Wednesday 31 August 2011

Samuel Johnson in Fiction

I will be seeing ‘A Dish of Tea with Samuel Johnson’ at the Arts Theatre on Sunday and so am having a little look at previous fictional representations of Sammy J. I’ve found four. 

Blackadder: Ink and Incapabilty - Ben Elton and Richard Curtis 1987
As most people’s first (and only) introduction to Samuel Johnson, Blackadder has a lot of responsibility in shaping people’s ideas of the man. Of course it’s all nonsense. We have Samuel Johnson (played by a bluff Robbie Coltrane) offering patronage to a book that was not his to sell, but booksellers; we have him offering that patronage to the Prince Regent who was not yet born, we also have him hanging out with romantic poets who see him as a God, which is also nonsense - but that’s not really the point is it? The question is, can they use the idea of Samuel Johnson to create problems for Blackadder and humour for the audience and the answer is, yes they can.
The character of Johnson in this, is one of a large, violent angry man with a very high opinion of himself and a show-off use of vocabulary. He is used against Blackadder as a physical threat, a rare intellectual equal and a possible publisher of Blackadder’s novel ‘Edmund - a Butler’s Tale’. We are left feeling a sense of pleasure and oneupmanship when Baldrick accidently reveals to Johnson that he forgot to include the word sausage in his dictionary, (a word that he did include and is defined as, ‘n.s A roll or ball made commonly from pork or veal, and sometimes of beef, minced very small, with salt and spice; sometimes it is stuffed in the guts of fouls, and sometimes only rolled in flower.’).
It would be a shame if this really was all anybody heard of Johnson, as this vain shouty man is so removed from the self-doubting, multi-faceted, eternally human and humane person that Johnson seems to be.

Screenplay: Boswell and Johnson’s Tour of the Western Isles - John Byrne 1993
Robbie Coltrane gets another chance to give us his Johnson in this edition of a series of one off dramas called ‘Screenplay’. The performance does have it’s base in the Blackadder performance but is much more shaded and subtle, as would be expected. Coltrane’s use of Johnson’s Staffordshire accent is brought out a little more and he gives Johnson much more of the thoughtful,  amused and amusing man he could be - as well as some shouty histrionics. It is also fair to say that Coltrane really looks the part, despite his youth at the time, stoutly marching his way through the Hebridean countryside.
What is a pity though, is the script. When a writer has such rich source material as Boswell’s ‘Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides’, why not use any of it? Instead we have Johnson and Boswell comically pratfalling around the country, accompanied by a comical black servant with a thick Scottish accent (the fact that he is black has relevance later on). 
Johnson was not Johnson in this piece. He didn’t have any of those quirks and twitches that made him so fascinating to Boswell, his grumpiness was not Johnson’s brand of deep seated grumpiness and his jokes were not Johnson’s brand of humour. There is a wonderful bit in the book where Johnson laughs to himself, over what seems like a very small thing but he finds it hilarious - welcoming other people in with his laugh. Also, this is not Johnson in other ways, for example; there is a scene with Johnson playing the piano which is not only highly unlikely considering his ambivalence/dislike of music but he also plays in a honky-tonk style. More importantly, when one of his hosts is revealed to own a slave, he only raises an eyebrow. Johnson was a hugely outspoken man, not afraid to argue for what he believed in (and also to argue for what he didn’t believe in) so he wouldn’t have hidden from an argument about slavery. This is a man who toasted the next slave rebellion and gave the majority of his wealth to an ex-slave he had raised almost as a son, he would not have merely raised an eyebrow.
This slave is later bought and rescued by the comical black servant, who whites up for the part. Indeed, this character is given most of the good lines and most of the spotlight and although he was an pleasingly roguish type of character, he swallowed Johnson and Boswell. 
Then there was the presentation of Boswell. Now, I am not a Boswell fan (not after the bit in the London Diary where he dresses up as a poor man and gets a crowd onside to allow him to rape a prostitute) but I still find him an interesting man and wanted to see that. However, John Sessions doesn’t really get the chance to show Boswell’s manipulation of conversation to get Johnson to say things, nor does it get that name-dropping quality or the hunger and desperation I see in Boswell. All it allowed him to do was blunder around and fall for women. Now, John Sessions made this an interesting character to watch (I adored him as Dr Prunesquallor in BBC’s version of Gormanghast)  but it is not Boswell.
However, there were some very nice parts to this programme, especially when Johnson is asked about the meaning of life and gives the different answers he would have given throughout his life - although I was waiting for a ‘fills the vacuities of life’ type thing that never came.
We also got to see Ian Dury in a dramatic role, and I love a bit of Dury. He plays a lovely old man who is delighted since the day his wife died, and who is an atheist - and Samuel Johnson still doesn’t argue with him. 
This programme seems like such a wasted opportunity, it left me very unsatisfied. Samuel Johnson has a line when using a phrasebook to speak Erse, ‘what is the use of books Mr Boswell, then to help us through this vale of tears?’ - too true, and in this case, read the book.

