British Boris drops in to open festival

The controversial and charismatic mayor of London, Boris Johnson, will give the keynote address at the opening next month of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

Mr Johnson, characterised by his unruly crop of blond hair, is an Oxford classics scholar, journalist, former editor of The Spectator, academic, novelist, historian and former Conservative MP who has contrived a self-deprecating image of buffoonery that only partly disguises his wit, intellect and political ability, and charms many.

So while the Queen apparently managed to parachute from a plane with James Bond without a hitch at the opening of the 2012 Olympics, in his own stunt Johnson ended up suspended 20 metres above ground as he came to an unscheduled stop on a zip line in a London park.

Festival director Lisa Dempster said Johnson was someone who obviously cared passionately about words and writing, and the power of writing. ”He is someone who believes in literature’s power to inspire, inform and delight, and that’s what he’ll be talking about,” she said.

She described him as divisive and provocative. ”In many ways he is the ideal festival guest – he gets people thinking and talking.”

Mr Johnson is frequently mentioned as a future leader of the Tories, a prospect that delights and horrifies Britons in equal measure.

Historian Max Hastings said were Mr Johnson to become prime minister he would ”be among those packing my bags for a new life in Buenos Aires or suchlike, because it means that Britain has abandoned its last pretensions to being a serious country”.

Mr Johnson has been caught up in a number of sexual shenanigans, after one of which he was forced to resign from the Conservative shadow cabinet – not because of his alleged extramarital affair, but because he lied to the then party leader. Charles Moore, then editor of Britain’s Daily Telegraph and more recently biographer of Margaret Thatcher, said: ”I told Boris I don’t care what he does in his private life and he told me, ‘Nor do I’.”

Mr Johnson, mayor since 2008, is a prolific writer. He still produces a newspaper column, has published three collections of his journalism, The Dream of Rome – a comparison between the Roman Empire and the European Union – an account of his election as MP for Henley, Friends, Voters, Countrymen, and a novel with the enticing title, Seventy-Two Virgins.

This week he welcomed the announcement of a new US ambassador to Britain with a demand for payment of more than £7 million ($11.4 million) of unpaid congestion charges accrued by diplomats at the embassy.

When Alan Johnson (no relation) quit as British Labour’s shadow chancellor, Boris Johnson said he would miss him ”for the satisfaction I used to get when I saw a headline saying, ‘Johnson in new gaffe’ and realised it wasn’t me.”

The Melbourne Writers Festival opens on August 22. The Age is a sponsor. Jason Steger is on the programming advisory committee.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.