As this blog is the ‘Grub Street Lodger’ it seemed appropriate to finally review an archetypical Grub Street production by an archetypical Grub Street writer.
Like many dyed-through-and-through Londoners, Tom Brown was born outside of London but moved to the city having failed to earn money in other places in other ways. Brown moved to Aldersgate Street, a mere spits from Grub Street where he worked as a translator and wrote a great deal, much of it anonymous and a lot of it satirical. Some famous incidents in his life include a punch up with the publisher Abel Roper, which Roper turned into a bestselling pamphlet ridiculing Brown’s fighting as ‘open-clawed like a cat’ and celebrating his own laconic and effective closed-fist punches to the face.
Roper had earlier written a preface in a Brown book, where he reflects that Brown hadn’t written the preface himself because he had been paid and so has caught ‘the epidemical disease among some scribblers, who have no wit to sell, while they have money to spend, or can be trusted; but when they are reduced to a low ebb, they’ll sneak, fawn, and cringe, like a dog that has worried sheep, and is fearful of the halter.’
There are many other interesting stories and legends about the bare-faced cheek, the wit and the wheeling and dealing of Tom Brown in a number of books ( ‘Tom Brown of Facetious Memory by Benjamin Boyce, is a good read) but the issue now is the most famous of his works, ‘Amusements, serious and comical, calculated for the meridian of London’, published in 1700.
There are twelve ‘amusements’ in the book, starting with the preface which he remarks ‘can be as long as I please, for a long preface is an amusement indeed’. The preface is probably my favourite of the amusements (I am beginning to love a good preface) as he flippantly and breezily describes the method he has taken in writing the book. He describes how he plans to pretend an Indian has been ‘dropped’ on London and is going around it, looking at the different parts and making comments. Brown then says that there will be times when he drops this conceit and then takes it up again as he feels like, as it’s his book and it’s up to him what he puts in it. Finally, he describes how not all the amusements will be funny ones, some will be serious, this is because ‘The Whole Life of Man is one Entire Amusement’.
The striking thing about the preface, and the rest of the book also, is the confidence and control Brown has over his material and the light way it is written. Brown comes across as impudent, rude, cheeky but a bit of a charmer. He rules the book his own way and trusts you will be amused by it, and you are.
None of the amusements are particularly original; jokes about talentless, cringing courtiers, jokes about marriage, including mother-in-law gags, jokes about quack doctors that over latinise their speech to sound intelligent. There are jokes about naughty goings on in theatres, about cloistered unworldly academics, who are secretly very worldly indeed and jokes about gamesters and rakes preying on each other. The key to the amusements, the one that makes them amusing, is that none of these jokes are laboured or overwrought, everything is fresh and instant and readily accessible, even after this time. The book is not great literature but it is (as it wishes to be) amusing, a pleasant and engaging bit of light reading.
Unlike (his contemporary) Ned Ward’s, London Spy, this books doesn’t tell the reader a great deal about London, or provide any realistic vignettes of the city. Tom Brown’s London is a London of his imagination, where the different sections and areas provide him with different things to observe and laugh at. It’s a London of the mind, opposed to a real one.
However, Tom Brown does describe London in a manner that feels even more true in multicultural London today than it did then, and, I believe holds truer then even Johnson’s famous comment about people being tired of London are tired of life. Tom Brown says;
“London is a World by it self. We daily discover in it more New Countries, and Surprising Singularities, than in all of the Universe besides. There are among the Londoners so many Nations, differing in Manners, Customs, and Religions, that the Inhabitants themselves don’t know a quarter of them.”
Which is what really enlivens the city and makes it perennially fascinating place to write about, read about and live in.
Till next time