Review: Boris Johnson: The Rise and Fall… by Andrew Gimson

I love political biographies, and the new book by Andrew Gimson sounded like an interesting one. Inspired by the works of Craig Brown, Gimson had written a biography of Johnson (his second, or maybe third?) as a series of vignettes. In Brown’s hands, this technique works to allow different points of view. Some of Gimson’s vignettes are effective, such as an analysis of the index of Alan Duncan’s diaries.

The rest of the time, it feels like a mess. I love the format, but it doesn’t always serve Gimson well – the writing is not tight enough to make each section perfect. Some vignettes go nowhere, feeling like sketches for a better book that he couldn’t be bothered to finish. The language is sloppy. Gimson sometimes uses the vignette format as a postmodern device for directly addressing the reader, but this comes across as clumsy. The pro-Johnson boosterism also goes beyond Tom Bower’s interesting discussion to petty triumphalism.

The book was reviewed by Sonia Purnell, who wrote her own excellent book on Johnson (and said that she “would rather pull out my teeth than do it again”). Purnell has little time for Gimson’s defence of Johnson’s lies as demonstrating the “eye of a caricaturist”, pointing out Johnson “he was prime minister at a time of grave national peril, not a standup comic”.

It’s interesting to see Gimson defend his subject, and it does sometimes manage a good job of explaining Johnson to a reader that loathes him. But Gimson’s ill-thoughtout swipes at Corbyn are not needed and even had me, as someone unimpressed by Corbyn, feeling irritated. Gimson is a writer for Conservative Home, and occasionally he plays to that gallery, which is kind of annoying. He’s not as funny as he seems to think he is. At least Johnson is entertaining when he’s being disagreeable.

Gimson also defends Johnson’s father. He accuses Tom Bower (whose book I’ve also read) as being clumsy and a ‘hatchet man’ in his treatment of the vile Stanley Johnson – when Stanley Johnson is an abusive, wife-beating piece of shit. Taking an axe to Stanley Johnson’s reputation is something that should happen more often, given how often he’s brought out in politics and entertainment as a charming figure of fun.

One good point is that Gimson takes Johnson’s speeches seriously, and it’s interesting to see Johnson’s words in a larger context than given by a soundbite quote. It shows how persuasive Johnson can be, but Gimson often adds too much snide commentary. Still, it is interesting to read someone approaching Johnson from a different background to the mostly centrist/left-wing commentary I read. For example, I learned that the phrase ‘levelling-up’ was not invented by Johnson, but turns up in a statement of Conservative aims published in 1976.

One section will give an idea of how clumsy Gimson is in this book. He discusses Cummings’ accusation that Boris Johnson was distracted at work by his wife Carrie’s fury following a story in the Times that their dog Dilyn was going to be put down. Johnson had to decide about bombing Iraq and setting up quarantines, but he was being interrupted by this domestic crisis. Bowers writes, “One sees here Cummings’ limitations. He thinks that to be accused of wishing to get rid of one’s dog is ‘completely trivial’.” Bower seems to consider Carrie Johnson’s injured pride as more important than the life-or-death matters she stopped her husband working on. A letter was sent to the Times, but “Johnson declined, however, to sign this letter, which he felt would make him look ridiculous”. So, either this incident was trivial, or it was not, Gimson tries to have it both ways. A decent editor would perhaps have smoothed this section out. But then a decent editor would have told Gimson that the vignette format didn’t work for him, and he should finish writing a proper book.

The main outcome of this book is to demonstrate what a good writer Craig Brown is, by showing how badly a format he excels at can be mangled. The book comes across as notes to a biography, with some of the scenes trailing off. When it does work, it’s excellent, such as an interesting discussion of Theresa May’s premiership. When it fails it’s like reading the draft of the book Gimson would have written if he had more time.

We learn that Gimson was offered £100,000 by Johnson to drop out of his first biography. If Johnson had done the same for this volume, it would have been a service to Gimson.

Too much history: John Higgs, Francis Fukyama and Adam Curtis

This is a blog post that got lost in my drafts. I originally wrote it in 2021 after seeing Adam Curtis’s documentary series Can’t Get You Out of My Head, which had a bleak view of modern politics.

It’s hard to believe that The Future Starts Here came out in 2019 – that seems so long ago now. I actually unpacked my copy of the book this week, and am thinking of re-reading it. The optimistic message is still plausible and even more necessary now. As difficult as the last few years have been politically, economically and emotionally, there are strong underlying reasons for hope.

