Wednesday 27 January 2021

Doctor of Love by Lydia Syson at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle


Its amazing how much variety weve had with Dr Johnson Reading Circle. Weve read biographies, poems, diaries, novels, texts on science and romance and a fair bit touching on sex. Another source of variety are the people who come, bringing all sorts of different experiences and backgrounds, some of whom have been the authors of the book under discussion.

At the latest meeting, we were joined by Lydia Syson, author Doctor of Love, a biography of the fascinating and extravagant life of Dr James Graham, eighteenth-century medic, sex therapist, unsuccessful cult founder and the inventor of the celestial bed, a machine that used all the latest technologies to make sexual pleasure more full and conception more likely. 

It starts with a vivid description of Grahams Temple of Health, a kind of steam-punk wonderland filled with sparking static electricity, gilt, opulence and glass. Then it takes us back into his early life and his probable experiences in learning medicine in Edinburgh, a place where medical theory was undergoing revolution but medical practice was still stuck in the bad old days of bleeding, cupping, blistering and heavy use of emetics and laxatives. 

Graham is then spotted as an apothecary in several charitable institutions before turning up in the American colonies with some fanfare, as a doctor specialising in the eyes and ears. The fanfare was, of course Graham blowing his own trumpet, something he was going to do for the rest of his life, his proclamations never underwritten and his skills never under-promoted. Were it not for such self-promotion, the book would have had very little to work from. It is, as Lydia explained, a story in small ads.

As well as learning the usefulness of mass media, Grahams time in Philadelphia also taught him about electricity. He would later travel to St Petersburg to learn about magnets before returning to England and setting up practice in Bath. Though important to search out new ideas, it was probably more important for him to be seen doing so.

In Bath he acquired the historian Catharine Macaulay as his patient, a connection that brought him fame, then notoriety when she ran off with and married Grahams younger brother. He channelled this notoriety, and a lot of borrowed money, into his dream-palace Temple of Healthat London’s Adelphi. No expense was spared. The place was lavishly decorated, with the largest electric machines, live music, incense and aromas, oxygen and laughing gas abundant and a variety of pills and potions made on the premises. He then became known as the King of Quacks.

We had an interesting discussion over whether we thought James Graham was a quack or not and what a quack even was. His techniques, though unusual, were less harmful than many of the other medical treatments on offer. His education in Edinburgh was just as good, if not better than many other medical practitioners. He recommended such sensible things as a vegetarian diet, fresh air, exercise and cleanliness but was mocked for that advice. It was his travelling around that made him a quack in the eyes of his contemporaries, his showmanship and his use of newspaper advertising and engagement in pamphlet wars. We noted that unlike Dr Darwin and the Lunar Society, James Graham didnt seem to correspond with other medical people. Rather he seemed determined to drive a wedge between himself and them.

Lydia Syson wondered whether her subject had won her over, whether his charisma had worked its charm on her and taken her in the way it may have his patients. Ian Kelly had similar questions about Casanova when discussing his biography last month. It was striking how similar the answers of the two writers were about what it was that appealed to them about their subject. They were both enchanted by the enthusiasm and energy that their subjects put into life and how their respective lives could be a window to many other aspects of the eighteenth century. James Graham shone a light onto the world of medicine, the theatre and science. We also met up with the Garricks from a different angle, Lady Hamilton at the start of her career (when she was Emma Lyons) and even Walter Scott as a young boy.

At the height of fame, with fashionable society flocking to his lectures and his florid style parodied by newspapers and on stage, Graham decided to open a new facility, The Temple of Hymen, which would include the fantastical celestial bed. While there were certainly those who saw lewdness in the enterprise, Graham (from all appearances and records) stayed faithful to his wife as he helped other couples have superior sex. 

He predicted that every town would one day put up a golden statue of him, in honour of his contribution to the strength, health and wellbeing of the nation. Unfortunately for him, it was a dream built on credit, and he reached far beyond his limit. His grand premises were let to new tenants and his machines were scattered to the winds but Graham didnt give up trying to bring health to the nation. He developed the mud-bath and proceeded to tour the country, buried neck deep in mud. He died of a brain haemorrhage at 49, shortly after declaring the key to extended life was fasting.

In all her varied work, across genre and subject matter, Syson feels there is a unifying element. Her works are about people with big visions, who wanted to change the word, for better or worse, and what happens when these peoples ambitions meet reality. There may not be a golden statue of Graham up in every town as he had predicted, but there is this book and it serves as a memory to a man who may not have changed the world as he hoped, but who did give it some entertainment (and even a little bit of good advice).

