Books
1:09 am
Sat June 2, 2012

London's Mayor On 'The City That Made The World'

Originally published on Sat June 2, 2012 6:01 am

In just a few weeks, the world will descend on London for the Olympic Games.

But the world goes to London every day, according to Boris Johnson, the former journalist who has just been re-elected mayor of London. In his new book, Johnson says people don't just visit the city, they've made their lives there for centuries now. It's a city, Johnson writes, where national soccer teams from all over the world can show up and count on crowds of thousands of fans to support them.

Johnson, the mayor with scarecrow hair who bicycles around his town, has written a book that traces some of the London that may reside in all of us — from Shakespeare to Churchill, the business suit to the bicycle, the flush toilet, Keith Richards and Florence Nightingale.

His book is Johnson's Life of London: The People Who Made the City That Made the World. And, as he tells Weekend Edition Saturday's Scott Simon from his home in London, he believes the city has a brand — but not one everyone might think of.

"I think one of the points of the book," says Johnson, "was to make Londoners themselves aware quite how much of their landscape is due to foreign immigrants of one kind or another. Just upriver from where I am, I can see London Bridge — that was the site of the first bridge across the river. Who built London Bridge? It wasn't Londoners. It was a bunch of pushy Italian immigrants from 43 A.D., the Romans, who founded this town. In other words, what I'm trying to say about London is that it's been a magnet for talent for 2,000 years."

Countering the idea that the world is becoming more "Americanized," Johnson sees a lot of traces of London around the world.

"I think what most patriotic English people would say is that, of all the great things that Britain has done for the world, America — I would humbly, politely suggest to my audience — is that which we can be most proud," Johnson says.

Tongue not entirely in cheek, Johnson explains that the Founding Fathers' doctrines of liberty and equality undoubtedly came "not just from the French Revolution but from ideas that were very, very important in 18th-century Britain, and of course 18th-century London. So the United States is our proudest creation."

Johnson's book also mentions some other products of London that he believes all have an exceptional quality.

"They are things that were vital for the world," Johnson says. "I can't remember quite what the connection between Winston Churchill and the flush toilet was — I suppose they're things in one way or another [that] liberated mankind."

In writing about Churchill, Johnson notes that he is not only an iconic figure to Britons as well as Americans, but can be an inspiration for anyone who's been fired or who considers themselves a slow learner.

"For anybody who's ever got drunk and regretted it in the morning, Churchill is a lodestar for politicians, anybody who accidentally swears, anybody who is rude," Johnson says. "Churchill remains a talismanic figure in British politics — in some ways an unhealthy, unhelpfully talismanic figure. I think too many British politicians see themselves as the heir of Churchill."

On the question of whether London is part of Europe, Johnson recalls reading a history of Europe in which it was pointed out that the Thames was, in fact, a tributary of a river running through what is now the English Channel.

"In other words, this is a European river I'm looking at, and of course London is a European capital," Johnson says. "Whether that means we have to take part in the euro and all the schemes proposed by the well-motivated, intelligent bureaucrats of Brussels, I doubt."

As for Johnson's political future, he's not looking toward party leadership or anything else beyond his mayoral term.

"I've got a four-year mandate. I've got a huge job to do," Johnson says. "How can I put this: It's not something I think is likely. Conventionally, what I say is, I'm more likely to be blinded by a champagne cork, or decapitated by a Frisbee, or reincarnated as an olive, or locked in a disused fridge."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In just a few weeks, the world will descend on London for the Summer Olympic Games. But then the world goes to London every day. As Boris Johnson, the former journalist who's just been reelected mayor of London, says in his new book, people from all over the world not only arrive to visit; they have made their lives in London for centuries. Let Mayor Johnson tell us himself.

MAYOR BORIS JOHNSON: (Reading) And these people are coming here, not just from Dorking or even from darkest Dorset, they come from the ends of the Earth. Dotted in that crowd of commuting faces will be people from every European country - from Russia, from Asia, from African and from both the Americas. They will probably have come to Heathrow, the biggest airport in the world with 68 million passengers a year, and then cabbed or tubed or trained it into a world city, a cosmopolis of 300 languages, a city of constant immigration, where East End churches have turned into synagogues and then into mosques. No other city matches London for it pull and diversity - with the possible exception of New York, the shining transatlantic mirror that is, it so happens, the city of my birth.

