dead. Purnell’s biography can be read as a classic period entertainment, half the time you are just laughing at Boris’ antics and wondering what the loveable rogue will get up to next week. As Laurie Penny put it on the Daily Politics: ‘Sorry, it’s Boris, I still can’t believe he’s the Mayor of London, he’s a cartoon character… Every time I see his face on TV I go oh… oh, you’re Mayor…’ No one took him seriously until it was too late.

Purnell sets out to demolish the Boris image of benign silliness. She lays out observational evidence that the whole thing is a carefully constructed facade. There are advantages to looking like a fool. People let their guard down. Purnell can list journalistic and political rivals who have been conned and then burned by the Wooster act. A reporter who worked with him on the EU beat told Purnell that ‘[Boris] used to infuriate colleagues in Brussels by persuading them to take pity on him, help him and then find themselves completely outsmarted.’ Another journalist called Boris about a gaffe and got the usual ‘Crikey, aarrgh, woof’ routine, wrote it down verbatim and discovered that another lobby journo had also called Boris and got the same spiel, word for word.

Those who cross him – intentionally or otherwise – find that, for such a clown, he can be surprisingly ruthless. His sister Rachel nominated the writer Roger Lewis for the Oxford poetry chair, telling Lewis she could recruit the Johnson ‘block vote.’ However, Boris ‘had gone ballistic about the idea’ because of an unflattering Lewis review of an earlier Boris bio written by one of his friends, four years back. Lewis had speculated, quite reasonably, that Boris’ persistent philandery could hurt his children. Rachel said to Lewis: ‘I think I have traced it to your Gimson review… just read it online. You’re toast, I’m afraid. He is very Sicilian when it comes to these little matters for office and those who debate it publicly.’ A bemused Lewis told Purnell that ‘I guess you don’t get to be as famous as that by being nice to everyone.’

The chapters on childhood and adolescence, normally the dullest part of any biography, are instructive in this case. The Johnsons had money but, like the Flashmans, they were never ‘quite the thing’ and from an early age Boris and Rachel learned the values of relentless and compassionless competition. There is a brilliant portrait of Boris’ father Stanley; a kind of early draft of Boris himself, Stanley has all Boris’ faults but not enough style to conceal them, so that where Boris appears rakish and suave Stanley comes across as lecherous and abrasive.

Nick Cohen, a writer who sees through all facades, professional or otherwise, questioned not Boris’s drive but the ultimate purpose behind it:

As I finished Purnell’s exhaustive biography, I wondered why the British think him worth the attention and why Time magazine described him as one of the 100 most influential people on the planet. What has he achieved? What great or even good book has he written? What principle has he promoted beyond his own self-advancement?

When the mask comes off at midnight there appears to be nothing behind it but an ambitious nullity.

Ultimately though, Purnell’s biography excels not in the portrait of its subject but of the society that made Boris and sustains him. The book is like a primer on the British elite and how it is made. It is a world of ferocious hierarchy and unchallenged privilege. Just Boris is the story of a small island where bankers are showered with unmerited millions and the young are expected to be grateful for the opportunity to stack shelves for nothing.

I lost count of the introductions that went something like ‘whose great-uncle was personal private secretary to the Queen Mother’, ‘whose grandfather, Charles Newark Guimpe-Mogg-Smythe IV, ran half the slave trade’,’whose ancestors include the naturalist who named the fish’. Purnell’s passage on the Oxford social ziggurat is revealing:

At the apex were the toffs or ‘socialites’ with genuine aristocrats like [Charles, 9th Earl, Viscount Althorp] Spencer mixing with an assortment of upper-class undergraduates. They would refer to those who had attended what they viewed as minor public schools – in other words, almost anyone outside the big three of Eton, Harrow and Winchester – as ‘Tugs’, the contemptuous Etonian term for non-fee paying King’s Scholars… Below Tugs – encompassing virtually anyone who was grammar or state-educated – came Oxford’s version of India’s untouchables, known as ‘Stains’.

Lloyd Evans, a South London comprehensive school boy, ended up doing menial tasks for Boris and his friends in a subservient Etonian ‘fagging’ system that continued into their time on the Spectator. ‘He was always asking me to leave the country on idiotic missions such as an inquiry into Swedish lavatorial habits,’ Evans told Purnell. The protagonist of Ben Masters’ Noughties, set in Oxford in the 2000s, is looked down on as a ‘snivelling statie’. I went to comprehensive school with a friend who, despite taking a first from Oxford, is still referred to as a ‘chippy northerner’ in the elite law firm where he works.

There is a whole chapter on Boris’ Spectator editorship. The Spectator is supposed to be an upmarket Tory journal, but Boris let the ludicrous Taki socialite columnist write his pieces about ‘bongo-bongo land, West Indians ‘multiplying like flies’, and one on the world Jewish conspiracy, in which he described himself as a ‘soi-distant anti-semite’.’ Boris’ Spectator was typically eleventh-hour and last-minute, with an atmosphere of long lunches, afternoon crashouts, and a genteel and rarified prejudice. It is so in-jokey and self-referential that when Boris impregnated Petronella Wyatt, his deputy editor and casual fling, the Spectator‘s own theatre critics wrote a comic play about the affair called Who’s the Daddy? and got it staged in the West End. The Spectator Affair is like a broadsheet media world in microcosm, small and tight, whose practitioners carry out their affairs and feuds in carefully coded messages in columns and editorials, apparently meaningless but instantly decipherable to the right people, like handkerchiefs on fenceposts.

Despite his Drones Club persona, Purnell’s Boris is not that clubbable. You don’t see him out with a colleague for a few midweek pints. He prefers either to be with a woman or to be alone. And Boris’ adultery hasn’t hurt him, not in terms of career, reputation or marriage. An extramarital dating agency used his face on billboards with the caption: ‘Affairs guaranteed! No matter what you look like.’ Sexuality is a strange thing and the most unlikely people can make effortless connections. It always helps to be able to make a woman laugh. This is the Boris technique, as told by one of his targets: ‘He invades your personal space, gets really close up to you, and then with those slightly popping blue eyes of his says intently in a deep voice: ‘You really must come and write for me at the Spectator.’

All fun and games. But not always. TES journalist Anna Fazackerley was rumoured – but not proved – to be sleeping with Boris when he was shadow education minister. The speculation cost Fazackerley her career, destroyed her friendships, and has haunted her since. Purnell nails it:

As for the question, why don’t any of the women linked to Boris ever do a ‘kiss and tell’? Fazackerley’s experience suggests they ask themselves who would fare worst if they did. The answer to that question is not Boris.

Boris’ life has been one long plate juggle between politics and journalism. Asked on Desert Island Discs whether he was aiming to become Prime Minister one day, Boris came up with a clear and telling visual image: ‘I suppose all politicians in the end are like crazed wasps in a jam jar, each individually convinced that they’re going to make it.’ The metaphor is a good one not just for politics but all the worlds in which Boris moves.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 12th, 2012.