And all that day in murky London Wall
The thought of Ruislip kept him warm inside;
At Farringdon that lunch hour at a stall
He bought a dozen plants of London Pride;
While she, in arc-lit Oxford Street adrift,
Soared through the sales by safe hydraulic lift.
Early Electric! Maybe even here
They met that evening at six-fifteen
Beneath the hearts of this electrolier
And caught the first non-stop to Willesden Green,
Then out and on, through rural Rayner’s Lane
To autumn-scented Middlesex again
— John Betjeman, Baker Street Station Buffet
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“Well, look, uh oh, gosh what can I say about myself and Uxbridge?’ Rising to his feet behind the candidates table at the front of St Margaret’s church (the north tower, built in the 1300s; the rest, circa 17th century) Boris Johnson, blonde bowl cut flashing in the light, lumpy torso moving beneath his dark blue jacket — it is Boris’ talent to make a Savile Row job look off-the-rack from Tesco — appears momentarily lost for words. Barely here, in fact, lost in his head, where some sort of epic conflagration is occurring. Seated by good fortune at the centre of five candidates, before a crowd of about 200 west Londoners in rows of stacked plastic chairs, he’s the only one here who can bounce his voice off the back wall and shatter the modernish leadlights, showing a hippie Jesus tending to cubist sheep, all the while quoting Lucretius.
But that would be showing off.
Instead we’re getting Bumbling Boris, or so it looks. “Gosh, uh, well, I, uh, have represented this area for a few years as, you know, the mayor.” Ah yes, goes the crowd, he’s actually the mayor of this 9-million strong city. He’s cracked it, of course. How to get that mayor thing in without sounding like a dick, or that this small sliver of it doesn’t matter much. Understatement. Litotes, innit? Boris knows his rhetorical figures, knows them by name, his zeugma from his anacoluthon. He really doesn’t need to bother. He doesn’t even need to turn up. The Tories would hold onto Uxbridge and Ruislip if they ran Fred West in the seat. Maybe with an increased majority (“well, he’s a good provider”).
But Boris doesn’t want to leave anything to chance. He is smuggling himself back into Parliament for a leadership challenge, in either 2019, or this late May, but he can’t, on any account, show it. We know it’s a pose, he knows it’s a pose, but it must be kept up at all costs. Answering an earlier question on renewables, Boris went green, talking about how we could do more to improve heat-preservation in homes. “We are lagging in our lagging,” he said, and one saw him wince slightly and correct himself. Cut the wit, Boris de Pfeiffer! This isn’t The Spectator drawing room now.
He has been unlucky in his opponents, which is to say lucky, too easy, no push. The Labour guy is a raven-haired man in his mid-30s and a sharp suit, sharp-faced too. The UKIP guy is a kid, open-necked shirt, baby-fat, heat rash and anger. The Greens candidate, in his 60s, small, wizened, has twizzles of grey-white hair coming out either side of his head, like a koala somehow acquired a Fletcher Jones suit. The Lib-Dem? I don’t remember what he looks like at all. It’s a blank, shimmied out like someone who never signed the release form for a reality TV show. They have no chance, and arranged either side of Boris, this has too much the air of the Last Supper to be good for Boris.
The one slight danger to his smooth ascension to the green-benched heaven of the Commons is that people won’t see him as a local member. The locals may be welcoming, may be Tory to a man and woman, but they’re sceptical too, 60-somethings most of them, greying hair in 70s-era cuts, no-nonsense windbreakers, white shirts and dirndl skirts for the women. Managers, accountants, pharmacists, retirees, Anglicans, few have moved or worked far from here in decades. They have Radio 4 perpetually coming out of the radio at home, and the new Ian McEwan or Victoria Hislop perpetually on the go. They are the children Celia Johnson had when she didn’t leave her husband for the man in the railway station caff in Brief Encounter: “Heppy, darlink?” “Oh, fraffly.”
“So you’re a conservative then?” I ask the woman next to me, and she looks startled for a second, as if the question was a category error — “so, bipedal, I see?” — and says “yes”. A pause, and then: “But we used to have a very good member, and I want to know that Boris is up to it.” Boris’ ludicrous attempt of recent months to be taken as the new Churchill doesn’t really cut it here. Islamic State? NATO? Dark days? Forget it Mac, these are Betjeman’s people. Forget it Mac, this is Metroland.
