Wednesday 25 July 2018

Samuel Johnson's Favourite Books... Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

Samuel Johnson was obviously a huge book fan. As a child his favourite books were what he called 'romantick fictions'
Hester Thrale Piozzi said;

“The three books of which he never tired, said Mrs. Thrale, were Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim's Progress, and Don Quixote "Alas," he would say, "how few books there are of which one can ever possibly arrive at the last page;" and "Was there ever yet any thing written by mere man" that one could wish longer than these three books? He would have gone on reading them, he would never exhaust them, because here—as in no other works—his identification was almost complete. These three wanderers—one a castaway, one a pilgrim, and one on an impossible quest—were prototypes of what he felt to be his own life.”

I read two of them so far this year (and will be reading the third with the Dr Johnson Reading Circle). So, I thought I’d start by looking at the one connected with my Bedford trip.

I had long written off The Pilgrim’s Progress as a paper-thin allegory whose Christian subtext was worn so heavily that it couldn’t be read as a story. It was QD Leavis’ in her ‘Fiction and the Reading Public’ who led me to believe it was of greater psychological depth than I expected. Added to the fact that it was also one of Samuel Johnson’s favourite books - I was ready to read it. Now having visited Bunyan's Church in Bedford, it seems time to talk about it.

I was drawn in by the poem at the beginning and got to the first line; ‘As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream.’ Aside from being a beautiful line, it is very similar to the beginning of the revolutionary call-to-arms, Piers Ploughman. I was intrigued by Christian’s pain and burden and wanted him to get to the Celestial City.

There were areas that worked very well for me, particularly the giant Despair who locks Christian and Hopeful in his dungeon. I imagined the frequently depressed Samuel Johnson thinking on the suicidal discussion and ideation. I was also very interested by the water around the Celestial City that has a depth depending on faith. 

I have to say, that I was very tired whenever Christian met a new person. I thought ‘not another one’ as he repeats the same adventures we have already seen to the Evangelist and the Interpreter, and the actions of the Interpreter to Faithful, and all of it again to Hopeful. While I was pleased that Hopeful’s flaws and successes come from his hopefulness - I did find the characters to be on-the-nose caricatures and they tired me. 

Add to that, Christian and his fellow journeymen utterly speak to each other in allegory and the whole thing, while presenting ideas about bravery and persistence, I found ultimately tiring.   

When it comes to the sequel, Christiana definitely has it easier. The presence of Great-Heart nullifies the difficulties and problems of the pilgrims. That said, the book does manage to address how weaker pilgrims can make their journey and the gentler pace does allow the characters to have more in-depth (and interesting) discussions on religious matters than the earlier book

Wednesday 18 July 2018

A Visit to Bedford (and the Museum of the Panacea Society)

In the recent BBC English Identity discussion, they asked people in various towns and cities to describe themselves. Where Brighton describes themselves as ‘seaside’ ‘liberal’ and ‘fun’ - the people of Bedford identified themselves using the terms, ‘the river’ and ‘unassuming’. 

They forgot to mention the fact that it’s a hotbed of religious discussion and the location of the Garden of Eden.

Many moons ago, on the precursor to Grubstlodger, I reviewed a book called Satan’s Mistress by Val Lewis. Having transferred it to here, it became one of the most (genuinely) commented posts on the site. The book was an odd one, for the most part it was a perfectly standard historical biography of a late eighteenth century prophetess called Joanna Southcott. She claimed she was pregnant with the second coming of Christ despite being a virgin in her 60s. Most peculiarly, the author of the biography was convinced that her prophecies were a result of a relationship with the devil…

Smash Cut To:

Bedford in the 1910s and a woman called Mabel Balthrop has learnt about Joanna Southcott and her prophecies, which had been sealed in a large box and hidden by her followers. Despite family resistance, (including locking her in a mental home for a while) Balthrop created a community around her. Then she started to have her own visions and prophecies. By 1919, followers congregated around her house in Albany Road in Bedford, calling themselves ‘The Community of the Holy Ghost’. 

This community bought houses around the area, knocking the gardens through to form ‘The Campus’. There they lived a quiet life, dedicated to the teachings of Mabel Balthrop who had been renamed Octavia. The reason for this is that Balthrop was regarded as the final part of ‘the Visitation', a succession of seven previous prophets (of which Joanna Southcott was regarded the second). Followers began to believe Octavia was the coming of the Daughter of God, the child Schiloh who had been Joanna Southcott’s original pregnancy.

Beliefs in this community also included the fact that the back garden of The Campus was actually the original Garden of Eden. One of their main focuses was to gather 24 Bishops together to open the box of Joanna Southcott’s prophecies. They believed the box would initiate the end times and contained teachings to navigate them. To make this easier, they outfitted a house with a special box-opening room, bedrooms for all the Bishops, bathrooms and a dining room. They also stockpiled soap and practiced cooking for them all so they were ready when the moment came - which it never did.