SIMON: Boris Johnson, the mayor with scarecrow hair who bicycles around his town, has written a book that traces some of the London that may reside in all of us, from Shakespeare, Churchill, and the business suit, to the bicycle, the flush toilet, Keith Richards and Florence Nightingale. His new book: "Johnson's Life of London: The People Who Made the City That Made the World." Mayor Johnson joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Mayor.

JOHNSON: How are you, Scott?

SIMON: I'm fine, thank you, sir.

JOHNSON: If I can call you Scott.

SIMON: Yes, by all means, yes. But I'll call you Mr. Mayor.

JOHNSON: Well, that's very polite of you.

SIMON: You believe that London has become a brand, to use modern parlance.

JOHNSON: I think it has been a brand for a long time. I think it's - one of the points of the book was to make Londoners themselves aware quite how much of their landscape is due to foreign immigrants of one kind or another. Just upriver from where I am, I can see London Bridge. That was the site of the first bridge across the river. Who built London Bridge? It wasn't Londoners. It was a bunch of pushy Italian immigrants from 43 A.D., the Romans who founded this town. In other words, what I'm trying to say about London is it's been a magnet for talent for 2,000 years.

SIMON: Americans like to look around the world and think, you know, so much has become Americanized. I was struck in this book - you look around the world and you see a lot of traces of London, even in the way people dress.

JOHNSON: Yes. And I think what most patriotic English people would say is that of all the great things that Britain has done for the world, America is...

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: ...I would humbly, politely, suggest to my audience is that which we can be most proud. I mean, after all there is no doubt at all when you look at the principles of the founding fathers of the United States, when you look at their doctrines of liberty and the "all men were created equal" and all the rest of it, there's no doubt at all that that came not just from the French Revolution but from ideas that were very, very important in 18th century Britain.

And of course, in 18th century London. So the United States is our proudest creation.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: You really want people here to buy your book, don't you? Mr. Mayor, is London truly part of Europe?

JOHNSON: It was a French historian called Andre Malraux I believe who - I remember reading a history of Europe in which he pointed out that the river I'm looking at, the Thames, was in fact like the Seine: the tributary of a ginormous river that ran out through what is now the Channel. In other words, this is a European river I'm looking at.

And of course London is a European capital. Whether that means we have to take part in the euro and all the schemes proposed by the well-motivated, intelligent bureaucrats of Brussels, I doubt.

SIMON: We mentioned some of the names that you write about, including Shakespeare, Churchill, Florence Nightingale, Keith Richards, the business suit, the flush toilet. What properties as Londoners do all of these people and all of those things share?

JOHNSON: I think that what they have is a certain exceptional quality. They are things that were vital for the world. I can't remember - the things you just listed, I can't remember quite what the connection between Winston Churchill and the flush toilet - I suppose they're things that in one way or another liberated mankind.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: So it was that. And I hope American listeners would accept the humble and sincere reverence in which I speak of America. As a proud - by the way, as a proud native, not of London, but of New York City.

SIMON: In the interest of time we might have to shortchange Winston Churchill a bit.

JOHNSON: There's a lot to talk - I mean, he's biblical, Churchill.

SIMON: Well, and I'm interested. When you suggest that his life can be iconic for every slow learner, for everyone who ever lost a job or lost an election, every late bloomer. Churchill can be your inspiration.

JOHNSON: That's right. Anybody who's ever got drunk and regretted it in the morning. Churchill is a lodestar for politicians, anybody who accidentally swears, anybody who is rude. Churchill remains a talismanic figure in Britain - actually in some ways a slightly unhealthy, unhealthily talismanic figure. I think some too many British politicians see themselves as the heirs of Churchill.

SIMON: You've just been reelected mayor of London, and it's sometimes pointed out that you received more votes than any other politician in Britain. Are you going to run for party leader?

JOHNSON: No, no. I was wondering where all that was going. Of course not. I've got a four-year mandate. I've got a huge job to do. How can I put this: It's not something I think is likely - conventionally, what I say is, I'm more likely to be blinded by a champagne cork, or decapitated by a Frisbee, or reincarnated as an olive, or locked in a disused fridge.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. His new book "Johnson's Life of London: The People Who Made the City that Made the World." Thanks so much, Mr. Mayor.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WATERLOO SUNSET")

RAY DAVIES: Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, rolling into the night...

SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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