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.