Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Trip to Kenwood House

I have tried to make the trip to Kenwood House three times. The first, I was distracted by Hampstead town, it’s charity shops stacked with good second-hand books, and the general prettiness of it. The second I was distracted by the beauty of the Heath and wandering over it’s rolling hills and shady woods. The third time I was completely distracted and ended up walking to Belsize and then onto Camden Town.

This time I was determined, yet I did get a little distracted. In the Golders Green area of the heath, there’s a small zoo which contains some ring-tailed lemurs. Always my favourite of the lemur family, i found myself having a nice chat with them. I did, however manage to reach the house.


Most luckily, I reached the house in time for the two-o’clock guided tour. This was given by Phil, who seemed like he could answer any questions about anyone in the house. It was remodelled in 1764 for the Lord Chief Justice, William Mansfield. Both inside and out were designed by James Adam, including furniture and fittings.

The outside features two impressive columns, these look like stone but are in fact wooden. As Phil said, ‘Adam wouldn’t waste a client’s money’. We entered the reception room, which also doubled as a dining room. This seemed strange to me but seeing as the house was originally a weekend retreat, I guessed that it was a faff that could be put up with.


We were led through the levee waiting area to the library, or the Great Room. It was great. A cavernous expanse painted in baby-blue and baby-pink with curved ends that amplified music for dances, which were had on a sprung floor. We were told how the large glass windows were a new technology and with the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, made the room dance with light. Incidentally, when the house was sold, the mirrors were so heavy it was easier to sell them with the building than remove them. The library steps were an interesting contraption, made from mahogany, they could be folded back into a table. The book collection itself wasn’t all that impressive though.

The house was the home of six Earls of Mansfield, one Russian prince and Michael Mikhailovich before being sold off, knocked down and turned into villas. Lord Iveagh of the Guinness family didn’t like this idea, bought the house, filled it with his art collection and gave it to the National Trust. 

This collection is impressive. There were Van Dyke’s, Gainsboroughs, Reynolds and Romneys. I loved the Rembrandt self portrait as a broken old man and wasn’t the only one, there’s a visitor who spends a bit of time with him every day. Above it is a Reynolds self portrait in the same stye. in that same room sits Vermeer’s ‘The Guitar Player’, who looked out at us happily.

One room had a painting by Lunar Men favourite, Joseph Wright. It shows two girls, in dim candlelight, dressing a cat. Out guide told us that he found that one more disturbing the more he looked at it.


Another room featured the portrait of John Joseph Merlin, the inventor of the in-line skate. He’s an interesting man, once noted for going to a party in his skates, playing a violin and crashing into a priceless mirror. He was also an inventor of automata, including the famous mechanical swan. He had been piano tuner at Kenwood and there were two of his inventions; one a wonderful clock that shows the time in a digital form as well as on a clock face. The other was a self-propelled wheelchair that could turn 360º which he whizzed around during a masquerade ball. I want to know more of him.

One of the things that struck me about the collection was the amount of portraits of courtesans and other women. There were three Romney portraits of Emma Hamilton, including the one where she is represented as a simple spinner. There was also a portrait of Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra, dissolving and drinking a pearl - most likely as a reference to when she ate a twenty-pound note on a sandwich to chastise a man for paying her too little.

Reaching the end of the tour, I went upstairs where there is a collection of 16th-17th century portraits, including a number of monarchs. These were a little flat after the later portraits I had seen downstairs and I left the house having spent a very enjoyable couple of hours.

I recommend the house to anyone with a love of art and architecture, and I particularly recommend the two o’clock tour. But mooching around the house and grounds can be recommended to anyone on such a lovely, sunny day as the one I went.



Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Johnson's Reading Circle: Trip to Birmingham

When asked why the people of Lichfield seemed to lack industry, Johnson replied that the people of Lichfield were philosophers who ‘work with our heads and make the boobies of Birmingham work for us with their hands.’ The Dr Johnson Reading Circle decided to visit the city and discover just how wrong he was.

Bundling twelve-strong onto a Marylebone train, the lively group were a challenge to the quiet zone until given a quiz which kept us out of mischief for most of the journey. Once again taking ourselves into the Midlands (after previous trips to Lichfield and Oxford) we took taxis from Moor Street to the centrepiece of our trip, Soho House.






