Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Review: 3 Historic Houses

I was going to call this post, ‘What I did on my Easter Holidays’ because I have done rather a lot. The first week was spent in Poland. There I ate cheaply; drank wodka, learnt how to throw axes, visited a pinball warehouse, Jagiellonian University,  Wawel Castle - and went to Auschwitz. I don’t want to talk about Auschwitz.

The second week, I caught a sudden flu and, wrestling my way out of bed, went to three historic houses. 

The first was Benjamin Franklin House, an eighteenth century townhouse tucked down the side of Charing Cross Station where Franklin lived for sixteen years and is the only Franklin residence in existence in the world. They haven’t got much else though. With the exception of a purse, a letter and a pile of poorly anatomised bones found in the garden, they have nothing. The rooms are painted a sickly green that Franklin had his rooms pointed in, some fireplaces…and some audiovisual equipment.

Because there is nothing in the house to look at, there’s a show. The show consists of a bewigged woman, playing Molly, the landlady’s daughter. She interacts with projected sound and vision of people like Peter Coyote and Imelda Staunton playing Benjamin Franklin and the landlady, Mrs Stevenson. The show is a prime piece of Philly cheese steak. The actress (who we didn’t get to thank) put her all into an extraordinarily difficult kind of performance, where she was trapped in a succession of rooms with eight people, acting and reacting to piped in voices in her, and our, heads. 

To give the audio-visual exhibition its due, it did pack in a lot of information about Benjamin Franklin, firmly establish many of his claims to fame and explain what he was doing in London, and how it all feel apart eventually. And as I said, the actress did as good a job in a strange situation, and I was a little moved at the end.

People wishing to go to the museum should know that it is only during these audio-visual tours and they happen on the hour (except Mondays, when it’s a tour of the empty building).

The volunteers who ‘welcomed’ me in, were terse and rattled off their words in quick, bored, spurts. I felt like I had put them out turning up ten minutes before a performance.

Next was a hop-skip and jump up to Handel and Hendrix in London, aka Handel/Hendrix House. 

I slipped in from the courtyard, was given a place to put my bags and told I could spend as long going up the stairs and back and forth as I wished as there was no set route. The bottom rooms contained a spinet, an early organ and two harpsichords as well as a great many pictures. I saw I Hogarth I had never seen before, a portrait of Rich, the owner of the Lincoln’s Inn theatre, as well as a great many images of Vauxhall Gardens. A couple of the rooms had Handel music to listen to but the ones that didn’t, had volunteers. 

The volunteers at the Handel/Hendrix House were the secret weapon. Many of the rooms had little to show but a handful of objects (many of them reconstructions) and images but the volunteers had warmth and character and stories. I learnt that Handel was accused, probably wrongly, of sneaking out and having a sneaky nice wine instead of sharing it. I also got to have a chat about castrati, soprano wars (Handel preferred Faustina) or Handel’s personal preference for cherrywood and plum material.

This favouring of plum material and cherrywood was something I learnt by talking to the volunteer in the bedroom. She also taught me what a tester bed is - it’s on where the curtains are hung from the ceiling and not from a four-post. The room next to it showed a reconstruction of Handel’s banyan - a type of luxurious casual gown. Handel would have liked wearing one, because as well as being a stout person, he was a tall one, over six-foot. I reckon Johnson still could have had him in a fight. Also - I want a banyan.

There was also that staple of the historic house museum - dressing up. As fun as it is donning a nice frock on my visits to Dr Johnson’s House, at the Handel/Hendrix House the clothes inspired by both Handel and Hendrix. I had great joy in creating my own Jimmy Handel-rix monstrosity.
Upstairs, in the flat next door, lives the attic of Jimmy Hendrix. Similar to the Handel House, there was a suite of rooms playing music to give the background and then access into the main bed/sitting room, which only had one piece of original furniture but recreated carefully from photos and interviews. It was a warm, comfy place, like the ultimate student gaff. The volunteer again was very interesting, telling me about how the room was used and putting out just how many ashtrays there were.

I also took away a list of Hendrix’s record collection. It was great to know he had a Bonzo album, an Acker Bilk and a Frank Zappa. He was also into electrified Chicago bluesmen like Muddy Waters and (my fave) Howlin’ Wolf.

I also went to Dickens house. This was where Charles Dickens wrote his early novels, though most of the furniture comes from Dickens’ ideal home in Kent.

