Of the two leading rivals for the London mayoralty, Ken Livingstone is much the more difficult to imagine as a child. Nobody, surely, can have that problem with Boris Johnson. The mind’s eye sees Boris as one of Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, a bouncy fellow demanding his tea and laying plans ‘to be/the next Prime Minister but three’. But the mind’s eye can be wrong – Johnson’s biographer, Andrew Gimson, records that Boris was a quiet boy who had hearing difficulties – and it may be that the reason we can readily conceive Johnson aged seven is that the public persona of Johnson aged 47 is so irrepressibly boys-will-be-boys. With Livingstone the imagination struggles. The best it can do is a jam jar with a newt inside: the boy is invisible. To will him into existence we need to envisage ways of thinking and behaving that have almost entirely disappeared, along with the social class that bred them in a certain city at a certain time. While the forces that shaped Johnson still flourish all around (and particularly above) us – floreat Etona and no mistake – the society in which Livingstone was reared is now dust and ashes. Almost alone among prominent English politicians, at least those still contesting elections, he carries inside him memories of a place that was very different.
LRB 10 May 2012 | PDF Download