England, England - Julian Barnes 1998
This is not a novel about Samuel Johnson, it’s about a businessman who buys the Isle of Wight and turns it into a distilled version of every tourist’s vision of Britain. It's a bit like Epcot, but bigger. Unfortunately, the book never quite lives up to the fascinating concept but there is a very good section where everything goes out of control in a Jurassic Park manner, but instead of dinosaurs, it’s people from Britain’s mythology and past. Among them is Samuel Johnson. A man has been hired to play Johnson for a ‘Cheshire Cheese’ dining experience where visitors to the island can enjoy a night of lively wit and repartee with Johnson, Boswell and Joshua Reynolds (but no Goldsmith, why no Goldsmith?) but the company has been receiving complaints that he is moody, rude and eats to fast - rather like Johnson himself then.
The joke is, that whoever the actor was, has been subsumed by the persona of Samuel Johnson. The Johnson is not very well written, Barnes just uses appropriate quotes for all of his dialogue and larding the text with as many Johnsonian quirks as possible, an Epcot Johnson for an Epcot Britain. However, what is interesting is the effect that the fake-Johnson has on the real CEO. She reflects on how lightweight and pretend she feels against this person, who is little more than a ghost of Johnson. How solid and wise he seems compared to her. I found it a fascinating idea the complete authenticity of a man born 200 years before the existentialists adopted the phrase for their own purposes survived into a facsimile copy. 

According to Queeney - Beryl Bainbridge 2001
This is a fictionalised account of Samuel Johnson’s relationship with Hester Thrale and borrows very heavily from contemporary sources, especially Thrale’s own diary, Thraliana. Indeed, there are a lot of facts in this book, and over half the conversations are ones that happened at the time.
What Beryl Bainbridge does is take all the original material and use a roving omniscient narrator to give new angles to the scene, usually close ups instead of the original text’s habitual use of a long shot. This is done with such skill and grace that the reader forgets the fictional element of what they are reading and it feels as if they are sitting in the room alongside Johnson, Hester and the rest. Although this is done very well, I wonder what the point of it is.  Most of what she is doing in the books can be performed by a good reader reading the original accounts. I suppose I find the original cutlets nice enough without the need for extra sauce.
I can see this novel having more impact before biographies used a greater range of sources on Johnson, including Thraliana and before Ian McIntyre’s extensive and engagingly written biography of Hester Thrale. (Though I’d love someone to publish a modern edition of Thraliana that is not over a hundred quid). 

At Home With Samuel Johnson - Adam Stevenson 2011
I’ll admit it, although I love the concept for this writing and have so many wonderful ideas and places to put Samuel Johnson and hear his opinions, he is so distinctive, so unique, that I find the challenge of writing Johnson close to impossible. Well done to those who have tried I suppose.


Sunday 28 August 2011

Haiku Diaries

Along with my folks
To London's Olympia
But it's not open.

Sunday roast with folks
Well dones to expectant friends
and home to my fleas.

Reading and writing
Stilton and port and fruit pie
Smiling calm am I.

Allied against fleas
Team tidy tirelessly
Victory is ours

Some blighters survived
So the war continues still
But read a good book.


Friday 26 August 2011

A little bit of good news.

I found out this morning that I have won the Dark Tales writing competition with my short story The Good Girl. As a result the story will be published in Dark Tales magazine for horror and speculative fiction.

The Good Girl is about the friendship between a little girl and a serial killer known for the dismemberment of his victims, although the focus of the story is on friendship rather than dismemberment which makes it surprisingly sweet.

