Tuesday 23 June 2015

Under the Glass... Four: Bohemians, Blockheads and Blockbusting Novels

I’ve just finished watching a series of television programmes called ‘How to be a Bohemian with Victoria Coren’. It’s an appealing title, I think it may be nice to live a Bohemian lifestyle with a poker-playing host of impossible quiz shows - but unfortunately, it only meant she was presenting it.

The series started with the Paris set of artists first called Bohemian. Vic Gatrell (author of one my favourites, City of Laughter) recently wrote a book about Covent Garden in the mid eighteenth century called The First Bohemians. In this book, he skims around Grub Street and argues them as being the first wave of the Bohemian torch.

But there is one major difference, and that is embodied in the approaching Samuel Johnson quote. Whilst the Parisian Bohemians believed in ‘art for art’s sake’, the Grub Street Hacks believed;

‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money’.

The writer and artist’s first duty was not to art or truth, but to their belly. 

It could be argued that Johnson was something of a Bohemian; he was shabby, opinionated, kept a busy and disorganised household of waifs and strays, and liked to ├ępater le bourgeois. The quote above comes from Boswell’s life, in which he is trying to shock some cultured literati. 

At the time, it was considered best if writers were gentlemen of substance. This is probably a little of snobbery but there was an interesting line of reason behind it also. It was thought that a writer who needed to write for their belly would write anything they thought they could sell or use to wheedle their way into a rich political faction. Their morals were for sale with their words. A gentleman, who could live without writing, would be a disinterested party. Only a gentleman could write for truth.

Johnson’s point was that a professional class of writer would write better, and that money was as good an incentive as any. It’s a delightfully practical, unbohemian way of looking at it, and far more appealing to me.

That said, here I am, writing this blog for no reason other than it popped it my head. I am also working on novels which may never be published. If Johnson is right, I am a blockhead. 

As much as I kind-of identify with the Grub Street Hacks, I am not one of them. The majority were unconcerned with the quality of their work compared to sales, it was sales that enabled them to soldier on to the next day. Though there were residents of Grub Street that did great works; Johnson, Goldsmith and Kit Smart being may favourite triumvirate, most of the others never did write anything lasting. Grubstreet is itself a word in Johnson’s dictionary implying some ephemeral or small work.

My Dad often asks me why I don’t ‘sell out’ and write what is trending. I try to explain that it’s hard enough to write a book (and he should know, he has done) when it is something that really pulls you, let alone a vain attempt to jump on a bandwagon. I also try and explain that most of the people that really benefit from popularity were those who wrote what felt good to them and a bandwagon was created around it.

So I suppose I may well be closer to ‘art for art’s sake’ when it comes to my writing but it makes me uncomfortable. The phrase seems so shallow and selfish. ‘Art for art’s sake’ seems the surest way to create boring, self-swallowing art. I don’t even believe the novel is an art, it’s a craft, albeit one which can be done artfully.

I suppose I see myself as a weird combination of an actor and a carpenter. I’m keep whittling away at my wood to create a beautiful but functional table whilst waiingt for the big break when I can invite everyone to come and have dinner off it.

Or maybe I’m just a blockhead.


Talking of Blockheads…

Tuesday 9 June 2015

Goldsmith and the bed bugs,

I’ve been a little busy recently. My recent housing crisis has resolved itself, in that I shall get a pay rise on the completion of a course - which means I am doing a course at the moment. As well as this I am doing another course with FutureLearn about the future of the museum - I completely recommend FutureLearn for anyone looking for a bit of new mental stimulus, it’s free and pretty engaging.

As well as these, I am writing this new draft of Dreamonger, which comes on apace. It’s fiddly work though, each small change creates larger ones further on and it almost feels like writing a new book. I feel the voice is changing as I go, becoming closer to the voice in my more recent writing.

Add to all this and I have moved. It’s a lovely little studio place in Northwest London. The only problem I have had with it (except the prohibitive cost) have been the bedbugs.

It turns out bedbugs are massively on the increase in large populations, having made a comeback from very low numbers in the fifties. I have isolated my bed, laid my diaphanous earth, heated the laundry and all other steps. My landlord has been great, steaming the area everyday and buying a new bed and mattress and now the problem seems to have gone.

