Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Review...? My Trip to the Opera ENO 'The Barber of Seville'

I have a confession - I’ve never seen an opera. In itself, I don’t think this is strange, I hardly know anyone who has seen one but seeing as I am professing myself a huge eighteenth century fan and  I have never experienced this most eighteenth century of entertainments - it's a gap I needed to fill.

I decided to rectify this by grabbing myself a ticket for the English National Opera’s revival of an English translation of ‘The Barber of Seville’. Now, this is isn’t exactly an eighteenth century opera (it was written in 1816) but it was based on the third of a trilogy of eighteenth century plays about a man called Figaro, a barber and general getter-together of men and women.

What I found most surprising about the opera, was that there were hardly any songs. I was expecting to go home humming the tunes and really the only one I remembered was the Figaro aria. It was odd, people were constantly singing, there was melody but no tune.

I did really enjoy the music though. The harpsichord is one of my three favourite instruments but I don’t think I have ever heard one live until this opera. It has such a lovely feel to it, like honey running down a ridged surface and it was delicious to hear.

In terms of story, it was a pretty standard plot. Rosina is a beautiful woman kept in close confinement by stuffy old senex Dr Bartolo. She is in love with count Almaviva and Figaro, the barber of Seville helps him get the girl.

Dr Bartolo was brilliantly pompous, Almaviva was a little bland in himself but had great fun with his disguises, Rosina was sharp and feisty and Figaro…does very little, but boasts that he is doing so much more.
I very much enjoyed the jokes - there were some very funny bits of staging with people hiding in cupboards and such. There were even some jokes about opera itself, when fuddy old Dr Bartolo sang a song in the style of operas of his youth and so sung in an absurd falsetto. Obviously, he was ‘doing’ a castrati, and the effect was enjoyably daft.
What most surprised me was that although there is near constant music and singing, there are very few tunes. With the exception of Figaro’s aria, there was very little to walk home humming to - as a fairly frequent watcher of musicals, I was expecting songs linked with music rather than a run of music.
As much as I enjoyed the story, characters and even music - I was as aggravated by the opera as I was charmed by it. I have a love/hate relationship with Monty Python. There are elements of their humour that make me laugh a great deal - especially their silly side, but I have an extreme hatred for the side of their humour farts and tarts about. The best example is in ‘Life of Brian’ where Brian is trying to escape by buying a fake beard and Eric Idle keeps getting in the way with irritating asides about haggling. That’s how I felt watching this opera.
At one point, the story had got to its halfway part, all the cast were on stage and the full level of carnage was reached. Time to run the curtain down…but no. A man started singing ‘Like a blacksmith with an anvil, my head is pounding, pounding, pounding.’ This song was then taken up by another character, and another, and another - till they were all singing about their headache. For one, I didn’t believe they all had a headache. For a second, of they had a headache, stop singing and lie down. But for the third - why make their headache the thing to leave the audience with into the interval?
Presumably, the repetition exists because the audience had to understand what was happening. In a noisy, chatty theatre with poorer acoustics and no A/V equipment, it makes sense to repeat things a number of times. Although the director did do his best to make a joke of the repetition and general time-wasting - it didn’t diminish the fact that there was so much if it.

I went last Tuesday, a good day, as I got a pretty decent seat for ten pounds. As frustrating as I found it, I also had could see something loveable about the whole silly affair. I would certainly try again - any suggestions?

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Dick Turpin... the TV Series.

I'm starting a video series where I look at the 1979 'Dick Turpin' series. Here's a simple intro.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Review: Rookwood by William Harrison Ainsworth

This year I have read a few modern examples of what was once called the Newgate novel, derring tales of adventure and mischief set in eighteenth century and often ending at the gallows. The Virtue of this Jest, Slammerkin and The Fatal Tree are all inheritors of the title but I thought I’d try something a little different; a self-proclaimed heir to the English gothic novel mixed with the Newgate variety. Which is why I get to present, for your delectation, this demented work of over-the-top genius called Rookwood.

