I secretly quite like Boris – and I’m not afraid to admit it!

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris) - Credit: AP

I can't help but secretly like Boris Johnson.

I say secretly because it seems mightily unfashionable to like the foreign secretary these days. It was OK when he was talking about ping pong but he's powerful now and people, well some people, don't much like it. I suspect they dislike his erudition, his style, his class, his intelligence, his education, his social ease, his charm. In our society, which seems to insist the lowest common denominator is the best and only acceptable standard, those attributes of Boris are more, to my mind sadly, the subject of disdain rather than admiration.

Rather like no one admitting they want Brexit, no one dare admit they like Boris. He grates so with the chattering classes. Well good.

I also admire Boris for his ability to recite poetry. Learning poetry by heart, and saying poems out loud, even if it is half remembered, means you are compelled to a deeper level of understanding of what the poem is communicating, you also enjoy it more.

Did you learn poetry off by heart at school? Can you recall lines you learnt in your youth? I can and I count myself lucky to be able to recite a couple of stanzas but I suspect rote learning in this way isn't given much timetable room. It's considered old fashioned, which is a shame as it means poetry is valued less.


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Anyway, I note with fascination Boris has been in the news, when isn't he, this time for reciting parts of what has been described as an 'offensive poem' in Burma.

It's hard to see how a poem can actually be offensive by itself. What is offensive about Mandalay is that it is called 'colonial' and this is now, with the light of hindsight and the unfortunate glare of cultural relativism, itself is considered offensive, therefore rendering the likes of Kipling unfashionable. Even though Kipling's words are often used as a marketing tool to describe holidays to Burma, no one complains about that.

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I fear that often, in our national conversation, that because the received thinking says something is offensive, accepted codes of behaviour are less often challenged, ironically for fear of causing offense.

The poem might be a little atavistic in style and content, or a smidgen inappropriate politically, but it isn't really offensive. It is, I imagine, the colonial war to which it refers which is considered offensive. It is also about nostalgia for a young man's first impressions of Burma.

Which is silly really.

Because to be offended by history, and to close down conversation about it, tends to thwart any attempt to learn from our past. The so-called 'gaffe' would have been to carry on reciting Mandalay and buy into the colonial ethos it might represent. Boris does neither of these things.

As Churchill, a man fully signed up to the imperial ideal, once said: 'A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.'

To declaim poetry, ignore history, brand things as inappropriate simply because they might remind us or someone else of a tricky past is a dangerous thing.

British colonialism happened, as did Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia, and American segregation, South African apartheid, and the colonial-era annexation of Burma and we need to know about these things, we need to find out more. History is a process, we need to keep learning.

We need to understand why something is inappropriate and not rely too often on others to announce it to be so. We need to question more and rush less to quasi-moral absolutes. I'm not saying colonialism was all good but was it all bad? I don't know, I need to find out and not rely on a small number of people – a moralising chattering elite – to tell me. My work as a journalist has told me there's usually two sides – at least – to most stories.

And as Churchill, himself a bit of a poet, once said: 'Life is a whole, and good and ill must be accepted together.'

What do you think? Do you like Boris? Did you learn poetry at school? Drop James and email and james.marston@archant.co.uk

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