Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Under the Glass... Seven: The Dignity of the Human Mind

I adore Johnson’s ‘Rambler’ essays. Even as they were written, they were parodied as well as praised (though never particularly bought until gathered in book form). They are Johnson at his Johnsonist, he called them his ‘pure wine’. Yes, they can be wordy, with long run-on sentences that don’t appeal to modern taste and a fancy for Latinate words - he was writing a dictionary at the same time - but I find more in a ‘Rambler’ essay than I do in whole other books.

On the 20th of September 2016, I felt awful. I had started working with my new class and I was concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to spend a year with them without losing all my patience and mind. A number of them had wound me up to a point of insensibility and it weighed on me. I walked home with a scowl wedged upon my face, staring at people, daring at them to insult me so I could hurt them. 

When I got home, I picked up my copy of ‘The Rambler’ and turned to essay number 185. It was about revenge, which appealed as I wanted to revenge myself on all those who had sniffed at me, or looked down on me. What was amazing is that something published  on Christmas Eve 1751 started to calm me down nearly 267 years later.

It successfully and persuasively mocked the anger born from an injured pride and made the strength of my anger seem ridiculous. It also raised the nobler feelings in me, my instincts to help, my confidence in the choices and values. By the time I reached the following quote, I was smiling:

“Nothing which reason condemns can be suitable to the dignity of the human mind. To be driven by external motives from the path in which our heart approves; to give way to anything but conviction; to suffer the opinion of others to rule our choice or overpower out resolves; is to submit tamely to the lowest and most ignominious slavery, and to resign the right of directing our lives.”

It’s now the end of that school year with that class. I’m going to miss them. There were some very good times, though there were also tough times. Times when I wanted to quit, to swear and tell them painful home-truths I’m not sure I believe. Over the year I have been sworn at, kicked at, had missiles thrown at me and ignored - it has not been an easy year. 

Yet, I have had that quote near my side and a quick peek at it has re-enforced my wish to do well for the children; to help them and to show by my actions, the power of reason, of the dignity of the human mind and to walk the peaceful path that my heart approves than be a slave to their aggression. 

That quote has helped me this year in seeing the strength of peace, even when it can sometimes feel like a weakness. It has made me a better person. (Though yesterday, I did yell at a kid for asking me the same question for the eighth time…I’m not perfect).

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Review: The Hermit in the Garden by Gordon Campbell

I’ve been interested in ornamental hermits since I picked up Dame Edith Sitwell’s ‘English Eccentrics’. Out of all the people discussed (some of whom seemed to have far more serious issues than mere eccentricity) those garden dwelling loners appealed to me the most.

So, imagine my pleasure when I discovered that Oxford University Press had realised a book called ‘The Hermit in the Garden’. It is the one-and-only book about this fascinating piece of history and I couldn’t wait to give it a go.

The book starts with a general history of hermits, hermitages and their role in early Christianity – particularly as precursors to the monastic lifestyle. The next chapter is about the various ideas and traditions that led to something as strange as housing a contemplative man as decoration for the back garden. It explores the Christian tradition of the hermit but also the Celtic tradition, such as the legendary Myrddin. Combine with this, the late eighteenth century cult of Sensibility, Rousseau’s notion of the nobility of living with nature and the stretch for the sublime and such buildings as follies, temples and hermitages started to appear in gardens in Britain and around Europe. These hermitages then progenerated hermits like beetles from stagnant water.

The next chapter was my favourite, and deals with the ornamental hermits themselves. When it comes to ornamental hermits, it is by far the ornamental part of the phrase that interests more than the hermit part. There have always been hermits, people who have taken themselves ‘off-grid’ (as they put it now) to live in contemplation with nature. It’s the truly peculiar nature of having one for only ornamental reasons that capture my imagination. 

It certainly seems that there were a few ornamental hermits and that, for a time at least, some rich folk had successfully advertised and paid for live-in garden gnomes. It seems that the ornamental hermit became something of a joke, or at least viewed in an ironic manner, pretty quickly. How else could there have been stuffed manikin hermits, automata hermits and hermits living in pasteboard grottoes?