I picked this books because William Harrison Ainsworth wrote the book from just round the corner from where I live, is buried a short walk from where I work and was inspired to write this novel by a house not far from where a grew up. Despite coming out in 1834, Rookwood was written ‘in the bygone style of Mrs. Radcliffe’ but transplanted to England with highwayman to serve instead of the Italian brigands. It was a massive success, and Ainsworth wrote another 39 novels inspired by various parts of history including a trilogy on the Pendle witches (whom a friend of mine claims descent), one on Jack Shepherd and novels set around landmarks like St Paul’s and the Tower of London. I plan to give the Jack Shepherd a go soon-ish. I feel a little sorry for him, Dickens was seen for a while as his protege but has overshadowed him. He also had killer sideburns.

In many ways the plot is superfluous, though there is a lot of fun to be had in anticipating the ways it will twist and turn. In short, Piers Rookwood is dead and his title goes to his oldest son - but who shall that be, Ranulph, who seems the obvious heir or Luke, who is told that Piers and his mother married in secret? 

Things wouldn’t get quite so complicated if the Rookwoods weren’t quite so cursed. I counted seven prophecies and curses about them by the time of the novel’s close. Whether it be the lime tree that drops branches when important Rookwoods die, or the curse that all Rookwood heirs murder their first wives, or the one about only when the stray rooks marry, the curses will be over… there are a lot of them.

Keeper of this gothic lore, supplier of creepy ballads and generally all-round macabre guy is Peter Bradley. He is the first character we meet, in a crypt naturally enough. At one point he gets annoyed with a background character and curses him, that character is struck by lightning in a later chapter.

If Peter Bradley is keeper of the gothic flame, Dick Turpin is keeper of the Newgate. Essentially he makes the book stand and deliver before taking over for a while. In the preface, Ainsworth says that he used to walk the haunts of Dick Turpin and tell stories about him as child, that he regarded Turpin as last of a breed but I still find Dick Turpin a particularly strange choice to carry this candle. The real Turpin was barely even a highwayman, more of a home invasion/ torture sort of person and the ride to York was achieved by ‘Swift-Nick’ Nevinson. The purpose of the ride doesn’t even make sense in Rookwood, the point is to be so far away, so quickly that it would seem impossible to ride - but Turpin is followed the whole way.

Add to that, the Newgate parts have almost nothing to do with the gothic. The whole ride to York section is essentially Turpin going back up North to take part in Luke Rookwood’s attempt to get the estate…which he doesn’t really have much of a role in. During the best, strangest and most bonkers chapters in the book; Luke tries to marry his cousin (and fulfil a prophecy that the stray Rook should marry another to keep the money) this happens in an underground crypt in an abandoned abbey where a monk had starved to death. The marriage is officiated by a renegade catholic priest and the queen of the gypsies and all sorts of things go terribly wrong - Turpin is outside guarding the entrance hole, he really is quite unnecessary. 

Not that any of that matters, this book is so entertaining. It’s a genius idea to mix the Gothic and Newgate novels for the simple reason that they don’t have any reason belonging together. One is a phantom, arial text full of ghosts, curses and shifting reality whilst the other is a deeply earthy text, bound with material worries, slang and moments of down and dirty life. The only thing that really connects the two is moonlight.

If you want to read a book that involves a conman dressed as medieval knight; a sarcophagus with a built in booby trap, minor characters were struck by lightning as mood music, desiccated human arms liberally tossed about, wives were murdered, revenges attempted and loads of perky songs sung along the way - then this is the book for you. I adored it.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Boswell's Life of Johnson 1776-1778 at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

On the the third floor of Samuel Johnson’s House in Gough Square in London, sits a large glass case and inside it is a cube of grey stone. This is a brick from the Great Wall of China and it was sent to the house because Johnson once expressed a wish to visit the wall, but being to old to go there, some of the wall came to him.

That wish was expressed in the section of Boswell’s Journal we discussed at the Dr Johnson House Bookclub this Wednesday. This was the first session of the third year and there was a mixture of old and new members fresh and ready to bat the text about a bit and see what we could get out of it.

Equality and hierarchy came up as they often do. Johnson’s view on people’s ‘place’ is such an uncertain, shifting topic, there’s always something to say about it. A firm anti-slaver but painfully certain that a king should be a king. It was probably best summed up by the member who said that Johnson seemed to highly respect individual freedom but expect that individual to act within a strict system. 