Once set in a sculptured parkland with constructed lakes, Soho house the home of Matthew Boulton and his family, the visitor reception for an thriving tourist business and the administrative centre of one of the first factories of the industrial revolution. Today it’s a strange sight, a smart, solid eighteenth-century house tucked among a row of post-war terraces. 



We were welcomed at the house and were offered a large lunch of sandwiches, tea and fruit. We did what we do best; ate, drank and chatted about interesting places to visit. As we did this, we examined a model of the house and factory complex. It had been a truly huge place, consisting of a factory that specialised in what were called Birmingham Toys; buttons, buckles, snuff-boxes, candlesticks and other useful (and decorative) household items. The factory, originally water powered also included a building to build Watt’s steam engines and a mint where Boulton created commemorative medallions and eventually improved, tamperproof currency. 

Soho House was more than just an industrial centre though, it was also one of the main meeting places of the Lunar Society. They were a group of industrialists and polymaths who, between them, can claim a staggering range of world-changing discoveries, accomplishments and inventions. Boulton and Soho House were a key part of this society, there was a telescope on the roof, a separate astronomy and a well stocked fossilry. 


Our guide for the trip was Jack, a member of the modern day Lunar Society. He took us into the hallway, a bright, spacious place with pillars of Derbyshire alabaster and an ormolu table. Ormolu was a word we were going to hear a lot in the following few reception rooms. It’s a gold-mercury gild that retains its shine but was deadly to those who worked it. Boulton later dropped the process.

The home is particularly designed for comfort, with painted canvas in the hallways serving as something like modern linoleum, fully fitted carpets and underfloor heating, the first recorded in Britain since the Roman hypocaust. 


My favourite object was in the music room, it was a Sidereal Clock, another ormolu covered object that could not only show the sign but also the position of the sun and stars. Catherine the Great had it on free trial at the Hermitage - she kept it for ten years before sending it back because it didn’t chime the times.




We also went into the Lunar Room, a large, cosy dining room with the table that the various members of the society would meet, drink, laugh and exchange theories and ideas. There’s a wonderfully playful aspect to the Lunar Society, once they made paper balloons and floated them off Soho House, much to the confusion of Birmingham residents.



Upstairs to the private rooms, these were less ostentatious with far less ormolu. Each of the rooms are of a human scale with an emphasis of comfort. Not only did it evoke the feeling of an unostentatious family life, it also made me think how useful it was to have a factory producing top-quality homeware a short way down the road.

Following our tour, we took taxis back into Birmingham where we split up. Some chose to relax by the canal and others went to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Entering the museum, I ran like a whippet to the Staffordshire Hoard. It’s a large collection of dumped decorative elements, many of them torn from sword decorations. Many of the items use a technique of garnet cloisonné, an infinitely fiddly and difficult looking technique of making intricate shapes with gold foil and placing tiny pieces of glass and precious stones (including garnet) into them. Having ran off by myself, I lost contact with the rest of the group and rushed to see Dippy the Diplodocus before being asked to leave as it was time to shut the museum.


Members of the Dr Johnson Reading Circle


Trips with the Dr Johnson Reading Circle are always a delight, it feels like the people we meet are always pleased to see an engaged group and always treated right. Next year’s sessions start on the 9th of October with a look at A Journey to the Western Isles and The Tour to the Hebrides. We shall also be looking at Mr Foote’s Other Leg with author Ian Kelly as well as Humphrey Clinker and Robinson Crusoe. I look forward to it immensely. 


Also, there was an ornamental hermitage at Soho House, I tried to argue for the position but they were using it to store garden games and furniture.





(All photos thanks to Jane Darcey)











Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Samuel Johnson's Favourite Books...Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes


Having talked about The Pilgrim's Progress last week, I thought I'd look at another one of Samuel Johnson's favourite books, one which influenced most early novels of the eighteenth century.

I tried to read Don Quixote too young. Fourteen year old me battled nobly with a seventeenth century translation of this very long novel but was ultimately defeated. Since then, I have been building myself up, reading complex and digression-filled works like ‘Tristram Shandy’ and gobbling up as many chivalric romances as possible. 

