Blimey, I thought, elbowing myself from under the sheets this rain-splattered AM. The sound on the window was like ball bearings jumping in a frying pan and I smartly reached for my ten inch to check for weather alerts. It wasn’t too far from here that hailstones recently fell the size of coconuts and I wanted to be sure that I shouldn’t slip into my Kevlar PJs before continuing to idle through my Sunday morning.
Now, you might wonder about my proximity to high tech but it’s my usual habit to wake and immediately check the news on my Android tablet. I like to know the day’s running order and to see what the various tyrants have been doing whilst I was otherwise engaged. It was how I came to see the headline about Boris and why I untangled myself from the sheets as my bleary eyes took in the details. If the reports are correct, Boris has been commissioned to write a book about Shakespeare and Hodder are currently shelling his back garden with half a million in bundled fivers. I expect him to catch them all too, with those big novelty-sized hands of his.
All of this resolved itself into the loud sob I gave before sinking back into my pillow.
I fell back to sleep and had one of those strangely lucid dream sequences which shifted the stage scenery with remarkable fluidity. One moment, I was an MP, spending my every waking hour trying to help the people of my constituency. The next moment, I was Mayor of London and there wasn’t an hour when I wasn’t trying to earn the trust of London and improving the state of the city. Then somebody pulled a few ropes and my dream shifted again. This time I was a newspaper columnist and it was my life. Every day I’d devote to writing the most blistering column and earning the respect and trust of my readers. Then, just before I woke up, I was trying with every particle of my being to write the best biography of Shakespeare that I could.
Eyes open, I groaned again. It was still raining and Boris Johnson is still doing none of his jobs properly because he’s being paid handsomely to do all four.
I don’t quite know what to say now that I’m fully awake. Perhaps my response is just the jealousy of a man who struggles to earn a living from either his writing or his cartoons, no matter how much time and energy he invests into them. £500,000 would set me for life and I’d write twenty books, drawn thousands upon thousands of cartoons… Hell, I’d even do all that for a tenth of that.
Perhaps it’s the disgust of a man who finds it hard to value his own work and could not write anything for anybody unless he’d put his soul into it. Perhaps this is what ‘aspiration’ means in this modern Conservative Britain. Is Boris simply one of those ‘hard-working people’ the Tories are always banging on about? Or is he simply greedy?
Apparently (thank you Google) as Mayor he earns a recently-reduced salary of £47,970 a year. As an MP he will be earning £74,000 plus allowances. As Shakespeare’s biographer, he’s going to earn £500,000. All of that in addition to what is apparently a £275,000 salary from The Daily Telegraph.
It would beg the question ‘why’ if it didn’t also beg the equally obvious answer.
Boris is a name. You might have noticed that I’ve so far omitted the name ‘Johnson’ from this post, yet, if you live in the UK, I’m fairly certain you’d have still known who I’m talking about. There isn’t another ‘Boris’. Boris Becker is ‘Becker’ and Karloff is ‘Karloff’. No other Boris is just ‘Boris’.
The name means everything in a culture dominated by brands. The Boris brand is easy to describe. It’s fruity, bumbling, larger than life, Edwardian, disheveled, witty and displaying that brand of intellect that is also slightly shallow as befits a man who read the Classics and received 2.2 from Oxford. Boris is the kind of man who can make any dumb idea sound brilliant simply by quoting Phaedrus’s fable of the charging rhinoceros. Take some non-cyclists and put them on heavy unwieldy bicycles before throwing them into heavy London traffic? Why, as Phaedrus’s rhinoceros says when it’s about to gore the baobab tree: ‘Boris Bikes are spiffing idea…’
The resulting book will reflect the Boris persona and if it sets the charts alight (and I’d be surprised if Hodder get their money back) it won’t be because of the scholarship. There are few major figures in British history about whom we know less than Shakespeare and unless Boris has access to a secret library unavailable to the major scholars, Boris’s book will be full of speculation and plenty of the old verbatim, cemented together with a pithy jokes in the style of a slightly glandular Jeeves. Boris’s Shakespeare will be the Shakespeare of biscuit tins and tea towels. It will be the flag waving Bard whose history is presented as a homily to modern bombastic British conservatism and the next Tory leader. Huzzah and hurrah!
And no doubt many people will love it. Marketing tends to do that to a book, so long as the book is half decent. They will love it because there is nothing quite so devalued in the world like true scholarship. And that is what is so deeply depressing about this story. It is more evidence to support the hypothesis that this is no meritocracy. We live in a country in which Ian Duncan Smith, author of The Devil’s Tune (Amazon, one and a half stars), decides the fate of writers and artists. It’s the society where David Cameron and George Osborne talk about hard work, having lived their entire lives cosseted by the establishment.
There are people out there who would leap at the chance to do any one of Boris’s jobs and most of them would treat the work with the respect it deserves. There are people who would make better MPs. There are men and women who would make better mayors. It would churlish to suggest that some would be better columnists than Boris. The Telegraph gig is the one job he possibly deserves given he cultivated the Boris character in his writing. Yet as an biographer, we can only judge his talents based on his prior biography of Churchill which was readable and sometimes funny, but ultimately shallow and reads like the flim of history pasted together with plenty of flam.
It’s hard to imagine Hodder throwing half a million at Jonathan Bate, Stanley Wells or James Shapiro to write the Shakespeare biography but for their money they’d probably get one of the best biographies of Shakespeare out there, using careful reading of the texts to justify solid scholarship and serious research to reveal new facets to the man. Yet consider this: £100,000 would be far more than even top academics get as the advance for a book, so why the hell doesn’t Hodder commission five biographies from the world’s top Shakespearean scholars? Except they won’t because names like Bate and Wells and Shapiro don’t resonate with the public who salivate at the name Boris.
Why would Hodder want authenticity when they can have Boris at five times the price?