Saturday, 17 October 2015

According to Queeney at the Dr Johnson reading circle.

Last Tuesday was the first of a series of reading groups taking place Dr Johnson’s House in London and led by Dr Jane Darcy, who has written a lot about biography in the late 18th and 19th centuries - of course, I had to check it out.

The first book under discussion was Beryl Bainbridge’s ‘According to Queeney’.

A few years ago on this blog, I looked at representations of Samuel Johnson in fiction (this being before I discovered the ‘Samuel Johnson, Detector’ series). In that post, I had this to say about the book.

‘What Beryl Bainbridge does is take all the original material and use a roving omniscient narrator to give new angles to the scene, usually close ups instead of the original text’s habitual use of a long shot. This is done with such skill and grace that the reader forgets the fictional element of what they are reading and it feels as if they are sitting in the room alongside Johnson, Hester and the rest. Although this is done very well, I wonder what the point of it is.  Most of what she is doing in the books can be performed by a good reader reading the original accounts. I suppose I find the original cutlets nice enough without the need for extra sauce.’

I have to admit, I didn’t much enjoy the book on my re-read. Johnson was presented as old, tired and annoying. If there was any affection for him in the book, it seemed to me to be the kind of affection you may have for a dog which may have been loveable once but now was an inert, panting, lump.

I found all the characters to be rather unlikeable - but I was intrigued by how that unlikeability seemed to stem from hurt, upset and misunderstanding. It was not until the end of the book, with an image of Mrs Desmoulins sitting at home, pining for the dead Johnson and roasting chestnuts, that I felt rather touched - and wondered whether there was more to the book that I had missed. I was hoping the group would point me in the direction of those things.

When I left the group - I did have a greater appreciation for the book. Johnson’s life was often a struggle between reason and emotion, whereas Boswell focusses on the ‘sword of reason’ battling the forces of unreason in a gladiatorial arena, Bainbridge focusses on the emotion, the domestic and the fleeting. 

It was pointed out how many scenes happen in stairways, doorways and other liminal spaces, neither wholly private or personal. These were the little, unseen moments that had huge impacts. This was the Johnson pining for a home, Hester Thrale searching for love and Queeney, longing for the love of her parents. This is the small rubs of life, the accumulation of bruises and hurts that can shape an existence. I can’t say it’s a view that makes me feel very good, but it’s certainly Johnsonian.

Also, where Boswell focusses on the lofty, Bainbridge goes for the squalid. There are enemas and vomits, worms and pills and the constant shadow of pregnancy and infant mortality. It was also pointed out how many animals litter the book. Johnson takes a great interest in dogs, cats and even the nobility of a rat trying to eke out a life for itself.

 I had underestimated the importance of the body, and Samuel Johnson’s body in particular. His whole life was shaped by the effort of negotiating his twitching, dribbling, aching body through the world and that this shaped his character as much as his intellect. 

I also had a great time. It was wonderful to be able to talk Johnson without people rolling their eyes and mouthing ‘here he goes again’. A few of us also went to the Cheshire Cheese afterwards and had some lovely Sam Smith beer and a good chat - so I went home a very happy bunny and look forward to the next one.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Leon Garfield -Trips into the 18th Century.

This month I’ve been focussing on a slightly forgotten children’s author from the 60s called Leon Garfield. He’s interesting to us because he sets many of his works within our favourite century, it also helps that he is very, very good.
I wasn’t intending to spend a month reading the guy but they say one good book deserves another and I got hooked. We’ll go through them in the order he wrote them rather than the order I read them.