What surprises me is that I probably didn’t need to do all that, I probably just needed a newer translation because Don Quixote is genuinely entertaining and sometimes even outright funny. 



Consisting of two novels, the first is broadly split into two parts. The first intersperses Don Quixote coming across various people/objects and interpreting them according to his bizarre chivalric way of looking at the world with conversations between Quixote and Sancho Panza. This is excessively interesting, the conversations are hilarious, Sancho’s own simplicity balancing Quixote’s lofty fantasies. 

I enjoyed the way people reacted to them, from the battling Basque to Sancho's mule that ‘was not made for such foolishness’ such as jousting. These parts of the book are also intensely painful. Quixote and Panza get badly hurt. Quixote loses teeth - that’s why he is the ‘knight of the distressed face’. It also found it interesting that probably the most famous part of the novel, the attack on the windmills, is only three paragraphs of a nine-hundred page book.  

I get the feeling that Cervantes ran out of ideas, or was at least expecting to - as the latter half of the first novel backgrounds Sancho and Quixote by making them promise to go on new adventures. Instead of finding things to write about by having Quixote have adventures, Cervantes introduces the interpolated novels. These are largely love stories, the most interesting being inspired by his own experiences as a slave to Corsairs. Even when these stories are gripping, we miss the central relationship between Quixote and Panza and the first novel runs out of fuel. By the end they are lead back to their village having been physically and psychologically battered after merely seventeen days of adventures.



The second novel adds something fascinating; Quixote and Panza are told about the first novel, and throughout the book, other characters respond to them based on their existing fame. Also interesting is the subtle change of Don Quixote’s madness. In the first book he believed he was a knight in a world of knights - in the second he recognises the modern knight-less world he lives in but is on a mission to give it back its knights errant. 

This makes Don Quixote a more noble figure. In the first book, he is simply mad and every inn becomes a castle and every flock of sheep an army. He’s like a dangerous and rabid dog, as likely to cause excessive harm on the innocent as he is to be be terribly beaten by those he has needlessly attacked. Don Quixote of the second book has a gallant madness, a more understandable nostalgia for a time that never quite was. He doesn’t reimagine inns into castles, and it is only the puppet show whom he needlessly attacks - his other acts of violence being for a cause, or the result of duals set up by other people. 

Also, as a result of the second books adjustment of Don Quixote’s madness, he can be a wiser, kinder and more involved with those about him. Even those mocking him learn to respect him and he is far less the butt of the jokes - indeed, his greatest injuries in this book are those to his soul and spirit, when he loses to the Knight of the Moons or is hated by the spurned Altisidora. Where he was ‘The Knight of the Sorrowfull Face’ in the first book, as a result of severe dental injuries, he is now ‘The Knight of the Lions’. Like Aslan though, he is eventually humiliated and shaven, (although not to return).

Sancho also develops in the second book, with more chapters to himself, perhaps even getting more attention than Don Quixote. His tendency to string along and butcher proverbs was not something I particularly noticed in the first book but becomes a real feature of the second. I was already fond of Sancho, I loved how he wouldn’t let an indignity like being tossed in a blanket lie (His advice, “Go where the luck and blanket take you.”) and I loved his attachment to his Grey Donkey but the second book gives him warmth that he lacks in the first. 

In the second book, he lies about having seen Dulcinea and Don Quixote believes it, putting into his mind the notion that his master might not be as sane as he thought. Wrestling with this and reflecting his own experiences, he really does begin to question Don Quixote’s sanity and eventually seems to decide that it doesn’t matter, he loves his noble knight and although squiring can be a mixed bag of good and bad, it’s worth helping a great man on a noble quest. 

Another interesting addition to Sancho’s story is when he becomes Governor of his long wished for Insula. Of course, this was a prank by some people too rich for their own good, but I loved Sancho’s attempts to rule well. His governorship was one of fair decision and a great amount of work and effort on his part - more than he was expecting. I loved how honest he was that he decided that governorship was not his thing and that it was better to give it up then hate it - I also love how he gave it up and clearly and publicly showed he would not be taking anything he hadn’t brought with him. If only we had politicians like Sancho. (I also found it very sweet how he told his wife he loved her ‘more than my eyelashes’). 

