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Last Updated: Monday, 13 September, 2004, 15:00 GMT 16:00 UK
Seventy Two Virgins
Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson's first novel imagines a terrorist attack on President Bush during a state visit to London.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review taken from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight Review.)

Tom Paulin; the Tory party has produced a lot of novelists, Ann Widdecombe, Iain Duncan Smith produced one, Douglas Hurd. Where does Boris Johnson fit into this?

He's a much finer writer than Douglas Hurd, I think. And certainly a very engaging Tory anarchist, I think. It's good fun to read, there is this generosity and decency and wit about the novel. It's really very daring, I think. I don't know whether anyone will dare to make a film of it, but maybe it will get on television, it will stir up a bit of controversy. I think perhaps there's a bit too much chat in it, a bit too many flashbacks. But it's engaging.

Many people have predicted that Michael Gove will one day fight Boris Johnson for leadership of the Tory party! We have to take what you say carefully here. He's a rival. What did you make of it?

I don't consider him as a rival - I can't write as well as Boris, let alone speak as engagingly - I'll never be able to. It's very enjoyable. The closest comparison I can make, and I regard this as a compliment, is to say that it's like Tom Sharpe, and also making one or two good points about apartheid in broad primary colours, so, this novel succeeds in zipping along at a fair rate. If you like his particular style of wit, it is there in abundance. As Tom says, there is a generosity in it. One of the things that Boris does is he gives each of the characters, when he enters into their voice a fair crack of the whip. So the anti-American characters, even one or two of the characters who were drawn towards terrorism are entered into as imaginatively as Boris can, given his background, and in that respect, you do get the sense of someone who is trying hard to put the art of creation before what his own political views are. Those creep out at certain points but in that respect, you do not feel that you're reading a novel written by someone who's got a political axe to grind.

I hated it. I'm amazed you all liked it. I think I quite like Boris Johnson, but it is proof of what I know already; that you can take a fairly clever person and let them go on for 300 pages and it's not a novel. To me it's an overextended sketch. I can't believe you didn't find it boring. It goes on and on and on.

Towards the end it does.

What I really dislike about it is it's a novel for people who already know what they think about everything. It is snide, sneering and lofty. I know why you're saying generosity, but I don't think it is. I think it's posing as generosity, he's pretending he's liberal, he's not, he's incredibly racist about the Arabs.

I don't think he is. Maybe the title, but I think there is a real sympathy which you wouldn't expect for a lot of characters.

I think it is complicated, you think it's going to be anti-American and then he's both pro and anti-American in different places. I thought it wasn't an obvious ideological book.

I may have missed things, but I thought as a novel it was lazy. Our main character, Roger, we lose him three quarters of the way through. He doesn't re-appear for ages.

It's an interesting question this, the Boris Johnson question; he's got a profile that is pretty extraordinary for a relatively recent Tory MP. He's clearly got talent, but the argument which has been put by many people, Michael Heseltine, Michael Portillo, is that he can't be both, have the fun and the politics. Has he got to decide, do you think?

That's the conventional view. I don't think it's true, actually. There are a lot of people who say Boris has to choose because they resent the fact that he's so skilled in both areas. I think one of the other things is that one of the claims I think that people had to respect and attention in the past was a matter of birth and the consequence that was supposed to be attended on that. Now, it's celebrity, media skills and a certain self-deprecating sense of humour which are inclined to win people's attention and give you permission to share your views with them. Boris has got all those qualities and therefore, I think, that he can leverage, parlay, his celebrity, his journalistic media presence into permission to speak politically to people.

Boris Johnson
22 Oct 02 |  Politics


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