Johnson's Shakespeare, or much ado about nothing

There’s been no shortage of Shakespearean metaphor bandied about these last three weeks or so, with Michael Gove variously cast as Iago and Brutus and Boris Johnson as Caesar. (Did anyone see David Cameron as Marc Anthony?) Sadly for Hodder & Stoughton, a good promotional opportunity went to waste – the former Emperor of London had failed to complete his book on the Bard.

The biography was acquired this time last year by Rupert Lancaster for a widely reported (but unconfirmed) £500,000 (now estimated at around £90,000 by the Press Association) and it was to have been published this October to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Until Johnson’s surprise appointment as Foreign Secretary last Wednesday, it was suggested that he would deliver the manuscript this autumn. But with a bulging red box, there’s simply no time – even with researchers, even on all those long flights to which Theresa May has so thoughtfully consigned him. The project has been cancelled.

The Daily Mail reported that Johnson is returning £500,000 but that’s very unlikely – even 50% would have been a generous amount on signature and with his salaries as Mayor, MP and newspaper columnist, Johnson would surely have been keen where possible to amortise his earnings. Most likely Hodder will suggest he keeps it as an advance against a future memoir.

The book was conceived as a sequel to The Churchill Factor, agented by Natasha Fairweather of A P Watt/United Agents. A cosy arrangement since UA co–founder Caroline Dawnay’s brother is married to Rachel Johnson, BoJo’s sister.

There were many reasons to be irked at the deal. First of all, as Mayor of London – a position he occupied until last May – Johnson should have been too busy for such extra-curricular activity. He should have got on with the job of being Mayor – a job bigger than many departments of state, as it’s often pointed out. And that wasn’t his only job: in May 2015 he returned to the House of Commons as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip so he should have been earning his keep dealing with constituency problems. In addition to all that, Johnson had the distraction of his lucrative (£23,000 a pop) Daily Telegraph column, not to mention various TV appearances.

We like our politicians to have what Denis Healey famously called “hinterland” – but they must first of all have heartland, an ability to concentrate on the job at hand. Johnson rarely appeared on top of his brief (I recall a TVinterview about the proposed north–south Crossrail link – he had no idea as to the route. This week he twice appeared to confuse Egypt with Turkey.)

But to return to the book itself. Johnson studied Classics which, last time I checked, did not extend to Churchill. That biography has sold 251,179 copies for £3.2m through Nielsen’s Total Consumer Market, but it didn’t fare particularly well in the hands of the critics, all of whom noted its chief purpose – for BoJo to set himself up as Churchillian–style saviour. Philip Hensher, writing in the Spectator, suggested the book’s contribution to scholarship was “negligible”, the biography itself “mildly preposterous” and “written in something of a hurry”. In the New Statesman, Professor Richard Evans thought that at times “the ability to think historically deserts its author” and he noted an inattention to detail – the Germans did not capture Stalingrad. In the Guardian, John Kampfner tired of “the cheeky–chappie linguistic devices” and “chatshow populism” – the Tories, wrote Johnson, thought of Churchill “as the people of Parma think of the formaggio parmigiana”, while 1930s Tory appeasers are “stilton-eating surrender monkeys”, a phrase clearly inspired by George Bush (though he’s never posed as a historian). In Johnson’s own paper, the Telegraph, Con Coughlin thought it read “like a mixture of Monty Python and the Horrible Histories”.

Rupert Lancaster trilled that it combined “scholarship, passion and objectivity”. Where was his blue pencil? It clearly needed sharpening.

The Churchill Factor was BoJo’s reconstruction of the old man’s life and lore for his own ambitious ends. We may never now know what Shakespearean comparisons he might have appropriated. John Updike sees Hamlet as “the callous egocentric villain” of the play but Johnson would surely identify with him as a tragic intellectual hero. Amber Rudd – who recently characterised Johnson as "not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening" – would perhaps cast him as Falstaff, the plump knight whose demeanour disguises over–weening ambition.

You can make a case for Johnson on Churchill, sort of: one politician writing about another, as the late Roy Jenkins did – though his was a far greater intellect. But Shakespeare? Presumably a calculation was made by agent and editor that “great Britons” was a rich seam to mine and the resulting popular biography would have been aimed squarely at the general market – even BoJo’s greatest admirers would be hard–pressed to make the case for him as a literary scholar. Has he even seen all the plays? How many times did he walk the few paces from City Hall to the Globe? Given the time available, Johnson’s Shakespeare was never going to be anything other than an expensive cut–and–paste job.

Advances are down and many a serious biographer will tell you that monies received for heavyweight projects nowhere near cover the cost of research and writing. They work in hope: foreign rights sales might make up the shortfall. Then again, they might well not. I’d imagine any number of established biographers would have jumped at the chance of such a project, probably at a fraction of the cost. Or Hodder could have chosen an up–and–coming academic (preferably not public school and Oxbridge) for the task. Someone with a sound academic basis for his views who’d have something interesting to say and could say it engagingly.

Agents and publishers should be on the lookout for bright young talent to marry with tried–and–tested subjects. That’s part of the editor’s role – surely the most exciting part, watching a new author grow and helping to shape their work. To edit, in the true sense of the word – which means spotting the howlers. The obsession with “brands”, which afflicts all of UK trade publishing, may help in the endless quest for “market share” but it inevitably means that books are marketed like baked beans which, not so many years ago, publishers and booksellers insisted they were emphatically not. It leads to novelists writing the same book over and over and to celebrities being promoted as “historians” or “travel writers” when they are nothing of the sort.

Like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson is a media creation. Our flattering and fawning of him have led us to this calamitous political pass, and publishers – instinctively outward–looking, over-whelmingly pro–Remain ­– will pay a price for his reckless, mendacious campaign. Those who play fast and loose with the truth should not be entrusted with the task of writing history and biography.

As Shakespeare would have said, “a plague on both your houses”.

Liz Thomson has spent 30 years writing about the book trade. She is currently working on a music project in the UK and, in New York, a festivalcelebrating the history and culture of Greenwich Village.