Of course, Don Quixote can’t stay on Rocinante forever and his is beaten by the Knight of the Moons - this was a horrid moment, especially after he’d beaten the Knight of the Mirrors. The moment when he was forced, on pain of death to renounce Dulcinea del Toboso and he refused, was a very moving one. Luckily, he was excused that humiliation, but he did have to make a painful trudge back to the village as a defeated man where them posh twats still prodded and needled him.

Despite thoughts of spending a year in an Arcadian daydream and then further sallies, Don Quixote is broken of his delusions, again becomes Alonso Quixana (the Good) and dies because there’s nothing narratively left for him to do anymore.

Though I can understand the family wanting their good and sane friend back, and I can see how the ending was supposed to be more sweet than bitter- Don Quixote the knight was a mad figure, out of place with the world and it is far better to be his real and good self - we miss Don Quixote. As one of the rich twats says, “The benefit caused by the sanity of Don Quixote cannot be as great as the pleasure produced by his madness?” Cervantes seems to genuinely hate the chivalry books that birthed Don Quixote, but because they no longer have much influence in our culture, they don’t have the malignity Cervantes saw. As an embittered, one armed, sometimes imprisoned war veteran, and one time believer in martial heroism - such books were a genuine threat. Nowadays stuff like ‘Orlando Furioso’ are no more than quaint.

As much as I loved the first part of the first book, with it’s violent, almost medieval type of painful slapstick, it was the developed, quieter and warmer figures of Don Quixote and Sancho in the second that made me love the book. There is no wonder why this, one of the earliest of novels, is also one of the most influential. It’s warmth, humanity, humour and friendship can’t help but argue its case.







Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Samuel Johnson's Favourite Books... Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

Samuel Johnson was obviously a huge book fan. As a child his favourite books were what he called 'romantick fictions'
Hester Thrale Piozzi said;

“The three books of which he never tired, said Mrs. Thrale, were Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim's Progress, and Don Quixote "Alas," he would say, "how few books there are of which one can ever possibly arrive at the last page;" and "Was there ever yet any thing written by mere man" that one could wish longer than these three books? He would have gone on reading them, he would never exhaust them, because here—as in no other works—his identification was almost complete. These three wanderers—one a castaway, one a pilgrim, and one on an impossible quest—were prototypes of what he felt to be his own life.”


I read two of them so far this year (and will be reading the third with the Dr Johnson Reading Circle). So, I thought I’d start by looking at the one connected with my Bedford trip.




I had long written off The Pilgrim’s Progress as a paper-thin allegory whose Christian subtext was worn so heavily that it couldn’t be read as a story. It was QD Leavis’ in her ‘Fiction and the Reading Public’ who led me to believe it was of greater psychological depth than I expected. Added to the fact that it was also one of Samuel Johnson’s favourite books - I was ready to read it. Now having visited Bunyan's Church in Bedford, it seems time to talk about it.

I was drawn in by the poem at the beginning and got to the first line; ‘As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream.’ Aside from being a beautiful line, it is very similar to the beginning of the revolutionary call-to-arms, Piers Ploughman. I was intrigued by Christian’s pain and burden and wanted him to get to the Celestial City.

There were areas that worked very well for me, particularly the giant Despair who locks Christian and Hopeful in his dungeon. I imagined the frequently depressed Samuel Johnson thinking on the suicidal discussion and ideation. I was also very interested by the water around the Celestial City that has a depth depending on faith. 

I have to say, that I was very tired whenever Christian met a new person. I thought ‘not another one’ as he repeats the same adventures we have already seen to the Evangelist and the Interpreter, and the actions of the Interpreter to Faithful, and all of it again to Hopeful. While I was pleased that Hopeful’s flaws and successes come from his hopefulness - I did find the characters to be on-the-nose caricatures and they tired me. 

Add to that, Christian and his fellow journeymen utterly speak to each other in allegory and the whole thing, while presenting ideas about bravery and persistence, I found ultimately tiring.   

When it comes to the sequel, Christiana definitely has it easier. The presence of Great-Heart nullifies the difficulties and problems of the pilgrims. That said, the book does manage to address how weaker pilgrims can make their journey and the gentler pace does allow the characters to have more in-depth (and interesting) discussions on religious matters than the earlier book



Wednesday, 18 July 2018

A Visit to Bedford (and the Museum of the Panacea Society)

In the recent BBC English Identity discussion, they asked people in various towns and cities to describe themselves. Where Brighton describes themselves as ‘seaside’ ‘liberal’ and ‘fun’ - the people of Bedford identified themselves using the terms, ‘the river’ and ‘unassuming’. 

They forgot to mention the fact that it’s a hotbed of religious discussion and the location of the Garden of Eden.



Many moons ago, on the precursor to Grubstlodger, I reviewed a book called Satan’s Mistress by Val Lewis. Having transferred it to here, it became one of the most (genuinely) commented posts on the site. The book was an odd one, for the most part it was a perfectly standard historical biography of a late eighteenth century prophetess called Joanna Southcott. She claimed she was pregnant with the second coming of Christ despite being a virgin in her 60s. Most peculiarly, the author of the biography was convinced that her prophecies were a result of a relationship with the devil…

Smash Cut To:

Bedford in the 1910s and a woman called Mabel Balthrop has learnt about Joanna Southcott and her prophecies, which had been sealed in a large box and hidden by her followers. Despite family resistance, (including locking her in a mental home for a while) Balthrop created a community around her. Then she started to have her own visions and prophecies. By 1919, followers congregated around her house in Albany Road in Bedford, calling themselves ‘The Community of the Holy Ghost’. 

This community bought houses around the area, knocking the gardens through to form ‘The Campus’. There they lived a quiet life, dedicated to the teachings of Mabel Balthrop who had been renamed Octavia. The reason for this is that Balthrop was regarded as the final part of ‘the Visitation', a succession of seven previous prophets (of which Joanna Southcott was regarded the second). Followers began to believe Octavia was the coming of the Daughter of God, the child Schiloh who had been Joanna Southcott’s original pregnancy.

Beliefs in this community also included the fact that the back garden of The Campus was actually the original Garden of Eden. One of their main focuses was to gather 24 Bishops together to open the box of Joanna Southcott’s prophecies. They believed the box would initiate the end times and contained teachings to navigate them. To make this easier, they outfitted a house with a special box-opening room, bedrooms for all the Bishops, bathrooms and a dining room. They also stockpiled soap and practiced cooking for them all so they were ready when the moment came - which it never did.

They also believed in healing squares of linen which Octavia had breathed on. These squares were drunk with water and regarded as a panacea (an item of universal healing). Changing their name to The Panacea Society, they sent these squares for free to thousands of people around the world, many of whom reported healing. They also buried the linen at the cardinal points in a twelve mile radius of The Campus, protecting Bedford from spiritual harm.

Unfortunately, this extraordinary society died out in 2013 and The Campus was turned into The Panacea Society Museum. Which I visited.


I spent four hours wandering The Campus and looking at the museum. The first floor of the Castleside building (the one fitted for Bishops) dealt with the history of the society itself. 

The Box opening room was set up ready for the Box to be opened (though wonderfully, the actual Box itself is still hidden for tradition’s sake and the box there is merely a replica). Upstairs are the Bishop’s common room, bathrooms and an example of a bedroom are still available to see. 

The top floor of the building puts Octavia in context of The Visitation, which is a fascinating story of odd prophets that involves diverse topics as baseball, huge towers and the invention of the automatic ten-pin bowling machine. The items in the Southcott room include baby clothes and a cot created for Southcott’s second-coming baby Schiloh, and examples of Southcott’s ‘passports to heaven’ which people took to the Napoleonic wars for luck.

Other parts to visit were the cute custom-built chapel, the rec-room where members listened to the wireless, and Mabel Balthrop's house. It's presented just as she left it, a creepy place with her glasses case left by her bed and her knitting in the parlour. The displays detail the complicated relationships of Balthrop and also the shock of her death in 1934 - very unexpected due to the fact that she was the Messiah.

The museum is a fascinating one (and free). There’s something wonderful and engaging about a society that combine end-time millennial religion with Edwardian tweeness.

But that’s not all Bedford has to offer.



Also for free is a museum dedicated to Bunyan. Run by the chapel descended from Bunyan’s own, it is a small upstairs room crammed with Bunyan relics and memorabilia. Presented in our favourite 90s style of rigid, ‘speaking’ mannequins, it tells the life of rebel-turned-religious-proselytiser, John Bunyan. 

For fans of Bunyan, and Pilgrim’s Progress in particular, the collection is unique. It includes the wicket-gate that inspired the one in the book, some of Bunyan’s work as a tinker, a pulpit he preached in and the door to the jail cell he was locked in for twelve years. What is strange, is that although he was locked up for preaching, he was occasionally allowed to be let out - to preach.

It’s a nice little museum - and stands almost exactly opposite the Panacea Society Museum. 

Also, just across from that stands the Higgins, a weird mashup museum dedicated to the history of Bedford (interesting) and Cecil Higgins’ collection of ugly furniture and porcelain (less so).


So Beford… unassuming but full of hidden pleasure and a great day out.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Review of Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine as seen by Contemporary Observers 1660-1886 by Humphrey Jennings


Pandaemonium is a collection of different eye-witness texts from the rough span on the industrial revolution. Compiled in the 1930s by documentary film maker, Humphrey Jennings, they unexpectedly were the impetus behind the Opening Ceremony of London's 2012 Olympics


Being a creation of a film-maker, the texts are supposed to be read and compared to each other like shots in a montage. This is a fantastic idea, with texts reflecting, refracting and contradicting each other, create a kaleidoscope of meaning. 


This book is not an open and free play of imagination though, Jennings’ own intent and interpretation almost overwhelm the reader’s. Jennings has a definite story he wishes to tell; one of relatively free, animistic peasants being overwhelmed by the forces of industry, buckled under the yoke of middle-classes and forced into being the working class. 


Having read a lot about the Lunar Men, particularly Erasmus Darwin and a number of very positive histories of the Enlightenment, the inherent criticism of the machine age came as a surprise. It shouldn’t have been though, because as a teen I was very much of the opinion that rationalism and the industrial revolution were not just the death of superstition but the death of magic and wonder as well.


One of the greatest surprises was the accompanying religious revolution. I was aware of Wesley, Whitefield and other religious reformers of the era and that such religious movements were a response to the enlightenment and mechanical modes of thinking. What I hadn’t considered was the class issue, that such movements were a bourgeoise-ification of religion.  


I was delighted to see Goldsmith, Johnson and Kit Smart being used. Jennings, compiling his pieces in the 30s, passes on the false information that Jubilate Agno was written in Bedlam but he does have an interesting interpretation of it as one man's attempt to bring his religion and rationalism in sync.


The clear Marxist ideology weighted the book down. I have no problem with Marxism in itself, but all the Marxists I have ever read or met, were incredibly boring. Everything is boiled down into a war of class - and the many strands of the industrial revolution are described merely in terms of class war. 


There’s also the fact that Jennings seems to ignore the fact that peasants were terribly oppressed in times before the industrial revolution - serfs were banned from travelling, people starved without even an attempt at poor relief. The problem with the industrial revolution seems less to do with intentional exploitation and more to do with being unable to keep up with new developments. Not that the scientists are evil but that the ideas of scientists outpace sociological ones. 


This was in no way a bad book, but it grew to be a tiresome one and I was pleased when I finished it. A book finer in intention than execution.




Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Review: Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth.

Was it only last summer I was reading Rookwood?

Last summer when I was snuggled in sheepskin rugs in a large teepee, having feasted on cheese toasted on a fire and swigs of single-malt whisky. There, I snuggled with the crazy, over-the-top story of curses and storms, highwaymen and gypsies, secret brothers and secret wives.

I was keen to dive back into Harrison-Ainsworth’s crazy world and decided that Jack Sheppard was the way to do it. 

As Rookwood stretched and played with the history of Dick Turpin, so Jack Sheppard utterly screws with the history of Jack Sheppard. Ainsworth is intensely inspired by history - but he doesn’t really give accuracy any credence whatsoever. He loves a blockbusting, nutty ol’ story far more.