Wednesday 20 January 2021

Journal of the Plague Year 2020 (Entry Nine: Easter to Christmas)

 Entry Nine: Easter to Christmas

I stopped writing my journal in April because things had entered such a routine and there didn’t seem much to say. Of course, I didn’t get to see my parents at Easter but I had a distraction as I was then drafted back into work.

My lack of journaling during this time means I didn’t get to express my thoughts about the whole Dominic Cummings eyetest debacle (bitter-laughed-fury), the slew of reports of the government giving contracts to friends who couldn’t properly fulfil them (disappointed-fury) or the execrable track and trace system that was run on excel and had cost millions of pounds (tired disappointment, no fury). 

When I went back to work after Easter, things were different, there was more of a school-like structure to the day and it felt less like babysitting. I even had some fun, helping out with the stripped-down year six class and learning to cross-stitch. 

When the summer holidays came, I made arrangements and went up to my parents for most of August. The weather wasn’t as lovely as I had hoped, we’d had all that in May and June, so I didn’t get to spend days lounged in the garden as I’d hoped but I did have a brilliant time. I wrote a lot, read a whole bunch (including the Essays of Montaigne) and in the afternoons, me and my mum went on little trips.

We went to the grave of a famously fat man, the birthplace of a proportional midget who was a cavalry captain in the English Civil War and won a duel, looked around many pretty villages. At one point we went to see a labyrinth, which was pretty disappointing but next to it was this stunning lawn of sunflowers. We traveled to Boston, to an RSBP reserve and saw the egrets that were once so rare they became the society’s logo, and I went to an owl sanctuary. There I got to hold an eagle owl called Bagpuss who as almost as thrilled to meet me as I was him. 

When I returned to London, I went back to school and there were all sorts of provisions in place, we were in bubbles and if someone in the bubble got it, the bubble would be sent home. Although the theatres were still closed, the galleries and bigger museums were open and I got to see the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at the Tate National, and spend time with my sister at the V&A and Natural History Museums. Dr Johnson’s House wasn’t yet ready to open but it was making plans and I was looking forward to it.

There were grumbles of a second wave, many of them caused by the government’s own ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ initiative and the first of the school bubbles were closed. Most strange was that the school never properly told us about it, we just went in and a whole year group was missing. Then individual people started to go missing and no official word was given, if we asked we were told it was an unrelated illness and definitely not coronavirus but when they came back the person who was off said it definitely was. At one point, all the reception classes were off because a TA caught it, but because the official quarantine for those in contact was 12 days, and for the person who had it was 10, she came back before they did. In fact, she had to cover a year two class because the TA there couldn’t come in because she needed to look after her daughter who couldn’t come to school because she was a reception child in quarantine. Which meant someone had to cover for someone who couldn’t come in because the someone covering had had coronavirus. And I can’t put it any simpler than that.

Finally, a kid in my year caught it but only she and the 6 children who sat closer to her had to go home. It was deemed that being in the same room day after day with someone who had it didn’t count, you had to be near them for longer than fifteen minutes. From that point on any notion of bubbles and protection broke down and as the term went on, more and more people dropped like flies (luckily, no one has died). We later found out that the government knew there was a strain of the virus in the country that was 75% more transmissible, and that they’d known that since September and had just thrown us to the wolves.

We were lucky though, the government had definitely promised everyone five days for Christmas and I was desperately looking forward to seeing my family again. So, imagine my dismay when two days after breaking up for Christmas, the government told half the country that they couldn’t go anywhere and I was facing Christmas alone in my tiny, studio flat. I had a choice, sit by myself or break the rules.

I broke the rules. Took me some convincing to have my parents to take us in and there was humming and hawing but considering we were travelling in a sealed car, to one house and then back in a sealed car - it felt as responsible as breaking quarantine rules could be. I thought the reward was worth the risk and had a wonderful few days eating, drinking, laughing and playing just dance with my family. No one got sick, nothing was past on and considering the gloom I returned to, it was an essential moment of light - because the new year was shaping up to be a pretty dismal one indeed.

The government was saying that schools are definitely going back, I wasn’t convinced.

Entry One: A Cough in a Box (22.2.20 - 28.2.20)
(Coronavirus is a rumble among other stories but silly stories start early.)

