Saturday, 27 May 2017

Boswell's Life 1773-76 at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle



Again the Dr Johnson Reading Circle gathered to discuss a section of Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’ but this time there was tension in the air. Could we discuss a different section of the same book for the third time? Could we really unpack what it was we had read? 
The section we looked at were the years of 1773-76 and, because they were years where Boswell and Johnson had an unusual amount of contact, they were unusually dense with small details if not any big ‘plot points’ in terms of Johnson’s life. 

This is deep in the book and full of the book's meat and drink, evenings where Johnson meets up with various conversational foes and engages in verbal combat. As Johnson himself said, he liked to ‘dogmatise and be contradicted’. These sections discuss nationhood, the role of the aristocracy, poetry and poetic forgeries, the role of women, how to write in the voice of little fish and possible uses of dried orange peel.
One of the things that reading so much Johnson (or purported Johnson) is that it’s harder to have an idealised view of him anymore. It struck many that as modern as Johnson can be in some things, he still manages to be a figure marked and distanced by his time.
Johnson’s view on adultery, that a man may be sort-of excused but an adulterous woman is a whore ‘and that’s that’. His insistence that sub-ordination, the strengthening and proliferation of an unfair class system was vital to the stability of a country, and his singularly unromantic expressions about marriage (even amid his own sentimental mourning of Tetty) all caused discomfort in the group. 

Most dividing in the room were his opinions about an unchecked democracy - he felt that landed men should only have the vote as their landowning gave them a stake in the country whereas a full franchise would open the gates to crowd-pleasing buffoons and orators. In a world of Foreign Minister BoJo and President Trump, there was an uncomfortable sting in Johnson’s conclusions.
Johnson’s less admirable side also jumped out when he would shut discussions down that were going down avenues he wouldn’t pursue. These avenues were frequently of a religious or morbid nature and it’s reflective of his soft underbelly how much pain certain topics could cause him.
On the positive side, we still had Johnson the steady moralist, the champion of education, clear-headed exposer of Ossian forgeries and, (one of my favourites) Johnson the joker. The man with the ‘laugh like a rhinoceros,’ whose infectious chuckles could cause others to laugh, even when they didn’t get the joke. We also had cheeky Johnson, who wouldn’t say why he collected orange peels and narrated for an imaginary biography how it would remain a central mystery in his life. Apologetic Johnson, who frequently was called forth to resurrect the dignity of Goldsmith; and sympathetic Johnson, who rushed back to the Thrales when their eldest son died, only to be told his comfort wasn’t needed.

Rather then running out of things to say, we could have spoken for a number of more hours. 





Next week I am off to Venice, where I shall take a volume of Casanova's memoirs and plan to soak in the atmosphere.



Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Review: The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott


