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.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Under the Glass...Three - Castles in the Sky

These ‘Under the Glass bits have somehow become one of the most personal elements on this site. Todays one may be the most personal of them all.

It comes from the (brilliant) introduction to ‘The Essay of Humane Understanding’ by John Locke.

When I say the introduction is brilliant, I mean it. There are some wonderfully tuned phrases about the intrinsic joy of knowledge which I will probably look at another time. Todays quote is the following;

‘If mine prove a castle in the air, I will endeavour it shall be all of a piece and hang together.’

Within the context of the introduction, it serves to make a point found in many early modern prologues, that the work about to be presented may have its flaws but is presented with all the best possible intentions. 

I was instantly struck by the image, not of the castle in the sky, but of it being of a piece and hanging together. That mental picture of a huge, solid edifice, detailed and carved with time and effort and love with an internal cohesion that defies its possibly shaky foundations.

But like most of these quotes, it’s what it means outside of context and into the context of my own life that gives it such meaning to me - and like many of these quotes, it serves as a way of cheering me up and encouraging me to go on. It’s a personal rallying cry.

A rallying cry for what? Here’s where it gets a little personal.

It was at university, while avoiding a course I detested, that I began and completed my first novel. I had made my first scratchings at it in my lonely room in the first term of the first year and finished it in the lonely room in the easter break of the third. By the end of this year, I knew what I wanted to be for the first time in my life. I wanted to write novels that other people would read.

With this being my only real goal or interest, I left university, not into a job or placement but to carry on working my student job in York, life in a shared house with some classmates, write and wait for my literary ship to sail triumphantly in. What really happened was that the shared house fell through and I ended up moving back to my parents in a city that all my friends had left.

I found it hard to get work and ended up getting the same job I had during sixth form when I was saving up to go to university, but due to new laws, for a lesser wage. At the same time, great swathes of my extended family died and the house was deep in mourning for a few months. What’s more, despite a few positive notes, it was clear my ship was not sailing in any time soon. I was lost.

To give myself some momentum, I decided to go back into education and take a part time MA in writing. I took simple jobs that would be flexible around my university and writing time. Sometimes those simple jobs did not come through and I found myself unemployed for eight months, and for  a couple of months I lived off £5 a week, borrowing money off friends and family and even having to beg on the street for travel money to get to interviews.

Since then I have come into a steady job with a reliable (if unspectacular) wage and an unprecedentedly good deal on my rent. In June, the house will return to its private owners and I will need to rent a normal priced room again. I’m not sure I can. Even for a pus-ridden scum-hole, the monthly rent leaves me with almost nothing for food, travel and books - it looks like I might have to go to the bad old days.

To remedy this, I went on an urgent and focussed job hunt. It would appear that my CV, a combination of relative academic achievement, dead-end jobs and mediocre writing success are not the employer catnip I was hoping for. I can’t even get a job selling books at the Museum of London bookshop - despite the fact that I’ve read almost all their stock, and can use a till.
The fact is, the choices I have made, whether good or bad, all stemmed from my wish to become a novelist. Whether I went about this realistically or sensibly (almost certainly not) they were made with that goal in mind. It is my castle and although the foundations still seem to be in thin air, at least the edifice itself is all of a piece and hangs together. 

Plus, this new draft of ‘Dreamonger’ is turning out brilliantly…

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Top Ten Eighteenth Century Works (Part Two)

And here it is, after the clamouring, shouting and pleading; the second part of the Top Ten Eighteenth Century Works.

Number 5

Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart.

The only person to have two entries on the list but I don’t think it’s cheating, the Christopher Smart who wrote Jubilate Agno is not the same as the one who wrote The Midwife.

Midwife era Smart is playful and silly, not seemingly serious about anything. Jubilate Agno era Smart is still playful, still sometimes silly but this time there is something he takes extraordinarily seriously, his faith. This is a rich, constantly perplexing work. I think someone on a dessert island with nothing but Jubilate Agno and a Bible would ever get to the very bottom of it.

There are occasions when this can be baffling, there are even stretches of boring but there are enough highlights of absolutely stunning originality and moments of clear thinking mixed up with all the Biblical names and battiness.

I would recommend that anybody try this book out.

Number 4

The Citizen of the World by Oliver Goldsmith.

The original audience read these letters as part of a serial magazine but I, like all the readers since 1762, read it in one go and have read it several times since.

My favourite element of the book are the characters. Lien Chi Altangi is a bit of a hypocrite but ultimately loveable, Beau Tibbs is also a flawed but interesting character and The Man in Black is one the best characters in all of eighteenth century writing.

I’ve written a whole review of this before but if you can find a copy, read it.

Number 3

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne.

I’ve not read many other books like this. It is such a frustrating thing. It’s the most annoyingly digressive, objectively pointless and nail gnawingly ridiculous bit of work. But, my goodness, it is something wonderful.

The key to it are the characters. Tristram is very little himself but his father Walter and his Uncle Toby are beautifully realised people. Everyone in the world of Shandy Hall has a hobbyhorse, one key obsession that drives their lives. But from this one hobbyhorse, whole characters evolve. Uncle Toby is obsessed with wars and fortifications, he lives and breathes battles and sieges but is himself the most peaceful of people. If trapped in a room with an irritating fly, he will remove the fly rather than kill it. It’s details such as this that make you want to follow him and those around through their labyrinthine journeys.

That and the book is staggeringly original. If the reader learns to relax and enjoy the ride, then they will be treated to constant surprises and always shifting floors but the reader must give into it.

Number 2

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.

This just edged Tristram Shandy because although it didn’t have the loopy originality of that book, it is a much more satisfying read.

I liked Tom, I liked Sofia, I loved Squire Western, Partridge, Thwackum and Square. The characters in this book are wonderful and lively. Henry Fielding knows exactly how to set up and present a set piece better than almost all the other eighteenth-century writer. The chapters at the Inn in Upton are some of the busiest, liveliest and most sparkling I’ve ever read.

Also, Fielding has the most wonderful voice. He is constantly ironic and uses the tools of hyperbole and understatement with the fine hand of a master craftsmen. Almost the whole of the first book of Tom Jones is written with almost total irony. It’s a breathtakingly impressive bit of work.

...and of course.

Number 1

The Rambler by Samuel Johnson.

I’ve had a shit day; the children in the school have driven me crazy, the staff have driven me crazier, the bank crazier still and my house seems dingy and sad. It is one of those days when the sky is so heavy and nothing goes right and I am irritable with everything and everyone.

Then I make a cup of tea and read a few Ramblers.

I have a theory that the length and flow of a Johnsonian sentence has a calming property; on one hand is his ability to summarise a complex point in few words and on the other is his ability to contrast that with an equally complex and well summarised point that defies the first. He is even able to get the synthesis in the same sentence. This ebb requires concentration to follow but Johnson never waffles, he always hits at least one, usually a few more, points a sentence. It’s like the mental equivalent of breathing in and breathing out, it’s impossible not to relax.

And the content, it is pure Johnson. He said his other works were watered down but the Ramblers were his ‘pure wine’. It’s Johnson in his utmost Johnson-ness; warm and wise and often very funny.

It’s like medicine, a bit miffed to long dark night of the soul,  a few Rambler essays will ease the pain. As Johnson said (in a review and not a Rambler unfortunately) “The only end of writing is to enable readers better to enjoy life, or endure it.” Samuel succeeds marvellously here.

All yours