What this means is that unlike the other two historic houses, there are a great many objects linked to Dickens and his work in the house. As well as early drafts of novels; near priceless instalments from the major novels, the desk on which Dickens wrote, the window from which little Charles Dickens bemoaned his life as a bootblack worker and the bars which his dad (and Mr Micawber) were kept behind for debt. For a massive Dickens fan, there are enough relics to make a visit essential (much as I stood with a lump in my throat at Johnson’s writing board).

Dickens house also paints an interesting picture of Dickens. There is a set of clothes, showing his slim, short figure. There’s a mirror with a description of Dickens practising the faces and voices for his characters and his personally designed speaking desk with a reading copy marked up by Dickens to help him perform it. While his… ‘complicated’ personal life is touched on, his energy and enthusiasm make him seem like good company.

I was also delighted that one of his favourite authors was Oliver Goldsmith, and he had a personal life of Goldsmith. He was a greta fan of Smollett and Fielding, and had Hogarth prints throughout the house - I liked him more for this.

The last thing Dickens House focuses on, is the way the young, upwardly moving household was managed in the nineteenth century. The kitchens and wash house are very interesting - and I would love to take the kids next time I’m forced to do Victorians.

The Dickens House also had a volunteer per floor, one of which was very friendly but the other’s very clearly didn’t want to be talked to. Oddly, both the person at the pay-desk and the one who talked to me, both told me they found Dickens a but of a chore.

Ultimately, a historic house museum relies on what you put into it; a diehard Dickensian will adore the Dickens house and a Franklin fanatic will thrill to walk the halls of their great philosopher - but in and of itself, the Handel/Hendrix House won me over because of the joy of the volunteers that brought the two very different personalities together.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Review: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

I know Hamilton is the cool founding father of the US, but I was always more interested in Franklin.

I knew a little of his achievements by osmosis; I knew he’d proved lightning to be electricity and created rods to protects buildings, that he’d invented a hauntingly strange musical instrument, that he’d drafted the declaration of independence and constitution and also a book on farts. I was aware that he was integral in getting French help in the American rebellion, he was a member of the lunar society and once lost a chess match to Kempelen’s Turk.

I didn’t know I was only scratching the surface.

It turns out Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography doesn’t cover most of the famous years of his life, finishing shortly before the rebellion, it’s more of an origin tale than a proper autobiography. The first part was written in England, very shortly before the kick off of the rebellion, the other two parts from comfortable old age later.

They broadly tell the story of how an impoverished runaway became a newspaperman, gained in influence as a projector of good causes and became a trusted and vital part of colonial infrastructure - and as a bonus, he also was given a gold medal and membership to the Royal Society for work on electricity. 

I was expecting a man full of energy, interests and unquenchable spirit for life like Erasmus Darwin. I found a stiff, prudish, puritanical prig stuffed on pious platitudes. There’s not a tired phrase Franklin doesn’t cling to, a person he doesn’t meet who he deplores for drinking - a man who scolds himself for a fondness for puns and describes his only interest, reading, as something that ‘debauched me from my work’. 

Franklin also has this peculiar anti-interest in food. He is extremely proud of his indifference to food and is a vegetarian for a while and like many vegetarians, he feels the need to tell people he is one. I’m with Samuel Johnson that ‘He who does not mind his belly, will hardly mind anything else.’

To be fair to him, he did work hard - he also made sure everyone knew he was working hard, ensuring he was the one who wheelbarrowed paper from the supplier. This hard work set the foundation for all he was going to achieve and could be used as inspiration if I didn’t find him a little cold.

It’s a subtext, but Franklin is very ready to drop friends when they aren’t of any use to him, even grabbing one annoying man by the crotch and throwing him in a river. He has a club called the Junta but when they want to expand the operation, won’t allow it except in secret, to prevent useless people joining.

At one point he considered setting up his own deistic religion, dedicated to worshipping his teachings. These teachings were of 13 virtues and an elaborate system of trying to live up to those virtues, focussing on one a week and making marks when the others weren’t achieved. I simply can’t trust a man who thinks that people can be perfect-able, and appears to think he has got rather close to it - except perhaps humility, the 13th and most reluctant virtue.

Still, the man did get things down. His Junto (Aka BF and his BFFs) pooled their books together and set up a library, which became a pattern for libraries across the country. He also set up volunteer fire associations, a militia, a university, decent pacing and street lighting - and all manner of good things. As clammy as I find Franklin in the book, he was a person of great achievement.

I didn’t hate this book, but I was surprised that I didn’t love the writer.