I read John Higgs’ book about the future, The Future Starts Here shortly after it came out. One afternoon, I took it with me for a walk on Brighton seafront. As I sat reading on a bench, a seagull shat on me. Birdshit splashed across the pages. John Higgs never saw that coming.

Despite that omission, it’s a good book, and it’s still relevant after Covid-19. That’s not bad for any pre-pandemic book about the future, but it’s even more remarkable for a positive one. Being pessimistic is easy, but this book rallies against the sort of learned helplessness we’re taught by the media. If we cannot see a positive future, then there is little point doing anything other than having mindless fun until it ends.

At one point John Higgs briefly refers to Francis Fukyama’s book The End of History, using that as an example of being blind to the future. Most references to The End of History are negative, and it is easy to mock Fukyama now. But doing that misses how plausible and welcome that idea was in 1992.

I grew up in the 80s, where life was overshadowed by the threat of nuclear war. Even children’s comics had serials set in irradiated hellscapes. It was a grim time. Then the Berlin Wall fell. Liberal democracy had won. Sure, life wasn’t perfect, but we could move beyond the battle of superpowers. It was a period when no two countries with McDonald’s restaurants had ever been at war. In last five years, I’ve felt assaulted by history. Instead of Fukyama’s dream of a safer and blander world delivered by democracy, politics has felt confusing and threatening. I miss the idea that history could end.

Which is an obscenely long preamble to my excitement about the new Adam Curtis show, which came out in February. It was trailed by an epic interview in the New Yorker. In the interview Curtis talks about the idea that elites across the world are trying to “manage the world without transforming it”. As Curtis says:

There isn’t a big story. And that’s true in China as much as it is here. Everyone’s just trying to manage the now and desperately hold it stable, almost like in a permanent present, and not step into the future. And I don’t think that will last very long. . . . Because if you’ve got a story about where you’re going, when catastrophes like 9/11 or covid or the banking crisis hit, they allow you to put them—even though they’re frightening—to put them into a sense of proportion. If you don’t have a story about where you’re going, they seem like terrifying random acts from another universe.

One of the points Higgs made in his book which resonated most was that we don’t have many positive visions of the future. Science fiction has become haunted by totalitarism, killer robots, even fake worlds, where media lies have become absolute. But there are reasons to hope. Talking about the pandemic, Curtis says:

If science can bring out a vaccine within seven months, you can change the world—you really can… my instinct tells me that people are fed up with that feeling of helplessness. They’re beginning to realize that it doesn’t just come from inside them—that maybe they are weak for a reason, and not because of themselves.

In many ways, Can’t Get You Out of My Head felt like a missed opportunity, Curtis’s equivalent of a Vegas set, playing the hits and a few crowd-pleasing new ones. There were some interesting ideas, such as Curtis’s response to Dominic Cummings (from a recent interview: “I had time for Cummings because compared to other politicians he actually had some ideas”) and the meaning of Brexit. And, you know, it would have been more interesting to watch a film about how to get out of the current situation rather than wallow in it. The show started and ended with that great quote by David Graeber:

The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.

What type of future do we want?

The continuing mystery of Kurt Cobain

Over the years, I’ve read every major book published about Kurt Cobain. As time has gone on, it’s felt like there was nothing new to be said about him; but in the past year I’ve encountered two remarkable pieces of writing.

Emma Frankland’s zine, All Apologies, which is based on her stage show, claims Kurt as a trans woman. It’s audacious and thrilling, and made me excited about listening to Nirvana again.

A more conventional work is Nicholas Soulsby’s Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide. I first learned of the book from Danny Goldberg’s biography Serving the Servant. An entire book on Incesticide sounded like a waste of time – I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to the record all the way through. But I downloaded the Kindle sample, checked it out, and quickly bought the full thing.

The book sets out a case for taking Incesticide seriously – incredibly seriously, in fact – and not just as a filler designed to attract the 1992 Christmas market. Soulsby has thought very carefully about Nirvana. He has tables and maps to track the evidence. Very early in the book he had made some points that I’d missed:

  • Incesticide was the only Nirvana album that didn’t come stamped with Kurt Cobain’s seal of disapproval”. – Soulsby quotes Cobain dismissing Bleach (“too boring”), Nevermind (“sell-out”) and In Utero (“I wasn’t really interested in listening to it). The idea of Incesticide as a ‘true version of Nirvana’ is an interesting one.
  • Soulsby emphasises the scale of Nirvana’s success as a punk band – none of the bands that inspired Nirvana came close to their sales. – “Even Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols took a decade to reach Gold and didn’t hit Platinum until 1992
  • In a fascinating piece of research, Soulsby shows that, in the last two and a half years of his life, ”Cobain’s… productivity amounted to just fourteen songs wholly written after the release of Nevermind”. Indeed, “80-90% of Kurt’s known songs were written by September 1991”. It’s interesting to see how long the gestation period for some of the later songs was; and tragic to see how creatively exhausted Cobain was compared to his earlier work-rate.

