What is Boris Johnson?
A better question might be: what isn’t Boris Johnson? He is, inter alia, the Mayor of London; a prolific author, journalist and, as of this month, a biographer of Winston Churchill; a once and possibly future Member of Parliament; a potential future Prime Minister himself despite being a “self-styled joke” who occasionally gets stuck on a zip-line; an American by birth (and U.S. passport holder).
He is also, as you’ll hear in our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, a painter of old cheese boxes, a collector of wooden tennis rackets, and a man who would inspire England’s national soccer team by copying how Saddam Hussein’s son Uday reportedly inspired the Iraqi national team: “When they come back next time, we should just, you know, threaten to do something in the changing rooms of those guys unless they sharpen up.”
The episode is called “The Man Who Would Be Everything.”
This is our first attempt at bringing a series of FREAK-quently Asked Questions to notable people from various fields. There were far more questions on my list than we had time for — the mayor is a busy fellow, on book tour no less — but we did get to quite a few. You’ll hear about his best investment (financial, educational, or otherwise); his biggest influence; his favorite books; and, though it took some effort, we also find out his favorite brand of shoe. Along the way, we talk politics, economics, Churchill, sport, food, some more Churchill, and what his family calls him (hint: not Boris).
Love him or hate him, Boris Johnson is a political-intellectual swashbuckler with few peers. (Pardon the impartiality, but I admit to quite loving him; I wish we had more U.S. politicians like him. And, given his U.S. passport, it’s not impossible for him to become one!)
Let us know what you think of this new podcast format, and who else you’d like to hear from in the future. Happy listening.
Stephen J. DUBNER: On this week’s episode, Boris Johnson drops by to chat about being: Mayor of London; a writer; a great admirer of — and now biographer of — Prime Minister Winston Churchill; a potential future prime minister himself; and, most singularly, he chats about just being Boris Johnson:
Boris JOHNSON: I love… I love… old wooden tennis rackets.
DUBNER: There are other old things he loves.
JOHNSON: I collect… old cheese boxes.
DUBNER: At one point in the conversation, the need arose to remove his shoes:
JOHNSON: No, yeah, hang on… I’m going to take them off… I’m just going to see if I can see what’s in the…. these are so worn…. that you can’t… hang on… uh… oh God.
DUBNER: Welcome to FREAK-quently Asked Questions, the Boris Johnson edition.
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
[MUSIC: Glen Crytzer’s Savoy Seven, “A Case of the Blues” (from Focus Pocus)]
DUBNER: So let’s begin: please tell our listeners exactly who you are and what you do.
JOHNSON: Yeah. I’m Boris Johnson, I’m the Mayor of London, and that means I manage most things in the city that require a strategic view — so the transport, the police, the fire, a huge number of stuff like that, a lot of building of new homes. I’m responsible for planning the strategic direction of the greatest city on Earth. We have now in London 72 billionaires, which is more than New York. New York has about 43 billionaires, and Paris has only 18 billionaires. And Moscow has I think 40, so, you know, London is to the billionaire as the jungles of Sumatra are to the orangutan.
DUBNER: Congratulations on that.
JOHNSON: And we’re proud of that. I mean we’re quite proud of it, I mean and let’s be clear, we have mixed feelings, but…
DUBNER: I’m sure you like your poor people, too, though.
JOHNSON: Exactly right. And the argument that we make is that the presence of these exotic creatures, the billionaires, is good for the whole ecosystem, and they support by their billionaire activities, you know, asking people to bring the car around to the front of the hotel, or whatever they do, and, you know, going to…you know that’s all, that adds to the economic activity in the city, as I’m sure you understand.
DUBNER: Now, before we get too far, I want to say welcome to New York City, which is your birthplace yes?
JOHNSON: It is!
DUBNER: Many people don’t know.
JOHNSON: And a city I absolutely love.
DUBNER: We should also say that you are standing again, running again for the House of Commons in the spring, yes?
JOHNSON: Yes, that’s right. Yes. A place I left about seven years ago.