Yes, Metroland, that vast corridor of suburbs stretching out to the north-west of London, from the one-time slums of Euston through the villas of St John’s Wood, and all the way out into leafy Buckinghamshire. Rows of terraced and semi-detached stucco homes, yielding to stand-alone mock Tudor, and pseudo Swiss cottage, suburbs that fled far from their London centre, names of places you will never step foot in, and that thousands will barely step out of from one month or year to the next.
London is no bigger than Sydney or Melbourne on the ground, but those cities flow to a low density once you’re out of the centres, dormitories pretending to be suburbs. London is built to the edge, tower blocks, apartment complexes, tight terraces, big shopping streets, every three of four burbs it’s own self-sufficient world. People move but they don’t move far.
“You from round here?” I ask a Tory councillor. “Oh no, I came from Northolt!” he says with the pride of the heedless voyager. Northolt is four Tube stops away. Built around the Metropolitan railway, which was pushed north-west through bucolic home-counties farmland in the 19th century, Metroland is the closest thing you’ll get to a British Dream — or a southern dream at any rate. The place seems undisturbed by wars, crises, mass immigration. It sleeps the deep, deep sleep of England, where the main street still looks like the cover of that middle-English classic Shopping With Mother, where Battle comic still hangs in the newsagents, Morecambe and Wise, and Robin’s Nest are still on the TV, and even the one-of-each ethnic restaurants have a cottagey air to them. The British dream, and certainly my dreaming; had my mother, a “ten pound Pom”, married the man she became engaged to on the boat over (I don’t want to know), I would probably have grown up here, or somewhere like it. But on the pre-Suez stopover, she went to visit the Pyramids, saw the Sphinx, broke it off and continued to Oz. There’s a good bad novel in that, surely.
But it feels familiar because I grew up somewhere like it in any case — Australia before the 90s when there was still, well, Battle comic in the newsagents and Robin’s Nest on TV, the New Romantics on Countdown. I have the vague air I will meet myself coming the other way down Ruislip High Street. These are my roots, of sorts. I’ve found you, Lloyd Cole and Tom Conti, I’m home.*
To be born in Metroland is to die here, most likely. There’s one of everything, and save for a few years of teenagerdom, the trip up to London was either a daily in-and-out for work, or a thrice-yearly occasion with hats and gloves, and lunch at Selfridges. Now that the centre is a raucous smoking filthbox of hipsters, thugs and noise, it is oft avoided at all, and the journey in stops as the cool deathfulness of Shepherd’s Bush Westfield — everything one leaves Australia to get a break from follows you here.
Metroland has been reliably Tory for decades, save for a couple of outbursts of Labour enthusiasm, though the inner parts of it are now sufficiently inner-city to be contested. Out here, though, its effect as a world entire, is to seal it off from all pressing criticisms of either the performance or morality of a Tory government.
Uxbridge was a separate town for centuries before Metroland came through here, and though the ancient buildings are gone — replaced by garish upstarts no more than 200 years old — the tight tangle of streets around the church and the Costa Coffee at the centre follow lines that are probably Saxon in origin. The Kingdom of Middlesex entire, and for decades it was represented by knighted Tories — latterly Sir John Randall, known for being the proverbial tireless local member, ready to help anyone, and to work across the table for local interests.
His family department store, Randall’s — a huge shoe department — still graces the High Street, and due to a schmick art-deco frontage, Grade II listed. Randall resigned from the outer ministry to protest Tory support for the Iraq War, which allowed him to run the place like a small German principality. The whip doesn’t extend to day-to-day to backbenchers — unlike the soft Stalinist party politics of Australia, you’re not seen as part of the government — so a sworn backbencher is, in some ways, a quasi-independent. No surprise then that the first question out to the candidates was “can you fill the shoes — hahaha — of Sir John Randall?”
That was the first opportunity for Boris to squirm, and there would be many more over the course of that evening. His only real opponent was himself, so it was an ideal opportunity to observe him against a background as it were (i.e. the other candidates). Boris is the worst sort of pseudo-conservative, a free-market Liberal who would plaster advertising on the dome of St Paul’s if he were allowed to, all the while singing “Jerusalem” and talking about the, gosh, glory of old England.