We enjoyed Johnson debating with Mrs Knowles (and losing the odd point or two) and his review of Kedleston Hall as a perfect civic building if not exactly a house - more enjoyable was his tactful comment to the owner, that it sure looked expensive.

Johnson was in a playful mood in a lot of this section; whether it was limping about pretending to be Richard III (to show how easy acting is), clearing a blocked water feature of a dead cat, wishing he learned to play the fiddle and bemoaning the fact he failed to learn knitting or even planning the best cookbook ever written - he has an energy in this that Boswell doesn’t expect in him. When Johnson meets an old university friend, the friend feels old and Johnson keeps having to remind him what spring chickens they really are. He’s in one of his phases of temperance, declaring that he’ll go back to drinking when he’s old. 

There’s a lot about friendship in this section. Dead friends are frequently remembered, Goldsmith is often brought up for both well and ill, and Boswell and Johnson’s friendship seems warmer then ever. Since travelling together, there seems to be a new closeness and although Johnson can still get angry, he’s always ready to apologise again and profess his love for Boswell. Bozzy has also mellowed, maybe it’s becoming a father, but he’s trying hard to get on with his own dad as he makes a relationship with his new son. The relationship between Johnson and Boswell is a full, rich and slightly strange one. Sometimes they are naughty schoolboys together, prodding dead cats, yet sometimes Johnson acts as father, sometimes they are serious adults together and discuss the deep things in life. We reflected that none of us knew of any really good books on the subject (so if anyone knows of any, drop a line).

We also reflected on how many of the conversations were like those we’ve had. Johnson reflects on old friendships, relives old japes and looks forward to new ones. They discuss death and ghosts, take the mickey out of each other, correct each other’s grammar (Johnson hated the word ‘prodigious’), bickered and generally did all the things that people comfortable in each other’s company do…. and pretty much what we were doing as well, chatting about Johnson and Boswell and company as if they were just old friends.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Review: 'The London Spy' by Ned Ward

The London Spy appeared at the cusp of the eighteenth century and dealt with the shadower underside of London life. 

It was written by Ned Ward, who had already begun something of a writing career, with hudibrastic verses about his disappointing search for an inheritance and a description of his trip to Jamaica  - fair to say, he didn’t like the place. After a similarly scathing description of New England (which he might not have been to), he decided to apply his style closer to home.

In The London Spy, Ned is represented as an innocent from the country who is led around it’s precincts and environs by a more streetwise friend, sampling the best of London culture, meeting various colourful locals and enjoying the unique skill of London Language. The two men hang around Billingsgate with the fishwives, spend time with cardsharps and wits, poke there heads into Newgate and Bridewell, and visit Bartholomew Fair.

What Ned Ward does best is to listen to people. He clearly has a joy in the way people speak, especially their saltier phrases. We learn of the river-custom where those rowing across the Thames shout insults and throw turds (or ‘sir-reverence’ as it is referred) at each other. We learn of old soldiers with legs ‘too thin to fit a stocks around’ with ‘turd-coloured’ moustaches where they sniff cheap snuff. In Bedlam there is a man who only spoke ‘in praise of bread and cheese. Bread was good with cheese and cheese was good with bread, and bread and cheese was good together.’ We meet a man in a pub with a nose, ‘as long as a rolling pin, and I am sure as big at the end as a football, beset with carbuncles and rubies’. 

At his best, Ned Ward is rude, filthy and full of life, as this bravura piece of Thames river banter attests;

 ‘You couple of Treacherous Sons of Bridewell Bitches, who are Pimps to your own Mothers, Stallions to your Sisters, and Cock-Bawds to the rest of your Relations; Who were begot by Huffling, Spew’d up, and not Born; and Christen’d out of a Chamber-Pot; How dare you show your Ugly Faces upon the River of Thames, and Fright the Kings Swans from holding their heads above Water?” May I talk as unpleasantly when the need arises. 

Readers of eighteenth century history may often find little bits of Ned Ward popping up in textbooks and other works, often supplying a little bit of local colour but beware - he is writing to entertain. He may spy on the dark and dingy by-ways of London but to take what he says completely straight may be foolish. Things aren’t in The London Spy because they are true, but because they amuse Ned Ward.

