Wednesday 29 August 2018

Galateo: Politeness for the Internet Age

Galateo is a 16th century handbook on politeness written by Giovanni Della Casa which was spread throughout Europe, taking notions of politeness through the continent. It took a while to arrive to England, infiltrating at the end of the 17th century before becoming a vital part of early 18th century Spectator culture.

I think the internet could do with something like it again, so I made a video trying to present it to the webizens. Here it is.

Wednesday 22 August 2018

Review: Pepys' 1665 Diary and Defoe's 'A Journal of the Plague Year'

Having recently read Pepys’ account of the plague of 1665, I thought I’d visit Defoe and see what he had to say about the matter in ‘The Journal of the Plague Year'.

For Pepys, the plague is a nuisance which occasionally scares him (when he runs into diseased bodies at night) but more frequently exasperates him with complications, such as the different bodies of government being split up into various country estates. For him, it is an opportunity to play and to exercise his full sexual wishes. He is far more concerned with the reputation of Lord Sandwich as Admiral, the organisation of Phillip Caterat’s wedding and the possibility of profiting from the Anglo-Dutch War.

For Defoe, it’s an apocalypse - at one point in September he sees London months away from obliteration. Well… technically… not Defoe.  ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ is an unusual book. For a start, it isn’t actual presented as a journal, more a reflection. It pretends to be the account of ‘HF’, a saddler who stayed in London during the whole of the plague’s ravaging. 

Defoe was five years old in 1665 and was evacuated into the country with his family for the duration of the sickness and so was not drawing on his own memories. It is very possible he drew on the memories of those around him, his uncle was a HF and did stay, it is possible he interviewed him. It is also possible he had access to Pepys diaries, as an acquaintance was a librarian of the Pepys library - if he did, I don’t think he used them much, Pepys’ unique perspective is not much seen in the book. It is clear Defoe also used plague literature and the recently published death lists of the time to help him.

Irrespective of the veracity of the tales told in the ‘Journal’, Defoe creates a feeling of realism and an aura of truth. Defoe plays to his strengths as a writer, describing the processes by which London tried to contain and protect itself from the plague as well as the methods and systems used by the people themselves. In doing so, he manages to create a very moving, dignified telling of a distressing tale.

Pepys on the other hand frequently finds himself remarking on how happy is and how he is experiencing ‘the greatest joy I ever had in my life’. Certainly, his wealth doubles during 1665 (and had grown a hundredfold since 1660). In large part because of his his own hard work. In a very revealing passage on November 1st, he tells a friend how his good fortune has come through luck, a few good contacts and through working hard enough to be essential. The plague is only periphery, the war with the Dutch and the money making opportunities are more relevant. 

This may be because Pepys, as a naval official, finds himself moved out into the country, whereas Defoe stays in London. Defoe conjures up timeless truths that still are true of London today.  When the plague starts, it begins in the West End. Those in the City, East and South of the river consider these sicknesses to only be the West’s problem. There’s sympathy, but an overriding feeling that ‘it won’t come here’. As a result, those places are utterly unprepared when the disease spreads. Were such an illness to occur today, London would treat it in exactly the same manner, it still being a city made of different parishes and ‘ends’, even if those parishes aren’t tied to churches.

After the initial panic and exodus of the city (which Pepys remarks on and is part of), what’s most notable about the Defoe book is the calm, rational way the people left behind organise themselves. Although Defoe has a definite criticism of locking the healthy with the sick, he is very clear that it was at least a response, which isn’t coming from the King or court. The Lord Mayor of London and the officials of the city are highly praised for the way they set up systems of containment and burial, for the appeal and fair handing out of charity and for their dedication to their duty - a dedication not shown by clergy and doctors.

Defoe gives a very fair account of plague nurses, pilloried in other texts for killing off their patients and stealing from them - accounts he reckons to be more a projection of people’s fears than an accurate description of the actions of the nurses themselves. Similarly, he doesn’t castigate the medical profession for being unable to get on top of the plague, seeing it as a problem that no one could control.

