A Study in Depravity
'I sometimes argue with my friend Heathcote Williams about his use of pornography as a means of attacking his political enemies,' Francis Wyndham wrote in the first issue of the LRB (25 October 1979):
It seems to me an irrelevant weapon in any context, and in the hands of a man with Heathcote’s anarchistic, optimistic, nearly utopian convictions it becomes puzzlingly inconsistent. His polemical essays have been appearing, often unsigned, in the underground press over the past decade … They abound in fantastic, and often very funny, descriptions of the people he disapproves of (such as Mrs Thatcher, Enoch Powell, Ian Paisley, the Royal Family and Jesus Christ) engaged in eccentric forms of sexual intercourse.
Williams's unsigned pamphlets still appear, forty years on, though there's less eccentric sex in them than there used to be. His latest is Boris Johnson: The Blond Beast of Brexit – A Study in Depravity. It isn't pornographic; the depravity in question isn't sexual, though Williams doesn't scant on documenting Johnson's extramarital affairs and his ex-girlfriends' abortions, along with a few of his sexist and homophobic utterances (referring to 'the chicks in the GQ expenses department'; comparing civil partnerships to 'three men and a dog' getting married).
Drawing on biographies of the mayor of London by Sonia Purnell and Andrew Gimson, a great many newspaper articles, Johnson's own journalism in publications from the Eton Chronicle to the Daily Telegraph (what a range!) and a few of his countless TV appearances, Williams assembles a blistering charge sheet against his target: climate change denial, dishonesty, hypocrisy, incompetence, racism, violence, 'remorseless self-promotion', 'a ruthless and often cruel ambition together with an elitism and a ferocious temper when challenged'. Williams doesn't say anything that hasn't already been said, but I doubt anyone's said so much of it in such a concentrated form before.
The reason Williams has picked on Johnson now is that he is 'widely judged to be the heaviest hitter' in the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union (the others are 'unimpressive also-rans'). Williams is unabashedly in favour of the EU. He praises it for being 'environmentally literate', 'anti-colonial', 'unaggressive' and 'unwarlike'. The British campaign to leave the EU, by contrast, is 'led by a cadre of Conservatives who protest their love of country with a self-satisfied zeal … while they fight with a low cunning to conserve a depraved British body-politic based upon an unconscionable disparity between untold wealth and unspeakable poverty and upon the idle values of transient celebrity.'
Among Johnson's fellow Brexiteers in the 'retrospective rump' of the Tory Party, Williams takes aim at Michael Howard, Michael Gove, Nigel Lawson and Iain Duncan Smith. The culture secretary, John Whittingdale, is beneath his notice. Williams's pamphlet came out before the not very lurid revelations about Whittingdale's brief relationship with a professional dominatrix. The tabloids' not publishing the story for more than a year is said to have had no influence at all on the culture secretary's positions on press regulation and the BBC (he isn't very keen on either).
On 22 February, the day after Whittingdale and five of his Cabinet colleagues announced they were breaking ranks with the prime minister and would be voting for Britain to leave the EU, the culture secretary went to the British Museum to celebrate the launch of Wang Jianlin's memoir, The Wanda Way. Wang, the chairman of Dalian Wanda Group, is the richest man in China. 'By working together in this new spirit of collaboration,' Whittingdale said, digging deep into his bag of platitudes for all occasions,'we can harness our relative and innovative talents for our mutual benefit.' Who needs Europe?
Read more in the London Review of Books