The most important thing in Soulsby’s book is his analysis of the contradiction between Cobain’s punk ethics and his commercial drives. Cobain spoke frequently about punk ethics in his interviews while some of the decisions he made undermined this (examples being signing to Geffen, his relationship with MTV, and the handling of the band’s publishing royalties).

Soulsby argues that Cobain was most interested in being left alone, and that his compromises with the mainstream were about finding security for himself, and later for his family. He provides examples from early in Cobain’s career where he struggled to be undisturbed while working on his art and music. Soulsby suggests that the impossibility of finding peace was what drove Cobain to his tragic ending. There is a lot of subtlety to Soulsby’s arguments, but he’s the first writer who has explained Cobain’s contradictions without undermining his commitment to punk ethics.

I still can’t really get into Incesticide. For me, Nirvana’s great album was In Utero. But by looking into what I always saw as a marginal work, Soulsby has produced some amazing insights into Nirvana’s career.

Works of art as places

Nick Cave’s recent long interview with Seán O’Hagan, Faith, Hope and Carnage, is an amazing book. Cave talks frankly about the last few years, and his grief at losing his son, Arthur. He also talks about his working methods, particularly in relation to Ghosteen, his most recent album with the Bad Seeds, leading to this remarkable passage:

Well, I think Ghosteen, the music and the lyrics, is an invented place where the spirit of Arthur can find some kind of haven or rest. Seán, this idea is as fragile and as open to question as an idea can be, but for me, personally, I think his spirit inhabits this work. And I don’t even mean that in a metaphorical way, I mean that quite literally. This isn’t an idea I have articulated before, but I feel him roaming around the songs.

I’m fascinated by the concept of artwork as virtual place (for example, in Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace), but Cave takes this a step further, with the idea of an artwork as a place to encounter a spirit that is not accessible in the real world.

Book Review: Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

In my early 20s, I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done. The book describes a complete system for organising your life, and I soon felt more in control. I stopped being late and – mostly – remembered things. It did me a lot of good.

The problem with GTD is that it works by capturing everything. Every possible project was in the system somewhere. I had whole lifetimes-worth of things I might do, research or make. GTD captured all my fleeting thoughts, even the ones I should let go of.

Now, twenty years later, I’ve dropped most aspects of GTD, but the principles are there. Fleeting thoughts go into colourfully-covered moleskines, and are written up into a huge scrivener file. For a long time, I used a Google Keep note as a calendar. It worked. Moving to Yorkshire has helped, as for a time I had fewer things competing for attention than I did in Brighton. I adapted GTD into something that works for me, but I’ve never found a good answer to that question of choosing what to let go.

Four Thousand Weeks, the recent book from Oliver Burkeman, is the antidote to other productivity books. The title refers to the length of a British lifetime. Expressed as 4000 weeks, it sounds a lot shorter than eighty years. Life is too short to do everything we might want to, so productivity is better approached as a choice of what to pay attention to rather than trying to do as much as we can.

With this acceptance of incompleteness, Burkeman turns the usual productivity advice on its head by admitting that there will never be enough time, and we will never feel on top of all our workloads. “Productivity is a trap,” Burkeman writes. “Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster.”

Burkeman uses this idea of conscious choice to recontextualise some familiar ideas. He sees trying to do more than one thing at once is a way of avoiding dealing with the choice. Distraction needs to be managed. Hard choices about what we focus on need to be made consciously. “The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things.”

Burkemann also writes interestingly on the idea of distraction from social media. Most people writing on this topic focus on the idea of Silicon Valley stealing our attention, whereas Burkemann looks at this as a choice in what we pay attention to.

Consider the archetypal case of being lured from your work by social media: it’s not usually that you’re sitting there, concentrating rapturously, when your attention is dragged away against your will. In truth, you’re eager for the slightest excuse to turn away from what you’re doing, in order to escape how disagreeable it feels to be doing it; you slide away to the Twitter pile-on or the celebrity gossip site with a feeling not of reluctance but of relief. We’re told that there’s a ‘war for our attention’, with Silicon Valley as the invading force. But if that’s true, our role on the battlefield is often that of collaborators with the enemy.

