Friday, June 8, 2012

Boris Johnson and the Summer of London

Boris Johnson, Johnson's Life of London: The People Who Made the City that Made the World

Flamboyant London mayor Boris Johnson loves his city. Not just the city as it is, either: the city he governs, in which everyone jockeys for the chance to snap pics of their beloved “Boris” on his bike. He loves the whole historic sweep, from Roman foundations around a convenient tide pool, through Saxon hegemony and Elizabethan pomp, to Churchillian perseverance and modern rock stardom. And he wants to share that love with you.

Boris recounts the history of his city in seventeen personalities, nine inventions, and two structures. Some of it seems obvious: how can we survey London without stops on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Florence Nightingale? Others may take readers by surprise: when we think of London, few of us remember Lionel Rothschild or Emperor Hadrian. And who knew that London gave us the three-piece suit, the municipal sewer system, or ping-pong?

Already available for a year in Britain, Johnson’s smart, witty, surprisingly touching tome has hit American shores in time for 2012, the Summer of London. With the Queen’s Jubilee and the Summer Olympics, the world has turned its eye to the City in a way it hasn’t since the Carnaby Street heyday. Boris makes the case that our interest should last beyond the here and now.

This cracking yarn starts with Boudica, the Iceni queen whose claim on London was that she destroyed it. When its marble collonades represented Mediterranean intrusion on fair-skinned Britain, London earned unmatched Celtic wrath. Yet the city proved resilient. First Romans, then Saxons, competed to rebuild and improve it. St. Mellitus considered it so important that he built the first St. Paul’s Cathedral from driftwood and glue.

William the Conqueror claimed he won England at Hastings, but even he couldn’t call himself King until London knelt—which it almost didn’t do. Parliamentary gadfly John Wilkes lit a fire of civil reform in London, one which found its truest home in the Americas. And Keith Richards, initially passed over by the cruel post-war meritocracy, refused to bend until he had remade himself as the bard of a generation.

Boris turns out to be a remarkable storyteller. He brings together solid history, fanciful folktales, and new discoveries in archaeology and anthropology, to spin London as a yarn of hard-fought but glorious accomplishments. Persons who could have vanished into history’s morass become giants, in a way they only could in a city like London. Boris tells his tales in a breathless, wheeling, funny, and even mildly naughty tone that hooks readers eagerly.

This unabashedly mythmaking turn at pop history carries the same vigor that has made Boris an international phenomenon. He doesn’t even pretend to represent everything about the city. He acknowledges, for instance, the shocking inequality created by the Industrial Revolution, but doesn’t linger on it. And he extols the “great deeds of gread men” (and some women), creating a history that happens primarily at the top.

But maybe that’s the point. This isn’t supposed to be dry documentarian history, talking about everyone in an undifferentiated mass. This is the mythic story of a city where anything can happen, and look! Sometimes it does! A woolspinner’s son from upriver can turn into the greatest crafter of language ever, as Shakespeare did. A Cockney barber’s son can remake the world of art, just like JMW Turner. Wow, just think what you or I could do.

Johnson anchors his story to the present, as mythmakers do. He locates ancient landscapes according to modern street maps. Some great battle took place where a building now stands. The ancient Rothschild home, he says, has been replaced by a motorway. This melding of past and present ensures we understand that history matters because, in a real way, it’s still with us.

Perhaps most remarkably, most of the personalities Boris so lovingly recounts were, like Boris himself, born elsewhere. King Alfred the Great retook the city from the Norse and restored its greatness, but he was a Winchester man. Samuel Johnson, tabloid firestarter WT Stead, and showman mayor Dick Whittington all immigrated from the provinces. Some of Boris’ great Londoners aren’t even British.

London, for Boris, is more than a place. It’s the opportunity to remake ourselves, to encounter new ideas and more diverse peoples, and become the spirits we were meant to be. If America is the new Shining City on a Hill, as one President claimed, it inherited that role after that honor straddled the Thames for nineteen hundred years. Boris tells an exciting, spirited yarn. And he makes his city a true hero.

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