Particularly amusing to him is anything to do with poo and bottoms. Much excrement is thrown during the course of the work (he gets five pages in Norman Inkpen’s Shit Jokes - a study of scatological Humour). There is also a sequence in The London Spy which things go up bottoms. I shall not play the censor but only say that those who want to find it can go look for it themselves.

Such energy doesn’t last forever though. The London Spy lasted eighteen editions at one a month and had really dropped in popularity in the last few months. It’s not hard to see why; the sharp and precise portraits of different people and parts of the city become a more general description of ‘a stockjobber’, ‘a beau’, often followed by a weak poem on the subject. It had become formulaic to the writer and dwindles away. 

That didn’t stop it being a huge success, nor to be extremely influential including blatant copies (I one of The York Spy), finesses of his idea (from Tom Brown to possibly even The Spectator) and a 1966 reworking (The New London Spy). 

Personally, I prefer Tom Brown’s take on the idea a little later in his Amusements Serious and Comical, calculated for the Meridian of London, Brown is a less energetic writer and his character sketches don’t feel as real but he has a greater skill with the pen to make it a more even work. That being said, this is a book that will amuse, shock and entertain for many of its pages and I recommend trying it out.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

What about....The Vicar of Wakefield?

Here's the first of a series of short videos looking at classics that haven't ever really received the tv/film adaptations they deserve.

Thursday, 7 September 2017


For my sins, I like listchallenges book lists.
If my dear reader hasn’t discovered this phenomenon, listchallenges are checklists created by users that other users tick off - I am particularly fond of the subsect of these lists that deal with books. 
These lists have a number of things that completely irritate me; I am finger-gnawingly irritated whenever 1984 appears on each one, I love/hate marvelling at the sheer number of young-adult novels with vague one word titles and dreadful cover art, and I like seeing and remembering something I read years ago and forgot about.
There’s also the abuse of language, one of the list descriptions says, ‘The top 100 books I am still looking for to add to my to read list,’ which can be translated as, ‘I want to read these books’. 
But the most annoying thing about listchallenges is the overwhelming sense of guilt. There are lists full of classic works where users are encouraged to compare themselves to each other and to feel bad about not having read the requisite works. 
Which completely misunderstands the point of classic works.
They are classic because they have struck readers as particularly skilled works and have maintained that over the decades and centuries. They are classics because they are good. A person shouldn’t feel guilty for not reading them, or read them to assuage that guilt but should read them because they are enjoyable, well-written and long-lasting works that have enthralled people for years. 
I started this blog because I had all these thoughts about the eighteenth century literature I was reading and nowhere to express it. Now, I go to the Dr Johnson Reading Circle and I get a chance to talk about these books I love and my friends haven’t read, but I still write the blog. My point is never that a person is better for reading classic works, or that knowledge of the eighteenth century is self improving - it’s a chance for me to squee, in full fanboy style about those things I love. On a rare occasion that I feel the eighteenth century has improved me, I like to share but on the many occasions it has entertained, or even bored - I share that too.
So, listchallenges can be a fun way to track, explore and share pleasure for books, but the notion that it should guilt people into reading the same stuff is nonsense.

Since 2010, I have been keeping a reading diary, and with a little time on my hands I decided to make a list of the books I have read since then. These are the books that have wormed there way into my head… enjoy.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Review: Pure by Andrew Miller

I picked this book up back when it was making headlines as a Costa winner. I read the opening sentence, ‘A young man, young but not very young, sits in an anteroom somewhere, some wing or other, in the Palace of Versailles.’ It’s a sentence that greatly annoys me. Why is the narrator so slippery with the details, so vague? I threw down the book with frustration and didn’t pick it up for several years.

However, having read Ingenious Pain (and less so Casanova) I was comforted to realise that Andrew Miller is a skilled and confident writer. This is a wonderfully written book but that initial vagueness spreads over the whole story. There’s enough in the writing to let you know something is going on but not enough to let you know what.

It tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Barrette, an engineer who is tasked with removing a cemetery that is fouling the centre of Paris. He must mine deep into the ground for old corpses and have them transported, and in doing so, he comes of age. 

