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Grilled, battered or fried: Boris Johnsonís arse on the line

By Jane Rankin-Reid - posted Wednesday, 17 November 2004

He’s an archetypal, white, blonde, Anglo man-child with an apparently insatiable appetite for satire and self-ridicule. At just 40-years-old Boris Johnson was, until yesterday one of the youngest MPs on the British Tory Party’s front bench.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard and ALP leader of the Opposition Mark Latham would be wise to study Boris’ media bites, not to mention his principled stance on a range of uncomfortable topics. Describing George W Bush, Johnson infamously declared, “The President is a cross-eyed Texan warmonger, unelected, inarticulate, who epitomises the arrogance of American foreign policy”. On Tony Blair’s Iraqi debacle, Boris is equally mordant; “It is just flipping unbelievable. He is a mixture of Harry Houdini and a greased piglet. He is barely human in his elusiveness. Nailing Blair is like trying to pin jelly to a wall”.

Until yesterday, British commentators fingered Johnson as the future leader the Tories need for victory although others claimed this is wishful straw clutching. Sounds a bit like the Australian Labor Party really doesn’t it? But more fun with Boris driving the bus I’m guessing. Even so, with typical modesty, Johnson once stated prophetically as it turns out, that he had as much chance of becoming Prime Minister as of being “decapitated by a Frisbee, being reincarnated as an olive or of finding Elvis”.


Boris Johnson has occasionally been called a Tory Adonis and he is dead sexy, although more typically lusted after in conservative circles as a bicycle riding Euro-sceptic. He is also the editor of The Spectator, the weekly magazine of almost canonical contrariness, a 170-year-old dose of brick throwing from the right and center of British life. 

Even when he isn’t busy chasing rabbits for the Tories, Johnson’s journalistic and literary output is prodigious with a weekly column in the Daily Telegraph, almost annual editions of Boris aphorisms, a blog site of his own, and a novel, Seventy Two Virgins: A Comedy of Errors, due out in 2005. He’s also made BAFTA nominated appearances on Have I Got News For You, the much-loved BBC TV satire of news and current affairs. Did I mention that Johnson was also until yesterday, Shadow Minister for the Arts? But that’s enough about you Boris! Your meretricious rise and rise is enough to put a thinking girl off her crumpet.

As the beginning of what has turned out to be Boris’ lengthiest run of bad luck or just plain bad judgment in his intensely public political life to date, the week of October 17 certainly tested him. It began innocently enough the weekend before as he was listening a radio broadcast of the England versus Wales football game. Johnson was astounded by the irreverence of the crowd’s response to requests for a minute’s silence in memory of Liverpool born Kenneth Bigley, who after televised pleas from his family for the British Government to intervene in his kidnapping, was tragically assassinated by Iraqi insurgents.

Instead of the anticipated respectful silence the crowd jeered and catcalled, forcing the embarrassed referee to give up on the tradition of sharing 60 seconds of memorial tranquility and blow the whistle to start the game. Johnson was even more surprised to find no media coverage of this unusual occurrence in the following days. Later he’d write, “The crowd's reaction showed there was something by definition false in the decision to hold the minute's silence. The ceremony required people to show an emotion that - manifestly, alas - they did not all feel”.

Such irreverence inspired Johnson to commission The Spectator’s weekly editorial on the culture of grief in contemporary British society. Unfortunately, the theme’s enticing potential for exploring the awkward consequences that may lie in store for a society when its populace becomes saturated by the manipulation of sentiment, passed whomever ended up with the task, completely by. Instead, the football crowd’s behaviour prompted a searing indictment on Britain’s mawkish faith in grief qualified as an obligatory public experience, blame culture and state dependency.

Although the 67,000 or so football loving souls may have been simply stating a preference for grieving in solitude, the article connected unemployment, sobbing in public, single parenting and rumbling in football stands, in a blind-side of unhelpful observations about how awful things can still be in contemporary British life. It was as politically contrived as a TV game show give-away prize. Another central thrust of the article was the mounting public appeals for Coalition governments to intervene in the business of hostage taking in Iraq.


It was implied Bigley, an independent contractor working in Bagdad, had dug his own grave by ignoring Foreign Office warnings advising against taking work in “one of the most dangerous places on earth”. Fortunately, The Spectator’s attention to the Blair government’s mistaken enthusiasm for the war in Iraq continues unabated but in the light of the article’s accusations of public blame shifting, this particular attempt at cold hard rationalism seems to have merely replaced one culprit with another in the shaming game.

Nonetheless The Spectator’s October 17 commentary left a number of gift-wrapped opportunities unopened. If there had been the slightest political point to be scored, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s infamously ambient piety and selective politicisation of regret throughout his years in government may also have been worth testing. Do Blair’s big wet ones constitute an historic revision of the traditional stiff upper British lip? Or perhaps another underhand attack on the survival myths of the English establishment his party pays him to hate?

Instead, the dry-eyed crowd’s nose thumbing at the very convention they’d been accused of evincing left the leader writer hot under the collar and scratching for insight. Harvesting a dated batch of biases, the anonymously penned article attacked Liverpudlians’ welfare dependencies, victim mentality and the city’s “disproportionate convulsion of grief” over Bigley’s murder. Unsurprisingly, the opinions pock marked with such useless generalisations, not to mention a few factual inaccuracies about the 1989 Hillsborough Football tragedy, caused a public outcry in the UK.

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About the Author

Jane Rankin-Reid is a former Mercury Sunday Tasmanian columnist, now a Principal Correspondent at Tehelka, India. Her most recent public appearance was with the Hobart Shouting Choir roaring the Australian national anthem at the Hobart Comedy Festival's gala evening at the Theatre Royal.

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