The rest of the book is dedicated to the architecture of the hermitages rather than the hermits themselves. This means that for nearly one hundred pages, the reader and author go on a tour of as many hermitages as possible and have each of them all sequentially described, one by one. In my notes for the book, there was one large, desperate cry for help; ‘Not another lamb bone mosaic floor!’ A phrase that comes up at least once a page in this section, if not more. For those more interested in the architecture then me (and those who are getting into lamb-bone decorations) this part of the book might fly by, for me it was a little bit of a slog.

Other than the bibliography and index, the book finishes with an extensive (of course) list of hermitages around the world and what state they are in. A truly cracked person could go on a hermitage tour of Europe. 

Despite the fact that half the book is a repetitive ‘through the keyhole’ of hermitages, I still recommend it as a meticulous, comprehensive look at a fascinating phenomenon. I like a book that tells you more then you need to know – and this fulfils that admirably.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Dr Johnson's House and the new 'Collecting Johnson' Exhibit

It’s strange, the amount of times I have talked about Samuel Johnson and attended events at Dr Johnson's House but never talked about it on here. 

The house, in Gough Square, is the one Johnson rented and lived in as he compiled his Dictionary and wrote his Rambler essays. Shortly after the completion of the dictionary, Johnson had to move out but the house remained and, even in the constantly changing face of London, managed to still stand.

In 1911 it was bought by liberal MP, Cecil Harmsworth and dedicated to the memory of Samuel Johnson, intending it to feel like a warm home rather than an uptight museum. During WWII, the house was used as a canteen and social club for the firemen who fought against the firestorms of the Blitz. The house was hit a number of times but luckily, never burnt down.

Now, it is open to the public, runs a number of interesting events and is where I go every couple of months to talk about the eighteenth century. Each of the rooms tells a different aspect of Johnson’s life and there are many portraits and prints around the walls to introduce various people in Johnson’s life. The house also has a copy of his will, various items belonging to friends and a fully stocked library with some of Johnson’s own books and a facsimile copy of his dictionary always open to look at.

One of the real joys of the house is the fact that you can feel it as a working house. The rooms feel homely, the various domestic partitions and clever little hideaways add to the feeling that people lived there. A large corkscrew device by the front door still stands as a deterrent against thieves and bailiffs and the central stairs still remain the hub of the house, taking us to Johnson’s bedroom or up the ‘four-pair’ to the wonderfully atmospheric Dictionary Garret.

But I mention this because of the new exhibition, ‘Collecting Johnson’. If it’s somewhere you’ve been putting off visiting, this is the time to go.

Included in the entrance ticket, ‘Collecting Johnson’ has a number of objects and works never before seen in public, borrowed from collectors across the world. There’s a letter from Johnson to Hester Thrale, addressed in warm and familiar terms; there are rare copies of works by and owned by friends such as Sheridan and Goldsmith, there’s a copy of a very early biography which Johnson wrote for the Gentleman’s Magazine, of which only three others exist.. there’s a lot more.

My personal favourites included the book by Bow-Street Runner, Saunders Welch (though probably actually written by Johnson), a bound copy of Johnson’s plan for his dictionary and a hand-written subscription card for his edition of Shakespeare, which came out nine years later after Johnson had lost his list of subscribers.

As well as all of this, there’s a never-before-seen x-ray of a portrait of Johnson’s and a very impractical looking snuff-box owned by Boswell. Chatting to the curator about it, she said that when she placed the lid on and ‘jiggled it about’ (technical term) it held together surprisingly well.

I’m sure it’s pretty obvious that I love Dr Johnson’s House and I loved the exhibition, but toddling along in the next few months is highly recommended because of that extra Johnsonian bang for your buck - and if you went a few years ago, go again as there are things there that will never be available again. 

Oh - and don't forget to say hello to Hodge, Johnson's cat.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

All About: Ornamental Hermits

A lovely video about a topic we've discussed here before... ornamental hermits.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Sheridan's School for Scandal at the Dr Johnson's Reading Circle

It could have been the scorching heat, the decision to move the wine into the reading room, the fact it was the last meeting of the year or the fact that we were performing Sheridan’s ‘School for Scandal’ to each other - but something put the the Dr Johnson Reading Circle in a festival mood.