DUBNER: So for those who know you as the…“colorful,” let’s say, if we had to pick one adjective, Mayor of London – we’ll get into that…
DUBNER: I think many people don’t know…
JOHNSON: I can use that. No, no, I can use that, I can handle that, okay.
DUBNER: Um, I chose not to go with bombastic…um, many people don’t know what a really wonderful writer you are.
JOHNSON: That was nice of you!
DUBNER: Well, yeah, it was, until I ended up using bombastic, so…in a sideways manner. But, I really think you’re a wonderful writer. And in fact, before you became a politician you were a mostly very well regarded journalist having written several books. And your latest book, it’s called The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History. It’s being published, I believe in the U.S. on this very day, as we speak, correct?
JOHNSON: This is publication day.
JOHNSON: And yeah, I’m very proud. It’s a great thing to be published in America. It’s doing well in London!
DUBNER: It’s doing very well in the U.K., I saw, and I’m sure it will do well here. It’s a very good book, he’s a fascinating character. Your interpretation of him is interesting on every page. Here’s what I want to ask you, however…
JOHNSON: Come on, come on.
DUBNER: We’re used to politicians here, and in the U.K., writing books about themselves…
DUBNER: In order to position themselves for future elections.
JOHNSON: I know. I know…
DUBNER: You, having written about yourself and I know you’ve been asked this question, but I do want to call your attention to just a couple of passages that I found particularly interesting …
DUBNER: …where you write about Churchill, and one could imagine, without a whole lot of mental choreography, that you appreciate these things about him because there are some parallels to you. Here are a couple of bits of descriptions of Churchill in the book. “I knew,” you write, “that he had a mastery of the art of speechmaking. And I knew even then” – this was when you were a child – “that this art was dying out. I knew that he was funny and irreverent and that even by the standards of his time he was politically incorrect. He was eccentric. Over the top. Camp, with his own special trademark clothes. Those wonderful jumpers, jumpsuits. And a thoroughgoing genius.” Now again, I don’t mean to put you on the spot and say, would Dr. Freud, or one of his many colleagues look into those words and see you writing about him thinking about yourself….but –
JOHNSON: Well, maybe.
JOHNSON: Look, of course, it…all British – there’s no question that Churchill cast a massive, shadowy spell. He intoxicates all British politicians who come out, and particularly male conservatives of a certain type who yearn to be like Winston, so of course that’s true. But, you know, I’ve got more in common, frankly, with a one-eyed pterodactyl or a Kalamata olive …But, he was very…remarkable guy. And…I mean, when I say remarkable, that’s an understatement. He was not a big guy, by the way. He was 5’6½” tall. He had a 31-inch chest. He was a shrimpy sort of guy who built himself up, partly by dumbbells, partly by sheer self-projection, to become this incredible, buffalo-like figure. I discovered amazing things about him when I was writing the book. And I concluded at the end, you know, to get to your point, that he just was running on a different kind of biological fuel than the rest of us. And he was able…what really knocked me out, you know…you’re a journalist, I’m a journalist, you know, we know what it takes to write a piece fast and all the rest of it. But he could drink: red wine, white wine, whiskey, brandy, liqueurs at dinner, knock off…have a huge cigar, at 10 o’clock or later he would go to his office, stomp up and down, and dictate until three in the morning perfect, brilliant, excogitated prose. That’s amongst other things helped him to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now, I can write pretty fast after lunch, even if I’ve drunk some alcohol. I cannot do it after dinner. I just cannot. I don’t know anybody, do you know anybody who can do it?
DUBNER: No. I don’t.
JOHNSON: No. So I think there was something strange going on with him, I think…
DUBNER: Well, maybe he had better whiskey than we do, I don’t know.
JOHNSON: I don’t know, no, I think he just, he just had more energy. And you know…he, he… every day he would write thousands of words of memos. He wrote more published journalism and prose than – than I think than Dickens and Shakespeare combined. So, you know, he was…he was prodigious.
