Wednesday 26 July 2017

Review: Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller

We live in a world that tells us we should strive towards happiness and avoid pain at all costs.

This is quite a new notion and could probably have never have been conceived for most of the eighteenth century. We read Boswell’s journal, William Hicks or other reporters of life and pain was ubiquitous in the eighteenth century. In an era when alcohol was the closest to a painkiller and a good surgeon was one who could cut quickly, a life without pain might be desirable but not in the slightest bit achievable. These days, we can dull mental and physical anguish and although we are some way off living completely painless, we are far closer to it then our forebears. But what if that pain was vital?

That’s the question posed by Andrew Miller’s 1997 debut ‘Ingenious Pain’. It’s the story of James Dyer, a man who cannot feel pain and the kind of person and life this leads him to. It’s set in the eighteenth century, full of lots of period detail but it is not a completely realist novel, his lack of pain extends to all feelings both emotional and physical - it’s clearly a symbolic numbness working in the story. It reminds me a lot of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s lack of odour in ‘Perfume’. 

As a result of his numbness (though referred to as coldness in the book) he becomes a brilliant and adept doctor and saver of lives but a harsh and unpleasant man. He is all thought and talent but no feeling. This makes the book a little slow at first, it’s hard to care about the machinations of a plot on a character who can’t really feel one way or another about his situation. This is helped a little by the eventual introduction of other characters we can feel for and in changes in Dyer’s own circumstances.

Miller seems to be a novelist who favours ideas and set-pieces over tight plotting. Dyer is thrown into lots of situations, from toad-eater at a mountebank medical show, to ship’s surgeon to society doctor in order for the novel to show how useful it may be not feel but how limiting, concluding that it is pain that unites humanity and allows us to share with each other. There is also an underlying battle between the coldness of science and rationality and it’s opposite, an instinctive, irrationality.

This book is best at scenes than as a whole story. There is an autopsy that shares in the same horror as Hogarth’s autopsy in ‘Reward for cruelty’. There is a visceral description of smallpox, describing the skin boiling like milk before scabbing over and killing its victim. There are scenes on a man-of-war, scenes of surgery, including a stomach-churningly unsuccessful operation to separate conjoined twins. Near the end of the book there is an oddly sweet sequence about ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ being put on in Bedlam.

The writing is clear, gripping and interesting but without being distracting and it manages to adopt eighteenth century phrasing and vocabulary without being quaint. 

I very much enjoyed this book and I look forward to reading his other eighteenth-century set books, one about Casanova and the other being the Costa-winning, ‘Pure’.

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Under the Glass... Seven: The Dignity of the Human Mind

I adore Johnson’s ‘Rambler’ essays. Even as they were written, they were parodied as well as praised (though never particularly bought until gathered in book form). They are Johnson at his Johnsonist, he called them his ‘pure wine’. Yes, they can be wordy, with long run-on sentences that don’t appeal to modern taste and a fancy for Latinate words - he was writing a dictionary at the same time - but I find more in a ‘Rambler’ essay than I do in whole other books.

On the 20th of September 2016, I felt awful. I had started working with my new class and I was concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to spend a year with them without losing all my patience and mind. A number of them had wound me up to a point of insensibility and it weighed on me. I walked home with a scowl wedged upon my face, staring at people, daring at them to insult me so I could hurt them. 

When I got home, I picked up my copy of ‘The Rambler’ and turned to essay number 185. It was about revenge, which appealed as I wanted to revenge myself on all those who had sniffed at me, or looked down on me. What was amazing is that something published  on Christmas Eve 1751 started to calm me down nearly 267 years later.

It successfully and persuasively mocked the anger born from an injured pride and made the strength of my anger seem ridiculous. It also raised the nobler feelings in me, my instincts to help, my confidence in the choices and values. By the time I reached the following quote, I was smiling:

“Nothing which reason condemns can be suitable to the dignity of the human mind. To be driven by external motives from the path in which our heart approves; to give way to anything but conviction; to suffer the opinion of others to rule our choice or overpower our resolves; is to submit tamely to the lowest and most ignominious slavery, and to resign the right of directing our lives.”

It’s now the end of that school year with that class. I’m going to miss them. There were some very good times, though there were also tough times. Times when I wanted to quit, to swear and tell them painful home-truths I’m not sure I believe. Over the year I have been sworn at, kicked at, had missiles thrown at me and ignored - it has not been an easy year. 

Yet, I have had that quote near my side and a quick peek at it has re-enforced my wish to do well for the children; to help them and to show by my actions, the power of reason, of the dignity of the human mind and to walk the peaceful path that my heart approves than be a slave to their aggression. 

That quote has helped me this year in seeing the strength of peace, even when it can sometimes feel like a weakness. It has made me a better person. (Though yesterday, I did yell at a kid for asking me the same question for the eighth time…I’m not perfect).

Wednesday 12 July 2017

Review: The Hermit in the Garden by Gordon Campbell

I’ve been interested in ornamental hermits since I picked up Dame Edith Sitwell’s ‘English Eccentrics’. Out of all the people discussed (some of whom seemed to have far more serious issues than mere eccentricity) those garden dwelling loners appealed to me the most.