In the course of the work, he must build a team and a method to achieve the huge and disgusting feat. He must struggle against the priest who is about to lose his church, the daughter of the house he is lodging in and the opinion of the people. He is aided by the church organist - who is part of the coming revolution. There is also the incident with the gravedigger’s daughter and the man in charge of the army of engineers. 

One of the most pleasurable parts of the book is the camaraderie of the engineers and diggers, there is the feeling of a huge and accepting family that feels warm and lets the reader into it. (I also enjoyed the priest throwing missals as missiles - that made me smile).

This a book of many conflicting duos. It pits the living against the dead, the rational against the irrational, the mind against the body and the past against the future. To make Paris pure, Barrette must battle with the past and deal with those literal skeletons in Paris’s closet. But Barrette is not completely convinced of his task, he has an awkward standing in ‘the party of the future’. The year is 1785 and that future, as mixed in blood as progress, is just around the corner.

All these big, conflicting ideas make it seem that something is definitely occurring, that the clearing of the cemetery has a definite meaning beyond itself, but it is so busy contrasting those ideas that it never quite makes it clear what it is.

In the beginning of the book there is a description of an elephant, which is purposefully set up as a metaphor. The elephant lives on fine brandy and frightened the palace dogs, before they got used to it and attacked the elephant which had to be put into seclusion. At the end, the elephant is dead. Again - this may be a metaphor, but a metaphor for what? Is it the behemoth of the state - about to be attacked by the dogs of san-culottes? Is it the fear of death and desecration, that the gravediggers overcome? It’s not sure.

I had a little read of the removal of Les Innocents graveyard, what surprised me most was an element of the genuine removal that I think would have made a brilliant metaphor for purity out of decay. The engineers and diggers had a side business in collecting the congealed fat from the rotting corpses and turning it into soap - like in Fight Club. What more compelling and strange  image can there be then that?

Again, this was a very well written book, extremely nippy and enjoyable as I read it and introducing me to a fascinating piece of history and some well realised and interesting characters. Yet, like Casanova, there was something ultimately dissatisfying about a book that hinted it was about more then it said. By all means pick up Andrew Miller, but beware, it will haunt you with meanings that aren’t quite there.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Review: Casanova by Andrew Miller

My next Andrew Miller book is his second, ‘Casanova’ (or ‘Casanova in Love’ in some countries). It is a novel about Casanova’s time in London, particularly his romance of Marie Charpillon. It was not a successful romance and Casanova was not the same since.

I’ve read some Casanova, though I’ve not reached his adventures in London, but the Casanova in this book is really not the same person as the one he writes about. Casanova’s ‘History of my Life’ was written when he was an old man, with far more experience and far more misadventures then those times in middle age when he was in London. Despite this extra experience, Casanova seems to view his younger self with such affection and amusement that the world-weary, tired-of-life element of this book doesn’t really ring true. It’s also not much fun.

Casanova is so dour in this. Viewing London in the eighteenth century as little more then a purgatory in which he is condemned to live out the whole of his life following the same dull patterns. Actually, it’s more like Tartarus, where Tantalus finds all his pleasures pulling away from him at the last minute.

Throughout the course of the book, Casanova tries to seduce Miss Charpillon, but she plays him repeatedly, driving Casanova half-mad. In public she fusses over him, leading everyone around to feel that she and he are together, but when he gets her alone, she closes up physically and emotionally - which he can’t cope with at all. He starts to question how easy and enjoyable such intrigues used to be and questions the paths he has taken that has led him to where he is now.

In reality, Casanova did act in extreme ways; threatening her with a fruit knife, buying lead shot to drown himself in the Thames and training a parrot to describe her as a whore. It is extreme, but Casanova (in one of his less famous romances) stole locks of a woman’s hair and turned them into special sweets. Casanova dug up a corpse as a prank against someone who got his coat dirty. He always let his feelings and actions to go too far, this romance seems business as usual as far as Casanova is concerned.