Under his lackadaisical rule, a city that maintained a balance between its vibrancy and sense of shared life by having some balance of power and stake between rich and poor, has become a playpen for the global super rich, a muffled-footsteps mausoleum of luxury stores and vacant mansions made out of knocked together terraces, which might once have contained 30 flats and 70 people. The life and energy is going out of it day-by-day, all of which could have been prevented by wise leadership, and a less doctrinaire notion that the deregulated market will deliver the best result. London was a sacred trust, and Boris fucked it up.But then he’s good at that. At not being much good I mean. He is a great speaker, a very good writer, at a column’s length, and as useless as a jelly dildo in any other context. He was a terrible Daily Telegraph journalist, a pretty average MP for Henley, an absentee editor of The Spectator, and runs London like ageing Sultans ran the Ottoman empire, letting powerful forces carry bits of it away. He has written a terrible novel, and presented a few TV series in which his creative role was only marginally greater than a microphone stand. He did most of these things badly, simultaneously, because Boris. His very career is a standing counsel of despair, because it is a message to millions that if you have been to Eton and Oxford, you can do whatever you like, and if you didn’t, then fuck off and become an assistant manager at Carphone Warehouse. The Tories genuinely do not understand that their failure to break through to a stand-alone majority last time or this was partly down to being lectured on free enterprise by an Eton/Harrow/Charterhouse-Oxbridge front bench.
They may have got the point by now, because Boris doesn’t go in hard tonight. This is not that sort of crowd in any case, not a church full of Thatcher tragics, who tend to be found elsewhere. They voted for her of course, but their conservatism goes back further. This is Macmillan-land, a place that prizes stillness above all, were you can see Domesday-named woods from the art-deco Tube exit.
Boris needs to pull it in here, and he does, mostly: he talks at length of HS2, the high-speed line from London to Birmingham — or Escape from Birmingham, as it is drily known — which will tunnel through here, if built, and which Boris is opposing. He talks of being a local member — “I would be your workhorse, let me be your workhorse,” which, thus repeated, acquires a 50 Shades tang — who can get Uxbridge hospital reversed from partial closure and rebuilt, its failure a disaster of Labour’s era of private finance initiatives. Other candidates throw in helpful remarks — that he was for HS2 before he was against it, that the Tories NHS plan would see hospitals fully privatised, beyond mere PFI funding, and he rushes to clarify and rebut. “Look can I gosh, let me say, crumbs can I have some time to reply to that?”
Not that he needs it, because he is already doing it while the other candidates speak. They stay mute while others are speaking, but not BoJo. He is a one-man butoh theatre piece for the whole 90 minutes, a man of many moods and stylings. He has startled face for surprising assertions by others, as if he had just been shot by his own men at Ypres; there is disagreement, pursed lips and hooded suspicious eyes, a touch of his one-eighth Turkish heritage (his grandfather, Osman Ali, changed his name to Johnny Johnson) the desert Sultan rejecting the blandishments of the Infidels; then he is Billy Bunter, the blond owl of Blackfriars, moaning in exasperation. “Shut up, Bunter” the moderator said. But the blonde owl of Blackfriars would not shut up, could not shut up. He moaned and groaned, cursed and worse. He ached and croaked, bellowed and yellowed … (copyright Frank Richards and Benzedrine).
When he is last to speak, and must wait while the Green candidate talks about rail-point switchings, he appears to lose upright poise altogether, and crouches like a polar bear in search of a mate, across the vast ice-floes. And sometimes he looks like goddam Shelley Winters in the original Poseiden Adventure, waterlogged and jowly, and about to sing “There’s Got To Be a Morning After”. It is a performance all of which revolves around one thing — he cannot believe that he has to sit through hours and hours with these idiots, to get to be prime minister, which is simply the next step on the journey. Could they not just appoint him now and get it over with?
