Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Comment: Letter from London

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Comment: Letter from London

Article excerpt

Dear H,

I'm sure you've noticed the way certain words go in and out of fashion. For instance as a teenager in the fifties I used "cool" as a term of approval. Ten years later it was as dated as the Twist. Then in the nineties I suddenly noticed that my adolescent son and his friends were using it, though of course their idea of what was cool was very different from mine. Another word enjoying a new lease of life is "toff," a Victorian alternative to "nob" or "swell," and supposedly derived from the gold tassel or tuft1 worn by noble undergraduates in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. John Creasey, arguably the most prolific author ever, wrote a long-running series about a character called "The Toff," a tided Mayfair sleuth complete with butler; but by the time the last of these stories appeared in 1975, toff, unlike the equally quaint "guv'nor," was seldom even used ironically. Significantly it was about then that the Tory party under its new leader Margaret Thatcher began to reinvent itself as a meritocratic movement. Outwent Old Etonians, in came Old Estonians-or so Harold Macmillan, himself an Old Etonian, acidly noted. But now toffs, as everyone has taken to calling them again, are back in the saddle. David Cameron, the Tory leader, is a toff, and so too are most of his front-bench team. More pertinently, the new Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is a toff, having comfortably seen off his working-class rival, Ken Livingstone. No wonder the press are speculating that a new age of deference is upon us.

Not that Boris, aka Bojo, looks the part. His clothes, it has been said, would disgrace a charity shop, and his unruly thatch of blond hair is a stranger to brush and comb. But as soon as he opens his mouth it's clear that unlike Livingstone, he's out of the top drawer-or at any rate, the one below it. This despite being, in his own words, "a one-man meltingpot," a reference to his Christian, Jewish and Muslim antecedents.2 But it's important to remember that contrary to what many foreigners still believe, the British upper classes are flexible about pedigree. What matters is conformity. Behave as if you were born to rule and within a couple of generations nobody will care tuppence that your grandmother was a skivvy. It helps, of course, to have been to a leading public school like Eton, Winchester or Westminster, but for several years entry to these has been fiercely competitive: brains score over breeding. A scholar of Eton and Balliol, Boris ticks that box. But is he fit for purpose?

This is not a frivolous question. Unlike Livingstone, most of whose life has been devoted to getting things done in London, all Boris has ever done besides writing is edit The Spectator, a small magazine, and serve as MP for Henley, home of the famous regatta. Now he is at the helm of a mighty city-state which accounts for about a fifth of the UK's total GDP and 15 percent of all its jobs. His first act, in response to antisocial behavior caused by "binge" drinking, has been to ban the consumption of alcohol on the city's public transport system. How feasible it will be to enforce such a ban remains to be seen. But his detractors have not been slow to point out that at Oxford he was a member of the exclusive Bullingdon Club, whose tradition of upper-class delinquency inspired Evelyn Waugh's quip in Decline and Fall about "English county families baying for broken glass." Boris has also pledged to replace single-decker bendy buses, which he says are unpopular and a danger to cyclists (he is a keen urban cyclist himself), with an updated version of the iconic double-decker Routemaster, which you could hop on and off at will. But when challenged about the cost, conservatively estimated at £100 million, he was forced to admit that bringing back Routemasters was "an aspiration rather than a commitment."

Mindful, no doubt, of his thousands of wealthy supporters, Boris says he will scrap Livingstone's plan to levy a £25 "emissions" charge on gasguzzling sports cars and 4 ? …

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