In the novel, he does threaten her, he does buy the lead shot and he does train the parrot - to say ‘je t’aime’, watering down Casanova’s fantastic bitchiness. Other things added to the novel include a completely confusing section (which begins without warning) where Casanova and his manservant swap clothes with poor people and live as penniless builders for a few weeks. Why they do this is never explained, it makes no sense from Casanova’s point of view and has no real point. I have the feeling that it is trying to make a point about something, but I’m not sure what.

A relationship is created between Casanova and Samuel Johnson. It’s a great idea; one represents Venetian impulsiveness, lasciviousness and luxury and the other represents English common sense, plain wholesomeness and solidity. However, Johnson is flat - as is Casanova. In this pair, we have two of the finest raconteurs and conversationalists in history, but the dialogue is plain. Though I did like Johnson as a secret lech. 

Something that did work, was the inflation of a massive storm that grows to a Biblical flood, engulfing London up to the roofs, causing people to row around it, tying their boats to the steeples of churches. It’s a lovely image, with Casanova finally able to feel home after years of exile. It is, however, a very fairytale image which doesn’t really sit well with what is often a grounded and somber book, which again feel like it’s making a point I don’t quite understand.

It’s written by Andrew Miller, and so very well written. I particularly enjoyed the description of the ticking of a clock being the sound of time’s hammers chipping away slowly at an hour and also the description of a young woman’s lips looking as succulent as new prawns. He has a wonderful way of putting things and I don’t think I could ever not enjoy one of his books - but this one was very difficult to find out what he was actually trying to say. I just didn’t get it.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Johnson's Reading Circle: Trip to Oxford

29th of July 2017: Marylebone Station. 

Among the people swirling around the station, running to a train or cursing the lines closed for weekend maintenance, stood the Dr Johnson’s House Reading Circle. Slightly shocked at the crowds, some bright spark figures out which platform the next Oxford train will be on and we bundle to the front, managing to seat ourselves comfortably.

We peeled off into little groups on the train; I heard hair-raising stories of exotic travels, featuring sultry beauties, tomb-raiders and dodgy contacts before pitting wits against a cryptic crossword. Never having done one before, it was like stepping into a whole world of weirdness, where the following sentence is supposed to make sense: ‘Heavenly body mostly struck that woman as alluring (4-6)’ 

Finally arriving in Oxford, we bobbed and weaved our way through the crowds - following local knowledge and arriving up at our key Johnsonian attraction, Pembroke College where Boswell says he lived ‘upon the second floor over the gateway’ and ‘the enthusiast of learning will ever contemplate it with veneration’. So we did. 

Indeed, we did more than that. We were met by the bursar, a librarian and a professor of the History of English and an author on Johnson and dictionaries. This A Team split us in two groups, one to tour the college and one to explore the library.

Here we're in the staff common room, I am here, find the wally.

The tour was conducted by the bursar and so we received many little behind the scenes tit-bits about how Pembroke was moving into the 21st Century, and how the college had grown out since Johnson’s day onto what had previously been a public street and also into (and over) Oxford’s medieval walls. 

We explored the dining hall, the chapel (built during the time Johnson was a member) and up the creaking wooden stairs to Johnson’s room. I reckon it’d have been a decent little place to live as a student. Nowadays it is the office for the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, once held by JRR Tolkien.

 Johnson's room was the second one down.

We were then taken to the library where the librarian and lecturer showed us various items, including some of Johnson’s letters, his private prayers and meditation and some of his university essays. he had neater writing as a student, perhaps he was trying to impress. We also saw the library records which show a library book still overdue and the battle books, written in an undeciphered squiggly code. The numbers at the end show Johnson living at steady expense, not altering as his expenses begin to dry up. We chatted about the heavy editing of the prayers and how Oxford’s best text-detectives had been unable to scan or read those excised parts and we speculated what might be in them.

Then we had all the sandwiches we could eat and those other Reading Circle staples, wine or elderflower fizz, before thanking everyone and heading back into the crowds of Oxford.

Round Christ Church, through the huge queue in, down the Cherwell, glancing across Christ Church fields and thinking of the film Shadowlands, we then went to Magdalen College. 