Entry Two: Eat More Garlic (29.2.20 - 6.3.20) 
(A song and a wash, rising paranoia.)

Entry Three: A Guilty Sigh (7.3.20-13.3.20) 

(Confusion at school, a new variation on 'it' and a new chat up line.)

Entry Four: A Week as Schrödinger's cat (14.3.20-20.3.20) 

(A week at school where it's open, closed then repurposed as something else.)

Entry Five: Lego and Ice-cream (21.3.20-27.3.20)

(In which much of what we called life goes online.)

Entry Six: A Reverse Joker  (28.3.20-3.4.20)
(A trip to the supermarket in this new era.)

Entry Seven: Fine Dining (4.4.20 - 10.4.20)
(A posh dinner - ish.)

Entry Eight: An Easter Walk (11.4.20 - 17.4.20)
(A poem)

Wednesday 13 January 2021

Under the Glass: Vital Inessentials - animals through time.

 I’ve been reading Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. It’s one of those books I bought and planned to read about twelve years ago on hearing that the author would be running some of the sessions in my Masters. She talked about reading as a writer and was very lucid and helpful in conversation and questioning after - but I still didn’t get round to any of her work this week. I wish I had read it when I planned but I wonder if I’d have been ready for it then.

There’s a part in the book where Claudia, the main character, is considering the forces that sent the Mayflower ‘pilgrims’ and their voyage and remarks on how there was a Spaniel on board, describing the dog as;

“One of those vital inessentials that convince one that history if true.”

It’s a nice little phrase, and pretty accurate, there is something about the trivial and ephemeral that feels real in a way that the lofty, grand or solid does not. Dogs are often a good example, Samuel Pepys, whose diary is full of the most wonderfully incidental detail, found himself at a key moment in history in the first year of his diary. He is the secretary to his cousin, the future Lord Sandwich and finds himself on the ship tasked with meeting the about-to-be-crowned Charles II. He has a few remarks to make about the king, the true telling detail, is his observation that king’s spaniels shit on the deck of the ship much as any other.

Hogarth identified heavily with his dog, Trump. (I can’t work out whether that name is less or more fortunate nowadays). It’s not impossible to say owner and dog looked alike, Hogarth being a little dented and puggish himself but they also have the same small-dog, big bark energy. Hogarth felt like the small dog jealously guarding his territory and felt that British visual art had a similar position in the world. One of my favourite depictions of Trump comes from a painting designed to cheer a friend up which includes the detail of Trump, pulling a silly ‘blep’ face, wearing Hogarth’s expensive wig.

Goldsmith was certainly a dog person. He wrote his Elegy for the Death of a Mad Dog, in which we are certainly on the side of the poor dog who dies after biting a nasty, poisonous human. In his History of the Natural World he goes on a long praise of dogs; ‘the most intelligent of all quadrupeds and the acknowledged friend of mankind.’ Independent of a dog’s ‘beauty of form, his vivacity, force and swiftness, is possessed of all the internal qualifications that can conciliate the affections of man, and make a tyrant a protector.’ He praises dogs for their courage, intelligence, faithfulness, friendliness, constancy of affection and willingness to please. On the other hand, he was not a cat person and gave them only one paragraph in which he describes them as a ‘faithless friend’ who is only tolerated because it can catch an ‘insidious enemy’.

Samuel Johnson was a well known fan of cats, and the universal spirit of the cat can be felt when he aplogises to Hodge after describing him as ‘not my favourite’. Even in the medium of exalted religious poetry, Kit Smart’s Jeoffry still managed to evoke a cattiness that still passes down to this day in his ‘mixture of gravity and waggery.’ 

There’s something about animals, especially domestic ones, that reach across time. Although our conception of them has altered and changed over the years, their essential characteristics are the same now as then - and I think that may be true of us as well.

Wednesday 6 January 2021

Countdown of the best books I read in 2020 (5-1)

If you wish to look at all the books I read in 2020, check out this booklist.

If you wish to see all the books I acquired in that year, check out this one.

And now for the top five.

5) Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos

I wrote about the Dr Johnson Book Group meeting which talked about Les Liaisons Dangereuses but didn’t really say all that much about my own opinion. This was a book that grabbed me hard and fast and didn’t let me go.