So, imagine my pleasure when I discovered that Oxford University Press had released a book called ‘The Hermit in the Garden’. It is the one-and-only book about this fascinating piece of history and I couldn’t wait to give it a go.

The book starts with a general history of hermits, hermitages and their role in early Christianity – particularly as precursors to the monastic lifestyle. The next chapter is about the various ideas and traditions that led to something as strange as housing a contemplative man as decoration for the back garden. It explores the Christian tradition of the hermit but also the Celtic tradition, such as the legendary Myrddin. Combine with this, the late eighteenth century cult of Sensibility, Rousseau’s notion of the nobility of living with nature and the stretch for the sublime and such buildings as follies, temples and hermitages started to appear in gardens in Britain and around Europe. These hermitages then progenerated hermits like beetles from stagnant water.

The next chapter was my favourite, and deals with the ornamental hermits themselves. When it comes to ornamental hermits, it is by far the ornamental part of the phrase that interests more than the hermit part. There have always been hermits, people who have taken themselves ‘off-grid’ (as they put it now) to live in contemplation with nature. It’s the truly peculiar nature of having one for only ornamental reasons that capture my imagination. 

It certainly seems that there were a few ornamental hermits and that, for a time at least, some rich folk had successfully advertised and paid for live-in garden gnomes. It seems that the ornamental hermit became something of a joke, or at least viewed in an ironic manner, pretty quickly. How else could there have been stuffed manikin hermits, automata hermits and hermits living in pasteboard grottoes?

The rest of the book is dedicated to the architecture of the hermitages rather than the hermits themselves. This means that for nearly one hundred pages, the reader and author go on a tour of as many hermitages as possible and have each of them all sequentially described, one by one. In my notes for the book, there was one large, desperate cry for help; ‘Not another lamb bone mosaic floor!’ A phrase that comes up at least once a page in this section, if not more. For those more interested in the architecture then me (and those who are getting into lamb-bone decorations) this part of the book might fly by, for me it was a little bit of a slog.

Other than the bibliography and index, the book finishes with an extensive (of course) list of hermitages around the world and what state they are in. A truly cracked person could go on a hermitage tour of Europe. 

Despite the fact that half the book is a repetitive ‘through the keyhole’ of hermitages, I still recommend it as a meticulous, comprehensive look at a fascinating phenomenon. I like a book that tells you more then you need to know – and this fulfils that admirably. 

Also, here's me and my hermitage.

Wednesday 5 July 2017

Dr Johnson's House and the new 'Collecting Johnson' Exhibit

It’s strange, the amount of times I have talked about Samuel Johnson and attended events at Dr Johnson's House but never talked about it on here. 

The house, in Gough Square, is the one Johnson rented and lived in as he compiled his Dictionary and wrote his Rambler essays. Shortly after the completion of the dictionary, Johnson had to move out but the house remained and, even in the constantly changing face of London, managed to still stand.

In 1911 it was bought by liberal MP, Cecil Harmsworth and dedicated to the memory of Samuel Johnson, intending it to feel like a warm home rather than an uptight museum. During WWII, the house was used as a canteen and social club for the firemen who fought against the firestorms of the Blitz. The house was hit a number of times but luckily, never burnt down.

Now, it is open to the public, runs a number of interesting events and is where I go every couple of months to talk about the eighteenth century. Each of the rooms tells a different aspect of Johnson’s life and there are many portraits and prints around the walls to introduce various people in Johnson’s life. The house also has a copy of his will, various items belonging to friends and a fully stocked library with some of Johnson’s own books and a facsimile copy of his dictionary always open to look at.

One of the real joys of the house is the fact that you can feel it as a working house. The rooms feel homely, the various domestic partitions and clever little hideaways add to the feeling that people lived there. A large corkscrew device by the front door still stands as a deterrent against thieves and bailiffs and the central stairs still remain the hub of the house, taking us to Johnson’s bedroom or up the ‘four-pair’ to the wonderfully atmospheric Dictionary Garret.

But I mention this because of the new exhibition, ‘Collecting Johnson’. If it’s somewhere you’ve been putting off visiting, this is the time to go.

Included in the entrance ticket, ‘Collecting Johnson’ has a number of objects and works never before seen in public, borrowed from collectors across the world. There’s a letter from Johnson to Hester Thrale, addressed in warm and familiar terms; there are rare copies of works by and owned by friends such as Sheridan and Goldsmith, there’s a copy of a very early biography which Johnson wrote for the Gentleman’s Magazine, of which only three others exist.. there’s a lot more.

My personal favourites included the book by Bow-Street Runner, Saunders Welch (though probably actually written by Johnson), a bound copy of Johnson’s plan for his dictionary and a hand-written subscription card for his edition of Shakespeare, which came out nine years later after Johnson had lost his list of subscribers.

As well as all of this, there’s a never-before-seen x-ray of a portrait of Johnson’s and a very impractical looking snuff-box owned by Boswell. Chatting to the curator about it, she said that when she placed the lid on and ‘jiggled it about’ (technical term) it held together surprisingly well.

I’m sure it’s pretty obvious that I love Dr Johnson’s House and I loved the exhibition, but toddling along in the next few months is highly recommended because of that extra Johnsonian bang for your buck - and if you went a few years ago, go again as there are things there that will never be available again. 

Oh - and don't forget to say hello to Hodge, Johnson's cat.