Mayor Swoons Over Rolling Stone, Bankers Before Olympics

'Johnson's Life of London'
"Johnson's Life of London: The People Who Made the City That Made the World" is written by Boris Johnson. Source: Penguin Group via Bloomberg

London’s Olympics starting this week will crown a long history that has run from rebel-rousing Queen Boudica to the Rolling Stones, according to a new book by Boris Johnson, the city’s mayor.

The U.K. capital is a lot more than Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, gray skies, red buses and black cabs, says the timely primer “Johnson’s Life of London.”

The book’s title recalls the phrase of Samuel Johnson (no relation) that someone tired of London is tired of life itself.

The New York-born Conservative mayor, who was elected for a second four-year term in May, presents a relay race of historical figures that shaped London. He’s as funny as Bill Bryson and much less politically correct.

Londinium was created by “a bunch of pushy Italian immigrants,” Johnson says, and the Anglo-Saxons “were called names like Cathwulf and Ceawlin and, let’s face it, folks (or Volks), they were essentially German”.

He singles out Chaucer, Florence Nightingale -- and Keith Richards. Yes, you read that right: the mayor was awestruck when meeting the Rolling Stone whose fans surrounded them, begging the guitarist “to sign their napkins, their 20-pound notes, their left breasts etc.”

Tax Avoidance

Richards is praised for “adroit planning” in avoiding paying much U.K. taxes and gets 18 pages, more than influential figures like St. Paul’s architect Christopher Wren.

The book heaps praise on Winston Churchill, who started as an upper-class loudmouth who dared to attack the policies of prime ministers. In time, Churchill turned from a joke into the savior of England, Johnson says. Could he possibly be thinking about a latter-day equivalent?

Boudica was “the first banker-basher to hit the Square Mile,” so it’s hardly surprising that Londoners are going through “a period of bitterness” toward bankers, he writes. “History is littered with examples of resentment at the success of rich merchants, and especially foreigners.”

He’s full of admiration for financiers such as Lionel Rothschild and Dick Whittington, a 15th-century lord mayor who was commanded to arrange a royal celebration.

“The mayor laid on a fantastic binge,” Johnson notes. “The wenches were as comely and fragrant as any in late medieval London.” He glumly contrasts Whittington’s feast with a “grim occasion” when “we all had to go and suck up to President Putin in the hope that he would let BP have some oil contracts.”

London Underground

Some of the best sections are about London inventions, including the Tube and the King James Bible. Johnson mentions his debt to Stephen Inwood’s definitive “A History of London,” which runs to almost four times the length of Johnson’s book without the mayor’s cavalier judgments and politicking.

Johnson ends by quoting William Shakespeare, “What is the city but the people?”

The same quote starts Craig Taylor’s lively “Londoners,” which features dozens of interviews with residents including a punk, a prostitute and a property developer. There is even a witness to last year’s riots, which Johnson shies away from mentioning.

Taylor ends by interviewing a pilot taking off from Heathrow. He speaks of breaking through that rainy cloud and sadly realizing “you’re leaving the energy behind.”

“Johnson’s Life of London: The People Who Made the City That Made the World” is published by Riverhead in the U.S. and Harper Press in the U.K. (320 pages, $27.95, 20 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

“Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now -- As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It” is published by Ecco in the U.S. and Granta in the U.K. (413 pages, $29.99, 9.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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