Cast lists had been sent out in advance; everyone had the chance (if they wished) to step out of their normal boundaries and try different roles. Perfectly lovely men played sneering, gossipy women whilst perfectly lovely women played hypocritical, conniving men. A prudent curator became a spendthrift wastrel and I had the opportunity of exploring my inner coquette.

The plot is one of those things that makes sense while being swept along but almost impossible to recount in the cold light of day. There’s an old husband and his young wife, trying to work out how to be married, there are two brothers whose characters are being tested by their rich uncle in disguise, there’s a young innocent who is loved by both the brothers and there is the school for scandal, an intimate group of male and female gossips who love nothing more than to spoil a good reputation.

What was surprising, is how Oscar Wilde-ish much of Sheridan’s dialogue is.  One member of the school explains that she destroys reputations in retaliation for her own being tattered and is told that, ‘nothing could be more natural.’ Another member of the group constantly spreads gossip in the same breath as denouncing it, while yet another member declares, “ I have no malice against the people I abuse. When I say an ill-natured thing, ’tis out of pure good humour.” A character called Mr Snake who is paid to do a good deed and begs that no-one else is told of the good deeds as it would spoil his reputation. This combination of restoration-comedy-esque intrigue and Wildean wit creates a sense of pleasure and abandon. 

The characters’ actions are not completely realistic, this would make a truly ludicrous novel, but on the stage, with the quick pacing (many of the lines are written to interrupt each other) smooth over gaps in plausibility and set up gags and set-pieces galore.

I had particular pleasure (as Mrs Candour) in rattling off long, digressive speeches full of nasty gossip and weak admonishments against gossip. I also had the joy (as Lady Teazle) in alternately flirting and arguing with my husband, Sir Peter. However, my favourite scene was probably one I wasn’t in, where Charles Surface (the profligate but honest brother) sells his collection of family portraits to his uncle, who is in disguise to test him. 

We enjoyed reading the play so much, that when our allotted time ran out, we took our books to the local pizza place and read there, laughing as cues were lost in mouths of mozzarella and reaching a triumphant conclusion while the staff were ready to kick us out. I do feel we should have included the epilogue (as it was a long speech for me).

‘School for Scandal’ is genuinely enjoyable, and even fairly scandalous. There are performances of it in Finsbury Park until July 7th, which it might be worth getting tickets for. If I can’t, and if you can’t, I recommend doing what we did - get some friends over, pour some refreshments and read it together. It certainly worked for us.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Reading Casanova Volume Three

Volume three starts exactly where volume two’s cliffhanger left us. Casanova is about to perform some fake sorcery in order to defraud a man of his money and virgin daughter. The clock strikes midnight…
…Casanova starts the incantations, a storm begins to rumble overhead. As he reaches the climax of the ceremony, the storm crashes ahead and lightning throws down its barb├ęd forks. This makes him think twice about what he his up to, so he makes amends and scarpers to Naples.
On the way, he meets an old Hungarian officer who is accompanying a young French soldier - who is clearly a woman in a uniform. The two cannot converse and mainly make do with sign language, so Casanova lends a hand. Naturally he falls in love with the young French woman. He makes plans to steal her away from the officer in Parma, but, in his translation duties, discovers that she wants to leave him in Parma anyway and that he is resigned to it. When they arrive at Parma, Casanova steps in as a gentleman and escorts the lady to a shared house.
Here name is Henriette - if you watch the BBC adaption of Casanova with David Tennant, she is the love of his life. They do indeed set up home and Casanova talks about them living ‘as married’ and the time being one of the happiest he ever enjoyed. But there’s a problem. Henriette is on the run from her family in France and Parma is under heavy French control and influence, so it’s not long before she has to leave Casanova behind and return to them. She scratches a command in the window for him to forget her and he proceeds to cry for several days. 
In his weakness, a man manages to convert him to sober and religious life. He then finds out charges in Venice against him have been dropped so he returns to his patron, Bragadin’s house and falls back to his old ways.

