When the18th-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson was planning his famous "Dictionary of the English Language," he boasted he would finish the project in three years. Someone observed that 40 members of the French academy took 40 years to complete their dictionary, but Johnson was unimpressed. “Let me see,” he replied, “forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.”
Hints of this same wit and swagger permeate the latest work of a different Johnson: Boris Johnson, a former journalist and current mayor of London. In Johnson’s Life of London, he aims to do for London what James Boswell did for Samuel Johnson in his Life of Johnson: capture an intricate subject in an indelible style.
At just over 300 pages, Boris Johnson’s book is less than a third as long as Boswell’s mammoth biography of Samuel Johnson, who lived a mere 75 years. London, on the other hand, has a more daunting longevity. From its swampy origins as a backwater of the Roman Empire to its ascension as a global cultural and economic force, London presents a prospective biographer with nearly 2,000 years of private and public life.
Johnson animates and focuses his vast subject through a series of miniature biographies of influential Londoners. While many of his subjects are familiar – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Churchill, Keith Richards – he also includes some less prominent figures, like the eccentric 17th-century inventor Robert Hooke, who among other distinctions attempted to develop “strange boingy-boingy shoes that he claimed could propel him 12 feet upwards and 20 feet forwards.” He also devotes a chapter to the seventh-century bishop Mellitus, who helped reintroduce Christianity to the pagans of London.
As the current mayor, a former journalist and a trained classicist, Johnson is a triply ideal biographer of London. As mayor, he was able to meet Keith Richards and test out the theory that the Rolling Stones introduced the blues to many Americans when our country’s racial tensions prevented most white musicians from using blues forms. (Richards’ take on this view: “I’ll go with that.”) Johnson was also able to chat with the Pope about the latent paganism he sees as a vestige of London’s history. (The Pope’s reply was tactfully vague: “Very interesting.”)
As a journalist, Johnson has a wonderful instinct for vivid scenes and engrossing details. We learn that Alfred the Great possibly drank petroleum to cure an achy stomach, and that William the Conqueror was so fat that he didn’t fit into his sarcophagus, and that “when the officiating bishop tried to push down on the lid, his body burst, releasing such appalling vapours from his ventral cavity that the congregation swooned.”
As a trained classicist, Johnson can decipher the Greek notes in Mellitus’ bible, read Roman authors on London (Ovid said early Brits were green), and provide a breadth of source material that makes his portraits more than journalistic sketches.
Johnson does indulge his English pride with moments of cultural cheerleading, but he’s also happy to make cracks about national eccentricities. He writes in his chapter on Shakespeare, “There weren’t any pretty actresses to ogle because the female parts were all played by men, for some English reason that did not prove compelling in other parts of Europe.”
He writes with the verve of a journalist and the knowledge of a historian. Roman troops arriving in London are “knackered” and the young Alfred the Great is “little Alfie.” But behind the colloquial style and chatty nicknames is an impressive depth of research. It’s a testament to Johnson’s confidence that he’s willing to abandon the stuffy formulations of so much historical writing.
By the end of the book it’s hard not to share Johnson’s enthusiasm for a city that has bequeathed to the world everything from ping pong to flush toilets to the language of Shakespeare. But the broad historical sweep of his narrative also makes clear the vulnerability of any great city. London has survived conquest or attack by Celts, Romans, Vikings, and Germans, but this resilience isn’t necessarily cause for optimism. Near the end of the book, Johnson quotes a line from Ovid’s "Heroides" that serves as a sort of parable for the dangers of excessive civic pride: “Seges est ubi Troia fuit.” There’s a cornfield where Troy was.
Nick Romeo’s latest book is "Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys."