Wednesday 19 June 2024

Review: Samuel Johnson: The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers


My original plan was to read the first five chapters of Jeffrey Meyers’s Samuel Johnson: The Struggle as part of my project of reading the earlier part of Samuel Johnson’s life in as many biographies as possible as research for a novel. Realising that out of all the biographies, this is the only one I hadn’t read, I thought I might as well read the whole thing.

This biography came out on Johnson’s Tercentenary in 2009. Unlike Peter Martin’s rather tepid take and David Nokes’s seeming irritation with the great man, Meyers is keen to enforce that his is not your grandad’s Samuel Johnson. This Johnson says ‘fuck’, this Johnson has sex (very rarely), this Johnson thinks about sex (all the time). The subtitle of the book is, The Struggle, and where Johnson has to struggle, against his health, poverty, ugliness or sex-drive, Meyers has something to say. When there isn’t, he doesn’t. 

The introduction to the book quotes Johnson declaring the best things in life to be “fucking and drinking” and follows with a rather perfunctory account of his childhood which mainly concerns itself with his wet dreams. There’s quite a bit in the earlier part of the book about Johnson’s physicality, particularly his strength and violence. Much is said about him beating the bookseller Thomas Osbourne (a man who most writers seemed to have wanted to hit). It’s particularly highlighted how Johnson said that he’d “beaten many a fellow”. Of course, Meyers takes Johnson’s interests in athletics, as well as his outbursts of violence, not as a reaction to his initially weak childhood but as “crucial outlets for his sexual feelings”.

Of course, the relationship with Tetty is framed in a purely sexual light. As he sees it, she was a willing sexual guide at first, flattered by the heavy-handed attentions of the much younger man. As she grew older, however, her sex-drive diminished and she banned Johnson from her bedroom. There were rumours in Johnson’s lifetime that he’d partook of prostitutes during this time, particularly in the company of Richard Savage - Meyers makes great stock of these rumours. However, he certainly didn’t seem to continue that behaviour with other rakish friends like Topham Beauclerk and James Boswell.

Meyers, of course, makes a lot out of the confessions that Tetty’s nurse (and Samuel’s godfather’s daughter) Mrs Desmoulin made to Boswell. She said that Johnson used to invite her into bed, stroke her, become aroused but never follow through. Meyers describes Boswell getting aroused at this description of Johnson becoming aroused - and it’s hard not to feel that Meyers is becoming aroused too. 

The last sexual element of the book is the relationship with Johnson and Hester Thrale. While Meyers doesn’t think they actually had sex, he paints Johnson as a furious and self-loathing masturbator. Drawing from a few elements, some remarks in a letter from Samuel to Hester, the chain and padlock that Hester kept - he decides that Samuel Johnson used to get Hester Thrale to kneel him down, chain him up and whip him in a sadomasochistic ritual that he’d later get off on. Once he’s put these loose elements together, they then become established fact for the rest of the book.

If there is something that Meyers likes more than speculating about Samuel Johnson’s sex life, it’s finding any excuse to find a quote to demonstrate just how ugly and disgusting Samuel Johnson was. It starts early with him being called repulsive and a ‘physical freak’. He’s compared to Frankenstein’s monster twice, uses any occasion to savage him for bad table manners, and finds any and every excuse to make sure the reader knows that he was a hideous, smelly, disgusting monster who has a figure “made to disgrace or ridicule the structure of the human body” (a quote from Chesterfield.

However, when this book comes to any of his achievements (surely the final outcome of his struggles) the book is really weak. The chapter on his time in Grub Street is described in my notes as ‘childish’, he doesn’t seem to have realised he met Goldsmith after he was already famous for the dictionary and Rambler. The discussions of Johnson’s own works are really feeble. Meyers seems fixated on the idea that Johnson wrote only wrote miserable stuff. To call his prayers and meditations “one of the saddest books of the century” is pretty fair in describing the emotions, but seems to ignore the fact that they were never meant to be published. He describes Johnson’s essays as if they are solely miserable when many of them are pretty funny and he spends a chapter slagging off how limited his Lives of the Poets are, before describing them as his best work.