The historical basis of the book is the same one that has inspired The Beggar’s Opera, Fielding’s Jonathan Wild (which I’m sure I reviewed), Lucy Moore’s The Thieves’ Opera, The Virtue of the Jest, The Fatal Tree and my own Odes to the Big City.




Jack Sheppard was a poor boy who had a strong yet thin physique and several years experience as a carpenter’s apprentice. As such he was a skilled housebreaker - however, he was also very easy to capture, having a tendency to hang around the same places and exciting the ire of London’s main criminal mastermind Jonathan Wild. 

This led to him to discover his real talent - escaping prisons. His go-to tactic was to smash through the roof, using a blanket to catch the debris before using the blanket to lower/parkour himself out into freedom. 

One memorable occasion has him doing all of this whilst carrying his mistress Edgeworth Bess, who was twice his size. Sheppard also indulged in a spot of classic cross-dressing, sneaking out of the prison in women’s clothing á la Mr Toad (though a hundred-odd years before). 

Having broken out of London’s most notorious prison once, he did it again in a complicated series of actions, breaking through the empty parts of the prison in a sequence which would make a great film. Unfortunately, he was caught again a few days later and the last time he didn’t escape. (Although, there is a theory that he had a plan to be brought off the scaffold and revived, a plan which didn’t work because the crowd stopped his rescuers retrieving him, thinking they were doctors wishing to anatomise his body.)

Taking this already fascinating topic, William Harrison Ainsworth adds LOADS OF EVERYTHING.

The morality of Jack’s life isn’t clear enough, let’s add a Hogathian two apprentice sort of thing, but lets make them secret brothers, but lets also make them secret earls but one of them is a marquis, and let’s add the ’15 rebellion and the great storm of 1703. Let’s have Blueskin be an adored follower of Jack and have Jack as a king of thieves, lets stick his mum in Bedlam for a bit, let her be an heir snatched by gypsies. let’s have an action scene in a rain-drenched boat around the feet of Old London Bridge. Let’s make Wild nastier, lets have his hatred of Jack personal and not just business, let’s give him a villain's lair with a secret killing room and display cabinets with the bones of his victims, let’s make him practically bullet-proof, sword-proof and telepathic. And a love triangle! We need a love triangle! &c. &c. &c.


Essentially, this is Ainsworth at his most delightfully Ainsworthy. 

There’s nothing quite as wonderfully peculiar as the cave/monk cell/wood/gypsy/forced marriage with highwaymen and curses as there is in Rookwood but unlike that book we have a clear villain and he is the most delightfully evil character. It was in this book and about him that the phrase ‘Napoleon of Crime’ was uttered, not Moriarty. He has a full-on Bond villain evil base - he has evil laughs and evil stares and an unnerving habit of appearing in all the most unfortunate places. Technically, he kind of wins, despite the best efforts of everyone else. This should be a sad end but he was so entertaining, it wasn’t. 

For a hero, Jack Sheppard was not an unlikeable wet-lettuce character - although he doesn’t control much of the opening, he develops into a lively but unthinking robber into a repentant who goes to heroic lengths to protect those he loves. All those escapes, they weren’t to save himself - they were so he could convey important information to other characters or meet or rescue them from Wild’s dark dungeons. Those easy recaptures - they were all due to the fact that he had to keep returning to obvious places to warn other characters.

There was a little of the slang and balladry that could have weighed the book down - but as the game of cat and mouse between Sheppard and Wild began the story didn’t have time for all that. It did, however have time to evoke elements of London just fading from living memory when this book was written in 1839 (with very evocative illustrations by Cruickshank - which I didn’t get to enjoy in my copy, thus missing a lot, apparently).

In a chapter on Bedlam, we get quotes from Tom Brown, Ned Ward and The Dunciad. As a resident of Willesden, the frequent descriptions of it as a country idyll, along with the isolation of Dollis Hill and the beauty of the Harrow Road (where the author lived and is now buried) made me laugh a lot.

Whilst I wasn’t expecting Rookwood again, I was hoping for a Rookwood-like experience and this book exceeded my expectations. It’s no masterpiece, but it outsold Oliver Twist on pure fun alone… that’s saying something.

Plus, there’s a minor character called Obediah Lemon.