With Boris Johnson riding high thanks to the Olympics and David Cameron suffering because … well, the reasons are too many to go into … I thought it might be useful to briefly revisit the former’s 2004 novel Seventy Two Virgins to see what kind of insight it gives us into the politics of the man some think will be the next Conservative leader.
Plenty of Conservative MPs have turned their hands to novel writing over the last few decades: thrillers in the case of Douglas Hurd, Tim Renton and Michael Spicer; murder mysteries as with Julian Critchley and Nigel West; and thanks to Edwina Curie we even have a parliamentary bonkbuster or two.
They do it for various reasons: relaxation, money and ego. While they might deny it, it is also a way for some to create a sympathetic version of themselves – to literally put over their side of the story. For example, the reader is strongly invited to sympathise with the dilemmas of the central protagonist in Currie’s A Woman’s Place (1994) and A Parliamentary Affair (1996), even while she was having an adulterous liaison with a Cabinet minister.
While not conventional political documents, such novels can tell us about MPs’ assumptions and phobias: if their thrillers are any guide, the presence of gays in party ranks really did worry certain MPs. Hurd’s The Palace of Enchantments (1985) is especially interesting in what it says about being an MP - ‘the pleasure of service, the pleasure of being elected to serve others’ – and the 1980s electorate – ‘They vote Conservative, but constantly disappoint the Conservatives because they are not entrepreneurs. You can cut their taxes, but you can’t get them to take risks.’
Johnson’s 2004 effort is ostensibly a comedy, which sees a visiting US President very similar to George W. Bush captured while addressing Parliament in Westminster Hall by incompetent Jihadists. The War on Terror and the Iraq invasion played for laughs? Our Boris is such a card. His publishers hopefully suggested it had a ‘similar appeal to Stephen Fry or Ben Elton’. But as Hurd pointed out, the novel is really much more old fashioned than that: it is sub-P.G. Wodehouse.
So, the novel has the contemporary sheen of anti-politics, taking nothing seriously, mocking all positions, including those of his party. But this dismissive attitude is in literary terms, as old as Dickens, and was fine tuned by Wodehouse who, typically, has Bertie Wooster declare in Much Obliged Jeeves (1971): ‘The great thing in life, Jeeves, if we wish to be happy and prosperous, is to miss as many political debates as possible.’
Johnson’s hero is ‘Roger Barlow’ but he is really ‘Boris’, that carefully constructed creature which the author craftily presents to the voting public. Barlow/Boris is an unassuming and undistinguished Conservative MP who works assiduously on behalf of his constituents. He is not a ‘sound’ Tory – his liberal attitude to gay marriage is mentioned to prove that. But is a good guy whose buffoonery masks acute intelligence and a classical education. Barlow is also messily but lovably human, with an untidy private life, which somehow does not prevent him being a wonderful husband and father. The press are also pursuing him because he ‘had strayed outside the weird and hypocritical matrix that the tabloid imposed on the conduct of public and semi-public figures’. Interestingly, the tabloid in question is not the Sun but the Mirror.
Johnson’s sympathetic description of a West African immigrant further indicates that the author might be a modern Tory but he has roots in tradition. For Eric Onyeama is a British patriot, hard working and aspirational on his children’s behalf; for whom ‘the gilt fleches and steeples of the Houses of Parliament … inspired … a deep and unfashionable reverence’.
Indeed, beneath the novel’s self-conscious – and frankly tiresome – irreverence, it is Johnson’s respect for the body of Parliament that comes out most. For Barlow is thrilled by Westminster Hall: ‘Kings and queens had lain in state here, and so had Winston Churchill’, whose floor looked like it had been put down by the sarsens of Stonehenge. The author also has the President think: ‘Whatever you said about the Brits, whatever their snobberies and limitations, they understood the relationship between the present and the past. They never pretended that their system of government was some ash-and-aluminium example of perfected modernity. They knew their democracy was an inherited conglomerate of traditions, bodged together, spatchcocked, barnacled and bubblegummed by fate and whimsy’.
I don’t know how many copies Seventy Two Virgins sold but that does not matter: for the novel was just another chance for Mr. Johnson to sell that which Charles Moore described as ‘post-modern’ ‘Boris’, the public political personality who is modern and yet traditional.
Where does this leave David Cameron? It might mean nothing but in the novel Barlow has an American intern called Cameron MacKenzie. She is uptight, prissy and disapproving of Barlow’s slackness; he nonetheless harbours carnal ambitions for her young body. I will leave you to interpret the meaning of that!