They also believed in healing squares of linen which Octavia had breathed on. These squares were drunk with water and regarded as a panacea (an item of universal healing). Changing their name to The Panacea Society, they sent these squares for free to thousands of people around the world, many of whom reported healing. They also buried the linen at the cardinal points in a twelve mile radius of The Campus, protecting Bedford from spiritual harm.

Unfortunately, this extraordinary society died out in 2013 and The Campus was turned into The Panacea Society Museum. Which I visited.

I spent four hours wandering The Campus and looking at the museum. The first floor of the Castleside building (the one fitted for Bishops) dealt with the history of the society itself. 

The Box opening room was set up ready for the Box to be opened (though wonderfully, the actual Box itself is still hidden for tradition’s sake and the box there is merely a replica). Upstairs are the Bishop’s common room, bathrooms and an example of a bedroom are still available to see. 

The top floor of the building puts Octavia in context of The Visitation, which is a fascinating story of odd prophets that involves diverse topics as baseball, huge towers and the invention of the automatic ten-pin bowling machine. The items in the Southcott room include baby clothes and a cot created for Southcott’s second-coming baby Schiloh, and examples of Southcott’s ‘passports to heaven’ which people took to the Napoleonic wars for luck.

Other parts to visit were the cute custom-built chapel, the rec-room where members listened to the wireless, and Mabel Balthrop's house. It's presented just as she left it, a creepy place with her glasses case left by her bed and her knitting in the parlour. The displays detail the complicated relationships of Balthrop and also the shock of her death in 1934 - very unexpected due to the fact that she was the Messiah.

The museum is a fascinating one (and free). There’s something wonderful and engaging about a society that combine end-time millennial religion with Edwardian tweeness.

I also bought a very interesting book about Octavia the Society.

But that’s not all Bedford has to offer.

Also for free is a museum dedicated to Bunyan. Run by the chapel descended from Bunyan’s own, it is a small upstairs room crammed with Bunyan relics and memorabilia. Presented in our favourite 90s style of rigid, ‘speaking’ mannequins, it tells the life of rebel-turned-religious-proselytiser, John Bunyan. 

For fans of Bunyan, and Pilgrim’s Progress in particular, the collection is unique. It includes the wicket-gate that inspired the one in the book, some of Bunyan’s work as a tinker, a pulpit he preached in and the door to the jail cell he was locked in for twelve years. What is strange, is that although he was locked up for preaching, he was occasionally allowed to be let out - to preach.

It’s a nice little museum - and stands almost exactly opposite the Panacea Society Museum. 

Also, just across from that stands the Higgins, a weird mashup museum dedicated to the history of Bedford (interesting) and Cecil Higgins’ collection of ugly furniture and porcelain (less so).

So Beford… unassuming but full of hidden pleasure and a great day out.

Wednesday 11 July 2018

Review of Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine as seen by Contemporary Observers 1660-1886 by Humphrey Jennings

Pandaemonium is a collection of different eye-witness texts from the rough span on the industrial revolution. Compiled in the 1930s by documentary film maker, Humphrey Jennings, they unexpectedly were the impetus behind the Opening Ceremony of London's 2012 Olympics

Being a creation of a film-maker, the texts are supposed to be read and compared to each other like shots in a montage. This is a fantastic idea, with texts reflecting, refracting and contradicting each other, create a kaleidoscope of meaning. 

This book is not an open and free play of imagination though, Jennings’ own intent and interpretation almost overwhelm the reader’s. Jennings has a definite story he wishes to tell; one of relatively free, animistic peasants being overwhelmed by the forces of industry, buckled under the yoke of middle-classes and forced into being the working class. 

Having read a lot about the Lunar Men, particularly Erasmus Darwin and a number of very positive histories of the Enlightenment, the inherent criticism of the machine age came as a surprise. It shouldn’t have been though, because as a teen I was very much of the opinion that rationalism and the industrial revolution were not just the death of superstition but the death of magic and wonder as well.

One of the greatest surprises was the accompanying religious revolution. I was aware of Wesley, Whitefield and other religious reformers of the era and that such religious movements were a response to the enlightenment and mechanical modes of thinking. What I hadn’t considered was the class issue, that such movements were a bourgeoise-ification of religion.  

I was delighted to see Goldsmith, Johnson and Kit Smart being used. Jennings, compiling his pieces in the 30s, passes on the false information that Jubilate Agno was written in Bedlam but he does have an interesting interpretation of it as one man's attempt to bring his religion and rationalism in sync.

The clear Marxist ideology weighted the book down. I have no problem with Marxism in itself, but all the Marxists I have ever read or met, were incredibly boring. Everything is boiled down into a war of class - and the many strands of the industrial revolution are described merely in terms of class war. 

There’s also the fact that Jennings seems to ignore the fact that peasants were terribly oppressed in times before the industrial revolution - serfs were banned from travelling, people starved without even an attempt at poor relief. The problem with the industrial revolution seems less to do with intentional exploitation and more to do with being unable to keep up with new developments. Not that the scientists are evil but that the ideas of scientists outpace sociological ones. 