Two favourite titbits:

That the mostly Quaker council of Philadelphia, being forced to send money to another colony to buy gunpowder but unable for pacifist reasons, managed to pass the law with the following sophistry; that is could be sent for ‘wheat and other grains’.

And that when London printers took the first day of the week off to sleep away the hangover of a busy weekend, it was called worshipping St Monday.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Review: Dr Johnson & Mr Savage by Richard Holmes

It’s an open secret that the image of Samuel Johnson which has gone down in history is not the one who created most of the great works he was famous for. It wasn’t until after the ‘Rambler’, ‘Rasselas’, ‘Dictionary’ and his poetry that he became the ‘Great Cham of Literature’. During the time Boswell knew him, he was comfortably off with his greatest struggles behind him.

This book tells a story before the safe, rotund old man when Johnson was a skeletal, thuggish looking man carrying a large cudgel with which he single-handedly saw off four attackers. What became grouchiness was once outright aggression; what became fun political knockabout was once dedicated extremism and what became a healthy disdain for the wealthy was once a hatred for all rich folk.

As well as being introduced to this young, aggressive Johnson, we also meet his new bestie, Richard Savage. Having met him in Johnson’s description of his life, this new version of Savage is infinitely more…psychotic. Johnson’s Savage had a legitimate complaint in being denied his birthright as Lady Macclesfield and Earl Rivers bastard son. Richard Holmes’ Savage is most likely deluded in his belief but he certainly never seemed to question it. Where he is pursued by his evil mother in Johnson’s version of the story, he is the pursuer here, Poor Lady Macclesfield is stalked by Savage, who breaks into her house and continues a literature vendetta against her which culminates in the (wonderfully vicious) poem, ‘The Bastard’.

The endearingly childlike Savage of Johnson’s life is replaced by a more knowing, cunning person. When he mets young Samuel, Savage tends to keep him apart from his other lives, hiding his suaver and more successful elements from Samuel’s sympathy. Holmes also reveals that Savage was far more successful person earlier in his life than Johnson ever registers. At one point he had two houses, one in London and one in the Richmond countryside. At this time, he was also part of a circle including Aaron Hill and James Thompson (of Seasons fame). 

This period of success was interrupted by his murder trial. The chapter about this sequence of events was the highlight of the book. As well as going through the trial transcripts and literature around the trial with meticulous detail, Holmes also explains in parallel how Johnson presented the trial in his own telling of Savage’s life.

That said, Holmes still manages to create a picture of a fascinating and strangely likeable character - how Savage still remains a captivating person is a mystery to me but I appreciate a charismatic arsehole in life. It is helped that I love his poetry, strange an vigorous with an almost romantic mode of drama and self pity combines with an Augustan mode of expression

This isn’t a long book but it is a thoroughly engaging one. Richard Holmes evokes a radically different version of Johnson and describes a fascinating portrait of an infuriating and enticing man in Savage. Their friendship feels real, their world disturbingly grimy and their story an important one. 

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Johnson's 'Lives of the Poets' at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

On the 20th of March, the Dr Johnson Reading Circle met to get a dose of the good doctor himself.

Clutching copies of the ‘Selected Lives’ the conversation wheeled through topics as diverse as the mechanics of eighteenth century copyright, the footballer Gazza and the contents of Thomas Gray’s small clothes - and all of it relevant.

It seemed quite clear that poetry simply doesn’t hold the same place in modern discourse as it did in the eighteenth century. In the coffee houses, people used to read it aloud to each other, to debate poems and rate poets. Poetry was used to mark state occasions, to thank friends and to flirt. The appointment of the Laureate became a subject of much discussion and speculation. From a relatively young age, boys were made to translate Latin poetry, then Grecian into English. A poem could even scandalise and publicise, it could go viral. 

So it makes sense the London publishers, who had finally been challenged, beaten and forced to accept the idea that perpetual copyright was not a thing, wanted to hold onto their poems. In a move to oust cheaper, Scottish editions of poetry, a massive consortium of booksellers decided to  pool their resources and to get studious, authoritative lives of all the poets from Mr Preface himself, Samuel Johnson. 

He promptly took the commission and, enjoying himself so much, created some of the first(ish) literary biographies. His discussion on Metaphysical poets, or the structure of ‘Paradise Lost’ or the merits of Dryden vs Pope are still some of the starting places from which modern critics must go. What’s more, they can still surprise.

