Boris Johnson, mayor of London, England, pauses for a portrait in Toronto. Johnson is touring North America with his new book, Johnson’s Life of London.
TARA WALTON/TORONTO STAR
The Lord Mayor of London, England, Boris Johnson, wants to make it clear that until Friday morning, he had never been to Toronto, and never heard of Rob Ford.
With that out of the way, the great apostle of urban bicycling does have a message for Toronto.
“Bicycles,” declares the man who rides one to work every day, “civilize cities. Closing bike lanes; that’s not what we’re doing in London. In fact, I’m very proud that bicycle use went up 15 percent last year. Bicycles put the village back in the city. It’s not a war on motorists. I’m a motorist, too. We’re going to keep going, extending bicycle routes all the way out to the suburbs of London.”
In town to flog his latest book, Johnson’s Life of London (Harper Press), the shaggy-haired blonde is, by his own account, having the time of his life. Fresh from an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman — “How long have you been cutting your own hair?” — Johnson likes what he has sees.
“Toronto looks beautiful,” he enthuses, with apparent sincerity. “You have some lovely old buildings. The quality of life is obviously very potentially high.”
Johnson smiles nervously. As the use of the word, “potentially,” indicates, he knows things are seldom what they seem. Still, he insists, cities are where nations will succeed or fail:
“I keep on telling the government that if it wants the economy of the U.K. to grow and grow fast, it has to invest in London. We should be investing where it creates jobs. In Britain, for example, things are pretty sharply divided; there’s what’s happening in London and what’s happening everywhere else.
“My general view is that cities are where the world’s going to be in the future. I believe in cities. People who live in cities live longer, they have better health and they are better educated. Only in cities can we find the praise we all seek. Cities are where we find other people to impress. Cities are fame’s echo chamber …”
Suddenly, a bright red London double-decker bus drives by and Johnson falls momentarily silent.
“My God,” he splutters. “There’s an old Routemaster. They only made about 6,000 of those buses between 1956 and 1970, but they’re everywhere.”
“I’m also a believer in mass transit,” says Johnson, who points to the recent royal celebrations in the British capital and the changes unfolding in London’s East End due to the summer Olympics. “The Jubilee went well. We ticked a lot of boxes there. The crowd was huge, about 1.3 million, but transit worked well. We have a new LRT in East London, new train lines and thousands of new houses.”
In Toronto, Johnson would be dismissed by some as just another Don Cherry-style bike-riding pinko. But keep in mind he is a former Tory MP and a disciple of what he calls “compassionate conservatism.” He attended Eton and Oxford — on scholarship, mind you — and could easily be mistaken for a pillar of the British establishment.
He is also an author. Johnson’s Life of London, his sixth book, tells the story of the “City That Made the World,” from Roman times to the present, Emperor Hadrian to Keith Richards. Like the man, it is clever and quick, learned but not stuffy.
Then Johnson, a former journalist, has a few questions of his own. He wants to know about municipal politics in Toronto, federal politics under Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the “cottages” to which Torontonians escape every weekend.
Oh, yes, and one more thing: “Do you have bears here?” he asks. Not in the city, comes the answer, but up north, behind the cottage.
Christopher Hume can be reached at email@example.com