All people wishing to purchase a copy or generally look around the website need click here.



Today's Haiku.

Flea bites awake me
But some good news awaits me
Someone wants my text.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

My trip haiku.

I was challenged by a friend to write a haiku diary. I start with the entries about a trip away to Lancashire to see some of my oldest and bestest friends. 

Blackburn to see Carl
Eight hours by coach. Worth it.
Old friends don't change much.

Grace, Carl and I took
nostalgic drinks in old pubs
I kipped on grass verge.

Bleary eyes and head
Bickering, joking, laughing
Ate Salford curry

Kate Bush-ing on moors
Sitting on top of the world
Eternal ride home.

Home, safe and knackered
The fleas are biting again
So pleased to see me

Itchiness awake!
The fleas, on the move again
But the novel crawls

Disappointing day
Gave in to lazy urges
All play and no work

- Hmmm, mysterious in haiku aren't they? Maybe I shall improve.


Monday 15 August 2011

Goldsmith Season: Why I Love Oliver Goldsmith

Poor Oliver Goldsmith, he has spent his entire life and posthumous reputation in Samuel Johnson’s shadow and it’s easy to see why. Samuel Johnson was a deeply complex man with a firm and muscular command of the English language. A writer of such strong and sensible moral force that I (personally) can’t find anyone to have written better on the subject since. A man who wrote the authoritative dictionary in English (that retained that position for over one hundred years) almost single-handedly and a man with so many quotable nuggets that he is second only to the Bible in entries in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Add to this, Samuel Johnson was well served by three biographies, including Boswell’s, one of the most influential biographies in English and where most people get an introduction to the character of Oliver Goldsmith, where he serves as the clown.
But Goldsmith is a fantastic writer himself. He might have less moral weight then Johnson, but he is far more readable and entertaining. Even his contemporaries, who found him a rather laughable person, admired the clarity and pleasurableness of his writing. Goldsmith made a lot his money by creating ‘compilations’, where he would read and condense research on a subject in a way that was entertaining and vivid. His compilations of the histories of Greece and Rome were standard school textbooks for nearly the same length of time that Johnson’s was the standard dictionary.
His essays collections, ‘The Bee’ and ‘The Citizen of the World’ are still enjoyable today, especially the latter. Where Johnson’s essays are powerful calls to moral arms, Goldsmiths are largely light, silly pieces about some very contemporary issue. What is incredible is that Goldsmith’s eye for the universal human detail means that these essays can still make a reader laugh. 
Goldsmith’s novel ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’ was read throughout the nineteenth century as a masterful example of the sentimental novel - this reputation has harmed it’s readership in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, it seems pretty clear to a modern reader that Goldsmith is actually taking a very arch look at the beliefs of sentimentalism, and there is a cut and thrust in the book that is very appealing to today’s reader.
Add to this his plays and poems. Although his longer poems do not do much for me, they are rather dry and plainly descriptive (though were actually the making of his reputation in his day) the unfinished poem ‘Retribution’ is a hilariously snarky look at his friends - where he creates a humorous epitaph for each one. His short poems, and little off the cuff things are also funny and often quite silly. His plays, still performed today were part of an attack against polite comedy and for what Goldsmith called ‘laughing’ comedy - though to my shame I have yet to see any, so I can’t comment.
Finally, the person of Goldsmith is so appealing. A man who was honest about his tendency to feel jealous about other people, who made jokes about this tendency. Who knew that the way to make people laugh was to start with himself. A man who had this to say about himself, “An ugly and a poor man is society only for himself and such society the world let’s me enjoy in great abundance...I may sit down and laugh at the world, and at myself - the most ridiculous object in it.”
Maybe my love for Goldsmith is something more primal and hiding behind admiration for his writing. Maybe us poor, ugly and ridiculous people need to search each other out through time, bundle together and admire each other - because no one else will do it for us.


Thursday 11 August 2011

Something Silly

Just one last 'comment' on the recent unrests before we get back to business.

There was a comment on US TV about how the UK looters were I took that photo and noticed that the age range of the looters is indeed rather large.


Wednesday 10 August 2011

It's not economic poverty - It's cultural.