DUBNER: The Churchill Factor is the book, it’s really extraordinary, and I encourage anyone within the sound of my voice to read it. Now, Mr. Mayor, I’m about to ask you a series of questions unrelated to Churchill, largely at least. These questions heretofore known as “FREAK-quently Asked Questions” – and we plan to make this a regular feature. Asking exactly the same questions to many notable people.
JOHNSON: You plan to make this a regular feature but this is the first time that you’ve tried it on some guinea pig.
DUBNER: Not only is this the first time, so you’re the guinea pig, but if you fail, it dies.
JOHNSON: If this goes really bad, this is going to be the end….okay…
DUBNER: So I just wanted to say that to encourage you to do your best. This is not…
JOHNSON: You sound like my grandmother there. You know, “Darling, just do your best, it doesn’t matter what happens.
[MUSIC: Glen Crytzer’s Savoy Seven, “Focus Pocus” (from Focus Pocus)]
DUBNER: Let’s begin with this. Tell me in 60 seconds or less, if you can. What do you actually do in a given day? As Mayor of London?
JOHNSON: I have endless meeting and give huge…and unbearable number of speeches. And I take decisions.
DUBNER: Question: what’s the best investment you’ve ever made. Financial, emotional, education, whatever, that led to your getting to where you are today?
JOHNSON: It was, it was getting hold of a second-hand copy of Abbott and Mansfield’s Greek Grammar: Accidence and Syntax, without which I would not be where I am today.
DUBNER: You were how old at the point?
JOHNSON: Actually it was rather late in life, I was…I was all of 11 by the time I really started…my career in Greek was, I’m afraid, did not get off to the usual cracking start. I was very slow.
DUBNER: Who has been the biggest influence on your life and work and why?
DUBNER: Living, dead, someone you knew, someone you didn’t know…
JOHNSON: Well, I mean apart from my…I mean it’s obviously my parents. That kind of…but I suppose culturally my biggest influence has been: I would say Homer. The poetry of Homer. You know, that was the thing that really knocked me out when I was about 16. Having mastered Abott and Mansfield, I then went on to Homer. And that was massive for me. Because Homer is all about failure and mortality. Which is…you know, you gotta understand, when you reach my age.
DUBNER: What do you worry about when you go to sleep at night?
JOHNSON: Uh…I tend to, you know, the time between my head hitting the pillow and being folded in the arms of Morpheus is so short…I don’t think I think about anything. I never have any trouble…
DUBNER: They say that’s the mark of an honest man.
JOHNSON: Well, in my case I certainly don’t…you know it’s a long time since I’ve had a…had a sleepless night…I do burn the candle at both ends, so what sleep I get I tend to zonk out pretty firmly, I’m afraid.
DUBNER: I’d like to ask you, and forgive the impertinence, and I guess you don’t have to answer but I’m gonna ask you anyway. I’d like to know your net worth today compared to that of your parents when you were a teenager, and you can mentally adjust for inflation if you’d like.
JOHNSON: Well, I think it’s incredibly difficult to compute, because you see, what’s happening in London is that the kinds of properties that members of the bourgeoisie could afford in say, the 1960s or 1970s, are now absolutely beyond the reach of people of my generation or in…certainly in my childrens’ generation. So, he’s…it is very difficult, when I think about my grandparents, they had an absolutely colossal house in, wherever the hell it was: St. John’s Wood. Which, you know, no way anybody in my family could now afford a house in St. John’s Wood. Now it’s something weird…so London’s arrival as this global city that everybody wants to live in and of course there’s….it has many of the problems of New York, but London really is attracting huge amounts of international investment. It’s got a massive population boom going on. The success of London is having a weird effect of actually making it very hard for Londoners to afford to live there, and that’s actually my single biggest challenge now, as Mayor, is to build enough affordable housing for our people. And we’ve got to do it. I mean, I haven’t answered your question, you know, I would say, you know, in many in income terms, probably even deflated, my income is bigger than my parents’ was, and certainly bigger than my grandparents’ was, even deflated. But…
DUBNER: But you’re not as house-rich…
JOHNSON: But in assets, in assets there’s no question that there is a steady impoverishment of the bourgeoisie, and we need to address it.