Jack Holborn
Be prepared, we’re going to meet a lot of Jacks and Johns on this journey. 
Jack Holborn is an orphan, apprenticed to a cobbler (a fact that puts him off shoes for life) who runs away and stows away on a ship called The Charming Molly. Unfortunately for him, it’s attacked by pirates and he is discovered. 
This starts a journey all around the world, taking in dangerous swamps, strange natives, incredible treasure and a trip to a slave market - where they have to buy the captain back.
But there is a twist at the end - and the twist is bloody stupid. I won’t give it away but it is the worst, schlocky kind of nonsense. 
What’s more, the characters aren’t all that. Jack Holborn himself is rather bland, to the extent that even the narrator points out how unextraordinary Jack is. The Pirate Captain is sort of mysterious in the most normal way and Morris is your typical sturdy first mate. Only the character of Trumpet is interesting, he is a tricksy man, out for his own self but ultimately good at heart.
…So why did reading this book make me want to spend a month reading other Leon Garfield ones? It was the writing.
Usually, a person’s writing by itself is not enough to reel me in but Leon Garfield is a wonderful writer. He has this wonderful way with similes, often giving an over-the-top comparison that is a little cartoony. He also has a lovely way of slipping in wonderfully sharp jokes - here’s an example.
‘For a half of the tempest, my stomach must have thrown up every meal I’d had in my whole life; for a worse half, I prayed for I don’t know what: and for the worst half of all (a storm cares nothing for arithmetic and haves as many halves as it chooses)…’
I wanted more of these gems and I hoped he’d be able to match this to a better plot.

The second he wrote, though not the second I read, this did have a better plot.
George is a member of the Treets, a travelling acting clan of self proclaimed geniuses. The only problem in their life is The Stranger, who comes twice a year and gives them money, leaving the usually ebullient Mr Treet down in the dumps.
When the strange stops coming, it is revealed that George is not a Treet at all but the long lost son of the Dexter family. The father Dexter had been shot by his brother, the man considered responsible for snatching George at a young age.
George than has to find out who he is, how to fit in higher society and what secrets lurk within the pale, sinister Dexters. 
Though starting a little slow, things get very good in the middle. The fog is not only a literal one rolling off the South Downs but the question of who to trust becomes the real fog. Garfield builds up a genuine sense of confusion and dread. The solution to the mystery isn’t that bad either.
This taught me a valuable lesson about establishing group dynamic. The Treets are wonderful bunch, convinced that they are geniuses and affirming it to each other. There is also the word ‘we’ which is used judiciously in the first section - making George being taken away all the more poignant.
This book had one of the best protagonists in any of the Garfield books, George’s sense of himself keeps him strong throughout the story.

The third I read.
This one is about a pickpocket who steals a piece of paper from a gentleman who is then killed, for the paper Smith now has. Unable to read, he needs to find out what the paper says and what he can do about it.
A slower start than some of his other books, but it truly picks up once our hero, George, is lost in the fog. Throughout the middle of the book nobody is clear, all actions and intentions are murky and trust is thin and sparing. Even the book's final chapter, where the mystery is laid out, is interrupted by multiple interpretations and viewpoints. 
Smith started out as a stronger Garfield protagonist, his street smarts and skill at weaving in and out of 18th Century London’s mazes and warrens made him a character of true agency. His teeth were rather pulled out in the middle when he was practically adopted by the Blind Judge Billings but he got it back a bit when imprisoned in Newgate.
His Newgate escape is particularly good, taking in some choice Jack Shepherd tropes and ratcheting up the tension with real skill.
Again, the mystery of the stolen paper was a little weak but we’d had enough fun on the way to forgive that.

Black Jack
Absolutely brilliant. I said about Jack Holborn that his style needed to be married to a decent story - this was it.
It starts evocatively with Mrs Gorgandy the ‘new mint widder’. She spends every day pretending to be the wife of the recently executed so she can sell the body to the atomists. At the beginning of this book, she was obtained the corpse of Black Jack, a man so huge she uses young Tolly to help her carry him in. She then leave Tolly with the body while she goes to drum up custom.
This is when Black Jack awakes, having swallowed a metal tube to keep his airways open. He bashes about, complaining that he is ‘weak and helpless as a babe’ and not reached his ‘full strength.’ As he bashes about he pulls the metal bars off the wall and abducts Tolly.
Tolly and Black Jack find themselves in a moving carnival, shacked up with a mounteback who’s face promises great things his brains can’t deliver. Told falls out with Hatch, his hate-worthy apprentice and they also find Bella, who was displaced in a carriage accident and on her way to Bedlam. 
This is where the story gets strange,
Tolly and Belle start to fall in love and Belle gets better, but Hatch has plans that will lead to Bedlam after all….
It is gloriously schlocky. There’s a scene with a mad axe murderer chasing a character through London, but being a rather aged mad axe murderer, runs out of puff. There are the keepers of Bedlam, this being a wonderful description of Mrs Mitchell’s favourite phrase, ‘you never know’;
‘Mrs Mitchell knew what she was talking about. She’d a great long experience in not knowing. In her competent, assured way, she was something of an expert in ignorance.’
The villainous Hatch is described thus;
‘Hatch, when he stepped in another man’s shoes, did so with the object of stealing them.’
There were quotables throughout this book, from a description of a body washed up on by the sea with ‘an air of ‘is this yours? I don’t want it’, to the scar of a hanging denoting that the recipient was being ‘returned to his Maker with a complaint’.
It’s a brilliant book and, in reading this one second, I was hooked on the quest for another.

