It’s a long way from Vincent van Gogh to Boris Johnson. Actually, it isn’t. Particularly by bicycle.
Less than two kilometres separates the Tate Britain, the London gallery where some of Van Gogh’s most arresting works have hung this English summer, from Johnson’s new address: 10 Downing Street.
On 24 July 2019, with the sun slung low in the sky on the then hottest day of the year, a hazy, muggy 29°C, and a mind still starry with sizzling sunflowers and searing self-portraits, it wasn’t difficult to misread the directions on the gizmo.
A turn missed here, another mistakenly taken there, and suddenly the sturdily kerbed blue lanes of the “Cycle Super Highway” along the Thames – thanks to whoever had them built and explained to then Lord Mayor Boris what they were and why they were a good thing – disappeared like good manners in the Commons.
The media tent town that has been pitched on College Green, hard by Parliament, since Brexit was recognised as the bad idea it undoubtedly is loomed into view. And there it was: the seething maw of Downing Street itself.
“Boris! Boris! Boris! Liar! Liar! Liar! Out! Out! Out!” You could almost hear the splatter of spittle into the loudhailer’s microphone. Rage rose from the thousands of protestors like the heat shimmering off the pavement.
The scene was straight out of South Africa in the months before Nelson Mandela was released, when swells of sentiment and hope overpowered the dictates of the dying apartheid state, and we took to the streets en masse. Except that we were happy. These people are not.
Not a peep of support for Johnson or Brexit was heard. It was a warm welcome – the wrong kind of warm – for the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister, who had moved in only hours before.
What capitalism and democracy give us
The sun’s rays glared down, reminiscent of the single light bulb that hovers starkly over Pablo Picasso’s Guernica to illuminate the horror beneath.
How would Van Gogh have rendered the tableau at Downing Street on 24 July? A Dutchman who lived in London, southern Belgium, Paris and other parts of France, he was an empathetic citizen of the world who ventured down coal mines to try to understand the plight of the working class. He put great value in capturing on canvas the everyday dignity of ordinary people toiling hard for their living. He was lustily in love with the world, imperfections and all.
Van Gogh would have sneered at Johnson, an oaf obnoxious beyond even his racism, and a product of inbred selfishness who has done his class proud by becoming, undeservedly, a rich, powerful, 55-year-old juvenile delinquent.
That’s probably why he has been made leader, by a pitifully tiny but outrageously important minority, of a country built on the proceeds of slavery and colonialism.
Johnson’s illegitimate elevation is an indictment of capitalism and what the west likes to call democracy, and a cautionary tale that carries a sting: Donald Trump isn’t the only dangerous buffoon who has escaped the zoo.
But, beyond his bluster, what does Johnson’s ill-gotten gain of the premiership mean for the United Kingdom’s erstwhile colonies?
That depends on whether he delivers Brexit. If he lies his way out of doing so – plausible considering he built a career in untruth when he impersonated a journalist – not a lot will change about the relationship between the ex-masters and servants.
But if he does drag his country out of the European Union (EU), the formerly colonised will have reasons to be cheerful: the UK will need their labour and skills.
Some of us, that is. Already more welcoming noises are being made towards Asians of all stripes, particularly those clever, industrious Indians and Chinese. Africans? Not so much. Black people, you are still on your own.
Johnson has a long rap sheet for expressing racism against Africans. He had this to say about then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s imminent visit to Congo in The Daily Telegraph in January 2002: “No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird. Like Zeus, back there in the Iliad, he has turned his shining eyes away, far over the lands of the Hippemolgoi, the drinkers of mares’ milk. He has forgotten domestic affairs, and here, as it happens, in this modest little country that elected him, hell has broken loose.”
Here Johnson is in The Spectator in February that year, writing from Uganda: “The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more … The best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction; on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty.”
You couldn’t make this stuff up. But Johnson has. In 1987, he was sacked from his first job, at The Times, for, he said years afterwards, “mildly sandpapering something somebody said”.
In fact, he had invented a quote attributed to historian Colin Lucas, his godfather. Johnson wrote that Edward II and his alleged lover, Piers Gaveston, liaised at the Rose Palace. But Gaveston was beheaded in 1312 and the palace wasn’t built until 13 years later.
“It was extremely difficult, and I had absolutely no idea what to do,” Johnson said in a subsequent interview in The Independent. “I was 23, overcome with guilt and shame that this error – this howler of mine attributed to Colin – had crept onto the front page of The Times, which was holy territory for me. So I made matters worse. I wrote a further story saying that the mystery had deepened about the date of the castle.”
Johnson had resorted to Lucas because “I was desperate to get hold of a historian who could help me, but the only one I knew was my godfather”. He couldn’t ask an editor for a contact for an historian? He couldn’t look one up? He couldn’t get hold of a master at his old school, Eton, of course, or a professor at his university, Oxford, of course?
Johnson was hired by The Times only because of his family connections. It’s rough justice that he was also fired because of them. The episode set the tone for a life not only lived in lies and bombastic caricature, but with a perverse pride in being a loudly empty, deceitful vessel.
Johnson wouldn’t know integrity if it smacked him upside the head with a dead fish. There was no surprise in July, when his claim at Conservative Party leadership hustings that EU regulations forced British herring merchants to package their products using plastic “ice pillows” – which he slammed as “pointless, expensive, environmentally damaging” while waving a herring above his head – was debunked. Turns out the relevant regulations are British, not European. Another speech, another lie. Worse, he was elected leader anyway.
Thoughtless and bumbling
There’s no knowing what he really thinks because he really doesn’t think. And so there’s no more taking him seriously now than when, in the words of James Wood, a contemporary at Eton and now a New Yorker staff writer, he “charged around the college lanes”.
“The bigfoot stoop (he was known as ‘the Yeti’), the bumbling confidence, the skimmed-milk pallor, the berserk hair, the alarming air of imminent self-harm, which gave the impression that he had been freshly released from some protective institution: all was already in place,” Wood wrote in the London Review of Books.
But there’s devious cleverness below that uncombed, cocaine-white thatch, which Johnson reportedly flicks into its familiar chaotic state moments before the cameras roll. It showed itself in June when he told a talkRADIO host he relaxed by fashioning packing cases into models of buses. Until then, googling “boris bus” produced evidence of the Leave campaign’s slogan – “We send the EU £350-million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead” – which had been plastered onto the side of a London bus as a marketing ploy. The claim was proven to be false, but Johnson kept repeating it regardless. Google “boris bus” now and the truth is diluted by descriptions of his esoteric alleged hobby.
The mercury rose further still in England on 25 July, the first full day of Johnson’s tenure, almost touching 39°C – a record. It felt, ominously, like hell.