Winston Churchill fought in the Boer war, was instrumental in the defeat of Nazism and won the Nobel Prize for Literature, yet Boris Johnson still found a way to write a biography of this uniquely great man and make it mainly about Boris Johnson.
So, quite what we can expect from the freshly announced Johnson memoirs, in which the author is entirely liberated to write about nothing else beyond his own favourite and indeed only subject of interest – himself – is terrifying to ponder.
It will not even be Johnson’s first work of political memoir. In 2002, he published a short book called Friends, Voters, Countrymen, a diary of his successful attempt to be elected as an MP for the first time, a year before.
In that book, he quoted himself at great length, before explaining that the quotations were accurate only “in the Thucydidean sense, in that they reflect the meaning of what I said.”
Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, acknowledges that the quotes are by and large made up – owing to the fact that absolutely no form of modern media or telecommunication would be invented for a further two and a half thousand years, that he could not be in two places at once, and so it fell to him to imagine what various diplomats and negotiators from the major city states were saying to one another at the time. That they were accurate in spirit, if not in letter.
The “Thucydidean sense”, it scarcely needs to be said, does not apply to politicians sandpapering their own quotes in hindsight, and especially not when the politician in question had, by this point, already been fired by a newspaper for sandpapering the quotes of others.
All of which is to say that, if he had to grant himself a certain amount of poetic licence on the accuracy front with regard to a harmless Christmas stocking filler about life on the stump in the year 2001, it does not necessarily bode well for his recollections of life in Downing Street, which came to an end when his own party correctly calculated that absolutely nobody could believe a word he said ever again.
Thucydides had to be inventive because he could not “cover” the war in any other way. He could not be in Corinth one day and Melia the next, listening in on crucial negotiations. Johnson’s more recent Thucydidean tendencies, on the other hand, have been because he has not known what is going on where he actually is.
What will be the value of an insider’s account of life in 10 Downing Street, when we already know that said insider can attend not one but several parties in his own house at the same time as not knowing they are happening?
If Johnson is looking for inspiration, he could do worse than check out Look Wot I Dun by Don Powell, the drummer from glam rock band Slade, a magisterial work that tells the story of what it was like to be in one of the world’s biggest bands despite also having been in a horrific car crash that robbed him of all memory of ever having been so.
What will the blurb say? “And finally, here, in his own words, is one man’s story of how more than 100 people got fined for having parties in his own house and he didn’t know a thing about it.” Chapter 1. I wasn’t there. Chapter 2. Actually, I was there but nobody told me. Chapter 3. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
All political memoirs are self-serving, but this one will certainly break records. Ex-prime ministers tend to use the medium to finally give their own account of the journey, now that they have run out of road. Johnson, on the other hand, has not relinquished the steering wheel. And if Johnson can turn a book about Winston Churchill into a treatise on the greatness of Boris Johnson, imagine what he can and certainly will do with a book about himself.
One can safely assume it will not trouble the Nobel Prize panel. But it will certainly trouble the rest of us who, at least as far as he is concerned, have not already suffered enough.