A member noted how pleasant it was to be with Johnson, how his flow of verbiage has a comforting streak - and there were many incidences of Johnson delivering zingers against his subjects. Milton is wonderfully put down by a line describing him, ‘trying to be funny’, Gray writes like a man ‘with a kind of strutting dignity, like a man walking on tiptoe’. Dyden’s words seem to ‘drop by chance’ whereas Swift ‘talks big when he says nothing’. 

Johnson’s criticism holds up too. His discussion on ‘Paradise Lost’ was so insightful and well explained that members regretted that their A-level teachers hadn’t given them a copy of Johnson’s analysis back in the day. Johnson was so engaging about the poem that two of the members were sent straight to ‘Paradise Lost’ (one person completed it. I sadly, did not).

However, the star of the night, the Life we kept looping back to was Johnson’s life of Richard Savage. I did a review of it on here six years ago, it being the first piece of Johnson I ever read, and I loved it so much it spurred me on to read much, much more. 

Written much earlier than the other lives, this is written by young, skeletal Johnson. The thirty year old who was told he would be better off as a market porter. The man forced to become a writer because there was nothing else he was trained to do. This was written by Johnson the political thinker, the rebel; a man who, despite being poorer than everyone around himself, knew himself to be cleverer -just like Savage.

Savage was a poet who befriended the young Johnson when they both wrote copy for Cave’s’ Gentleman’s Magazine’. Savage claimed to be the illegitimate child of Earl Rivers and the then Lady Macclesfield, who rejects and persecutes him. Johnson uses this to base the whole reading of Savage’s life, telling it as one full of brushes with greatness, almost success but ultimately success frustrated at the last moment. 

He seems a strange kind of person for Johnson to write about, even stranger that they were friends. Savage was a dissolute, sponging man filled with pride, who was better at writing about virtue than living it but there was something about Savage’s ability to carry on cheerfully and regardless that seems to hugely impress the neurotic Johnson.

The intimate nature of it, the small personal details and the way he builds an astonishingly clear picture of an utterly irritating yet charming man make it soar over the others. Johnson may have opinions on Milton and Swift and Pope (and my goodness, he does) but it doesn’t have the immediacy of the Savage piece. I’ve had people like Savage kip on my sofa, people with talents who are entertaining but who also feel they deserve to be supported by everyone else because of those talents. Not only do I feel I know Savage, but I share as mixed a relationship with him as Johnson did, all because of that lovely writing.

Overall, this may be my least favourite Johnson performance. I find the subject of poets and their lives too narrow and although Johnson can (and does) create some wonderful quotes and moments from the subject, it doesn’t let him really stretch his legs and go romping.

Next Dr Johnson Reading Circle we will be reading Richard Holmes’ ‘Age of Wonder’ but followers of the Grub Street Lodger will get a sneaky peek at Holmes and a little more of Savage when I look at his 1993 book, ‘Dr Johnson & Mr Savage’.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Video Review: Love & Friendship

A cheeky little video about a cheeky little film, 'Love & Friendship' AKA 'Lady Susan' with a borrowed name. There's a very funny bit about peas. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Review: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Lady Susan, an unpublished novella, one of the most minor of Jane Austen’s works and is still full of nuance, wit and character. I wish I could write something like it now, let alone at nineteen.

It uses the epistolary form in that way eighteenth century novels managed, but nineteenth and twentieth didn’t - it uses the different characters of the letter writers to shine different facets on the same event. Not partaking of the breathless, over-writing of Clarissa, the letters flow regularly but not insanely.

They deal with Lady Susan, the ‘most accomplished coquette in all England’ and her machinations and manoeuvrings following the death of he (obviously ineffectual) husband. In her scheming, he lying, her charm and the peculiar coldness to her child, she reminded me a great deal of Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharpe, but if the author actually liked her.

Because Austen clearly has a fondness for Lady Susan. Aside from getting all the juiciest lines (which she utterly does), her end isn’t a complete fall and the other characters are equally in awe of her skills as they are scared of her. It is Lady Susan who gets to practice the arts of ‘captivating deceit’ and I think it’s impossible to dislike a character who says; ‘There is an exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person predetermined to dislike acknowledge one’s superiority’. The key here being superiority, she is better than everyone else.

Her main rival is Mrs Vernon, her sister-in-law, who can do little but passively report on the doings in her own house to her mother. The main battleground is her brother, Reginald. He is the one predisposed to dislike Susan, but she quickly wraps him around her finger, feeds him plausible lies and makes him dote on her. She makes it clear to her friend, Mrs Johnson that she is mainly playing his feelings for something to do, her real inclination being for the (currently married) Mainwaring. 