Burkeman is also particularly good when he talks about the need for community, and how we should not be optimising these things out of existence. He points out how easy this is to do in an efficient world, with deliveries and no-contact airbnbs. Some friction is good where it brings us into contact with other people.

For me, the most powerful thing is this acceptance that clearing the decks will never succeed, and will only make things worse. Trying to ‘make time’ for the things we care about by clearing away other tasks means we never get around to what matters.

The big test of whether a book like this works is what changes it produces in the reader. I am letting go of a lot of things – better to succeed at a small number. To stop trying to do too much. “The more humane approach is to drop such efforts as completely as you can. Let your impossible standards crash to the ground. Then pick a few meaningful tasks from the rubble and get started on them today.”

Anti-memetics and the new horror

I recently read There is no Antimemetics Division, by the pseudonymous qntm, and it was one of the freshest and most exciting horror novels I’ve read in years. It emerged from the SCP Foundation wiki, a collaborative storytelling project about the ‘Special Containment Procedures Foundation’, which manages dangerous entities and items to stop them causing harm.

qntm’s stories focus on a division of the Foundation that deals with anti-memes. These are ideas that obscure their own existence and are easily forgotten. Some of these ideas are predatory and dangerous. One such example is described as “a cognitohazard so dangerous that we can’t even write the reason why we can’t write it down down”. Another character describes them as “living fnords”.

This is a book that gives great concept, exploring all the different possibilities of anti-memes, as the characters fight an enemy they cannot allow themselves to consciously consider. It’s a huge challenge, which one character describes as “like building and launching Apollo 11 without a single engineer deducing that the Moon existed”. The book is well worth reading, and you can pick up a good flavour of it in the introductory story. It’s briskly written (an artefact of its origins) but very entertaining.

Around the time I was finishing the book, Dan Sumption linked me to a twitter thread where @bitterkarella theorised abouta new genre of horror that’s really blossomed online over the last 5-10 years… about a weird “otherness” infecting the world”. SCP was given as one example of this, alongside Scarfolk, Night Vale, Don’t Hug Me I’m scared. People suggested unedited Footage of a Bear, or the stunning movie Pontypool as examples. “It’s a style that clearly grew out of creepypasta but is sort of its own thing now… It blends elements of bizarro, Kafkaesque absurdism, body horror, and cosmic horror, often presented in a found document format.

There are obvious links with the New Weird and Hauntology. I’d put House of Leaves down as another example, along with some Borges stories. It’s a type of fiction I’ve always loved, and it seems to be on the rise.

Some people have made the distinction that this is not cosmic horror, as that deals with entities invading the world – but I see that more as Lovecraft’s specific take on the concept. For me, cosmic horror is about discovering the universe we live in makes no sense, whether that’s due to extra-terrestrial gods, or being trapped in the opening titles of TV shows. This thing that @bitterkarella talks about is a type of cosmic horror, but there is some new aspect coming through.

Borges wrote a wonderful essay called Kafka’s Precursors, about how Kafka’s writer retrospectively grouped a series of writers in a new genre of ‘Kafkaesque’ writing. Whatever this new form of horror is titled as, it’s going to produce some interesting new works, and recontextualise some old ones. qtnm’s There is No Antimemetics Division is a great example of this ‘new horror’.

Learning from Chuck Palahniuk

One of the books I love most is Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. I read it when I was 24, on the plane home after eight months working a dull contract in America. This was probably the perfect time to read that book.

It wasn’t just the story of Fight Club that I found inspiring. Palahniuk’s writing was sharper and more vivid than anything I’d encountered before. His uses of rhythm, repetition and set-piece scenes were incredibly well-crafted.

Palahniuk has described his writing style at length in his writer’s biography Consider This, outlining a whole toolbox of techniques. Recently, he’s been running a Substack newsletter where he often builds on the lessons in Consider This, and I’ve found myself working more on including some of them in my work.

One example is the use of clear physical actions for the characters. Palahniuk explains that a well-crafted gesture embeds the reader within the story. Their brains will consider the action, activitating the mirror neurones, and Palahniuk sees characters in motion as performing a sort of hypnosis on the reader. Using gestures in my work has also given me a clearer idea of the scenes that I write. I’ve also become more aware of this in my reading. Novels that seem flimsy are often that way because the characterisation comes from dialogue rather than action. Characters need a physical existence.

