Me and Boris Johnson


Memory and Desire and Mayors

In The Telegraph in September, London Mayor Boris Johnson revealed he'd attended the same school as Ed Miliband and his brother, David. Following this up, journalists discovered other ex-pupils of the same school: writer Zoe Heller, film director Sam Mendes. Nostalgic Johnson described a 'pre-paranoid' education: the freedom, the bikes, the tooth-rotting lollies, the way the school buildings were wedged so close together you could shinny up between them until you were twenty feet off the ground. He mentioned abominable food doled out by dinner ladies, playground fights, kids roaming free in an era when parents didn't think there was a 'paedophile behind every bush.'

He went on to exhort Ed Miliband not to forget the lessons they'd learned at school. But he'd brought it all back to me: the fights, the craze for scaling buildings, the questionable food. I remember the hall where we sang "All Creatures Great and Small", and an incident in which a bigger boy (Boris? David?) dropped a brick on my foot and then, in a flurry of concern that seemed to me somehow fraudulent, insisted on carrying me to the school nurse. There are things to add: that I lay in bed at night listening to the howling of wolves, that beneath the puddles when it rained there was a second city, whose name was London Two. 

So, I went to the same school as Boris Johnson and Ed Miliband – London's right wing Mayor and British Labour's new left wing leader. As I trudged through the playground at Primrose Hill, I would have passed blonde Boris wedged twenty feet up the wall, and threaded round schoolyard factions that the Milibands had formed. Somewhere near me Zoe Heller was dashing off a short story and little Sam Mendes was holding up two hands to make a lens, and political futures were taking shape: Boris went right, Ed went left and David went a third way. I went south to New Zealand, never to forget: how April was the cruellest month, how in winter the puddles froze, the days were dark and the wolves howled through the night, how snow turned black with grime on city streets. But London in summer was beautiful, and we went fishing in the dull canal. Or we pretended to. The fish were departed. Sometimes on summer nights we would hear the eerie hooting of monkeys.

Two thousand and ten. Auckland, unreal city, under the brown fog of polluting cars. On the night Mayor Brown was elected I had dinner with Mrs Porter, and her daughter. "Len Brown has won," I rejoiced, but they were not pleased. "An airport rail loop is too expensive," Mrs Porter said. "Pray confine your remarks to the weather." "Too expensive?" I said. "It makes good sense. Think of the Heathrow Express." "Just smile and nod, mother," Miss Porter advised. (It's the best way to deal with lunatics.) We spoke of the weather then, but something in the memory stirred: was it the primitive hooting of monkeys?

Monkeys? Wolves? No – I fixed on it finally – I was thinking of my fellow pupil, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Mrs Porter does not believe in politics, but she votes for the right. It is a matter of faith and must not be discussed. So I dream of introducing her to the London Mayor. "Madam," he tells her, "You need to get out more. As does your charming, marmoreal daughter." Even deeply Conservative Boris advocates "A coherent attempt to get people out of their cars and on to public transport." Despite the recession, he says, "There are some economies we cannot afford to make." He speaks of reducing emissions and congestion, improving city air quality. He becomes quite heated. Many Londoners, he says, suffer respiratory problems from pollution. He is a champion of cycling lanes, new trains. But Miss Porter is brandishing her fork. "Is the weather not quite fine, Mr Johnson?" she says threateningly. And he vanishes.

Nothing can connect with nothing. In the clatter and the chatter, my remarks touching lightly on the weather – or a range of domestic topics that will not alarm the ladies – pleased at Len Brown's victory (as I applauded Ed Miliband beating Blairite brother David) I eat a demure dinner, and nod and smile.

But then the waiter appears, with questions: "Okay, sure, London Two, a mirror city in the puddles. But what's all this about monkeys and wolves?" I remember it well: the night time chorus of Primrose Hill. The wolves were caged but they howled all right, from the peak of their concrete redoubt. The monkeys hooted, the tropical birds screeched, you could even hear the roar of a lion. They were our noisy neighbours, the other local institution – Regent's Park Zoo, and its own horde of raucous, exotic inmates.

First published in Metro Magazine NZ