Mister Corbett’s Ghost and Other Stories
This is a collection of three short stories and they all show that Leon Garfield is a very good writer.
I was particularly impressed by his use of repetition. He knows how to repeat words to make them funny, moving, serious and more. I can't think of any writer who can use repetition with such keenness and finesse.
The first, Mr Corbett's Ghost, was about a boy who so wished for his master to be dead that when the master did so, his ghost followed him around. The phrase mainly repeated was 'heart and soul' - the master wanting the boy to put those into his work. In being haunted by the lost, lonely soul of his hated employer, young Benjamin learns what is in the employers heart and soul and it touched him greatly.. 
The second story was about a great painter embarrassing his apprentice when he goes to paint a sea battle in-situ. The painter is a real dingy, cowardly man but good with a brush and the story makes a point about what glory may actually be, and how great talent can be wrapped in dingy packages.
he third, another story with soul selling, was about love getting the main character both in and out of character. He was sentenced to transportation and unwillingly becomes part of a mutiny after he falls in love with one of the free passengers on the ship.
This also included scenes I've never read in a sea story; such as being locked in a hold with a bunch of loose fetters flying about and a marvellous description of a ship with its sails furled being like a house with the roof opened.
These short stories were probably my second favourite Garfield books after Black Jack.

The Book Lovers
A very, very unusual book.
Unlike all the other Garfield books I read, this one is not about a young boy in the 18th century but about a young man in the 20th.
The man falls in love with a librarian but unable to speak properly to her, hands her an extract from a 19th century novel about love. She later hands him a different extract back and so it goes, the 20th century love story only proving as a frame for love extracts from 19th century novels.
I very much enjoyed most of the extracts (only having read Madame Bovary in the original novel) and it added a few more books to the list of those I would like to read…but the frame story was a little weak.
The extracts chosen seemed to highlight how opposite the young man and his prospective lover were, they duel through extracts, they so not woo. It’s amazing how un-loved-up this book of extracts of love scenes made me and it left me feeling that the young man and the librarian were not going to be together for very long. If anything, it would all go to pot the minute they opened their mouths and actually spoke to each other.

The Sound of Coaches
The best of his later books and maybe my second favourite overall. The Sound of Coaches uses the familiar Garfield tropes of the child of low social standing and mysterious parentage trying to decide his loyalty - but its done very well.

First of all, this in the only novel set (at least partly) around the life of the coachman. That whole eighteenth century subculture of roads and constant movement was one I hadn't considered before and seeing it through Garfield's evocative eyes was very enjoyable.

This is also one of his most adult books, there are lots of moments of reflection. The whole second half of the book is set amongst touring actors and asks quite interesting questions about how we live in reality and in dreams - and what an actor's life, where the dreamworld of the stage has so much vigour than reality, does to a person.

There are other lovely touches, like a few character where the main character, Sam, is drunk and lordly refers to himself as 'one' in his own internal monologue. There's another part which is narrated from the baby Sam's viewpoint - not in terms of language but in terms of understanding (where he frequently gets irritated that all his attempts to communicate are followed by being fed).