The ironic tone of the book is immediately and masterfully established from the first page of the book, which purports to be a publisher’s note. The ‘publisher’ of the book has the suspicions that the text may not be actually a genuine collection of letters but, horror of horrors, a novel. He notes that if they are a collection of letters, they can’t be modern French ones, as the current French aristocracy are so virtuous that the characters and events of the book could not possibly happen there - a point made even more ironic by the fact that the book came out four years before the Revolution.

I’d been aware of the book for a while without having seen any version of it but I had been led to believe that the main plot is about Valmont and Merteuil manipulating and perverting the virtue of a young girl newly out of a convent. While this is a plot of the book, I’d say it’s probably the least of the three main plots. More important, are the games that Valmont and Merteuil play against each other and the plot of Valmont trying to seduce Présidente de Tourvel, a woman of almost-ironclad virtue.

Merteuil is by far the most interesting character in the book. Unlike Valmont, who can live a rakish life and be a figure in society because he’s male, Merteuil must always preserve a clean reputation whilst also having her lovers and intrigues. She manages to be everyone’s friend on the face of it, whilst being an enemy to everyone behind their back and manages to keep those two opposites in taut balance. The stand-out letter of the book is the 81st in which she talks about how she grew to become the person she is, someone who no-one can second guess, especially the audience.

Valmont is also interesting, though weaker than Merteuil. He has a reputation for seduction, though it’s revealed throughout the book that while he knows his techniques back to front, he has a rather limited playbook. Although he is involved in the convent girl seduction plot, his main drive throughout the book is seducing Tourvel, which he does so he doesn’t ‘suffer the ridicule of being in love with her’, which he does, even as he won’t admit it. She is a tragic character, who fights as hard as Pamela to maintain her virtue but succumbs and her letters, though the least interesting, are never too long to overstay their welcome.

The very best stuff is the play between Merteuil and Valmont. She’s the driving force behind Cecile’s seduction and feels Valmont’s seduction of Tourvel makes him ridiculous and a spent force. Early on, she accuse Tourvel of being badly dressed, an insult Valmont bats back by agreeing that any clothes are a disservice to Tourvel’s body. As the seduction becomes even more drawn out, Merteuil becomes increasingly dismissive of Valmont. When he finally seduces Tourvel, Merteuil’s congratulation is the wonderfully sarcastic, ‘you are well endowed, I am sure, with a good opinion of yourself’. I very much enjoyed how the players played each other, to the downfall of both.

This is in no way a book which makes the reader feel good at the end but it is thoroughly gripping throughout. It was fascinating to read a book which uses the word ‘love’ so many times but is filled with so much hate, Les Liaisons Dangereuses still has some danger in it.

4) We all Hear Stories in the Dark by Robert Shearman

This book kicked me out… I wanted to read further but it didn’t let me.

I know books don’t usually do that but We All Hear Stories in the Dark is not an ordinary book. It’s a near two-thousand page short story collection where at the end of one story there are hints for several others, the reader then moves on to the next story following the hints. These leads to a totally unique reading experience, dipping in and out of three volumes as the stories lead you. There’s a huge sense of excitement when you finish one story and receive suggestions for the next which strengthens the engagement with the next. 

One of the strangest elements of the book is that you never know exactly how far in the book you are. In a normal book this is easy, you merely look at the pages you’ve read and see how many are left but jumping around as you do, there’s no way of knowing. Unfortunately, this means that the book can also buck and knock you off before you are ready, which it did to me.

Of course, I could have ignored the rules, gone back to before I was lead to the end or simply turn to another story but part of the charm of the book, it’s own peculiar magic, is following where it takes you - even if that is to a premature end. My first temptation to break its rules was when I was at work with one volume and lead to another that was at home, I could have picked another story, one in the volume I had with me, but that would have seemed dishonest in some way.

As for the stories themselves, they were a fantastic mixture yet all hung together. I don’t wish to spoil the surprises in store for any future reader, but each one lived up to the promise in the (secret) essay towards the middle, they each packed a punch and disturbed in some sense. Some of the stories were instantly unnerving, some grew unnerving and some became unnerving at the end. There were ideas and images in this book which will stay with me for a long time. Although I preferred some stories than others, I can promise that none that I read bored me and many gripped me tight. It’s not just that the book is structured in such a unique way, it’s that it’s a book of really good stories structured such. I usually get tired of short stories and have never read thirty-four of them in a row and that stands testament to the quality of the stories.

 I haven’t finished with this book, I will return and I shall conquer it. I’ve even sussed out where the secret map to the quickest way through the stories is, but that would be cheating, wouldn’t it?

