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A review of Johnson's Life of London

Books_Johnsons-Life-of-LonTo go with the rich diet of the festive season I have been reading Johnson's Life of London by Boris Johnson (Harper Press £20) which has proved an equivalent literary feast. Reading about all these great lives and inventions associated with the capital has taught me a lot. Even reading the things in this volume that I already know has been enjoyable given the verve and wit that Boris deploys in recounting the stories.

The thesis which keeps returning through the chapters, the golden thread, is that rivalry is the spur to greatness and that London facilitates this by sticking together those with such potential. "It is the rubbing of two sticks that makes the flame," he says of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. "It was the constant competitive urge - to impress the other guy - that produced the flash of genius." The effort to pinch each other's girlfriends ("the crazed marathon exhibition match of heterosexuality") is deemed relevant to the creative process. Also that as two friends from the same primary school Mick passed the Eleven plus while Keith did not. That left Keith with something to prove.

In another chapter we read of the friction between Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole those pioneers of professional nursing. Nightingale was critical of Seacole for encouraging drunkenness and other "improper conduct" among the soldiers in her care. There is a suggestion that Nightingale made these concerns known to Queen Victoria who as a result declined to meet Seacole. Boris can see both points of view. On one level "so what" if Seacole allowed drinking. This "dynamic and enterprising lady" "did many sick men a power of good." But Nightingale "wanted fundamentally to adjust the way that people looked at nursing and at women, and that meant above all that they and the profession had to be taken seriously."

Then there is the rivalry between Turner and Constable. The latter used his position on the Royal Academy's Hanging Committee to get greater prominence for his works. Then there was the following incident:

As was the custom of the day, Constable was working on his own picture on the very wall of the gallery – titivating the decorations and the flags of the barges with yet more crimson and vermilion, each fleck of colour somehow detracting from the others.

Turner came into the room, and watched as Constable fiddled away. Then he went off to another room where he was touching up another picture, and returned with his palette and brushes. He walked up to his picture and, without hesitation, he added a daub of red, somewhat bigger than a coin, in the middle of the grey sea. Then he left.

Boris says that this wasn't "just a blob of paint; it was a bullet across his rival's bows."

He adds:

We  have already seen how London works as a cyclotron of talent: drawing bright people together and then bouncing them off each other in a chain reaction of energy and emulation until -pow- there is an explosion of genius. Fame is the spur, said Milton, and London is fame's echo chamber.

I do not regard Boris as an ideological politician. In this book his pragmatism comes through strongly. But this belief in rivalry as a force for good is a close as it gets to encapsulating the Boris dogma. Competitiveness was instilled in him during his upbringing. It is clearly a principle he applies to himself as well as the way he views the world. In this book Boris has told us a lot about London but also a lot about himself. For all the jokes, he wants to achieve, he wants to win. Rather than coast along he wants to make a difference, to merit inclusion in the history books to be published in future centuries. That gives him a deep seriousness of purpose. His sense of rivalry is incredibly intense. Ken Livingstone had better take note. So had David Cameron.


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