Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Under the Glass...Eight: Worms in the Rain

Many of these ‘Under the Glass’ sections have included various phrases I use to perk myself up in times of need - but sometimes a phrase is needed to celebrate the good times, those little golden moments when everything is just right.

Again I turn to my old pal Christopher Smart and my old favourite, ‘Jubilate Agno’ for the following; 

For I rejoice like a worm in the rain

Okay, they could be smiling more in the picture but my mental picture isa lovely image of happy, dancing worms. Sometimes life is like that, you feel the right kind of creature in the right kind of place. It’s probably not a shower of rain that does it for you but you may be dancing around your kitchen chopping onions and singing Captan Beefheart… or you may be doing something else.

So, whatever hard road you walk on, whatever shadowy places you wander through, I hope there are some times in your life when you can rejoice like a worm in the rain.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Review: The Collected Letters of Oliver Goldsmith by Katherine Balderston

One day a really good Goldsmith biography will come out that doesn’t cast him as genius or buffoon. Norma Clark’s ‘Brotherhood of the Quill’ came closest but wasn’t a biography as such, more a recontextualising of his life within the parameters of an Irish immigrant writer. Until then, collections like Balderston’s one of Goldsmith letters are essential.

It doesn’t matter that most of the interesting letters are copied word for word into those dodgy biographies, nor that the lesser known ones are mainly thank-you or begging notes, it’s important that they stand alone for the reader to pour over and make decisions about Goldsmith’s character.

The main conclusion seems to be that he wasn’t quite as letter happy as the rest of his contemporaries. Johnson’s fill volumes, Walpole’s fill bookcases - Goldsmith’s barely fill a slim volume. A volume that is bulked out with a brief biography and appendices featuring forged letters and a retrospective of him by his sister. 

To make any judgements on Goldsmith based on these paltry works is difficult, but even in his letters he has a habit of making juicy little nuggets. My favourite quote ‘ I shall laugh at the absurdities of the world - and at myself, the most ridiculous one in it’ comes from a letter. His awareness (and playfulness) around his ugly face is one his most pleasing characteristics.

To the author of the Goldsmith biography that pictures him as unfeeling, it’s clear that he does have warmth to some members of his family but a distinct coldness to others. It’s not that he couldn’t feel strong feelings for people, more that he didn’t often. And when he did…he didn’t write many letters. It is clear from things Reynolds have written, that theirs was an extraordinarily strong, yet very quiet relationship that was conducted in person rather then in letter. These letters show how warm and yet how exclusive those relationships were - he’ll be mates with everyone, but only few people will reach that special level.

I have to say that I feel, as I often do, a certain sympathy with Goldsmith. Were I to become a great writer and were historians to ransack my emails and texts, I’m sure they’d discover little that shows the warmth of my relationships or the variety of my connections and communications. Someone reading my texts would find me a very cold person indeed, this is because my awkward fingers aren’t happy manipulating a phone and my messages are terse. I’d need a Boswell available to capture how I really am with my friends - Goldsmith had a Boswell around, but a Boswell who didn’t understand him at all. Poor Goldsmith, he has so little to recommend or explain him but his works, including those few letters, so we have to be thankful for them.

As to the copy of the letters, it seems vigorous in its scholarship, but it did come out in 1924 - has anyone found a cache of useful Goldsmith letters since? Could someone? Please…

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Review: A Trip to Canonbury House

"I bless God for my retreat at CANBURY, as it was the place of the nativity of my children.”
Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno

I had long wanted to go and visit Islington’s oldest building, Canonbury Tower. It’s not an easy thing to do. Owned by the 7th Marquis of Northampton who mainly uses it as a storage space for various masonic tat, it only opens once a month. Even Susan Hahn, our very knowledgeable guide, wasn’t allowed a key. 

The Tower today

I had mainly wanted to go because of the Newbery link. John Newbery is now famous for his children’s literature (and the children’s medal now named for him) but he was a publisher who Johnson described as ‘Jack Twirler’, a constantly moving go-getter who can’t sit still for two minutes and helped ‘raise the worth of literature’. He owned the nearby Canonbury House, a modern Georgian mansion which also gave him access to the tower. He would house writers in the tower, including Goldsmith and Christopher Smart. Goldsmith describes himself wandering the fields of Islington trying to be funny ("I have been strolling around the hedges studying jests with a most sorrowful countenance") Smart even raised his children in the house with his wife, Anna Maria Carnan, Newbery’s stepdaughter. 

I wasn’t expecting those stories to be some of the smaller ones.