I’m hearing an awful lot about the rioters in England and their deprived backgrounds, that these riots are the howl of anger from the underprivileged deprived underclasses breaking free from their oppression. If that is the case then it’s a howl of anger that tries on the clothes before looting them.
I myself live in an area classed by the government in the lowest percentile of privilege. I grew up in a council house on a council estate, my family never had any money and I now have a job where I work for a small but at least reliable wage - a job it took me eight months searching to get. 
We couldn’t go on holiday when I was little, I was often in someone’s hand-me-down clothes and although I was lucky enough to get a sega mega-drive, it was second hand. This seems rather unlike the brand-named wearing, blackberry messaging rioters - who materially, seem to have it much better off then I did. What I did have as a child though, was books and attention.
This is not an economic deprivation that is the problem, people have lived without money proudly and safely for years. This is a social and cultural deprivation. There is nothing the government can do about solving this problem, they have been throwing money at problem areas for years - this is something communities can only sort out for themselves. 
Just looking at the way rioters ran off with items - the man on the radio interview who said it was mad not to go and get ‘free stuff’ when there was nothing that could be done about it. The same person who claimed the only reason to riot and loot was that the government had ‘lost control’ and so because it was possible, it should be done.
That is a culture that have learnt to respect authority but not to appreciate the concept of decency. That right is only right as long as there is someone to enforce it. That is the voice of greed, of a world where empathy is a dirty word - a sign of weakness and lack of conviction.
Now, there is a place where empathy can be grown, can be taught - and that is in a book. It was said by a Waterstones employee that “We will stay open and let them raid us, they might learn something”. It’s true. But it’s not dry fact learning. It’s learning empathy and the ability to see the consequences of actions, lessons that can be taught through fiction.
A novel encourages the reader to empathise with the characters in a way TV and film never can. We enter their worlds, we enter their heads and merely taking part in the world of a fictional character is humanising and empowering. How can anyone imagining themselves as, the kids in Narnia, Oliver Twist, even the horse Black Beauty (to take some names from the best selling books of all time) not be a little different, a little more open to the reality of other people’s experience, and thus a little more empathetic?
Also, books emphasise the importance of community and the actions of a person in the community.  There are rarely books about a lone person, they have friends, they have enemies, they have allies. Books teach us heroic qualities, to stand up for what is right, to stand up for the weak, to be brave in the face of danger - to work together. The Lord of the Rings books are some of the top selling books in the world, on cinema they are a riot of colour and texture with lots of fighting - but what are the stories about really? They are about small, insignificant people working together to foil a great evil, a point maybe lost on film but strong in text. 
If David Cameron wants to lead a ‘moral army’, that moral army are not the vigilantes roaming London with beery breaths, that moral army are the people with brooms clearing up. The small people in the crowd who are working together to rebuild, not the orcs destroying.
These riots have nothing to do with being poor, and to claim it is, is an insult to every poor person who didn’t go out and smash their town up. These people don’t need more shoes or TVs, they need books. Books, and attention...the riots gave them some attention, who’s going to give them some books?

Tuesday 9 August 2011

To leave aside the past for a minute.

London riots have been rather crazy recently, felt there needed to be something to mark here it is.

Thursday 4 August 2011

Goldsmith Season: The Life of Oliver Goldsmith

Mostly cribbed, in true Goldsmith style, from a book by Ralph Wardle, the last major biography of Goldsmith.

Oliver ‘Nolly’ Goldsmith was born in Ireland, the son of a moderately comfortable vicar who was better at giving money away than gaining it. The family managed to scrape enough cash together to get through Trinity College and, despite some hiccoughs, managed to get a Bachelor of the Arts. It was his real wish to travel though, and he first went to Scotland, nominally to study medecine, but really as an excuse to enjoy himself. Then he went to university in Holland, before travelling several years around Europe, making money by pawning his clothes, gambling, playing his flute and arguing in colleges for cash. Somewhere around the way he also passed his medical qualifications, making him Dr Goldsmith - a genuine medical practitioner.