The little biters were a problem in Oliver Goldsmith’s day as well. In his History of the Natural World he describes them thus;

‘By day it lurks, like a robber, in the most secret parts of the bed; takes the advantage of every chink and cranny, to make a secret lodgement; and contrives its habitation with so much art, that scarce any industry can discover its retreat.’

He’s not wrong. They are so good at hiding, apparently they can fit in any space you can slide a credit card in, due to their flat bodies. He goes on;

‘When darkness promises security, it then issues from every corner of the bed, drops from the tester, crawls from behind the arras, and travels with great assiduity to the unhappy patient, who vainly wishes for rest and refreshment.’

And boy do they. Even when I encased myself in clothes, put on some old costume tights to secure my feet - they just bit me on the face and hands. A few nights of this and any hope of refreshment goes, instead  it is replaced by a paranoia that wakes you up every few hours, covered in phantom bugs (and maybe the odd real one).

He then talks about the bad smell, which luckily I didn’t experience. Then he talks about the fact that France had them worse, more of them and insatiable;

‘The beds, particularly their inns, swarm with them; and every piece of furniture seems to afford them retreat. They grow larger also with them then with us, and bite with more cruel appetite.’

I don’t know whether this reflects prejudice or his own experiences of bumming around the continent. Goldsmith follows with a detailed description of the beast, ending with it’s sensitivity to light which means that;

‘They are seldom caught, though the bed swarms with them.’

Luckily, this is not so much the case now. I have bed traps and mattress protectors and all sorts, and have been unmolested for some days. 

The enemy.

However, the eighteenth century did have protection from the little beasties. This is from a pest control manual from 1777 called The Complete Vermin Killer.

‘Spread Gun-powder, beaten small, about the crevices of your bedstead ; sire it with a match, and keep the smoak in - do this for an hour or more.’

It is also recommended to burn brimstone under the bed every three days, but keep out the room as you do it. 

The bed is recommended to be washed in various ointments; from vinegar mixed with glue, herbs in suet, onions, wormwood, and finally water. It is also recommended to hang a bearskin, which will frighten them away or entice them into rabbit guts under the bed. Here is another tip;

‘Basket-makers sell a Trap made of Wicker to catch Bugs. It must be about eighteen inches in depth, and four feet and an half long, or more if the bed be wide. Place this at the head of the bed, at the bottom of the pillow ; and in the morning they will creep into it, when they may be easily taken away and destroyed.’

Luckily, I didn’t have to resort to these method and am now set up and cosy in my new home.

Wednesday 3 June 2015

A Trip to the City of Philosophers

"I lately took my friend Boswell and showed him genuine civilised life in an English provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield." - Samuel Johnson

Hello everyone, long time no see.

For Christmas, I was given tickets to go to a most magical place, The Midlands. 

I went to Lichfield, birthplace of Samuel Johnson. I have wanted to go there for years, since I discovered that his birthplace museum has more artefacts belonging to Johnson then the museum in Gough Square. 

I am a sucker for a cathedral city. I spent a wonderful day in St Albans, and a few wonderful ones in Canterbury, so I was looking forward to it. I had two days there and I feel I imbibed most of what the city has to offer.

First of all, it’s like Disneyland for Johnsonians. As soon as I got off the train, I crossed the road and found myself at the site of the old Grammar School, where Johnson, Garrick and Addison took their early lessons. 

Wandering around is magical. You turn a corner and there was Johnson’s Dame school, where he once walked home alone and seeing the mistress of the school following him to check he was safe, turned round and attacked her out of pride. You walk all over and find places that resonate; the Garrick home, the house of Gilbert Walmisley where Johnson first practiced his debating skills and the Stowe Pool where his father taught him to swim.

Lichfield also has some very interesting non-eighteenth century history. The cathedral close had been fortified in the middle ages, meaning that it was the recipient of three tough sieges during the English Civil War. In the first siege, the parliamentarian general was killed by a dumb sharpshooter from the tower which such a shot seems impossible. (Chatting with some local history-buffs, it may be that a different tower was meant). I wonder how much Johnson’s own royalism (and occasional Jacobism) are influenced by the town’s Civil War Experience, where the cathedral was near destroyed by the parliament men and was still being rebuilt when he was born.

I also wonder about how his protestantism was affected by the fact that the market square was the scene of several people being burnt at the stake in the reign of Mary I, including the last person to be killed in that way.