There are pictures of people running mad, of plague victims drowning themselves or setting themselves alight in their beds to avoid the painful death and (in September) of bodies dumped in the streets but these are the exceptions. When I think of how London would cope if a mysterious and untreatable disease killed 20% of the population in three months, those hardworking people of the 1600s are a wonder of civil duty and good sense. In modern London, in 2011, there were three days of widespread riots after a protest about a police shooting went out of hand. In 1665 there were none.

Another element that I found very recognisable in Defoe was how, when the plague was at its height and every Londoner had accepted death, they stopped the precautions that had characterised the plague until then. No longer did they walk in the middle of the street and avoid people, nor did they leave payment in vinegar to sanitise it - a fatalism swept the city. Similarly, when the incidence of infection was still high but the death rate lower, they joyfully hugged and touched each other without fear… thus causing the plague to increase a little. This moment gets a little recognition from Pepys but he is too wrapped up in his own life to pay it too much attention.

For a writer who often struggles with atmosphere, ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ is dripping in it. The close, hot summer of 1665, the voluntary (or involuntary) confinement to houses, the creeping and paranoid fear of infection - they are all simply and clearly evoked.  The joy when the death count goes down, full of delight and release of tension is also communicated to the reader. 

This might be my favourite Defoe book yet. 

Probably the difference in the books is based on the fact that one is a genuine journal of the time and the other purports to be. Certainly, looking at the two of them together it is revealed how much everyone kept an eye on the death lists and the reports of plague - but for Pepys, the man on the ground, there was too much to accomplish to let plague get in the way. I also found it interesting how both Pepys and Defoe fail to describe or mention the now iconic Plague Doctor outfit. Were they not common in London? They seem a more European invention.

This is a fascinating topic and period and I am delighted to discover that William Harrison Ainsworth also wrote a novel about London during the plague and fire called ‘Old Saint Pauls’. I look forward, at some point, to seeing what his particularly technicolour imagination make of the material.

Wednesday 15 August 2018

Trip to Kenwood House

I have tried to make the trip to Kenwood House three times. The first, I was distracted by Hampstead town, its charity shops stacked with good second-hand books, and the general prettiness of it. The second I was distracted by the beauty of the Heath and wandering over its rolling hills and shady woods. The third time I was completely distracted and ended up walking to Belsize and then onto Camden Town.

This time I was determined, yet I did get a little distracted. In the Golders Green area of the heath, there’s a small zoo which contains some ring-tailed lemurs. Always my favourite of the lemur family, I found myself having a nice chat with them. I did, however manage to reach the house.

Most luckily, I reached the house in time for the two-o’clock guided tour. This was given by Phil, who seemed like he could answer any questions about anyone in the house. It was remodelled in 1764 for the Lord Chief Justice, William Mansfield. Both inside and out were designed by James Adam, including furniture and fittings.

The outside features two impressive columns, these look like stone but are in fact wooden. As Phil said, ‘Adam wouldn’t waste a client’s money’. We entered the reception room, which also doubled as a dining room. This seemed strange to me but seeing as the house was originally a weekend retreat, I guessed that it was a faff that could be put up with.

We were led through the levee waiting area to the library, or the Great Room. It was great. A cavernous expanse painted in baby-blue and baby-pink with curved ends that amplified music for dances, which were had on a sprung floor. We were told how the large glass windows were a new technology and with the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, made the room dance with light. Incidentally, when the house was sold, the mirrors were so heavy it was easier to sell them with the building than remove them. The library steps were an interesting contraption, made from mahogany, they could be folded back into a table. The book collection itself wasn’t all that impressive though.

The house was the home of six Earls of Mansfield and one Russian prince called Michael Mikhailovich before being sold off, knocked down and turned into villas. Lord Iveagh of the Guinness family didn’t like this idea, bought the house, filled it with his art collection and gave it to the National Trust. 

This collection is impressive. There were Van Dykes, Gainsboroughs, Reynolds and Romneys. I loved the Rembrandt self portrait as a broken old man and I wasn’t the only one, there’s a visitor who spends a bit of time with him every day. Above it is a Reynolds self portrait in the same stye. in that same room sits Vermeer’s ‘The Guitar Player’, who looked out at us happily.

