Skip to main content
Wednesday, December 13, 2017 |

Opinion Culture: The capital offences of Boris Johnson

As the excellent book Nincompoopolis demonstrates, the ex-London mayor should be brought to account for his corrupt despoliation of the city, says JONATHAN MEADES

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 10-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 30 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 suppressed cruelty are deafeningly manifest.

George Orwell was perhaps wrong. Johnson is now a spectacularly immature 53-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 Ingerlanders 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 despoliation of London during eight years of insouciant irresponsibility has, until 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 megalopolitan 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 foetid bling, whose faecal legacy it will take decades to clear. Unhappily the second-hand water cannon — Wasserwerfer 9000s — which Johnson, evidently in Mayor Daley mood and too indolent to check their legality, bought from some smoothie 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, who used his position to undermine the president, the amusingly pompous Valery Giscard d'Estaing from whose cabinet he had resigned. 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-Egyptian 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 postmodernism that Chirac prescribed. His “umbrellas” would last less than three decades. Meanwhile Giscard d'Estaing 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 Khrushchov’s denunciation of Stalin had begun with a vilification of his kitschy historicist fun-fair architecture. The subsequent khrushchovkas were grimly functional, prefabricated, standardised, low cost, spartan and 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 khrushchovkas 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 concerned 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 achieved? 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 prostitutes 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 book Nincompoopolis, Douglas Murphy is level-headed and generally reluctant to attack Johnson ad hominem. This 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 the big chief, he was a readily biddable patsy, a soft touch for sly operators like Heatherwick.
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 1,400 tons of ordnance aboard.
Their explosive status is disputed. That of Grain is not. A beguiling wilderness, 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 and 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, with whom he is twinned 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 adviser” 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 predecessor 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 Mittal, then the richest man in Britain. No foreplay, straight to the point. “Lakshmi, old son, I have a vision...”

The consummation was immediate. Mr Steel (Murphy's epithet) coughs up. But for what? Johnson is a highly unoriginal thinker. His vision was, typically, pre-loved 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, immeasurably vain politician, craved a “landmark” — his drearily hackneyed word — and a big name. He convened a jury the far side of parody. The curatocratic nomenklatura — Nicholas Serota, Julia Peyton-Jones and the ineffable Hans Ulbrich Obrist engaged in 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 eye-catchers 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 rollercoaster 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 doppelgänger Herman Goering, crack open a cyanide capsule in his cell while awaiting trial for gross abuse of public 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 the nazis' Strength Through Joy organisation.

Nincompoopolis: The Follies of Boris Johnson is published by Repeater, price £8.99.








We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.



Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 12,361
We need:£ 5,639
6 Days remaining
Donate today