The weirdest reading is his one of Rasselas. Meyers doesn’t go into much detail about the majority of the book but spends four pages on Johnson’s description of The Happy Valley, where Prince Rasselas is trapped. The Happy Valley is, of course, a vagina, with a forest for pubes and dripping wet with rivulets from a mountain. To be honest, I began to think it was Meyers who had a problem with persistent sexual thoughts, not Samuel Johnson.

To be fair, Samuel Johnson: A Struggle does fill a hole that other Johnson biographies fail to fill. He was not a saint but a man and he no doubt had the same urges as other men. However, Johnson did not seem to form his personality around these urges and it seems disingenuous to form a biography around them.

Wednesday 12 June 2024

Review: A Little Pilgrim’s Peeps at Parnassus by Olga Katzin

 A Little Pilgrim’s Peeps at Parnassus first drew my attention because of its awkward title, then because of the brilliant illustrations by Arthur Watts. A few peeps of my own showed that it seemed to be a children’s book, teaching the history of British literature through the ages in rhyming couplets. I thought I’d get it and give it a go.

As I read the piece, I started to question my assumptions. It’s rhyming hexameters, especially those with the forced rhymes - seemed comic, inflated, maybe even hudibrastic. What’s more the piece was incredibly opinionated, though the didactic nature of some older children’s books tends that way, it seemed to be pushed to comic extremes. The book also expected the reader to be pretty knowledgeable about English history and literature, with its references to Praisegod Barebones and minor Elizabethan writers. Again though, many earlier children’s books did expect quite a lot of (what is now) specialist knowledge from its readers. I had to look it up.

Had my copy of this book retained its dust-jacket, I’d have discovered the author of the book, Olga Katzin and the full title; Peeps at Parnasus: A Delicious Survey, Half Parody, Half Caricature, of the Whole Pageant of English Verse-Malicious and Gay. Rather than a strange, opinionated children’s book, it’s a strange opinionated adult book masquerading as a children’s one.

Starting with the druids, singing their native British songs of praise before being cruelly slaughtered by Romans, the book posits a ‘British Muse’ that is sometimes made at home on her island of birth and sometimes chased away by other things (often, those pesky foreign influences - though the story of the beginning of the book is essentially about how English emerged from all those pesky foreign influences). 

After the druids were the Anglo-Saxons with their “mile on alliterative mile”, followed by Danes, and the Normans. At this point England was open to ‘anyone who ruled the waves’ so William thought he’d give it a go, even despite the firm English reply of “Really William” and “Enough”. As a result, the muse chose not to spend time with the Norman language  and instead;

   “dived into the melting pot

  where English speech was being made-

She spent her subterranean time

In making reason mate with rhyme.”

Until Chaucer came along. Then a bunch of people who tried to sound like Chaucer, and then new, exciting people like Spenser, Lyly and Herrick. Interestingly, Shakespeare is not named in this book. He’s alluded to and the Mermaid Tavern is mentioned but the story as told in this book is of a shining, over-the-top time that is then clamped down by puritans like the aforementioned Barebones and by Milton. Before being punctured by the noble knight Hudibras. 

Then we get into the eighteenth century and “The little, mighty Alexander” who is a “galaxy of wits in one” who ruled “arbitrarily” with such smile and bite that even the muse grows scared of him. 

“None wing with such accomplished Craft

The polished Couplet’s lethal Shaft

In flights of dazzling Coruscation

As if expressly for Quotation.”

Pope is followed by the Scriblerans, other poets and then, horror of horrors - Grub Street! Those filthy unlettered beggars who write for money, trash the Muse and sell her on street corners. 

“The greedy and abandoned trollop

Don’t even put her parasol-up.” (Which is a pretty good example of some of the rhymes in this piece… luckily, she has a hero.