One room had a painting by Lunar Men favourite, Joseph Wright. It shows two girls, in dim candlelight, dressing a cat. Our guide told us that he found that one more disturbing the more he looked at it.

Another room featured the portrait of John Joseph Merlin, the inventor of the in-line skate. He’s an interesting man, once noted for going to a party in his skates, playing a violin and crashing into a priceless mirror. He was also an inventor of automata, including the famous mechanical swan. He had been piano tuner at Kenwood and there were two of his inventions; one a wonderful clock that shows the time in a digital form as well as on a clock face. The other was a self-propelled wheelchair that could turn 360Âș which he whizzed around during a masquerade ball. I want to know more about him.

One of the things that struck me about the collection was the amount of portraits of courtesans and other women. There were three Romney portraits of Emma Hamilton, including the one where she is represented as a simple spinner. There was also a portrait of Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra, dissolving and drinking a pearl - most likely as a reference to when she ate a twenty-pound note on a sandwich to chastise a man for paying her too little.

Reaching the end of the tour, I went upstairs where there is a collection of 16th-17th century portraits, including a number of monarchs. These were a little flat after the later portraits I had seen downstairs and I left the house having spent a very enjoyable couple of hours.

I recommend the house to anyone with a love of art and architecture, and I particularly recommend the two o’clock tour. But mooching around the house and grounds can be recommended to anyone on such a lovely, sunny day as the one I went.

Wednesday 8 August 2018

Johnson's Reading Circle: Trip to Birmingham

When asked why the people of Lichfield seemed to lack industry, Johnson replied that the people of Lichfield were philosophers who ‘work with our heads and make the boobies of Birmingham work for us with their hands.’ The Dr Johnson Reading Circle decided to visit the city and discover just how wrong he was.

Bundling twelve-strong onto a Marylebone train, the lively group were a challenge to the quiet zone until given a quiz which kept us out of mischief for most of the journey. Once again taking ourselves into the Midlands (after previous trips to Lichfield and Oxford) we took taxis from Moor Street to the centrepiece of our trip, Soho House.

Once set in a sculptured parkland with constructed lakes, Soho house the home of Matthew Boulton and his family, the visitor reception for an thriving tourist business and the administrative centre of one of the first factories of the industrial revolution. Today it’s a strange sight, a smart, solid eighteenth-century house tucked among a row of post-war terraces. 

We were welcomed at the house and were offered a large lunch of sandwiches, tea and fruit. We did what we do best; ate, drank and chatted about interesting places to visit. As we did this, we examined a model of the house and factory complex. It had been a truly huge place, consisting of a factory that specialised in what were called Birmingham Toys; buttons, buckles, snuff-boxes, candlesticks and other useful (and decorative) household items. The factory, originally water powered also included a building to build Watt’s steam engines and a mint where Boulton created commemorative medallions and eventually improved, tamperproof currency. 

Soho House was more than just an industrial centre though, it was also one of the main meeting places of the Lunar Society. They were a group of industrialists and polymaths who, between them, can claim a staggering range of world-changing discoveries, accomplishments and inventions. Boulton and Soho House were a key part of this society, there was a telescope on the roof, a separate astronomy and a well stocked fossilry. 

Our guide for the trip was Jack, a member of the modern day Lunar Society. He took us into the hallway, a bright, spacious place with pillars of Derbyshire alabaster and an ormolu table. Ormolu was a word we were going to hear a lot in the following few reception rooms. It’s a gold-mercury gild that retains its shine but was deadly to those who worked it. Boulton later dropped the process.

The home is particularly designed for comfort, with painted canvas in the hallways serving as something like modern linoleum, fully fitted carpets and underfloor heating, the first recorded in Britain since the Roman hypocaust. 

My favourite object was in the music room, it was a Sidereal Clock, another ormolu covered object that could not only show the sign but also the position of the sun and stars. Catherine the Great had it on free trial at the Hermitage - she kept it for ten years before sending it back because it didn’t chime the times.