3) Essays by Michel de Montaigne

I talked at length about this book here. If I’d stopped reading at the end of the first or second sections, I probably wouldn’t have put it as high as I did but the more personal third section brought my much closer to Montaigne and the last essay ‘On Experience’ is one of the most inspiring things I have ever read, celebrating the sheer glory that is the ordinary life.

2) Gilgamesh Retold by Jenny Lewis

I’m a fan of national myths and Gilgamesh is a particular favourite of mine, not only because it is one of the oldest of its kind, nor because I had a bit of a Sumerian ‘thing’ when I was fifteen but because it seems so refreshingly honest compared to later myths.

Gilgamesh is full of masculine energy and he’s an utter pain to his citizens who pray for something to distract him and the Gods create Enkidu. Gilgamesh and Enkidu start out as rivals but after fighting each other become best buds and go kill monsters together. Having done that, Enkidu dies, not in battle but of illness and it sends Gilgamesh on a huge downward spiral in which he realises he is mortal. He seeks immortality, almost gets it but doesn’t and returns home a much better king for having realised his mortality. I love how he is broken and remade in the text.

This is such a wonderfully engaging and easy to read retelling of the ancient myth. It woulx make a wonderful dramatic reading. Jenny Lewis varies style and meter in different chapters of the story, making the mood and meter fit tremendously but also giving something of the different oral voices telling the same story.

Of particular quality was the fight with Humbaba, the ogre who guards the cedar forests. It’s written in a polyphonic style, with lines being said over other lines, building a tension and a ferocity which is then broken when Humbaba is killed and the page is full of white space. It makes the act more than a monster killing by a pair of heroes, it makes it a vicious act, one of desecration and destruction and a reflection on how mankind destroys to build itself up. This notion of sacrilege is also carried into the part when Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull of Heaven, as the stars and planets of which it is comprised begin to dim.

Enkidu’s death is another polyphonic piece, as death calls and as Enkidu rages against it and the people in his life that brought him there. Gilgamesh’s wandering in grief had an Anglo-Saxon meter and had a similar tone to The Wanderer. All the poetry flowed well and the different types broke it up and refocussed the mind every few pages (thus relieving that weird meter hypnotism you can come across in less varied works).

I read the whole piece in one go and look forward to reading it again soon. It’s great.

and finally, my favourite book of 2020…

1) Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

As soon as I picked this book up, I felt that I was in good hands, that the author knew what they were doing and I could relax in their company. The first hint that this book would be a little special is the initial description of Anne, where Montgomery mentions that the ordinary observer may note a number of things about her but the extra-ordinary observer would note much more - especially when it then goes on to add that Matthew noticed none of it.

I think the book had two huge holes it could have fallen down. The first that Anne could have grown to be extremely irritating, she does talk an awful lot and her emotional, full-colour way of expressing herself could prove extremely aggravating. Luckily, it becomes very clear that Anne’s ebullient personality has a darker, lonelier stem and the fifth chapter ‘Anne’s History’ does a lot of the work in grounding her personality, showing how her excessive imagining is a thin paint over true fear and worry. It’s also helped that she is contrasted to the quiet Matthew and controlled Marilla. 

The second danger is that the book could have become cloying and sentimental. In a lesser book, the seventh chapter ‘Anne says her prayers’, Anne would have meekly submitted herself to Marilla’s teaching of stock prayers but that isn’t what happens. Anne stubbornly forges her own prayer with whatever she has lying about in her head and Marilla realises that to teach lisping, wispy prayers to her wouldn’t work. The characters aren’t perfect and they have just enough grit in them to stop them grating.

As much as I was enjoying the episodic events, in which Anne gets into a scrape or another, the book was starting to become a little too repetitive - and then rather abruptly changed. There was a large time-shift, Anne was growing up and the page-long, breathless monologues started to get shorter. Much like Marilla, I also began to miss the younger Anne as a more mature version took her place. I was also aware that a chapter called ‘The reaper whose name is Death’ was coming and I was not looking forward to lose a character.

The only element of the book that I would say didn’t work for me was the end. There were two endings that this story could have reached, a tragic one where hopes were dashed and a positive one where all ambitions achieved. The book tried to have its cake and eat it, landing awkwardly as not quite one ending or the other.

Despite the wobble at landing, I needed a book as charming, well-told and heartwarming as this and I am very thankful I picked it up from a garden wall on my way to the park.

Here's hoping for a smoother year but with as many good books.