This was in no way a bad book, but it grew to be a tiresome one and I was pleased when I finished it. A book finer in intention than execution.

Wednesday 4 July 2018

Review: Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth.

Was it only last summer I was reading Rookwood?

Last summer when I was snuggled in sheepskin rugs in a large teepee, having feasted on cheese toasted on a fire and swigs of single-malt whisky. There, I snuggled with the crazy, over-the-top story of curses and storms, highwaymen and gypsies, secret brothers and secret wives.

I was keen to dive back into Harrison-Ainsworth’s crazy world and decided that Jack Sheppard was the way to do it. 

As Rookwood stretched and played with the history of Dick Turpin, so Jack Sheppard utterly screws with the history of Jack Sheppard. Ainsworth is intensely inspired by history - but he doesn’t really give accuracy any credence whatsoever. He loves a blockbusting, nutty ol’ story far more.

The historical basis of the book is the same one that has inspired The Beggar’s Opera, Fielding’s Jonathan Wild (which I’m sure I reviewed), Lucy Moore’s The Thieves’ Opera, The Virtue of the Jest, The Fatal Tree and my own Odes to the Big City.

Jack Sheppard was a poor boy who had a strong yet thin physique and several years experience as a carpenter’s apprentice. As such he was a skilled housebreaker - however, he was also very easy to capture, having a tendency to hang around the same places and exciting the ire of London’s main criminal mastermind Jonathan Wild. 

This led to him to discover his real talent - escaping prisons. His go-to tactic was to smash through the roof, using a blanket to catch the debris before using the blanket to lower/parkour himself out into freedom. 

One memorable occasion has him doing all of this whilst carrying his mistress Edgeworth Bess, who was twice his size. Sheppard also indulged in a spot of classic cross-dressing, sneaking out of the prison in women’s clothing รก la Mr Toad (though a hundred-odd years before). 

Having broken out of London’s most notorious prison once, he did it again in a complicated series of actions, breaking through the empty parts of the prison in a sequence which would make a great film. Unfortunately, he was caught again a few days later and the last time he didn’t escape. (Although, there is a theory that he had a plan to be brought off the scaffold and revived, a plan which didn’t work because the crowd stopped his rescuers retrieving him, thinking they were doctors wishing to anatomise his body.)

Taking this already fascinating topic, William Harrison Ainsworth adds LOADS OF EVERYTHING.

The morality of Jack’s life isn’t clear enough, let’s add a Hogathian two apprentice sort of thing, but lets make them secret brothers, but lets also make them secret earls but one of them is a marquis, and let’s add the ’15 rebellion and the great storm of 1703. Let’s have Blueskin be an adored follower of Jack and have Jack as a king of thieves, lets stick his mum in Bedlam for a bit, let her be an heir snatched by gypsies. let’s have an action scene in a rain-drenched boat around the feet of Old London Bridge. Let’s make Wild nastier, lets have his hatred of Jack personal and not just business, let’s give him a villain's lair with a secret killing room and display cabinets with the bones of his victims, let’s make him practically bullet-proof, sword-proof and telepathic. And a love triangle! We need a love triangle! &c. &c. &c.

Essentially, this is Ainsworth at his most delightfully Ainsworthy. 

There’s nothing quite as wonderfully peculiar as the cave/monk cell/wood/gypsy/forced marriage with highwaymen and curses as there is in Rookwood but unlike that book we have a clear villain and he is the most delightfully evil character. It was in this book and about him that the phrase ‘Napoleon of Crime’ was uttered, not Moriarty. He has a full-on Bond villain evil base - he has evil laughs and evil stares and an unnerving habit of appearing in all the most unfortunate places. Technically, he kind of wins, despite the best efforts of everyone else. This should be a sad end but he was so entertaining, it wasn’t. 

For a hero, Jack Sheppard was not an unlikeable wet-lettuce character - although he doesn’t control much of the opening, he develops into a lively but unthinking robber into a repentant who goes to heroic lengths to protect those he loves. All those escapes, they weren’t to save himself - they were so he could convey important information to other characters or meet or rescue them from Wild’s dark dungeons. Those easy recaptures - they were all due to the fact that he had to keep returning to obvious places to warn other characters.

There was a little of the slang and balladry that could have weighed the book down - but as the game of cat and mouse between Sheppard and Wild began the story didn’t have time for all that. It did, however have time to evoke elements of London just fading from living memory when this book was written in 1839 (with very evocative illustrations by Cruickshank - which I didn’t get to enjoy in my copy, thus missing a lot, apparently).

In a chapter on Bedlam, we get quotes from Tom Brown, Ned Ward and The Dunciad. As a resident of Willesden, the frequent descriptions of it as a country idyll, along with the isolation of Dollis Hill and the beauty of the Harrow Road (where the author lived and is now buried) made me laugh a lot.

Whilst I wasn’t expecting Rookwood again, I was hoping for a Rookwood-like experience and this book exceeded my expectations. It’s no masterpiece, but it outsold Oliver Twist on pure fun alone… that’s saying something.

Plus, there’s a minor character called Obediah Lemon.