DUBNER: Tell me something you’ve habitually, throughout your life, spent too much money on but don’t regret.
JOHNSON: Um…haircuts… I mean, haircuts. Yeah, I spend an awful lot….
DUBNER: Have you ever paid for a haircut?
JOHNSON: No. No, I’m joking. I think I’ve…I do tend, I do believe that you should try and have good shoes, you know, a decent pair of shoes.
DUBNER: Where do you get your shoes? I’m curious.
DUBNER: What shop, though, I’m curious.
JOHNSON: Hang on hang on….I think they are…
DUBNER: You’re gonna take ‘em off?
JOHNSON: No, yeah, hang on… I’m going to take them off… I’m just going to see if I can see what’s in the…. these are so worn…. that you can’t… hang on… uh… oh God. Church’s!
DUBNER: Oh, Church’s, sure!
JOHNSON: Church’s! They are Church’s shoes. They are very good.
DUBNER: A fine British brand.
JOHNSON: Sorry my heel has more or less rubbed out the gold lettering but I can just about see it, Church’s Shoes. Those are fantastic shoes and I would recommend those, they won’t let you down. They won’t let you down.
[MUSIC: The Civil Tones, “One Day, Again and Again” (from City Stoopin’)]
DUBNER: Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: the mayor of London is happy to share his computer passwords:
JOHNSON: Sorry! Wait wait! They are shaking their heads here! No no no. I don’t. I want you to know. It’s very complicated. It’s mainly Greek. I use lots of algorithms.
DUBNER: And, fed up with England’s poor showing in the World Cup, he has an idea:
JOHNSON: I really think we should be more like… we should have… what was it, Uday and Qusay Hussein. When they come back next time, we should just, you know, threaten to do something in the changing rooms of those guys unless they sharpen up. It’s just unbelievable.
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
[MUSIC: Enrique Ugarte, “Pour Chopin” (from Café Musette)]
DUBNER: Welcome back to FREAK-quently Asked Questions, a new — and potentially permanent — feature in which we ask a fixed set of questions to notable guests. Our inaugural guest is Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. I asked him what’s one thing he owns that he should throw out but probably never will:
JOHNSON: I love, I love old wooden tennis rackets. I don’t know why. I just, I love playing with them, too, and it’s one of the reasons – one of several reasons – why I’m very bad at tennis. But…I just find them a gorgeous thing, and they neither help my tennis nor they…they serve no practical purpose, but I love them. But I won’t get rid of them. I won’t get rid of them.
DUBNER: Let me ask you this: what do you collect, if anything, besides old wooden tennis rackets?
JOHNSON: I collect old cheese boxes.
JOHNSON: Old Camembert and Brie…I love those boxes that are made of very, very beautifully shaved wood, so that they have this very smooth texture.
DUBNER: Are they round?
JOHNSON: Round is good, or triangular. Sometimes very large round. And on those, believe me, you can paint and get the most wonderful effect. I don’t know why…I just love painting things on cheese boxes.
DUBNER: Another Churchillian parallel. The painting, I don’t know about the cheese boxes.
JOHNSON: Or sounds like George W. Bush, actually, but I kind of…I love it.
DUBNER: Here’s a question I’m curious to know if you’ll answer at all. What can you tell me about your strategy for creating and/or managing computer passwords?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I try and do roughly the same one all the time. I’m sorry they’re shaking their heads here! No, no, no, I don’t, I want you to know it’s very complicated, it’s mainly Greek. I use lots of algorithms. You’re not gonna crack it. Alan Turing wouldn’t crack my computer passwords.
DUBNER: Favorite book, or author, other than yourself?
JOHNSON: Uh, I think it’s, you know, it’s a ridiculous question in many ways, but the book I can always read with pleasure and find a laugh on every page, is Scoop by Evelyn Waugh. There’s no. And it’s the book that made me want to be a journalist, and…that and All the President’s Men.
DUBNER: Favorite food?
DUBNER: Really? What kind?
JOHNSON: Indian. Hot.
DUBNER: What do you…would it be a fish curry, a meat curry?