They will elect him of course, and then he will be the Tories’ problem. He has a lot more support outside the party than in it, where his slack style, riffing and history as an epic shagger in the stout-oaken hot-tub that was The Spectator in the 2000s. The sort of thing they might be worried about was on display, when the panel got a tough question, from one of the dozen or so students there, from nearby Brunel University (formerly: Ruislip School of Cake Decoration) about maintenance grants, the once universally applied allowances granted to students, which have now all but disappeared: “I’m not talking about fees, I’m specifically not talking about fees,” the student said. “But how am I supposed to finish my degree without a maintenance grant?”
For Labour, the Green Party and UKIP this was easy — although easy for the UKIP kid in that he said less people should be going to university — and we watched the Lib-Dem guy squirm for a while, and then it was Boris’ turn. No, he specifically talked about the fees. “Look, I mean, gosh, the thing is many many people more have gone to university after the tuition fees …”
“I’m not talking about the fees, they’re deferred … I’m talking about the grants …”
And then Boris got stroppy.
“Well, look, I mean you’ve got to have a bit of initiative I mean phoooo whoa I don’t know, can’t you get a loan or something?”
To which the answer is of course, no, it’s hard enough to get the banks to give out collateralised loans these days. Student loans? Forget it. Boris began his answer tetchy. By the end of it, he was already bored and irritated by this little oik. For obvious reasons. Maintenance grants from the 1960s into the 1980s and even 1990s, did open up university to the working class in a country where few go to uni in their home town. Their slow but relentless winding down has helped turn the country back towards Edwardian conditions — not starkly unequal, a more genteel, sun-drenched, summer-hats-and-cream-teas inequality, which comes to be more easily accepted.
The mere mention of it riled Boris because, well, because he does believe this 19ht-century nonsense about bootstraps and self-reliance and all, and also because his family is from money (father’s mother’s side), which allowed the Johnsons to travel the world and do what they liked, while father Stanley pursued a perpetual studentship in economics. For a moment, just for a moment, the audience saw the nasty disdainful side of Johnson — he couldn’t have cared with this kid stayed in uni or not, or indeed lived or died. But then, I was looking out for it, for the moment when the clown mask would slip. I wonder how many other people saw it? I suspect that few there needed to find maintenance grants for their kids to go to university.
Which is the whole point of Metroland, really. More than any other European country, the British succeeded in separating the middle class from the poor, and, on that foundation, built the two nations of politics, to the great benefit of the Conservatives throughout the 20th century. On the one hand it is less bloodthirsty than some of your middle classes elsewhere — yet it has a capacity to be blithe beyond all reckoning, has a simple unwillingness to think about the lives of others.
The Labour candidate had made a brief mention of the “bedroom tax”, the vile processes whereby people holding public housing with one bedroom more than they allegedly required, were obliged to swap for a smaller one, or lose part of their benefits. For derisory gain, the sheer amount of human misery this created — people driven out of their neighbourhoods, or having their benefits pared to the bone, divorced parents who couldn’t host their kids, disabled who needed a bedroom so their partner/carer could get uninterrupted sleep … it was a pure example of an abstract “rational” scheme being applied to the complexities of real life. Other people’s lives.
Anyone who spent any time listening to the stories of the people affected by it could not but be affected. But there was little of that here. “Well it does sound awful,” said one woman, Jan, queuing up afterwards to talk to Boris, “but I do think people can grumble a lot, can’t they? We all have to make do.”
“These are people separated from their friends, now with too little benefit for even one night at the pub …”
“Yes but we must make do, excuse me …”
Boris was free, having dismissed the previous petitioner, a man in a cushioned pea-green jacket talking about, yes, a broken traffic light, and she approached. “Hello, you know you signed a copy of your Churchill book for me?”
“Oh yes, anything wrong with it?”
“Oh no, I just wanted to tell you you had”
“Well, I know because I signed it …”
There was a moment’s confusion, and then she parted, still pleased while Boris did an imitation of Marty Feldman in The Last Remake of Beau Geste (that’s a funny movie), a sort of explosion of Borisisms moving across his face, 15 at a go. One could sympathise — it was the mad petitioning of the book-signing crowd — but on the other hand it could only happen to Boris. For the simple reason that no one else on the Conservative side bodies forth the Victorian gusto that lies buried, deeply buried, in the middle-class bosom.