Finally, the ending is very different to the usual one - no axe murders or gunfights here, things just shuffle themselves into a new status quo. It's not a climactic ending but it manages to be a satisfying one.

John DIamond
By far the weakest I read. His protagonists have all been a little see-through compared to his other characters, but William Jones is particularly ineffectual. What's more he is narrow, a little cruel and extremely stupid. I didn't like him very much at all. Unusually, the book was narrated by William in a very self-conscious way. There was plenty of direct addressing to the audience and intimation of what was to come, it made the book seem a little tawdry.
Also, the usually sparking squibs the other books have been peppered with fell flat. Partly this was because of the direct narration and partly it was because they were more like dad-jokes than proper jokes. There was one part where William narrated that someone threw a bucket of water at him - then clarifies that it was only the water that was thrown and not the bucket. This is a long way from the discussion of a storm's poor arithmetic in Jack Holborn.
Finally, the mystery didn't really change anything. When it was solved, the characters were much the same, and in the same positions as they had been before. I couldn't really understand why two of the characters had made it mysterious in the first place.
I wouldn't recommend this particular Garfield novel, but it's the only one I have read so far that disappointed.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Review: The Unspeakable Curll

I’ve read a number of books from a series published in the 20’s and republished in the 60s and focussing on various niche aspects of eighteenth century literary culture. The ones I have read were ‘The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith’; ‘Passionate Intelligence’, ‘The Grub Street Journal’, ‘Clubs of Augustan London’ and ‘Tom Brown of Facetious Memory’, which I have all reviewed before.

They are all brilliant books in their own way. They are meticulous, detail-orientated and tending towards the dry. I was rather put off by some of their tones, especially the Tom Brown book’s tone of a wearied headmaster. This takes a whole different and far more enjoyable tone. Curll has a distinctly bad reputation and although Strauss will not paint him white, he presents him as a lovable rogue.

(Curll is the 2-headed man on the far left - this is the only portrait of him - I'm guessing it's not totally realistic.)

The ‘Unspeakable’ Curll was a Bookseller in the first half of the Eighteenth Century. He became notorious in his lifetime for a catalogue that included titillating compilations of divorce court proceedings and French novels about half undressed nuns. He was most famous for his ability to spin books out of nothing, particularly biographies. One of his particular tricks was to put an advert in the papers staking a claim in someone’s biography and appealing to readers to send letters and memories to refine the book. The book would then be hastily cobbled out of the letters received and any material about the subject that was in public domain - and their will. He was also adept at writing intriguing title pages, and would re-brand a book with a new title for adding the teensiest of extra material.

Curll also had the reputation, as many eighteenth century booksellers did, of keeping stable of cheap writers who he used to churn out product. While this was true, it also seems clear that Curll was friends with his writers, and nursed one through his final illness.

Curll was the subject of a hate campaign by all respectable writers, especially the Scriblerans, Pope in particular. Pope’s first sally against Curll was to feed him a vomiting drug in retribution for obtaining some old poems of his and publishing them. Pope’s second attack was in The Dunciad, where Curll was represented as one of the booksellers taking part in the dunce olympics and swimming through liquid sewerage. The last tangle between Pope and Curll was a weird and complex plot where Pope tried to use Curll to surreptitiously release some more of his letters. Although Curll is the one with a bad rep, it’s Pope who comes across as something of an arsehole.

Curll also faced other problems, spending a year in and out of prison for obscenity charges and being stripped and spanked by Westminster schoolboys (as was his son). He also gets involved in the usual Grub Street wars of words.

As Curll is presented as a loveable rogue, so is Strauss the writer. Near the beginning, when introducing him, Strauss admits that he couldn’t be bothered to find out about Curll’s ancestors. Strauss is prone to imagining Curll, supposing that he was fond of his own voice, fond of a laugh, and meticulous in detail, from very little detail. Near the end he decides that his book was not a ‘proper biography’, though I would disagree. 

Finally, I usually judge a biography by seeing whether I am sad when the subject dies. Curll’s death made me laugh, being told to us in the aside of, ‘he died, by the way’. The last sentence in the book is, ‘One day, I must look for his grave.’ One day, I might also. 

