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 Critics claimed its outdated language and design flaws produced numerical inaccuracies.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.