If this book were a person in the eighteenth century they would be hanged for theft, which is no bad thing in itself - it was an era of theft and people have thieved from it ever since. 
The Newgate Calendar, which emerged from penitential ‘last-words’ stories became the Newgate Novel, with writers such as Dickens and Ainsworth “borrowing” from the criminal legends of the eighteenth century. This tradition of stealing continues today, with ‘Slammerkin’ and ‘The Virtue of the Jest’ being two examples I’ve looked at this year, not to mention my own Grub Street/Covent Garden/Newgate novel ‘Odes to the Big City’.
However, the key to being a good thief is lightness of touch and ‘The Fatal Tree’ is such a botched theft that it becomes something quite criminal.
It is broadly the story of Edgeworth Bess, accomplice and muse to Jack Shepherd, delivered in her own words. We follow her entry and acclimatisation into London’s criminal underworld and her struggles, torn between the cruel authority of Jonathan Wild and the reckless liberty of Jack Shepherd. I was very excited to read this, the story of Jack Shepherd, whose short but illustrious career as serial prison-escapee and symbol of London defiance is always ripe for a novel. Ainsworth wrote a novel about him and inspectors in the nineteenth-century were dismayed that more schoolchildren in London had heard of him then Nelson. 
I was also excited that this was from the perspective of Bess, who comes into the traditional narrative as a temptress but also an inspiration, a burden to one prison escape but the key to another, and Jack’s firm partner in crime but also the person who peaches him to the authorities for her own freedom. She should be a complex and intriguing character.
Unfortunately, the character of Bess in this book is just cribbed from other eighteenth-century prostitute tales. The thefts come thick, fast and obvious in the beginning; we start by lifting from ‘Moll Flanders’, proceed into the first picture in a ‘Harlot’s Progress’ and continue into ‘Fanny Hill’ - and so we continue, with barely a scene or moment that hasn’t been borrowed from some other book.
Towards the end, Bess feels guilty of her actions and regretful of her past, but this is mainly conveyed by inner voices (in italic) repeating nasty things about her. We never get her sense of an individual, nor do we get any sense of agency. Bess is merely thrown this way and that because that is what these sorts of women in these sorts of novels do.
Jack Shepherd is also let down by the book. We are given a sense of manic energy, he is often described as a ‘fiery angel’ and there is some feeling for the lack of self-confidence he suffers that charges his independence and later vanity - but the central relationship between he and Bess never quite gels. This is partly through Arnott’s choice of phonetically representing Shepherd’s s-s-s-stutter at every opportunity. 
Which leads us to the key to the book’s failure, its (mis)use of eighteenth-century slang. I touched on this in the cant piece below, but the truly clod-eared use of slang in the book is something that sinks the book utterly. I said before that it seems like the novel was written in standard English but then translated into cant by a computer programme.
The reason for this is that the author doesn’t seem to realise that people use slang in their own ways and even those who use great swathes of slang do not choose the slang term at every single opportunity. Just because a person has a slang word for ‘eyes’ or ‘stairs’ doesn’t mean they only use those words every single time they want to describe eyes or stairs. In this book ‘eyes’ are always ‘glaziers’, ‘stairs’ are always ‘prancers’, ‘tea’ is always ‘prattle-broth’ and a bad feeling (whether it’s morning sickness or grief) is always ‘crank’.
We simply don’t get the opportunity to enjoy the romance of Bess and Jack, thrill to Jack’s prison escapes or feel hatred to Jonathan Wild because the whole thing is mired in the gloop of canting verbiage. It becomes a tremendous slog.
However, we do get a silver gilt to this black cloud, while the main story is painful to read,  the sub-plot is very interesting. It’s about the (fictional) writer who Bess is telling her story to. Being a literary man he writes the parts about himself with a far greater flexibility in his use of slang and releasing this stranglehold of patter makes it more enjoyable.
It also works better because it’s a less-told story, the secret life of a molly - a member of London’s gay subculture. As well as his times in the mollyhouses, he is also a conman in Wild’s employ and a friend of John Gay (who may have been had leanings that way himself). None of it was new to me, Arnott’s key sources ‘Mother Clap’s Molly House’ and ‘John Gay: A profession of Friendship’ were books I looked at on the precursor to this site. The thefts from these books are less then subtle; many of the Gay scenes has the man quoting bits of his own (twentieth-century) biography and the mollyhouse scenes and characters are ripped right out of Rictor Norton’s seminal work on the subculture. But, with the exception of the TV show ‘City of Vice’, I had never seen them in a work of fiction, which kept my interest in most of these bits. 

Again though, the writing choices let it down a bit. These sections are phrased as letters from the author to Applebee a (factual) publisher of last words. This means that when Applebee’s actions enter the book, the author often tells Applebee of his own recent action. All I could imagine was Applebee reading it and saying ‘I know I did that, it was only last month’.

I bought this book at full (over)price from Foyles, pulled in by the subject matter, the reading list at the back and the beauty of the cover design. I have to say, it was the biggest letdown in a year that has not provided me with many books I have really enjoyed. 

(I did appreciate the Christopher Smart shoutout though.)

Next week I am off to Dr Johnson’s house to discuss more chunks of Boswell and the week after, I am going to read Casanova - whilst in Venice.

