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January 2, 2012 / Leo Hollis

Ken or Boris?

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The stakes are high. In May next year London will decide on its next mayor and the winner gains bragging rights in July when the Olympics come to town. It is a evens bet however that the next incumbent in City Hall will not be a new one but one of two heavy weights that have dominated the London political scene over the last 10 years/ In preparation both have produced two very different books – one purports to be a history book but is in fact a 2,000 year act of self portraiture; the other appears to be an autobiography but is a reminder that the city couldn’t function without the author. Both books are highly effective pieces of propaganda; but don’t expect either to help you make up your mind at the polls.

Boris Johnson tells the story of the city through 18 exemplary lives from Boudicca to Keith Richards. The book, like the author himself, is sketchy on detail but is delivered with huge elan. Based more or less on one source – Stephen Inwood’s History of London – it is full of Johnson’s shtick and ‘whiff-whaff’, and all the more fun as a result; albeit not one to be taken completely seriously.
 
His parade of noble cockneys proves the point that the city is the stage upon which great men make their mark, as he himself plainly announces: ‘a big city gives people the chance to find mates, money and food; and then there is one further thing that bright people come to London to find, one currency more dear to the human heart than money itself – and that is fame.’ (I was wondering what had inspired the rioters in August, now I know!)

The roster of worthies is another reminder of the Mayor’s intriguing relationship with the city and with politics. Boris is interested in power, but from this volume it is difficult to say to what end. The selection is anything but arbitrary and tells us all we need to know about how Boris thinks of London and how he sees himself.  Like the New York-born Johnson most of these characters are born outside the city and make their way here in pursuit of fame.

They are mostly all men (one of the book’s failings), and rugged individualists, not team players. Always engagingly drawn with energy and verve, collectively they tell us as much about the selector as the city. Like the Mayor the city is founded by the Romans; it is a writer’s city constructed in words as well as stone as seen in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Johnson, S. and even W T Stead, the father of tabloid journalism. London is a creative city, but in an intriguing chapter on Lionel Rothschild, it is money that keeps things running.
 
Johnson’s political portraits are perhaps the most telling. London is clearly not a place for hereditary royals and no more is spoken of the Crown after William the Conqueror. London is a place of the boot-strapping go-getter like Richard Whittington and Keith Richards. It is also the home of radicalism where Dr Johnson and John Wilkes can sit together and converse politely. The inclusion of John Wilkes is perhaps the most surprising in the book.
 
Like his rival and Wilkes, Ken Livingstone is not above putting aside party allegiance in pursuit of power. In 2000 when  Blair refused to acknowledge Livingstone’s primacy for the Mayoral candidacy, Ken stood as an independent and effortlessly won the contest. Like Boris, Ken can not be defined by party; unlike Boris, however, Ken is interested in the machination and detail of power, fascinated by how it works and what you can achieve with it.
 
As the 700 page monolith that is ‘You Can’t Say That’ attests, Ken has never seen a slight or a grudge that he does not need to spend considerable time disproving. Here everyone who has given the former mayor a bad look has not been forgotten, and is catalogued in the 21 pages of closely-typed index. Entries on the Evening Standard take up half a column, and former editor Veronica Wadeley gets as much attention as TfL.
 
However, amidst the myriad justifications there are fascinating insights into the capital’s political life over the past three decades since he first became a councillor in Norwood in 1973, and in which he has been the lightening rod for so much that has happened. Without Ken, London would be a very different place. As a local politician, an MP, a media pundit and, from 2000-8, the first Mayor he presents himself as completely in command of the facts, relishing the nitty gritty, the cut and thrust of politics. In eight years as Mayor (2000-8) he made the role in his own image. One feels that in the new campaign there is an attempt to refind that buzz and sense of purpose once again.
 
At times, Livingstone allows himself to drop the score-settling agenda and reminds us of the real achievements he has secured for the city. There are also some truly gripping moments: the week in July 2005 that began with the Live 8 concert, saw the triumph in Singapore when the city won the Olympic bid, and the bombings on the tube the following day is told with great intelligence and balance. He deserves to be proud of the words he found in response to the atrocities despite, as he reports, working out what to say as he did his laps in the hotel pool.
 
The book is an account of a very public life, but reveals much about the awkward man beneath. He states early on that if condoms came in packs of four he would not be here. His parents never wanted children and made this clear to the son, who was happiest with his reptile collection. This has haunted the man who admits that making intimate connections is difficult and fatherhood a role that came with great trepidation. This is also perhaps why throughout the tale he assiduously catalogues the moments when popular endorsement steeled his resolve. When ‘the establishment’ stood in his way – whether that be Thatcher, Blair, Campbell or current opponent Boris – it is always the ordinary London, he feels, that has encouraged him to continue.
 
The May 2012 election is not a literary race, but it is a moment of story-telling in which both Ken and Boris try and convince us of their narratives. Combined, these two books give a good sense of the two sides of the city, and the problems of power in such a complex place. Both books agree, however, it takes a special type of person to make that an impact on the city.
 

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