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Milf Teeth

Oliver Bernard, Boris Johnson and the Nature of British Greatness

The Mayor's mega airport misses the point.

An artist's impression of the expensive and pointless mega-airport the Mayor wants to build in the Thames Estuary.

A man called Oliver Bernard has died, and when I read his obituary, I so wished that he hadn't. Along with his columnist brother Jeffrey, Oliver was part of the old Soho, home to the interesting drunks who painted and proselytised and no doubt also spouted endless amounts of useless shit. They used to knock about with Francis Bacon and Dylan Thomas in dimly-lit hostelries, where Oliver was vaguely celebrated as a poet and a translator of poets, an admirer of Rimbaud and Apollinaire.


"He was also a consummate philanderer," ended the first paragraph, and that was even before we'd got to the man's jazz years, his Paris years, his communism. And the later bit where he got married and had kids and became a Christian and moved to Norfolk. And – get this – the bit where he dressed up as a bishop, keeping vigil at Norwich Cathedral on behalf of Christian CND. For a year. But even that isn't the greatest line, which is this: "He also worked as a swineherd in Suffolk."

I mention all this because I've been looking into Boris Johnson's plans for a new London airport and they are so big and bonkers and counter-intuitive, that I think what he might need is a nice spell with the pigs to calm him down a little. The Mayor of London has gone fully mad, planning a vast, shiny new airport out in the marshlands where the Thames flows east, way beyond London, off in the estuary that flows into the sea. People have been arguing about expanding Heathrow for years but his intention is to shut it down altogether. Estimated cost £15 billion. That's just to shut it down. Then he wants to build his flight utopia, possibly even on an artificial island. Have you seen it?

Yup, he's been chatting about shutting down a functioning airport to go and dredge clay from the seabed to create land on which to build another. The wading birds will cede their natural habitat to the runways, the slow worms will struggle to get through the security scanners, the watervoles will have to reconvene over the sunhats at one of 17 new branches of Accessorize or over the fried tomatoes at Garfunkel's. Boris has gone demented on power, which doesn't usually happen until someone has been in office for a while – yes, this is his second term as Mayor but surely his eye is on the Tory leadership and the top job at Number 10, so it's not like he's meant to be quite this deranged yet. Hearing voices from God in his head and what have you. Constructing, like Ibsen's Master Builder, his castle in the sky. (Nineteenth century Norwegian theatre spoiler alert: the castle in the sky doesn't go so well for the cockblind idiot, who builds it to impress a girl, then climbs to the top and goes crashing to his death off the steeple.) But the problem with politicians like Boris, and Blair, and Gove, is that they become so obsessed with their legacy that they hear words like “This is the biggest project the UK has ever known” – which is how a leading architect actually criticised the estuary airport – and their inner gherkin rises up just at the thought of it. 'My name! On a big revolutionary project! Forever!" (Guys, here's a revolutionary idea – don't give any more money to the banks.) Anyway, I've read the Bible, so I also know how it went for the Tower of Babel. All of humanity, who used to speak a common language, decided to build a tower "whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole Earth." (Book of Genesis spoiler alert: God got a bit funny about their plans to get so close to the sky, and so he went inside their heads and made them all unable to speak to each other and construction had to be shelved.) The thing these wide-eyed loons need to realise – and there is a part of me that does truly love a wide-eyed loon – is that they've missed the point about true British greatness. It doesn't come from one big soaring ambition to reach the sky or reclaim the sea – that's more of a fascist groove. It comes from the lunacy of standing up for what you believe by standing outside a cathedral, dressed as a bishop. It comes from drunk nights of poetry in Soho and from a manual job at the gas works, something Oliver Bernard also once had. It comes from spending at least a bit of your life working as a swineherd in Suffolk. If your religion does not permit association with swine, fine, we can work something out involving sheep or, at a push, waterfowl. Because the best thing about Britishness is this: yes, some people get famous from inventing big things or going off to war with big dreams, but there is a large space reserved for the rambling nutters who do a hundred smaller things with their life. One of which is living on a farm in East Anglia, rounding up pigs.

Follow Sophie on Twitter: @heawood

Previously – Cupcake Vibrators Exist, Depressingly