All exciting then

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The Canting Crew

I had the delightful pleasure of being on the train to Staines last week. There I overheard a  most mysterious conversation. Alas, I didn’t have my notebook on me to write it all down but I recall them discussing a distaste for the feds, a desire to set up a k-tent to encourage all the k-holers to spend bare p’s on the k’s. They shared stories of their own k-holes, one describing himself as having once had a jaunt down a k-canyon.
I say mysterious, I could understand what was meant and I had heard most of the terms before; but the fluency of it, the stringing together of so many slang terms in a rhythm completely different to my own, was something of a revelation. 

Normally, hearing the British police being referred to as ‘fed’s’ irritates and reminds me of the children I work with who, at the age of ten, aren’t aware that 911 isn’t our emergency number and that dollars will do very little for them in a shop. But hearing this group, was like hearing the language of the street brought to a perfection. Their speech was virtuosic, poetic and generally fantastic - but without someone to write it at that very peak, we’ll be left with the dregs of their patter. There needs to be some kind of spy, to record what they hear.


The early eighteenth century had such a spy in Ned Ward, the London Spy. One of the real pleasures of him, and his regional copycats like the York Spy, is the sensation of overhearing genuine street-speech in all its colour. How else would we hear the tour-de-force insults of the Thamesmen such as, 
     ‘You were begot by huffling, spewed up and not born, and christened out of a chamberpot.’ Nor its rejoinder of,
   ‘You shitten rogues, who worship the fundament because you live by turds.’
However, it would be foolish to accept such reports without question, Ned Ward and his like were consciously creating entertainment. They were not anthropologists, or members of a mass observation group - there must have been craft in their reports of everyday speech.
London had long been fascinated with its underclass, particularly the way they spoke. Robert Greene’s coney-catching pamphlets reported the tricks and language of Elizabethan beggars and thieves for a shocked middle-class audience. Dictionaries of criminal slang, beginning with 1699’s ‘The Canting Crew’, predate and outnumber the dictionaries and wordbooks of standard English. There were also ballads, pamphlets of criminals’ last words and the Newgate calendar which all employed cant in various ways.
I have copy of that first slang dictionary and it is interesting the words that have survived from 1699 cant. If your lugg-holes are open and your gob is shut then you may be a dabb hand at eavesdropping such words in ordinary patter.
Nor did cant stay only in the ephemera of Grub Street. Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ includes cant terms in the songs and dialogue as well as the names of the characters - Jenny Diver, Betty Doxy, Ben Budge, Nimming Ned and Jemmy Twitcher all have names originating from cant terms for various lays (or criminal practices). Fielding’s ‘Jonathan Wild’, dealing as it does with criminal matters, also uses it. 
Again, it’s interesting to wonder how closely all of these uses, both from Grub Street and the more esteemed literary circles, actually reflect language as it was spoken. If the eighteenth century speakers were anything as inventive and interesting with their language as those I overheard on the train to Staines, then it is unlikely a few instances, or a dictionary of words could really capture the language of the canting crew.
What’s more, in a time where common people had fairly small stomping grounds and few means of mass communication (especially among the less-literate) it is probable that each job, each area and each individual criminal corporation had their own way of using slang. Add to that, those that have passing acquaintance with those who used it, and those who mixed it with other vocabularies (like the sailor’s argot which even the linguistically nimble found hard to decode) it is likely that what we have is only a poor shadow of the exciting language use of the eighteenth century underclasses.

Such language is, however, a very easy tool for modern novelists to use when they want to add a little urban, eighteenth century gangster flavour and many of the novels I have read recently have used it in this way. 

‘Golden Hill’ and ‘Slammerkin’ both front-loaded the texts with cant to put them in the eighteen-century frame of mind but were kind enough to either explain the meanings directly by means of internal monologue or an innocent character asking for definition. ‘The Virtue of this Jest’ used cant as a vibrant painter would with a bright colour, splashing it about all over the place. 

The book I am currently reading…has a problematic relationship with cant. The entire book is written in it, but it feels like it was written by a computer with a criminal cant setting instead of standard English. There is no feel for the ebb and flow of the words, an individual’s use of their own cant or the way some people hide behind their slang and the way others use it to show off. It’s cant as wallpaper, and that is pure flapdragon.



Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Video: Rasselas in Under a Minute

A tense, nailbiting test of summary and tongue control... wait till I try Clarissa.