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Boris Johnson at the London Book Fair

I arrived at Book Fair yesterday unsure what to expect of the Mayor's keynote speech. So often, TV "personalities" are disappointing in the flesh. And Boris Johnson is strongly identified with the London Transport that let me down so badly on my journey to hear him: Victoria Line cancellation (strike action) discovered from notices at Brixton tube where I arrived with heavy luggage. After walking to the rail station, more stairs with luggage because of Penalty Fare notices demanding a new rail ticket. (My pre-pay Oyster card beats paying £4 for single journeys, but why can't it be valid on ALL forms of transport within the London area, especially after strike action closes the bit you need?) And the non-Victoria tube lines were even more crowded than usual because of the overspill, so it was an unpleasant journey.

But I needn't have worried about being late, as Boris was even later. Perhaps there was extra traffic on his bike journey from Islington. Once he started to talk, however, we forgave him everything. He was articulate, interesting and witty, a self-confessed "fogey" on the subject of Playstations and his sons, and although he had prepared his "keynote" he never read from a script and I suspect departed from his brief. The chairman wisely didn't attempt to summarise an address that ranged ecelectically over London's literary advantages. These included having twice as many bookshops as New York, being rich in libraries (363 of them), being custodians of the English language with its 500,000 words and (bizarrely, because of the weak pound) having the world's cheapest Big Mac (cheaper than the Ukraine and Brazil).

Boris's talk was well-informed, intelligent and good fun. As an author, he spoke to this LBF audience in its own language, starting with a witty aside about his agent getting the title of his novel wrong (by alluding to "42 virgins" - in place of 72 - the agent was reflecting deep discounting in the book trade.) He made much of birthdays – today is allegedly the day for both Shakespeare and St George – but it was his handling of questions that impressed me most. The first was a left-fielder from a Danish chap who wanted to know how Boris would combine proper celebrations of the Charles Dickens' bicentennial with the Olympics. Boris was understandably taken aback, but barely hesitated before confirming Dickens' dates as 1812-70, and spinning a brilliant fantasy of the Olympic opening ceremony as a Dickensian pageant. The audience loved it, the Dane was baffled.

Stripped of the glamour of TV, despite his heavily Eton/Balliol accent and persona, he came across as a genuine and approachable bloke. If I lived in London, I can even imagine voting for him. Although I've never yet voted Conservative, there are some politicians who seem to rise above party prejudices and to leave the baggage behind. Besides, the man has charisma. If Boris were a dog, he'd be a yellow labrador.


Photo © www.contactmusic.com, with thanks


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