Philip Hensher: Banning Boris-ing is a waste of time

Related Topics

Large numbers of folk tales, not just Rumpelstiltskin, attest to the primitive power invested in a man's name. There is a terrific power and intimacy involved in the act of naming. Not so very long ago, it was quite a rare thing for most people to use forenames routinely. Respectable old ladies could know each other for years without venturing onto first-name terms; both my grandmothers would have died rather than call their best friends anything other than "Mrs Jones" or "Mrs Smith".

There is an unaccustomed acuteness, then, in the Labour Party's reported diktat over Mr Boris Johnson. Tessa Jowell is said to have ordered an emergency "Boris Box" in Labour's London mayoral campaign headquarters. Every time anyone refers to Johnson as "Boris", they will have to cough up a fiver. The way everyone always talks about "Boris" is, they fear, contributing to a likeable and familiar image, which is going to be hard to beat.

Some people like to pretend that the current mayor is known, too, to all and sundry as "Ken". I doubt it very much. I've never heard anyone refer to him as anything but "Ken Livingstone" or even "Livingstone". One of the surprising developments of Boris Johnson's generally interesting career has been that people who don't know him at all have started calling him "Boris". One conversation about five years ago took on an unnecessarily confusing aspect, as I assumed that the person I was talking to had met Boris; he, on the other hand, assumed that I hadn't.

All this first-naming conflates a modern and a historic habit. The modern one, much beloved of newspapers, is those modern celebrities who are distinguished by one name alone – Elton, Madonna, Kylie, Beyoncé. Who is Beyoncé? No idea.

I suspect, however, that the origins of all that Boris-ing lie in a more historic habit. Both the Conservative Party and the world of letters to which Mr Johnson belong share the same manners in their private life. The most insignificant of Conservative MPs and the biggest of parliamentary beasts will, in a pretence at equality, use each other's forenames in conversation and when referring to each other. Lady Thatcher's habit of talking about "Winston" is always derided, but that was the habit she developed as a young MP. It would have been utterly infra dig to have talked about "Sir Winston" or "Churchill" as a young MP in the early 1960s, and she has maintained the habit.

Similarly, writers and journalists have always called each other by their first name, if they have met even once. There is an egalitarianism in manners in both of Boris's fields of operation, which has spread into the wider population very easily. It doesn't spread for everyone; but for someone of the happy charm and personal appeal of Boris, it has spread.

In the case of the Labour Party, alas, there is nothing by way of charm to spread. If there is nobody in the Cabinet whom one can imagine being called by their forenames, that might be because they don't have the same manners. Even the Prime Minister refers unfailingly to his deputy as "Harriet ... Harman" with cold distaste. It has always been so. I once shared a canteen table with the late John Smith and was transfixed by the venom with which he referred to "Cook ... Blair ... Brown..."

Tessa Jowell is right that all that Borisieren reflects a sense of warmth and likeability. She is wrong, however, to think there is anything she can do about it. As it happens, although "everyone" is said to call Boris Boris, that isn't quite true. His own family don't. They call him Al.

Hats off to the ladies of Aintree

How transfixing were the photographs of the ladies of Liverpool, attending the Grand National in outfits individually unremarkable, but in combination positively surreal? One photograph I saw displayed a lady in a full-length ball gown, her friend in bright yellow hotpants and a third in white flares.

The fact is that we don't, any longer, have a range of accepted outfits for different social occasions in the way that a more leisured society had. We have, basically, Work (drab), Weekend (elasticated waistband), and Getting Dressed Up. The latter may mean anything from ballgown to gold lamé thong. In theory, I like this new liberation, but nobody can deny that some people ought never to be allowed into Top Shop on their own.

* Private Eye published rather a brutal parody of my new novel, The Northern Clemency, last week, which I have to say I very much enjoyed. "Yes, there are new people moving in at No 21," she heard Mrs Crasher saying. "The Teigh-Deighams, I think they're called..." I don't know why it is, but to be parodied, however viciously, provides a pleasure in a way no review ever could, good or bad.

Not all parodies are to the point – there's that man in The Guardian who has never noticed that good novelists don't vary their verbs of speech – but when they notice something, as the best parodists infallibly do, it must give pleasure even to the victim. For instance, Craig Brown, surely the very best of contemporary parodists, reveals a covert love for his victims' prose, even at their most self-regarding. There are not many readers who pay as close attention to one's most ambitious effects, as well as one's habitual blunders, as the parodist. It is nice to know, all in all, that someone has been paying attention.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Separate lives: Boston’s streets illustrate the divide between the town’s communities  

Migrants have far more to offer than hard work and wealth creation, yet too many exist in isolation from the rest of society

Emily Dugan
Greece's finance minister Yanis Varoufakis casts his vote in the country's referendum  

Evel Economakis proves nominative determinism alive and well in Greece

Matthew Norman
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'