The other idea is that any piece of prose should include a clock or a gun. There should either be something dangerous that threatens the characters; or there should be some sort of timer counting down, limited the possible length of the story. Both of these add a tension, as well as making the stakes clear.

I’ve been using both of these techniques in my recent writing. At first, this was consciously, asking myself explicitly where these things were in a piece. Now, I can see them emerging as I plan a story. I think my writing is better for it.

My Favourite Books of 2021

2021 has been another year of poor concentration, which has made me a poor reader. While I finished 57 books, I’ve flailed around within those, sometimes taking months to finish an individual book – this pandemic is not proving good for my focus. As usual, I am going to pick 10 favourite books for the year, the ones whose signal came through the year’s noise. They are listed in alphabetical order of their titles.

Coasting by Elise Downing: There’s a load of books about people running or walking or cycling the British coast, and I’ve read more of them than I should have done. This one felt different because of how Elise Downing approaches the journey. She sets out on her adventure with little preparation, and blunders through it. She gets lost, and misses a talk at a school with a hangover. She’s imperfect; and this honesty makes the book more interesting and real than other such accounts. It’s an approachable attitude to adventure, with a weird, funny optimism.

Effective remote working (beta) by James Stanier: A really important book for the times, in which James Stanier gives practical advice for remote working. I was surprised at how much I gained from this. I wrote a full review of this back in November.

From Manchester with Love by Paul Morley Why read yet another book about Factory Records? Morley’s new book is long-winded, but he takes some amazing diversions, such as a history of British regional TV or the 80s UK fashion industry. Morley writes a fascinating portrait of a man who “was still having schoolboy crushes on things and people in his forties and fifties, right up to his last disintegrating moments alive”. Wilson is placed in a context with Situationism, in particular, its connections with urbanism. The book argues that Wilson was as important as “an unelected spokesman for an unofficial city” as he was for his musical acts. Wilson died too early at 57, and Morley’s account of his death is heartbreaking.

The Gallows Pole by Ben Myers: Myers is a spellbinding writer, and here he tells the story of King David Hartley, leader of the Craggvale Coiners. The book is set in the area where I’m now living, and it’s vivid and atmospheric. There’s also an official walking trail for the book, which I’ll be doing next month.

Kitchenley 434 by Alan Warner was a fun novel, which I indulgently brought in hardback and really enjoyed. I wrote about this back in June.

Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson is a sci-fi novel about climate change which manages to be optimistic – despite an incredibly bleak opening. The book tells a story with many strands and multiple voices. The greatest achievement is that Robinson has written a serious novel that has something positive to say about climate change – although the book suggests the solution involves cryptocoins based on carbon sequestration; mass civil disobedience; and targeted assassination of senior staff in polluting organisations.

No-one is talking about this by Patricia Lockwood is probably my favourite book of the year – although it’s a very close run thing. Lockwood sustains a novel using the fractured style of social media. You have to read this book!

Piranesi by Susannah Clarke: A young man lives inside a structure of endless hallways, containing countless statues. This is a strange, haunting little book. When I wrote about it originally, I said that “This sort of high-concept novel makes me nervous, as it can easily collapse into what literary critics refer to as ‘wank’. I was sure any revelation would break the book, but Clarke delivered a satisfying conclusion.

William Blake vs the World by John Higgs – In his review of this book, magician Dave Lee wrote that Higgs’ ‘emergent project’ was “to give the English some good things to be proud of, an Englishness not in thrall to some shabby chauvinistic nationalism based on disappointment and outrage”. While I’ve not absorbed Higgs’ love for Blake, John has managed the most difficult thing for a critic – to communicate why one loves an artist while never being dull or boring.

Wintering by Katharine May – Wintering was a perfect pandemic read at the start of 2021 (review from January here). And, weirdly enough, it was being read on the radio as I drove up the M1 to get my new housekeys. The book is full of quiet wisdom: “We have seasons when we flourish, and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again”. I think I am going to read it again at the start of this year.

Book Review: Heroic Failures by Finlan O’Toole

While Tim Shipman’s (as-yet unfinished) Brexit trilogy is the best history of Brexit, the most enjoyable analysis I’ve read is Finlan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure. O’Toole’s writing has the virtuosic enthusiasm of good literary criticism – his comparison of Britain’s EU membership to the bureaucracy in Fifty Shades of Grey is hilarious; and I loved his description of Boris Johnson being cross-examined in a select committee by Andrew Tyrie: “like watching a kitten bouncing into a combine harvester”. There are also considerations of Britain’s obsession with World War 2, punk and more.