“Her providential rescuer

The doating Lexicographer

A rock of adamantine stuff

A mountain in a cloud of snuff,

Withdraws her from her venal ease

To Virtue and the Cheshire Cheese.” (Which is 3 minutes walk from where I’m writing this in Gough Square).

After Johnson has saved the Muse (and marked Goldsmith’s homework) we run onto Thompson, Ossian, Chatterton, a visit to some graveyard poets and onto Burns.

So the book goes on for another hundred pages, getting more detailed and more obscure until it reaches the writer’s time of 1927. It charts poetry’s superstar years with the romantics, its decline under the tyranny of Dickens and the age of the novel. The part about The Great War and the war poets is surprisingly touching, yet also makes the point that if there hadn’t have been a war, they’d have been writing airy nonsense about flowers. 

Amongst the highlights of the later parts of the book are a friendly welcome to “chubby Mr Lear”, a poet who could be easily missed in a survey such as this. Yeats gets describes as “more surely sidhe-like than the sidhe” and T.S Elliot is described as, “serving putrid forage/ from intellectual cold storage”. 

I’d have probably appreciated the book more had I been more of a poetry person, a barb stings rather less if you don’t know who it is aimed at but I enjoyed this book for its bad attitude and daft rhymes. 

Wednesday 5 June 2024

Willesden Green Tales

 For almost the last ten years I’ve lived in a little garret opposite Willesden Green Station. Out of my window, I’ve seen the green minaret of the Brent Central Mosque, gently glowing in the sunlight (or not, if it’s not). The garden is part of a row of gardens and has been the home to a surprising variety of birds, from parakeets and pigeons to jays, waxwings and a woodpecker. Like a lot of places in London, it has an insular feel, like a little pocket within the greater whole - and there have also been some unusual people, events and sights. I thought I’d record them for posterity.

Where I lived

When I went to see my little bedsit, it was always around 5pm. This is always a golden time, as the windows face west and the golden sunshine hits the edges of the mirrors and cause rainbows to drift around the room. 

The place is in the attic of my landlord, a former film editor who worked on film’s as diverse as Branagh’s Hamlet and Zombies Vs Cockneys. His brother was an assistant to George Michael, lately turned undertaker and author of Dead Ahead. He and his wife have always been good to me and when I caught covid, I was the lucky recipient of some brilliant meals.

The day I moved in, some police turned up at the house to ask questions of someone who had been a witness. A next door neighbour also came round, he’d seen the police car and decided to tell them that he’d found something in his garden he suspected to be an unexploded WWII German bomb. However, the police were busy, so he told me. I’m not sure if he ever told the police. I don’t know if he did find an unexploded bomb and, if he did, I don’t know if it’s still there.

Guard Dog Man

My little garret faces the back garden. There are a row of back gardens from the street, but the houses in the street behind also have their back gardens touching ours - this means there’s a surprisingly diverse range of birds and insects that make their homes there.

It also means that it’s a safe place for urban foxes to romance and later raise their cubs. Many evenings I’ve watched cubs play in the garden and it’s always a sweet and magical experience. Many times I’ve also heard foxes making love, that isn’t. The fox’s cry is a terrible sound at the best of time, part death-scream, part otherworldly abomination but sex cries of a fox are something else.

Somewhere in the road behind us there lived a man I designated ‘Guard Dog Man’. Whenever the foxes made noises, so did he. Presumably, he hoped the noise of him would scare them off but they never did. The sound he made was gruff, like a barking dog and he made it every time the foxes did. This meant that when I heard the foxes, it was less their noise I was concerned about, but the fact they’d set off Guard Dog Man. They’d squeal and squall and he’d bark pointlessly and that was their cycle, for years and years.