When he came to London he set himself up as a doctor but could not obtain many clients who could actually pay. His thick Irish accent, ugly looks and general blundering demeanour did not encourage people to put much faith in him. He supplemented his lack of money with essays and articles for London periodicals which were flourishing at the time, for a brief while he was even a stand in headmaster at a school in Peckham, but although there were fond memories of him as a person, he did not inspire much respect.
The fact is that Oliver Goldsmith loved a joke and did not take the world all that seriously, but he did take himself seriously and this combination often lead to bizarre and absurd incidents. He was generous but jealous, he couldn’t stand the idea of other people doing better then him and boasted how he could do better - whether that be riding a horse or writing a play. He would then prove he could do better and fall flat on his face, sometimes literally. He claimed once that he could vault over a pool of water, it’s no surprise to anyone when he ended up wet.
He was going to ship out to the coast of India and as a goodbye to London he wrote ‘An inquiry into the present state of polite learning’, where he argued the importance of writing from experience rather than books, to aspire to be original rather than derivative and to aim for ease and simplicity of expression rather than to lard a work up with awkward and difficult phrases and expressions. Before he went to India, news came that it had been occupied by France he was stuck in England and stuck as a writer.
First he started his own periodical ‘The Bee’, which he almost single handedly wrote for eight editions before it was packed up due to the combination of hard work and little reward. He wrote for many magazines and periodicals, and had a regular space in ‘The Ledger’, where he wrote as a Chinese philosopher Lien Chi who had just arrived in London. This format allowed Goldsmith to write lots of varying articles, many of them satirical jabs at modern London, but also essays about general morality, aesthetics and politics. Lien Chi, and so Goldsmith emerges from the letters as a tolerant, amused and interested observer of human life and the letters were extremely popular and later gathered into a book, ‘The Citizen of the World’. It was the success of this that later had him introduced to Samuel Johnson.

There is a story that Goldsmith was deep in debt to his landlady and she was calling the bailiffs. Goldsmith sent for Johnson who sent some money but also came around. The two of them then went through Goldsmith’s papers to see if there was anything worth selling. They came across ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’ a short novel and that was sent and paid for, the money defraying the rent expenses. The book was not published for some time after, and when it was did only moderate business. However, it became one of the most read books in the century after his death and has not been out of print since. 

Goldsmith is far right in the blue coat
Goldsmith’s lack of skill with money was legendary, when he worked at the school, the matron looked after his money as much as the boys. When he had it, he splashed out, was generous to anyone that knocked and loved to buy expensive and lurid clothes. There is a story from later in his life where he was showing off his coat and bragging that the tailor had asked him to tell everyone who made it if they asked, his friends said that they would take the name, but as a warning not to go to so colourblind a tailor. This fondness for bright and unusual clothing didn’t help his image as a clown very much.

Goldmith (Left) and Johnson (Right) - Probably Boswell in the middle
He was taken in by the publisher, Newbery (whom the Newbery children’s award in named after). Newbery looked after, lodged and fed Goldsmith in his house in the outskirts of London in return for Goldsmith’s writing. Goldsmith wrote a lot of hackwork but also wrote ‘The Traveller’, a poem that made his name. 
From then his career was made, he wrote another long poem, ‘the Deserted Village’ but was especially prized by booksellers for his work as a compiler. Throughout his early essays he would go to the French encyclop├ędie and translate the words and put them into his own, but he was also commisioned to write large digests of works where he would read a number of experts on a subject and manage to turn that into exciting, simple and emminently readable prose. He became a top selling spreader of knowledge and his books on Roman, Greek and British history were school textbooks until the middle of the next century. 
Later in his life he also wrote plays, making it his mission to write what he called ‘laughing comedies’ as opposed to the mannered ‘sentimental comedies’ in fashion. The first ‘The Goodnatured Man’ came out to a satisfactory run but it was his second ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ that was the riskiest. The director was not a fan of the play and did not buy new sets or costumes, the better actors in the troupe refused to play the piece and everything was expected to be a huge failure. Imagine the surprise when it went down extremely well and is one of very few eighteenth century plays still performed today.

Goldsmith's Memorial in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey (best picture I could do, sorry.)

All the hard work and worry got to Goldsmith, who was as always deep in debt, he caught a fever and died suddenly. Johnson wrote his epitaph where he praises Goldsmith’s ability to turn his hand to many styles and ornament them all but it was a spoken comment that provides a more fitting epitaph... “Let not his frailties be remembered; he was a very great man.”

NEXT: A more personal look at why I love Goldsmith.