The tower in countryside Islington

The tower is the main physical remnant of Canonbury Court, a  medieval, then Tudor manor house owned by the canons of Smithfield. Following the dissolution of the monasteries, the tower was given to Thomas Cromwell, who used it as a comfortable country retreat. He didn’t have it for very long before his downfall where the house, along with his other properties, were used as part of the divorce settlement for Anne of Cleves. She rented it to John Dudley, the Earl of Northampton who was decapitated for trying to install Lady Jane Grey as Queen instead of Mary I…the house doesn’t seem the luckiest of places.

Another rentee was Francis Bacon, a source of many stories in the house. There are bullet holes in one of the tower rooms that are attributed to an argument between him and Walter Raleigh. I’ve also read a novel (A Dead Man In Deptford) where Bacon and Marlowe are doing secretive alchemy-esque things in the tower. If you are one of those people who believe Bacon wrote Shakespeare (I don’t), it is in Canonbury Tower where the original manuscripts are supposed to have been hidden.

The house was later sold to an ex Lord Mayor of London, who’s daughter was reportedly locked in the tower to keep her away from the amorous intentions of an improvident Lord. This Lord, reputedly disguised himself as a baker’s boy and snuck her out where they had a Fleet wedding. This Lord being a Northampton, the tower passed to that family and has been ever since. The family lived there when they were trying to be quiet during Cromwell’s protectorate but haven’t lived there since.

Irving and Goldsmith's room.

At one point, rooms were rented out and Washington Irving moved in to write his Goldsmith biography and feel close to him but was driven to distraction by the landlady charging people to peek through the keyhole at him. 

The place smells funny, there are some intricately carved walls and the ever-present notion of damp but the view is wonderful, the history fascinating and the atmosphere palpable. I loved it and I recommend it is an unusual and special trip for anyone near Islington.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Dick Turpin Review 2: The Capture

Dick Turpin gets captured so Swiftnick comes up with a plan with the help of Kevin McCallister.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

'Johnson & Garrick, A Friendship in Constant Repair' An Exhibition

Dr Johnson’s House is always worth going to but they are always finding new ways to lure me back. This new reason is the current exhibition ‘Johnson & Garrick, A Friendship in Constant Repair’, which is part of the entry ticket and is displayed throughout the house.

The Garricks lived in Lichfield not far from the Johnsons and had enrolled their sons George and David in Johnson’s school in Edial Hall. This was not a hugely successful venture, numbers vary but it seems that Johnson had up to seven pupils, and not at the same time. Johnson and David Garrick set off to London together, sharing a horse and taking turns to ride it. They both had theatrical intentions, Johnson to get his play Irene produced and David to become an actor. David was rather more successful.

Where Johnson took twenty years to really gain success, David Garrick worked in a wine business for four years before finding overnight recognition in a production of Richard III. Audiences were delighted with his emotional and more naturalistic acting style and many artists, including Hogarth, rushed to paint him. 

Six years later, Garrick took over the license of Drury Lane, getting Johnson to write a grand prologue and proceeding to reform how the theatre worked; stopping people being able to come in halfway through to watch the third act and the afterpiece, he took the audience off the stage and other measures to increase theatre’s respectability.

He married a German dancer, where they settled together in a mansion in Twickenham. In 1769 he created a celebration in Stratford to celebrate Shakespeare’s two hundred (and sixth, oops) anniversary. The event was a total washout but was still one of the great set-piece events of the eighteenth century.

His relationship with Johnson was interesting - Johnson had an almost fatherly relationship with him and all Johnson’s circle knew that as much as Johnson dismissed his acting successes, he wouldn’t let anyway else criticise Garrick. It was one of the many faux-pas that Boswell made when he first met Johnson.

I like their teasing relationship. Garrick did impressions of Johnson and told stories of Edial Hall, whereas Johnson laughed at Garrick’s overused and flabby face. When Garrick died at sixty-two, outlived by Johnson who said that his death ‘eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure’. A lovely way to be remembered, certainly.

Now - for the exhibition. Johnson’s House has mainly got together with The Garrick Club and Lichfield’s Johnson Birthplace Museum to assemble a collection of pictures and objects that tell the story of the friendship, room by room.

My particular favourite objects include receipts signed by Hogarth for prints that Garrick bought, including the Richard III one and his Four Stages of Cruelty. There was the original advertisement placed in the Gentleman’s Magazine for the Edial Hall School, which I loved for its positivity and (misplaced) optimism.

Personal objects of Garrick’s included his favourite snuff box, which included a portrait of his beloved brother George in the lid. From the position of a former snuff-taker, I did think it was a rather big box, probably for table use or something similar. There was also the horn Garrick used to powder his wigs before a performance, an item which made every viewer smile when they saw it (and I watched).