JOHNSON: No, it would be I think a sort of a Rogan Josh from the…from somewhere in… somewhere nearby…
DUBNER: Now, do you cook?
JOHNSON: I am capable of cooking. But…
DUBNER: Do you make a good curry?
JOHNSON: No, no my wife Marina makes very good curry, but I…
DUBNER: She has an Indian parent, correct?
JOHNSON: That’s absolutely right, yeah. Yeah.
DUBNER: Does the curry come from that? Or it’s unrelated.
JOHNSON: It does, it does. Her mother has got various secrets which she’s passed on, which I can’t tell you …
DUBNER: Ah, you were about to tell me your computer password so I bet we could get you to tell us the curry secrets if we really tried. In the interest of time, however, we’ll move on to this. What’s your favorite sport to play?
JOHNSON: Well, the sport I loved, which I miss, on a bright, cold day, I absolutely physically miss it, is rugby. The game that I actually excelled at, the one game I was really very proficient at was called the “wall game” which I was quite good at, but that is not very widely played, unfortunately.
DUBNER: Is that a relative of rugby? Or…
JOHNSON: That’s a kind of rugby.
DUBNER: Component… ?
JOHNSON: It’s basically a kind of relative of rugby, but you form two gigantic scrums against a wall. And the objective is to grind your opponents to a paste against the wall by pushing and shoving. And I was quite good at that.
DUBNER: Good training for both politics and journalism.
JOHNSON: Yeah. (Laughs.) That’s right. Interviewing techniques and…
DUBNER: Favorite sport to watch these days?
JOHNSON: Boy… Well, I tell you what I loved. I watch all sports with pleasure, but I think I got into for the first time and hadn’t really enjoyed before is this NFL thing. American football. I mean, wow.
DUBNER: Our propaganda has worked we’ve been bringing it to London increasingly.
JOHNSON: Actually, I mean, yeah it is working. And I couldn’t believe it. Because…not only… the atmosphere itself it was amazing. But as I watched it, I actually…I understood what was happening and I could see the skill normally I suppose I watch, you know, rugby, tennis, football, the usual.
DUBNER: Yeah. And who do you support in football?
JOHNSON: Oh God.
DUBNER: Is this gonna get you in trouble?
JOHNSON: No it just exposes my lack of sort of, street cred. I don’t really have a football team I passionately support. I support all London sides.
DUBNER: Well that’s not saying…that’s 150 clubs or something,
JOHNSON: I know. But…
DUBNER: There’s none that makes your heart beat…Arsenal is…
JOHNSON: England! How about England? England. I support England.
DUBNER: My condolences then. (Laughs.)
JOHNSON: Sorry, sorry, pathetic answer, that’s the best I can do on football.
DUBNER: No, I just feel bad for you because they’re such a difficult team to support. They’re…
DUBNER: They have that brief flurry of optimism every World Cup and then collapse in a cloud of fatalism that was preordained and it’s just…
JOHNSON: It’s the most depressing thing.
DUBNER: Sad to watch, yeah.
JOHNSON: I think we… I really think we should be more like… what was it, Uday and Qusay Hussein. When they come back next time, we should just, you know, threaten to do something in the changing rooms of those guys unless they sharpen up. It’s just unbelievable! The trouble is I think that they are such successful players for their clubs that they…you asked about clubs. That they don’t really, for some reason in England we haven’t done what they’ve done in Germany and built up the esprit de corps, the loyalty to England as an entity, and so we don’t have a great national…as good a national side as we could, I think. Anyway. That will probably get me into more trouble than anything I’ve ever said, but there you go.
DUBNER: Tell me something that most people don’t know about you.
JOHNSON: My first name is Alexander, rather than Boris, how about that. Will that do?
DUBNER: And your family calls you Al, correct?
JOHNSON: That’s absolutely true. They do.
DUBNER: So the next time we see you.
JOHNSON: If you shout “Al” in the street at me I will give a guilty start.
DUBNER: What do you not give a guilty start at if someone shouts it at you in the street? Would you…
JOHNSON: If someone said, “you Tory tosser,” I would take it as a badge of honor.