The Denim Twitcher

The next character steers me onto more delicate territory. There’s a man who haunts Willesden Green tube station every weekday morning who clearly has some difficulty or another. I’ve only spoken to him once, he’d fallen over and I helped him stand up but I don’t know his name or story. He always wears a checked rag round his head and an outfit that consists of a range of faded denim clothes. He also always wears a Lynard Skynard t-shirt. I don’t know if he always wears the same outfit exactly, but it’s always the same kind of thing.

He moves in the most extraordinary way. He twitches and lurches. He stands still and robotically strikes his hand up and down. He jolts and jerks, his walk stiff and sudden and alarming - it certainly helps me imagine what it must have seemed like to people meeting Samuel Johnson for the first time. He sometimes speaks, usually bellowed swear words but mainly he howls. I’ve heard him making sex-noises at women as they pass though. 

Like clockwork, he emerges from his house, he makes his erratic way up the street, he goes into Gails or Costa and then he goes to Willesden Green tube to shout and wail before catching a bus somewhere. If he needs a wee, he doesn’t go back to the house he emerges from but instead pisses on the street corner, his jerking body sending splashes everywhere.

I have no desire to laugh at this man, I have no knowledge of whatever it is he labours under, but he is a noticeable and fascinating feature of the environment and seems worth recording.

Mr Pimp-Tortoise

In the early years of moving in, there was another man who stood out who I designated in my head, ‘Mr Pimp-Tortoise’. 

He was an elderly man who wore a 1970s pimp suit in yellows and browns and oranges. It had huge pointed lapels, flared trousers, a hat and can - the whole shebang. This man must have been something in the 70s (or at the least, must have looked like he was). Now, however, he’d wizened and shrunk, his little head and small neck poking out of the already huge collar like a little tortoise. I always wondered about his story, who he had been and who he was now. I never saw him after covid.

Neils’ Photo Agency

Willesden Green’s biggest mystery. A photographers, presumably owned by two people called Neil. Neither Neil has ever been spotted. No one has ever entered the shop and no one has ever left it. 

What’s more, the photos that are stuck all over the windows, unmounted and frequently wonky, are always faded. Even on the rare occasion that a new photo is put up, it’s already faded. They aren’t even the kind of photo that would be taken by a photographers - there are no school photos, no portraits against a blank backdrop - instead there are holiday camera shots, photos of people a long way away, photos of people in their houses or against a bush. Many of the photos clearly date back years, most of them are poorly focused or badly framed. Why would a photographers only show off bad photos? It must be a front… for something. 

West Sussex Charcoal

There’s an Irish butchers on Willesden High Street. It’s got a good reputation and always looks very clean and appealing (if meat is your thing). There are two windows in the shop. One allows potential customers to peer at the meat counter, the other is stacked up with charcoal briquettes. These aren’t the outside-a-petrol-station kind, these look like premium charcoal. The most premium must be the ones labelled ‘West Sussex Charcoal’.

I’ve often found the attribution of place-names on products pretty funny. Is there really better quality in a Norfolk turkey to a different turkey? Would a Suffolk turkey be okay? The charcoal really tickled me, because surely, once charcoal is made, it lasts a long time and can be transported a long way. I understand why a product may seem better with British cream, you don’t really want cream that’s travelled half of Europe… but charcoal?

Even better, it has to be West Sussex charcoal, none of that East Sussex rubbish. I’d walk to work imagining a man (and it would definitely be a man) who lives out in Essex but gets a train every now and then to Willesden, just because the shop sold the West Sussex charcoal he so craved. Other places might sell East Sussex charcoal, or even worse, charcoal with no known providence at all. 

The West Sussex charcoal must be pretty popular because there are big gaps in time when the shop have run out and just display other charcoals. I imagine the man coming all the way from Essex, getting to the window of the butcher’s shop and being bitterly disappointed. 

The Book-swipe

Just inside Willesden Green Station there are is a small bookcase. On this bookcase people bring and take books. It’s called a book-swap, but for me (and it seems many others) it’s principally a book-swipe. I’ve grabbed some wonderful books from this place, discovered new authors and generally had my reading life greatly improved. I might miss it most of all.