There were also a number of brilliant pictures, some I knew and some I didn’t, including a Zoffany which I thought looked strange due to Garrick’s placement in the frame. The information cards also told the story of their friendship well.

Dr Johnson’s House is a must to visit as it is, but it is now crammed with even more interesting things to see and will host a number of events and talks… so, even more worth a visit.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Review: Piccadilly by Laurence Oliphant

I need to step outside of the eighteenth century for a moment to wade into the swamp that is the nineteenth. 

In one of my habitual jaunts around the remaining desiccated bookshops in Charing Cross, I had to collect five books in order to pay four pounds for them. One of these books was an interesting looking novel called ‘Piccadilly’. It was published in 1870 and my copy was reprinted in 1927. I chose it because it had an interesting and perky first page about a mansion in Piccadilly overlooking Green Park that was chopped up into flats. 

It turned out to be one of the strangest books I have ever read; the tone, the message and the plot are all off-kilter with each other.

The tone is light and fluffy with frequent asides to the reader. The narrating character, Sir Frederick Vanecourt is a rich, idle MP who one day wakes up and decides to write a history of civilisation. Deciding this is too hard, he decides write an account of his life and Piccadilly and assumes that he will find suitably important things to say within that.

Vanecourt is wealthy, vain and convinced that he was an exceptional personality that gives him special access to the truth. He says things like, “something is upside down; perhaps it is my head, but I rather think it is the world generally.” He hangs around with people with names like Spiffington Goldtip and Lord Larkington. It would seem then, that the humour and satire in the book are to be gained from watching an utterly useless young man and his utterly useless friends, sort of like a Wodehouse book.

However, the theme is that the world is sick because it professes rather than practises religion and that a stripped down, honest look at the life Christ recommends is the cure of all society’s ills. The agent of these revelations is also Vanecourt. This means that when he is not twitting about, he’s declaiming long and passionate on the fake religion of the ‘worldly-holies’ and expounding the true faith of Jesus.

His actions do not back this up though. Apart from being vacuous and endlessly self-celebrating, he is cruel, deceitful and frequently underhand, brushing those traits off as his eccentricities. 
“As my readers will have perceived, though my intentions are always excellent, my course is occasionally, under any unusual strain, erratic.”

This means that it’s impossible to know how to take the character’s utterances. Are we supposed to be on his side the whole time (because I certainly wasn’t) or are we only supposed to take some of what he says seriously?

The plot, which is supposed to hold all this together, consists of Vanecourt falling in love with Ursula Broadhem, finding out she loves his best friend but will be married to an Indian called Chundango. His job is then to sort out the Broadhem finances and use that stranglehold over Lady Broadhelm, Ursula’s mother, to engineer a marriage between Ursula and his best friend. There are added complications with gossip, electioneering and playing the stock-markets. He then goes to America with a mystic he met on a street for two pages.

This is a perfectly fine plot for the character of Vanecourt to be involved in but it doesn’t leave much room for the religious theme, so various scenes are squeezed in to give rise to those thoughts.

This is not to mention the racism and sexism. Chundango comes from “a heathen land where a pocket handkerchief is sufficient for clothing” and Mrs Broadhem has to learn to stop trying to sort her own finances out and to let a man do it.

The most attractive thing about the novel are the run of the chapter titles, namely;

The World
The Flesh
The “_____”

I think a better novel could be written with them.

Being a little old fashioned with my criticism, I do like to know a little about an author and previous criticism when considering the work. Laurence Oliphant was the son of minor gentry who led an adventure filled, action packed youth as part of the civil service abroad. One particular moment was in Japan where he fought an irate samurai with nothing but a bullwhip. 

Rather like Vanecourt, he became a half-hearted MP living in Piccadilly where he became disenchanted with established religion and it’s deadening effect on real faith. Shortly after publishing ‘Piccadilly’, Oliphant ran off to America with the mystic Thomas Lake Harris, much as Vanecourt does at the end of the book.

Oliphant then tried to form a utopian society, was a journalist in the Franco-German war and became one of the early leaders of the zionist movement. After his wife died, he wrote a book with her ghost, moved to Twickenham and died. 

This confusing life doesn’t make much sense of the confused book - but at least I can understand the source of the confusion.

I’m not recommending the book though. 

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

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. As a fairly frequent watcher of musicals, I was expecting songs linked with music rather than a run of music. 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.

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 that 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, if 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 book because William Harrison Ainsworth wrote it from just round the corner 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 Ainsworth, 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 is that, 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, poisoned hair, a minor character struck by lightning for mood music, desiccated human arms liberally tossed about, wives 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 its 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 their 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?” I hope I may 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 have a ebook 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.