Her other rival could well be her daughter. Fredericka is sixteen, has been in and out of school and, it seems, purposefully raised to not be particularly good at anything. Lady Susan tells her friend that Fredericka ‘ will not remain long enough at school to understand anything thoroughly.’ The main problem for Lady Susan is that having a daughter entering marriageable age makes her look much less marriageable, so she does everything she can to bring her daughter down. Mrs Vernon, the sister-in-law is greatly taken by Fredericka, which is all fine to Lady Susan, as they are as insipid as each other.

One of Lady Susan’s other problems is Sir James, a foolish ‘rattle’ who mixes ‘more frequent laughter with his discourse than the subject requires’. He has attached himself to Susan and it is her wish to transfer this rich but idiotic lover on her weak, pathetic daughter. 

A mix up with London houses, a convenient attack of gout and a mix up of letters means that Reginald finds out the truth of Susan, and she ends up marrying Sir James herself. While she is the cleverest person in the book, and lumbered with the stupidest, she hasn’t exactly landed on her feet - but we are left feeling that Lady Susan will probably find a way to exploit that stupidity to the best of her advantage. That said, in marrying Sir James, it does make it harder for her to live a free and flirting life - meaning that in this book, marriage is not the happy ending. A nice quirk.

This is a very quick read, and the subject of a very enjoyable film from 2009 called Love and Friendship, which is discussed in a video on my youtube channel. I highly recommend both.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Review: The Turk by Tom Standage

When I was younger, we couldn’t afford to go away on holidays and instead went on day trips to which we could walk, get the bus or (most excitingly) the train. When we got to the station, the choice was between going right, to the beach or left, to London. My love of museums, exhibitions and probably history was created by these trips. 

One of those trips included a visit to Covent Garden where there was a shop that sold and displayed automata. I was old enough to not find them creepy and instead, was enraptured by the strange, not-quite-human movements and the complex mechanisms that made them work. Although automata have not been one of my chief interests, I have always had a fondness for these complex gadgets.

I can’t remember when I first heard of the truly grandstanding automata of the eighteenth century, but I rushed down to the ‘robots’ exhibition at the Science Museum to see the graceful, mechanical swan. At some point, I also bought Tom Standage’s ‘The Turk: The True Story of the Chess-Playing Machine That Fooled the World’. 

This is a little book, slightly short with lots of space and a slightly larger font. That is not a detriment to the book - there are enough books around that continue long after their point has been made. This book comes in, tells a fascinating story with some intriguing implications and then goes away.

I was a little unlucky that I knew the end of the story before I knew much about the beginning, it’s the ‘Sweeney Todd’ or ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ effect. Good thing this story starts so interestingly. 

The Turk was essentially created for a bet. A Hungarian civil servant called Wolfgang von Kempelen agreed to create something far more astounding than the slightly underwhelming magician who had just performed in Maria Theresa’s court. Six months later, he returned with a chess playing machine that appeared to run on clockwork. He then spent the rest of his life trying to encourage people to move on from that achievement.

He may have created a speaking machine, steam-engines, bridges and fountains but it’s hard to live down a machine that can beat people at chess. When Joseph II (aka Jeffery Jones in ‘Amadeus’) succeeded Maria Theresa, he sent Kempelen on a two year tour of Europe to show off the Turk.

It bamboozled, intrigued and provoked people everywhere it went. Most people agreed that the Turk couldn’t be a genuinely intelligent machine, that it must have some human intervention somewhere. Could it be magnets? If it was, how could the Turk still work with a magnet placed on it? It couldn’t be strings because the Turk could be moved about and set up quickly. Nor could the Turk have someone in it because the insides were opened up and shown empty before the game began. It also managed to inspire machines like the power loom and Babbage’s difference engines.

Despite being pulled out for special occasions, the Turk was placed back in its crates, especially after Kempelen died - before coming spectacularly back to life. The Turk had been sold to Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, who was a creator of musical automata which could do things like genuinely play the trumpet. Mälzel was a skilled showman, and an inveterate spendthrift who had to keep moving when his debts caught up with him. The Turk was his most reliable money-spinner, which mostly kept him in funds until his death and was passed to another owner. Unfortunately it was burnt when the museum displaying it burnt down.

The Turk played famous names and famous games but the most famous thing about it was a question, 'how did it work?' Readers of the book will have this question answered.

It's nice to have a story like this told with authority and brevity. It’s certainly worth a few hours to find out everything you might want to know about the Turk but will not tell you one thing more.