The market square is a brilliant spot for Johnson-philes. On one side is his parish church, where he was christened and attended until some of the roof fell on the family pew. On the other side stands his birthplace. The square itself now has a lovely brooding statue of Johnson on a chair, there is a sprightly one of Boswell as well but he is hidden behind stalls on market days.

Just up from the market place is The George. That is where I stayed. It’s a coaching house, the setting for Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem and where he stayed when he was a recruiting officer in the town. Just up from that is The Swan, where Hester Thrale stayed during her visit (now an Ask Pizza place) and The King’s Head, where the First Staffordshire Regiment was founded.

But what about Johnson’s Birthplace itself? I was delighted that the front room was still a bookshop, as it had been in Michael and Samuel’s day. I bought a book there and it felt utterly right.

There was something magical about going down into the kitchen where Johnson as a boy read Hamlet and was so scared by the ghost that he ran up the stairs and outside to see other living people.

Some of the objects also gave me the shivers. There was Johnson’s wedding ring and a saucer he used everyday which he nicknamed ‘Tetty’. There was the very writing slope upon which he rushed out Rambler essays. There were his canes and boot buckles. The fact that each of these items were part of his daily life gave me goosebumps and I stood in awe of the writing slope like someone in a reliquary.

The place was a little let down by old museum presentation techniques, the stiff mannequin with audio recording method of dramatising moments of Samuel’s life seemed a bit unnecessary. It also wasn’t helped by some aloof staff, who didn’t engage much with a fan, and the fact that the only other visitors were two bored Lichfield teenagers on their Easter break, running up and down the stairs. But there were enough special moments in there to make it a thrilling experience for me. 

Back across the marketplace, his parish church housed the Lichfield City Museum. This was another creaky place, empty and a little mothworn. That said, it did give a very useful overview of the city.

The three spires of the Cathedral dominate the centre. I spent a lot of time reading (Christopher Hibbert’s ‘The Personal History of Samuel Johnson’) at the Minster Pool, where the sun shone and the spires reflected hazily in the water. I also went inside. The most fascinating thing there were the remnants of Anglo-Saxon worship, including an angel with a viking axe scar through it and St Chad’s Gospel, a beautiful 8th century book still used in worship. Later on, I took a walk down the Stowe Pools to St Chad’s well, an old pilgrimage site.

Finally, I went to another house in the Cathedral Close, the house of Erasmus Darwin. I did not know much about him, except that he and Johnson didn’t hit it off. I’m currently reading his biography and can see why; Darwin was a deist, revolutionary who believed morals should be taught without religion.

But Darwin was a really interesting man, and completely different to dear old Sammy. He was an optimist, a thinker who allowed his mind to roam and experiment and a generally affable and interesting person.

The house was a little larger than Johnson’s, there were the obligatory mannequins with audio in two of the rooms. One of these was about his personal life, he had two wives and a mistress (not all at the same time). The other was him in his day job as a medical doctor. Erasmus travelled 10,000 miles a year on Georgian roads, in a coach well supplied with a bookcase, writing desk and hamper of food. (He liked his food, cutting a semi-circular hole in his dining table to fit in more comfortably.)

He also liked to invent and one room had working versions and models of some of his inventions. He created the system of steering that modern cars use; drew designs for a steam carriage, made a vertical windmill, lifts for locks, created a model of a bird that used two of the (then undiscovered) secrets of how birds fly. He also made a machine that could make simultaneous copies of documents and a sort of ‘robot head’ that could say ‘ma-ma and da-da’. Reading his biography, it seems like he could have advanced science fifty years if he had been brave enough to publish.

He was also a member of the Lunar Society; a group that included Boulton, Watt, Wedgewood, Mariah Edgeworth’s father and a man called Day who did a very dodgy experiment when he tried to train his own perfect wife. These people were at the hub of the industrial revolution, discussing everything from steam power to the abolition of the slave trade.

Finally, Darwin was a poet, the most popular just before the romantics came along. His poetry inspired them and in one of his books he described a belief of his that animals had changed, evolved and adapted over time to suit their environments - a belief taken up and expanded upon by his grandson, Charles.

Now, it may seem I have lost Johnson behind….he is still my favourite but Erasmus Darwin is a much unacknowledged and fascinating individual. His museum was staffed by proper Erasmus-nuts and they made it a great place to be.

In summary, I would utterly recommend a day trip to Lichfield. Make it a long day, make sure you visit Johnson and Erasmus and say hi for me.