With friends at home and money in his pocket, Casanova naturally buggers off to France and has fun. There he is shocked and pleased by the louche-ness, makes a few faux-pas with the language and learns the phrase ‘je ne c’ext quoi’. He has a few flings, pimps for Louis XV, fakes himself a master of cabbala and makes a bunch of friends before moving onto Dresden, Vienna and then back home to Venice.
Where this volume started with a love of his life, it also ends with one. A disreputable friend of his has a gorgeous, young sister he falls in love with. Her father is a respectable merchant who has banished the disreputable son and wouldn’t countenance Casanova as a suitor but he falls head over heels, arranges the necessary false names and hideout, then proceeds to a common-law marriage.

She is taken away and ensconced in a nunnery on one of the other islands in the Venetian Lagoon and he arranges a system of secret letters and a ring that has a secret trap-door in it that contains a picture of his face. Thus we leave him, longing for his ‘wife’ with her brother trying (and failing) to hoodwink him.
I found Casanova more likeable in this volume then the other ones. His violent, even murderous impulses are less (though I do recall him waving a pistol around and shooting at stableboys at one point) and his romances seem less like flings and more like the proper love he always claims it is. Slightly more queasily, some of these loves are thirteen/fourteen at most and that is a rather icky area it might be best to chalk up to different cultures (though still quite unpleasant to realise).

It was also a pleasure to be reading Casanova in his beloved Venice, even if he didn’t get to spend much time there, and even if I hadn’t got to the famous bit of him escaping the ceiling-jails of the Doge’s Palace. That escapade happens in volume four - and I shall be sharing it with him at some point soon-ish.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

A Few Words on my Trip to Venice

Last week I was in Venice and I now have sore eyes. How could I shut them in such a beautiful and interesting place? 
Everything about Venice fascinated me; from its foundation as a refugee camp fleeing from the Mongol and other ‘barbarian’ invasions on the flailing Roman Empire, to the development of a unique and peculiar republic that fought the battle of Lepanto - the last major battle fought with galleys and battering rams, to the masked and revelrous world that birthed Casanova and finally, the tourist magnet it is today.

What struck me most was how I had been mislead by the word ‘canal’. I had in my mind the British form of canal that was championed by the Lunar Society. It is a purposeful, dug-up system created to make transport easier. Venice’s canals and waterways are what have shaped the city, often as an obstacle to be overcome. Even today; food, toilet rolls and other necessities are boated into the Venetian islands where porters load up handcarts and push them all around the city. It reminded me of eighteenth century London, which also boated in products to be carried throughout the city - it created a thriving atmosphere, the porters providing a bloodline throughout.

I wasn’t there long but in that time I managed to boast myself around the lagoon, exploring the glassblowers of Murano (where one of Casanova’s lovers was ‘safely’ ensconced in a nunnery), the astonishingly pretty Burano (birthplace of influential eighteenth century composer Baldassare Galuppi) and the tranquil Torcello (where I sat on ‘Attila’s Throne’).

I also explored the Jewish ghetto - a specifically Venetian word that originally meant factory but eventually applied to all deprived, squeezed and downtrodden areas. On a lighter note, Venice also gave us the word ‘sequin’, named after the zechinni, a small shiny coin of the republic.

To the art or museum fan, Venice has far more than can possibly be enjoyed in less then three weeks. I enjoyed a number of churches, from the ancient one on Torcello to the famous St Mark’s - though I most enjoyed the trip to the Doge’s Palace. First I was fascinated by the system of government, the various councils and committees, the secret postboxes to denounce heretics and the Bridge of sighs over to a warren of dank prison cells. I spent hours wandering the halls of power and listening to chunks of tours. Finally, I also explored a few museums in St Mark’s square where there was much to enjoy.

It’s hard to explain how many interesting things I writing this, I feel I can either write a page on each thing or a sentence. If you haven’t been to Venice, I’d recommend it straightaway and I’d ask if you fancied taking me.


A hilarious contribution to the genre of 'ugly baby Jesus' paintings.