Incidentally, I have a Curll publication, one of those terrible lives. It's pretty spread thin.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Review: The Beaux Stratagem at the National

I have an intermittent tradition of going to see a play around my birthday. A few years ago I saw The Beggar’s Opera in the Regent’s Park Outdoor Theatre, this time I went to see The Beaux Stratagem at The National.

It’s a Restoration comedy written by George Farquhar in 1707 and was adapted by Patrick Marber. It’s about two men who are on the run from blowing all their money in London and hole up in an inn in Lichfield. (The one I stayed at in Easter). While there, one pretends to be master and the other servant. They hit upon Dorinda, the younger daughter of the lady Bountiful. She also has a son, Mr Sullen, who lives at the home with his wife. The two are equally unhappily married.

The one playing the master courts Dorinda and the other Mrs Sullen, the unhappy wife. While this is happening, some highwaymen at the inn plan to rob the Bountiful residence. Meanwhile, a French prisoner of war, Count Bellair, is using the Irish/Swiss priest to try and woo Mrs Sullen also. 

All these plots come together, with the con-men defending the family from the robbers; and alls well that ends well, ending with a happy marriage, and more unconventionally, an equally happy divorce.

Farquhar died before this was presented on stage, so he had little to lose, allowing him to write some pretty brave things about the nobility of divorce, much of which he cribbed off Milton’s writing on the subject. It makes the play a little off kilter, Mrs Sullen having such noble and persuasive language in the middle of what is mostly fun and silliness.

Susannah Fielding played it very well. She had a sparkle in her eyes and I was lucky enough to be seated close enough to see it. It seemed clear that she was a fun and lively person, only brought to fits of despair after spending a bit of time with her husband. At the beginning of the second half, she addressed the audience direct, getting some cheers and support. I liked her a lot.

I also felt sorry for Mr Sullen at the end. He was a man who just wanted to be left alone to nurse his hangover with a dram and a venison pasty, he couldn’t be doing with any of the other characters.

Of the two rogues, I preferred, Archer, the one pretending to be the servant the most, payed by Geoffrey Streatfield. He warmed into the part very well, a swaggering, bold man who was not afraid to give Mrs Sullen some atrocious chat up lines. The part was originally written for Farquhar’s friend, so was a little stronger for that. He also had a stupid song about trifle to sing. 

The other, Aimwell,  was a very slight, feminine man, who when he was sword fighting the robbers at the end was dressed, and looked exactly like, Guybrush Threepwood. I have to admit, this broke my concentration near the end.

Guybrush Threepwood

Aimwell in The Beaux Stratagem

My favourite character was the servant Scrub, played by Pierce Quigley, who I’ve seen before as a brilliant Bottom at the Globe. He gave his character a proper Lichfield/Midlandy accent and delivered all his lines with such deadpan dourness, that almost every line brought a laugh.

There were also a lot of good songs in the play, these often raised a laugh, when one of the musicians would appear at the top of the multi-story set and, in the case of Streatfield’s character, goading him into singing a song he didn’t want to. Also very funny, was the accordionist in beret, red scarf and stripy scarf who appeared before the French count sang.

All in all, I laughed a lot. It’s not a particularly clever play. The lines do not sing with Goldsmith’s fine honed wit, or the anarchy of The Beggar’s Opera but it’s good fun, there’s singing, swordfighting, bad chat up lines and all sorts of good stuff. So I’d recommend it as a night out. 

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Bohemians, Blockheads and Blockbusting Novels

I’ve just finished watching a series of television programmes called ‘How to be a Bohemian with Victoria Coren’. It’s an appealing title, I think it may be nice to live a Bohemian lifestyle with a poker-playing host of impossible quiz shows - but unfortunately, it only meant she was presenting it.

The series started with the Paris set of artists first called Bohemian. Vic Gatrell (author of one my favourites, City of Laughter) recently wrote a book about Covent Garden in the mid eighteenth century called The First Bohemians. In this book, he skims around Grub Street and argues them as being the first wave of the Bohemian torch.