DUBNER: So here’s a question: what do you think will eventually lead to the demise of humankind, and when will it happen?
JOHNSON: I think the demise of humankind will happen before we discover the secret of immortality (laughter). I’ve always thought that there was a kind of… that the gods were engaged in it…a sort of wager. A cosmic wager going on about whether mankind will destroy itself before it discovers the secret of perpetuating individual human beings. And you know, kind of like “Trading Places,” you know, there are two old gods somewhere who have taken a very small bet – one oble, or one drachma and one’s saying, “mankind’s gonna wipe itself out.” And the other’s saying, “nah, nah, nah, they’re gonna discover immortality.” And the race is on. I think that we will…I think that the biggest threat that we have is…
DUBNER: It sounds as though you’re not very worried about climate change. You’ve written quite dismissively…
JOHNSON: No, I worry… I don’t think climate change presents…I must be clear with you. I don’t think…you ask about the extinction of the human race. I believe that mankind – humanity – is well up to the task of finding the technological solutions to climate change. That we are going to find them, we will deal with it. We will manage that problem. That is not the thing that’s gonna extinguish us. What will extinguish us is catastrophic warfare, disease, you know, eventually the sun will become a Red Giant and engulf the inner solar system, and you know, that’s only 4 billion years away, so, we’ve gotta work…I’m encouraged by this “Interstellar” film, but I haven’t seen it. I love the idea of it, but it’s getting these bad reviews. I so wanted it to get good reviews, and it’s really discouraged my hopes for finding that new world through the wormhole. That was… Do you know what I mean? I was thinking…
DUBNER: I do, yeah.
JOHNSON: I was…I was thinking you know there’s the low garden door…
DUBNER: You must have liked the rover that just landed on the comet. That’s gotta be encouraging, yeah, wonderful.
JOHNSON: Oh, it’s fantastic. It’s the most wonderful thing. It’s the greatest triumph of the European Space Agency. It’s gone 316 million miles, at a cost of more than a billion dollars, and it’s finally landed on this uninhabitable, pointless piece of rock, and it’s just disappeared into a crater, and they can’t find it. Its solar panels can no longer…are no longer receiving energy and it can’t transmit, and that’s sad! So it’s gone all the way there but we should send someone out…another craft, as soon as we possibly can, to go and help it.
DUBNER: Would you be willing to ride in that craft?
JOHNSON: Yeah. God I would love to. It’s only 10 years apparently. 10 years. Would you do it? Would you want to go? Would you spend 10 years?
DUBNER: I would not, but I applaud your initiative, and you would still be young enough to come back, become Prime Minister, serve a term or two there, then move here, establish residency, because you were born here, then you could become President of the United States, you’d be the world first….and then people 100 years from now will be writing books about you.
JOHNSON: (Laughs.) Well, I think that the first thing is about as likely as the second. And, you know, back to Churchill for a second. He was a great technological optimist and enthusiast. And I think he certainly would have wanted to terraform new worlds if he could. He would have been out there. You know, don’t forget, he was the guy who invented the tank and all…he didn’t…his mind helped to drive it forward, certainly. And he pioneered aviation and…
DUBNER: He was one of the first, you write, one of the first humans to ride in an airplane in Europe, is that right? Or do I have that wrong?
JOHNSON: Well that’s absolutely right. No, you’re totally right. And you know, obviously the first flight was here in Kitty Hawk, in America, but it was only a few years later that Churchill was himself at the controls – at the controls – of one of these crazy contraptions of rope and leather and so on. And he almost died several times. And his instructors did die. And he was just deranged in his bravery.
[MUSIC: Seks Bomba, “Done There, Been That” (from Thanks and Goodnight)]
DUBNER: Thank you so much for bringing his history back to us. I think the mission of the book is wonderful, to remind generations now who Churchill was, what he did, for those who are starting to forget or those who didn’t know, and thank you so much for coming in to talk about yourself.
JOHNSON: It’s an honor. It’s an honor.
DUBNER: Be well.
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