The book’s main thrust is that post-Imperial Britain has become trapped by an ideal of ‘heroic failure’. “The English could afford to celebrate glorious failure because they were actually highly successful – the myths of suffering and endurance covered up the truth that it was mostly other people who had to endure the suffering.”

O’Toole is particularly good at showing how Englishness in particular is responsible for Brexit, and how England’s presence in the EU relates to its membership of the United Kingdom. O’Toole also puts forward the case the “gradual marginalisation of open racism” was one of the things that led to the EU being scapegoated instead. Ultimately, the problems that led to Brexit are too deep to be solved by so simplistic a solution:

Brexit is a crisis of belonging that was configured as merely a crisis of belonging to Europe. No outcome from it will really address that question of belonging – if anything it will become deeper and more urgent.

Towards the end of the book, O’Toole lays out the challenge for the English, particularly those on the ‘progressive’ side, to define what Englishness is:

One of the side effects of Brexit is to make progressives recoil even further from English nationalism, which they never trusted and now blame for the disaster. But they need to do what they mostly did not do in the pre-Brexit decade: take it seriously. Address it. Precisely because it remains so poorly articulated and self-contradictory, it is up for grabs. And there is surely enough in the English radical, socialist and liberal traditions – the traditions of John Ball and the Suffragettes, of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Maynard Keynes, of Stuart Hall and Thomas Paine, of Jo Cox and George Orwell and generations of fighters for dignity and equality – to inspire a more positive sense of national belonging. There is surely, in one of the world’s great cultures, enough wit and energy and creativity and humour to infuse Englishness with hope and joy instead of pain and self-pity.

Review: Boris Johnson by Tom Bower

Tom McTague’s recent profile of Boris Johnson, Minister of Chaos portrays Johnson as a master of narrative. It’s a well-written piece, but missed a number of obvious points. When McTague writes about Johnson’s condemnation of the Super League plans, he fails to mention Johnson’s earlier tacit approval of them. Mic Wright’s newsletter is a good overview, criticising the article for “barely concealing the writer’s joy at getting so much access, and mistaking neat connections and semi-polished lines for truths”. It was well-written, but I learned little from it.

Tom Bower’s The Gambler, a biography of Boris Johnson, is not very well written. Despite its many flaws (oh, so many flaws) I learned from the book, in part because of its biases. A friend recently told me that you can understand a lot about the media from hearing it talk about things you know. Discussing computer programming (specifically the Imperial College coronavirus model), Bower wrote:

Imperial’s model … was based on a programming code called either ‘C’ or Fortran that had apparently been used twenty years earlier by NASA for Mariner 1. Critics claimed its outdated language and design flaws produced numerical inaccuracies. One file alone contained 15,000 lines of code.

I mean… Yes? But not really. There are basic errors and inaccuracies in this simple quote. Bower’s biases also sometimes make this book awkward. Bower regurgitates many of the flawed arguments from the lockdown sceptics, which is not inspiring. His constant accusations that Corbyn is a “Marxist and anti-semite” are an over-simplistic view of Corbyn from someone who wrote a biography of him. But then, Bower’s wikipedia entry is very clear that, while his Corbyn book involved an significant retraction, “[he] neither apologised nor paid any money to the complainant or the lawyers”. However, this wikipedia entry cannot deny that republishing the claims cost the Daily Mail a large amount of money. Bower is not one for in-depth fact-checking.

However, Bower is interesting as he attempts to defend every poor decision and gaffe Johnson has made. While I still think Johnson’s Spectator columns were racist, I can at least now see what he might have been trying to satirise with them. Looking at some scenes from another point of view was also eye-opening. For example, the gaffe with Johnson buying water-cannons was retold as a nasty trap laid by Theresa May. This is quite the revelation, given the usual portrayal of May as a dull and unemotional politician. This is certainly the shrewdest, most devious thing I’ve seen her accused of doing.

Bower’s book is also pro-Brexit, and in harping on about this, I saw some stronger-than-usual cases for Brexit, which was illuminating. But the main strength of Bower’s book was in its portrayal of Johnson’s childhood, a time of almost gothic unpleasantness. His father, the reality-TV star Stanley Johnson is revealed to be a vicious domestic abuser, and there were wretched periods in Johnson’s childhood. While these do not excuse his appalling behaviour, I feel more sympathy towards him.

Two portrayals of Johnson, one well-written and one not. But I think I learned more from the poorly-written one.