But there is one major difference, and that is embodied in the approaching Samuel Johnson quote. Whilst the Parisian Bohemians believed in ‘art for art’s sake’, the Grub Street Hacks believed;

‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money’.

The writer and artist’s first duty was not to art or truth, but to their belly. 

It could be argued that Johnson was something of a Bohemian; he was shabby, opinionated, kept a busy and disorganised household of waifs and strays, and liked to ├ępater le bourgeois. This quote comes from Boswell’s life, in which he is trying to shock some cultured literati. 

At the time, it was considered best if writers were gentlemen of substance. This is probably a little of snobbery but there was a pretty good line of reason behind it also. It was thought that a writer who needed to write for their belly would write anything they thought they could sell or use to wheedle their way into a rich political faction. Their morals were for sale with their words. A gentleman, who could live without writing, would be a disinterested party. Only a gentleman could write for truth.

Johnson’s point was that a professional class of writer would write better, and that money was as good an incentive as any. It’s a delightfully practical, unbohemian way of looking at it, and far more appealing to me.

That said, here I am, writing this blog for no reason other than it popped it my head. I am also working on novels which may never be published. If Johnson is right, I am a blockhead. 

As much as I kind-of identify with the Grub Street Hacks, I am not one of them. The majority were unconcerned with the quality of their work compared to sales, it was sales that enabled them to soldier on to the next day. Though there were residents of Grub Street that did great works; Johnson, Goldsmith and Kit Smart being may favourite triumvirate, most of them never did write anything lasting. Grubstreet is itself a word in Johnson’s dictionary implying some ephemeral or small work.

My Dad often asks me why I don’t ‘sell out’ and write what is trendy. I try to explain that it’s hard enough to write a book (and he should know, he has done) when it is something that really pulls you, let alone a vain attempt to jump on a bandwagon. I also try and explain that most of the people that really benefit from popularity were those who wrote what felt good to them and a bandwagon was created around it.

So I suppose I may well be closer to ‘art for art’s sake’ when it comes to my writing but it makes me uncomfortable. The phrase seems so shallow and selfish. ‘Art for art’s sake’ seems the surest way to create boring, self-swallowing art. I don’t even believe the novel is an art, it’s a craft, albeit one which can be done artfully.

I suppose I see myself as a weird combination of an actor and a carpenter. I’m keep whittling away at my wood to create a beautiful but functional table and wait for the big break when I can invite everyone to come and have dinner off it.

Or maybe I’m just a blockhead.


Talking of Blockheads…

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Goldsmith and the bed bugs,

I’ve been a little busy recently. My recent housing crisis has resolved itself, in that I shall get a pay rise on the completion of a course - which means I am doing a course at the moment. As well as this I am doing another course with FutureLearn about the future of the museum - I completely recommend FutureLearn for anyone looking for a bit of new mental stimulus, it’s free and pretty engaging.

As well as these, I am writing this new draft of Dreamonger, which comes on apace. It’s fiddly work though, each small change creates larger ones further on and it almost feels like writing a new book. I feel the voice is changing as I go, becoming closer to the voice in my more recent writing.

Add to all this and I have moved. It’s a lovely little studio place in Northwest London. The only problem I have had with it (except the prohibitive cost) have been the bedbugs.

It turns out bedbugs are massively on the increase in large populations, having made a comeback from very low numbers in the fifties. I have isolated my bed, laid my diaphanous earth, heated the laundry and all other steps. My landlord has been great, steaming the area everyday and buying a new bed and mattress and now the problem seems to have gone.

The little biters were a problem in Oliver Goldsmith’s day as well. In his History of the Natural World he describes them thus;

‘By day it lurks, like a robber, in the most secret parts of the bed; takes the advantage of every chink and cranny, to make a secret lodgement; and contrives its habitation with so much art, that scarce any industry can discover its retreat.’

He’s not wrong. They are so good at hiding, apparently they can fit in any space you can slide a credit card in, due to their flat bodies. He goes on;

‘When darkness promises security, it then issues from every corner of the bed, drops from the tester, crawls from behind the arras, and travels with great assiduity to the unhappy patient, who vainly wishes for rest and refreshment.’