We also went into the Lunar Room, a large, cosy dining room with the table that the various members of the society would meet, drink, laugh and exchange theories and ideas. There’s a wonderfully playful aspect to the Lunar Society, once they made paper balloons and floated them off Soho House, much to the confusion of Birmingham residents.

Upstairs to the private rooms, these were less ostentatious with far less ormolu. Each of the rooms are of a human scale with an emphasis of comfort. Not only did it evoke the feeling of an unostentatious family life, it also made me think how useful it was to have a factory producing top-quality homeware a short way down the road.

Following our tour, we took taxis back into Birmingham where we split up. Some chose to relax by the canal and others went to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Entering the museum, I ran like a whippet to the Staffordshire Hoard. It’s a large collection of dumped decorative elements, many of them torn from sword decorations. Many of the items use a technique of garnet cloisonnĂ©, an infinitely fiddly and difficult looking technique of making intricate shapes with gold foil and placing tiny pieces of glass and precious stones (including garnet) into them. Having ran off by myself, I lost contact with the rest of the group and rushed to see Dippy the Diplodocus before being asked to leave as it was time to shut the museum.

Members of the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

Trips with the Dr Johnson Reading Circle are always a delight, it feels like the people we meet are always pleased to see an engaged group and always treated right. Next year’s sessions start on the 9th of October with a look at A Journey to the Western Isles and The Tour to the Hebrides. We shall also be looking at Mr Foote’s Other Leg with author Ian Kelly as well as Humphrey Clinker and Robinson Crusoe. I look forward to it immensely. 

Also, there was an ornamental hermitage at Soho House, I tried to argue for the position but they were using it to store garden games and furniture.

(All photos thanks to Jane Darcey)

Wednesday 1 August 2018

Samuel Johnson's Favourite Books...Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Having talked about The Pilgrim's Progress last week, I thought I'd look at another one of Samuel Johnson's favourite books, one which influenced most early novels of the eighteenth century.

I tried to read Don Quixote too young. Fourteen year old me battled nobly with a seventeenth century translation of this very long novel but was ultimately defeated. Since then, I have been building myself up, reading complex and digression-filled works like ‘Tristram Shandy’ and gobbling up as many chivalric romances as possible. 

What surprises me is that I probably didn’t need to do all that, I probably just needed a newer translation because Don Quixote is genuinely entertaining and sometimes even outright funny. 

Consisting of two novels, the first is broadly split into two parts. The first intersperses Don Quixote coming across various people/objects and interpreting them according to his bizarre chivalric way of looking at the world with conversations between Quixote and Sancho Panza. This is excessively interesting, the conversations are hilarious, Sancho’s own simplicity balancing Quixote’s lofty fantasies. 

I enjoyed the way people reacted to them, from the battling Basque to Sancho's mule that ‘was not made for such foolishness’ such as jousting. These parts of the book are also intensely painful. Quixote and Panza get badly hurt. Quixote loses teeth - that’s why he is the ‘knight of the distressed face’. It also found it interesting that probably the most famous part of the novel, the attack on the windmills, is only three paragraphs of a nine-hundred page book.  

I get the feeling that Cervantes ran out of ideas, or was at least expecting to - as the latter half of the first novel backgrounds Sancho and Quixote by making them promise to go on new adventures. Instead of finding things to write about by having Quixote have adventures, Cervantes introduces the interpolated novels. These are largely love stories, the most interesting being inspired by his own experiences as a slave to Corsairs. Even when these stories are gripping, we miss the central relationship between Quixote and Panza and the first novel runs out of fuel. By the end they are lead back to their village having been physically and psychologically battered after merely seventeen days of adventures.

The second novel adds something fascinating; Quixote and Panza are told about the first novel, and throughout the book, other characters respond to them based on their existing fame. Also interesting is the subtle change of Don Quixote’s madness. In the first book he believed he was a knight in a world of knights - in the second he recognises the modern knight-less world he lives in but is on a mission to give it back its knights errant. 