A larger college, with Alumni such as Oscar Wilde, William Tyndale and Edward Gibbon, we split up to cover more ground. The cloistered quads with white hydrangeas and statues led to secret gardens, a deer park and a building called The New Building built in 1773. The highlight was probably the chapel, built in 1474 with sepia stained glass windows that make the stone roof look like a trompe l’oeil.

Wrestling through the crowds, we got to the Ashmolean, where we split up, some to go home, some for a cup of tea and some to explore more. 

One of the frequent topics of conversation was our various reflections on our own university and young-adult experiences. When asked if she’d enjoyed university years, one gave the reply, ‘I thought I was at the time.’  Johnson and Boswell had a similar conversation.

“Dr. ADAMS told me that Johnson, while he was at Pembroke College, “was caressed and loved by all about him, was a gay and frolicksome fellow, and passed there the happiest part of his life.” But this is a striking proof of the fallacy of appearances, and how little any of us know of the real internal state even of those whom we see most frequently; for the truth is, that he was then depressed by poverty, and irritated by disease. When I mentioned to him this account as given me by Dr. ADAMS, he said, “Ah, Sir, I was mad and violent. It was bitterness which they mistook for frolick. I was miserably poor, and I thought to fight my way by my literature and my wit; so I disregarded all power and all authority.”

Not that I take Johnson at his word, he revisited Oxford many times since and complained about it in that way that confirms an affection for the place. As for me, I had never been to Oxford before and enjoyed myself a great time. 

Session for the reading circle start on the 26th of September with another Boswell chunk. Following that we should be joined by the authors for Jacqueline Riding’s Jacobites and Kate Chisholm’s Wit’s and Wives, about Johnson’s relations with women.

So, another great year discussing eighteenth century ‘stuff’ and another great year to come. Can’t wait.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Review: Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller

We live in a world that tells us we should strive towards happiness and avoid pain at all costs.

This is quite a new notion and could probably have never have been conceived for most of the eighteenth century. We read Boswell’s journal, William Hicks or other reporters of life and pain was ubiquitous in the eighteenth century. In an era when alcohol was the closest to a painkiller and a good surgeon was one who could quickly, a life without pain might be desirable but not in the slightest bit achievable. These days, we can dull mental and physical anguish and although we are some way off living completely painless, we are far closer to it then our forebears. But what if that pain was vital?

That’s the question posed by Andrew Miller’s 1997 debut ‘Ingenious Pain’. It’s the story of James Dyer, a man who cannot feel pain and the kind of person and life this leads him to. It’s set in the eighteenth century, full of lots of period detail but it is not a completely realist novel, his lack of pain extends to all feelings both emotional and physical - it’s clearly a symbolic numbness working in the story. It reminds me a lot of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s lack of odour in ‘Perfume’. 

As a result of his numbness (though referred to as coldness in the book) he becomes a brilliant and adept doctor and saver of lives but a harsh and unpleasant man. He is all thought and talent but no feeling. This makes the book a little slow at first, it’s hard to care about the machinations of a plot on a character who can’t really feel one way or another about his situation. This is helped a little by the eventual introduction of other characters we can feel for and in changes in Dyer’s own circumstances.

Miller seems to be a novelist who favours ideas and set-pieces over tight plotting. Dyer is thrown into lots of situations, from toad-eater at a mountebank medical show, to ship’s surgeon to society doctor in order for the novel to show how useful it may be not feel but how limiting, concluding that it is pain that unites humanity and allows us to share with each other. There is also an underlying battle between the coldness of science and rationality and it’s opposite, an instinctive, irrationality.

This book is best at scenes than as a whole story. There is an autopsy that shares in the same horror as Hogarth’s autopsy in ‘Reward for cruelty’. There is a visceral description of smallpox, describing the skin boiling like milk before scabbing over and killing its victim. There are scenes on a man-of-war, scenes of surgery, including a stomach-churningly unsuccessful operation to separate conjoined twins. Near the end of the book there is an oddly sweet sequence about ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ being put on in Bedlam.

The writing is clear, gripping and interesting but without being distracting and it manages to adopt eighteenth century phrasing and vocabulary without being quaint. 

I very much enjoyed this book and I look forward to reading his other eighteenth-century set books, one about Casanova and the other being the Costa-winning, ‘Pure’.

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).