And boy do they. Even when I encased myself in clothes, put on some old costume tights to secure my feet - they just bit me on the face and hands. A few nights of this and any hope of refreshment goes, instead  it is replaced by a paranoia that wakes you up every few hours, covered in phantom bugs (and maybe the odd real one).

He then talks about the bad smell, which luckily I didn’t experience. Then he talks about the fact that France had them worse, more of them and insatiable;

‘The beds, particularly their inns, swarm with them; and every piece of furniture seems to afford them retreat. They grow larger also with them then with us, and bite with more cruel appetite.’

I don’t know whether this reflects prejudice or his own experiences of bumming around the continent. Goldsmith follows with a detailed description of the beast, ending with it’s sensitivity to light which means that;

‘They are seldom caught, though the bed swarms with them.’

Luckily, this is not so much the case now. I have bed traps and mattress protectors and all sorts, and have been unmolested for some days. 

The enemy.

However, the eighteenth century did have protection from the little beasties. This is from a pest control manual from 1777 called The Complete Vermin Killer.

‘Spread Gun-powder, beaten small, about the crevices of your bedstead ; sire it with a match, and keep the smoak in - do this for an hour or more.’

It is also recommended to burn brimstone under the bed every three days, but keep out the room as you do it. 

The bed is recommended to be washed in various ointments; from vinegar mixed with glue, herbs in suet, onions, wormwood, and finally water. It is also recommended to hang a bearskin, which will frighten them away or entice them into rabbit guts under the bed. Here is another tip;

‘Basket-makers sell a Trap made of Wicker to catch Bugs. It must be about eighteen inches in depth, and four feet and an half long, or more if the bed be wide. Place this at the head of the bed, at the bottom of the pillow ; and in the morning they will creep into it, when they may be easily taken away and destroyed.’

Luckily, I didn’t have to resort to these method and am now set up and cosy in my new home.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

A Trip to the City of Philosophers

"I lately took my friend Boswell and showed him genuine civilised life in an English provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield." - Samuel Johnson

Hello everyone, long time no see.

For Christmas, I was given tickets to go to a most magical place, The Midlands. 

I went to Lichfield, birthplace of Samuel Johnson. I have wanted to go there for years, since I discovered that his birthplace museum has more artefacts belonging to Johnson then the museum in Gough Square. 

I am a sucker for a cathedral city. I spent a wonderful day in St Albans, and a few wonderful ones in Canterbury, so I was looking forward to it. I had two days there and I feel I imbibed most of what the city has to offer.

First of all, it’s like Disneyland for Johnsonians. As soon as I got off the train, I crossed the road and found myself at the site of the old Grammar School, where Johnson, Garrick and Addison took their early lessons. Wondering around is magical. You turn a corner and there was Johnson’s Dame school, where he once walked home alone and seeing the mistress of the school following him to check he was safe, turned round and attacked her out of pride. You walk all over and find places that resonate; the Garrick home, the house of Gilbert Walmisley where Johnson first practiced his debating skills and the Stowe Pool where his father taught him to swim.

Lichfield also has some very interesting non-eighteenth century history. The cathedral close had been fortified in the middle ages, meaning that it was the recipient of three tough sieges during the English Civil War. In the first siege, the parliamentarian general was killed by a dumb sharpshooter in the tower, looking at the distance it seemed impossible. (Chatting with some local history-buffs, it may be that a different tower was meant). I wonder how much Johnson’s own royalism (and occasional Jacobism) are influenced by the town’s Civil War Experience, where the cathedral was near destroyed by the parliament men.

I also wonder about how his protestantism was affected by the fact that the market square was the scene of several people being burnt at the stake in the reign of Mary I, including the last person to be killed in that way.

The market square is a brilliant spot for Johnson-philes. On one side is his parish church, where he was christened and attended until some of the roof fell on the family pew. On the other side stands his birthplace. The square itself now has a lovely brooding statue of Johnson on a chair, there is a sprightly one of Boswell as well but he is hidden behind stalls on market days.