This makes Don Quixote a more noble figure. In the first book, he is simply mad and every inn becomes a castle and every flock of sheep an army. He’s like a dangerous and rabid dog, as likely to cause excessive harm on the innocent as he is to be be terribly beaten by those he has needlessly attacked. Don Quixote of the second book has a gallant madness, a more understandable nostalgia for a time that never quite was. He doesn’t reimagine inns into castles, and it is only the puppet show whom he needlessly attacks - his other acts of violence being for a cause, or the result of duals set up by other people. 

Also, as a result of the second books adjustment of Don Quixote’s madness, he can be a wiser, kinder and more involved with those about him. Even those mocking him learn to respect him and he is far less the butt of the jokes - indeed, his greatest injuries in this book are those to his soul and spirit, when he loses to the Knight of the Moons or is hated by the spurned Altisidora. Where he was ‘The Knight of the Sorrowfull Face’ in the first book, as a result of severe dental injuries, he is now ‘The Knight of the Lions’. Like Aslan though, he is eventually humiliated and shaven, (although not to return).

Sancho also develops in the second book, with more chapters to himself, perhaps even getting more attention than Don Quixote. His tendency to string along and butcher proverbs was not something I particularly noticed in the first book but becomes a real feature of the second. I was already fond of Sancho, I loved how he wouldn’t let an indignity like being tossed in a blanket lie (His advice, “Go where the luck and blanket take you.”) and I loved his attachment to his Grey Donkey but the second book gives him warmth that he lacks in the first. 

In the second book, he lies about having seen Dulcinea and Don Quixote believes it, putting into his mind the notion that his master might not be as sane as he thought. Wrestling with this and reflecting his own experiences, he really does begin to question Don Quixote’s sanity and eventually seems to decide that it doesn’t matter, he loves his noble knight and although squiring can be a mixed bag of good and bad, it’s worth helping a great man on a noble quest. 

Another interesting addition to Sancho’s story is when he becomes Governor of his long wished for Insula. Of course, this was a prank by some people too rich for their own good, but I loved Sancho’s attempts to rule well. His governorship was one of fair decision and a great amount of work and effort on his part - more than he was expecting. I loved how honest he was that he decided that governorship was not his thing and that it was better to give it up then hate it - I also love how he gave it up and clearly and publicly showed he would not be taking anything he hadn’t brought with him. If only we had politicians like Sancho. (I also found it very sweet how he told his wife he loved her ‘more than my eyelashes’). 

Of course, Don Quixote can’t stay on Rocinante forever and his is beaten by the Knight of the Moons - this was a horrid moment, especially after he’d beaten the Knight of the Mirrors. The moment when he was forced, on pain of death to renounce Dulcinea del Toboso and he refused, was a very moving one. Luckily, he was excused that humiliation, but he did have to make a painful trudge back to the village as a defeated man where them posh twats still prodded and needled him.

Despite thoughts of spending a year in an Arcadian daydream and then further sallies, Don Quixote is broken of his delusions, again becomes Alonso Quixana (the Good) and dies because there’s nothing narratively left for him to do anymore.

Though I can understand the family wanting their good and sane friend back, and I can see how the ending was supposed to be more sweet than bitter- Don Quixote the knight was a mad figure, out of place with the world and it is far better to be his real and good self - we miss Don Quixote. As one of the rich twats says, “The benefit caused by the sanity of Don Quixote cannot be as great as the pleasure produced by his madness?” Cervantes seems to genuinely hate the chivalry books that birthed Don Quixote, but because they no longer have much influence in our culture, they don’t have the malignity Cervantes saw. As an embittered, one armed, sometimes imprisoned war veteran, and one time believer in martial heroism - such books were a genuine threat. Nowadays stuff like ‘Orlando Furioso’ are no more than quaint.

As much as I loved the first part of the first book, with it’s violent, almost medieval type of painful slapstick, it was the developed, quieter and warmer figures of Don Quixote and Sancho in the second that made me love the book. There is no wonder why this, one of the earliest of novels, is also one of the most influential. It’s warmth, humanity, humour and friendship can’t help but argue its case.