In the Thatcher years, there were 10 or so who could inspire in equal measure — Thatcher, Norman Tebbit, Alan Clark, Ann Widdecombe, Michael Heseltine, and many more. Half of them were mad, but Metroland liked a bit of that, it was clarifying after the confusion and mess of the 70s. Yet it’s a measure of the era that it is Boris and only Boris who now fills that role. For the nature of Thatcher, Tebbit and the like was that they were all professional politicians, in the best sense of the word — dedicated to the “slow drilling through hard timber” that constitutes the commitment to imposing a political program. The fact that Boris — who has managed to fail at more professions than most people have essayed with a view to success — is the representative of this, just indicates how comical the whole thing has become.
For the Conservatives are in utter disarray. There is little question of that. While Labour, under the tutelage of Obama magus David Axelrod may have built its image in a, sigh, dialectical fashion, going from left to right, building composed image, the Tories have lurched around like Eric Pickles at an all-you-can-eat buffet. They’ve gone from low ratfuck — Miliband as a “backstabber” — to giveaways on the NHS, rent-to-buy housing and much more, that people either refuse to believe or which alienate all but a few.
Party unity has come apart in the usual fashion; leading figures are starting to run their own book, exasperated with the strategies imposed by the central office. Axelrod has exploited this by becoming a public figure, giving a hilarious taunting to The Guardian, mocking the amateurishness of the Tory campaign, and designed to ramrod the disarray — just as Obama’s genial taunting of the Romney campaign, we now know, sent them into a mad tailspin.
Aggregated polls now suggest a slight but perceptible rise in the Labour vote — bobbing either side of 35%, while the Tory vote is doing the same around 34%. Not much, but enough, and real movement. Today, YouGov pollster Peter Kellner noted that, absent a pure last-minute “safety” surge back to the Tories, Labour is on track to win — and it is arguable that there is far less chance of a safety surge, given that there is no “government” running.
The Tories and the Lib-Dems are running as separate parties, knocking blocks off each other. There is no government to return to, in safety. Some of us are starting to relax a little, into the idea that a Labour government, more leftish than it would otherwise have been, is on track to form the next government.
Coming out into the High Street after the hustings, I wonder how such a result would hit folks here. Some of them would flatly refuse to believe it. They would say there had been a mistake, votes not counted. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who votes Labour — well apart from 1997,” says George, cardiganed, sheaf of newspapers under arm, glasses with string on them “they can’t run the economy. They just can’t. Who would vote for them?”.
“What about the poor, workers who don’t see any gain even when they’re being told the economy recovers? People are living on 50 quid a week.”
“Well that’s all very sad, but why don’ they understand that everyone loses out when the economy nosedives?”
One could recount half-a-dozen conversations like that, just from this crowd, streaming out of the church that some of them worship at, passing its noticeboard with bulletins for buy-a-goat charities, partners of addicts, get-to-know-you music mornings. The vicar flits around, a 50-something woman, long grey hair, a hippie chick who took the cloth. Out in the street, it’s gone quiet, a shopping street dying with the night. I look around and realise that, despite an earlier view through burning-gold spectacles, it is not what it was — a street of chains, bars and restaurants conformed to a general experience. All Bar One, Be At One, and the US burger chain Five Guys.
It is here but it is elsewhere, yearning for its own Englishness I suspect, an ethnicity not even known to itself now. Elsewhere UKIP supplies that. But here it’s Boris. The weakness of the Tory message, the provisionality of their politics, comes because these places no longer feel they live in an England anchored by an unquestioned sense of itself. But that is a time and a context that suits Boris down to the Saxon ground, the conviction-retail politician doing it all in one hit. He comes, he goes, and you’re left with a dizzying sense of flashing blonde hair, Latin quips and shameless mugging. It will not last forever, but it doesn’t need to.
The man has two passports, was born in New York City. In the endless parade forever running in his head, down the High Street and all the way out of it, he is going to be the first Old Etonian President of the United States. Last seen, Boris is being bundled into a car beside the mediaeval graveyard being told that he has four “surgeries” — meet the public — tomorrow. “Gosh four? Gosh I-I-I-” and he has gone, in his head, a thousand parades passing by.
*Kunta Kinte, I’ve found you — Alex Hayley, Roots