Just up from the market place is The George. That is where I stayed. It’s a coaching house, the setting for Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem and where he stayed when he was a recruiting office in the town. Just up from that is The Swan, where Hester Thrale stayed during her visit (now an Ask Pizza place) and The King’s Head, where the First Staffordshire Regiment was founded.

But what about Johnson’s Birthplace itself? I was delighted that the front room was still a bookshop, as it had been in Michael and Samuel’s day. There was something magical about going down into the kitchen where Johnson as a boy read Hamlet and was so scared by the ghost that he ran up the stairs and outside to see other living people.

Some of the objects also gave me the shivers. There was Johnson’s wedding ring and a saucer he used everyday which he nicknamed ‘Tetty’. There was the very writing slope he rushed out Rambler essays. There were canes and boot buckles. The fact that each of these items were part of his daily life gave me goosebumps and I stood in awe of the writing slope like someone in a reliquary.

The place was a little let down by old museum presentation techniques, the stiff mannequin with audio recording method of dramatising moments of Samuel’s life seemed a bit unnecessary. It also wasn’t helped by some aloof staff, who didn’t engage much with a fan and the fact that the only other visitors were two bored Lichfield teenagers on their Easter break, running up and down the stairs. But there were enough special moments in there to make it a thrilling experience for me. 

Back across the marketplace to his parish church housed the Lichfield City Museum. This was another creaky place, empty and a little mothworn. That said, it did give a very useful overview of the city.

The three spires of the Cathedral dominate the centre. I spent a lot of time reading (Christopher Hibbert’s ‘The Personal History of Samuel Johnson’) at the Minster Pool, where the sun shone and the spires reflected hazily in the pool. I also went inside. The most fascinating thing there were the remnants of Anglo-Saxon worship, including an angel with an axe scar through it and St Chad’s Gospel, a beautiful 8th century book still used in worship. Later on, I took a walk down the Stowe Pools to St Chad’s well, an old pilgrimage site.

Finally, I went to another house in the Cathedral Close, the house of Erasmus Darwin. I did not know much about him, except that he and Johnson didn’t hit it off. I’m currently reading his biography and can see why; Darwin was a deist, revolutionary who believed morals should be taught without religion.

But Darwin was a really interesting man, and completely different to dear old Sammy. He was an optimist, a thinker who allowed his mind to roam and experiment, and a generally affable and interesting person.

The house was a little larger than Johnson’s, there were the obligatory mannequins with audio in two of the rooms. One of these was about his personal life, he had two wives and a mistress (not all at the same time). The other was him in his day job as a medical doctor. Erasmus travelled 10,000 miles a year on Georgian roads, well supplied with a bookcase, writing desk and hamper of food. (He liked his food, cutting a semi-circular hole in his dining table to fit in more comfortably.)

He also liked to invent and one room had working versions and models of some of his inventions. He created the system of steering that modern cars use; drew designs for a steam carriage, made a vertical windmill, lifts for locks, created a model of a bird that used two of the (then undiscovered) secrets of how birds fly. He also made a machine that could make simultaneous copies of documents and a sort of ‘robot head’ that could say ‘ma-ma and da-da’. Reading his biography, it seems like he could have advanced science fifty years if he had been brave enough to publish.

He was also a member of the Lunar Society; a group that included Boulton, Watt, Wedgewood, Mariah Edgeworth’s father and a man called Day who did a very dodgy experiment when he tried to train his own perfect wife. These people were at the hub of the industrial revolution, discussing everything from steam power to the abolition of the slave trade.

Finally, Darwin was a poet, the most popular just before the romantics came along. His poetry inspired them and in one of his books he described a belief of his that animals had changed, evolved and adapted over time to suit their environments - a belief taken up and expanded upon by his grandson, Charles.

Now, it may seem I have lost Johnson behind….he is still my favourite but Erasmus Darwin is a much unacknowledged and fascinating individual. His museum was staffed by proper Erasmus-nuts and they made it a great place to be.

In summary, I would utterly recommend a day trip to Lichfield. Make it a long day, make sure you visit Johnson and Erasmus and say hi for me.