Wednesday 28 February 2024

Rambler 204 - The one where Seged tries to be happy for ten days.

 When Samuel Johnson was writing his essays, he had to write two a week. As a result, they cover a far greater range than the initial reader might expect, not only moral pieces and literary criticism but descriptions of character (like Jack Whirler) and even stories. 

It’s a shame that the Penguin Selected Essays of Johnson doesn’t really represent this variety. It seems clear the editor favoured the more serious ones and so didn’t include most of my favourites. (One day, I’ll write about the one about living in a garret, having lived in a few of my own). 

As this year is a leap year, I’d thought I’d look at the Rambler essay Johnson wrote on the 29th of February 1752. It’s a story now entitled, ‘The history of ten days of Seged, emperour of Ethiopia’ (Rambler 204).

This isn’t Johnson’s first imaginary trip to Ethiopia, at the age of 23 he translated A Voyage to Abyssinia, originally by a Portuguese Jesuit called Jerome Lobo, although Johnson translated it from a French version. It had been Johnson’s idea to translate the book, having read it during his time at Pembroke College. He had left university at that time due to lack of funds and was couch-surfing in Birmingham with his friend Edmund Hector. Indeed, it was Hector who did the actual scribing, as Johnson lay in bed dictating a translation. 

Nor is this Johnson’s last imaginary trip to Ethiopia, as he would make it the setting for his novel Rasselas in 1759. The two works also share a similar theme and it would be hard to imagine that Johnson didn’t have ‘Seged’ in his mind when he wrote the latter work.

Despite a little knowledge of Ethiopia, ‘The history of ten days of Seged, emperour of Ethiopia’ is definitely an oriental tale, with very little in the way of actual history or facts. There was no Seged, though it is the name of a Jewish-Ethiopian holiday. Also, much of the story takes place near Lake Dambea, which is now known as Lake Tana, which was a resting place for Ethiopian emperors. 

The story begins with Seged announcing his achievements. These are many and varied, he has brought peace within the country and stability without. He had filled his coffers with the tribute of smaller kingdoms, he has secured his throne against any instability and brought wealth, safety and happiness to all his people. Johnson gives it his full Nebuchadnezzar vibe, throwing down ‘thees’ and ‘thys’ to signify the magnificence and power of the emperor. 

   “Thy nod is as the earthquake that shakes the mountains, and thy smile as the dawn of the vernal day.”

Having achieved so much, people ask Seged if he oughtn’t think about enjoying himself a little. He thinks this is a good idea and declares a palace to be built on an island in Lake Dambea where he can enjoy himself fully for ten days before going back to work. No expense is spared, the buildings are beautiful and the gardens filled with every fine-smelling flower. What’s more an invite is issued to anyone who seems “eminently qualified to receive or communicate pleasure”. There’s great anticipation as all the partygoers sail ‘jocund across the lake”.

The trouble is, when Seged gets there, he doesn’t know what to do first. Whenever he picks a pleasure, he worries he might be missing out on another and so doesn’t actually make his mind up what to do. What’s more, his own indecision and irritability is transmitted to those around him so all he can see are irritable faces. As he sees “the lake brightened by the setting sun”, he realises he’s wasted his first day of happiness on indecision. That evening he tries to force gaiety, despite a deep feeling of regret that a day is gone already. Tired of this he goes to bed early and resolves to be happy the next day.

The next day, he decides that the problem with the previous one was that everyone else was gloomy. So he posts an edict banning anyone who isn’t smiling. This is disastrous, as all the people chosen for their ability to have a good time are too busy trying to look like they are having one to actually do so. What should have been fun and easy conversations now only “obtained only forced jests, and laborious laughter”. When he goes to bed that night, everyone sighs with relief that they don’t have to pretend to be happy for a while. 

That night Seged has terrible nightmares about disasters happening to him and his kingdoms. He awakes terrified and haunted by the dream for half the day. He then realises it’s daft to hold on to imagined terror but is now stricken by the realisation that it’s the third day of his ten day break and he still hasn’t been happy yet. He mulls over this before realising that mulling over it hasn’t made him any happier and that it’s night time again. He goes to bed vowing to be happy tomorrow…

And that’s the story. Essentially, it’s the story of a long looked for holiday. You book, plan, pack and get all excited about the trip. However, the reality of the trip includes things that don’t go fully to plan, or don’t give you all you hope, and the traveller has to decide whether they are happy with what they’ve got or not. Seged’s mistake is to think he can ever have ten fully-utterly-perfect days. It’s very similar to Rasselas in its message, that life can’t be pleasure unmingled with sadness, you have to take one with the other.

Johnson actually followed up this essay with a second, where Seged keeps trying to be happy and a series of unfortunate events keep ruining his plans - but I actually prefer to end it after the first piece, in a conclusion where nothing is concluded and we are left with Seged resolving yet again.

Wednesday 21 February 2024

On Gaining a Niece (and a bit of Rambler 148)

 Last week I became an uncle. It was an exciting moment and I’d been preparing for a while, buying a couple of gifts, using a wood-burning pen to make a little plaque with flowers and space for her name and birthdate, and clearing my calendar at the expected time so I could go and see her at short notice.

The day after she went home from the hospital, I was on a coach for four hours, reading an interesting book but thrumming with excitement to see her. I had to work out the bus from the city centre to the house and as I walked up the drive, I was grinning from ear to ear. When I came in, I saw her, a small, slightly squashed little figure asleep in a Moses basket.

Over the next day and a bit, I tried to help out a little, not get under anyone’s feet and get as many looks at my niece as I could. I saw my sister and her husband regain control of their situation (with the help of my mum) and the little family reform itself into something new. While I like children, and have worked with them for the majority of (what could jokingly be called) my professional life, I haven’t had much interaction with babies, especially little ones. 

They are incredibly hypnotic, aren’t they? Even as her eyes couldn’t yet focus, it was still a thrill when they opened in my direction. It was delightful to see all the movements of her limbs and fingers, the frown lines that made her look deep in thought and the relaxation as she went into deeper sleep. 

In a Rambler essay (no.148) written on the 17th of August 1751, Johnson talks about the power babies have to awaken tenderness.

"To see helpless infancy stretching out her hands, and pouring out her cries in testimony of dependence, without any powers to alarm jealousy, or any guilt to alienate affection, must surely awaken tenderness in every human mind; and tenderness once excited will be hourly increased by the natural contagion of felicity, by the repercussion of communicated pleasure, by the consciousness of dignity of benefaction.”

He captures a lot of the feeling I had, the detail of the stretching out of hands in particular. I also love his description of how a baby can cause a ‘natural contagion of felicity’, something I felt but also saw grow hourly between baby and her parents.

The essay itself then goes into darker territory, looking at people who find they can’t share in “any satisfaction in the reflection that he is loved as the distributor of happiness” and so “may please himself with exciting terrour as the inflictor of pain.” Rambler 148 is nowadays entitled ‘The Cruelty of Parental Tyranny’ but it’s less about strict parenting as it is about child abuse. To be honest, I skimmed the rest of the essay - I’d already found a quote that tied into what I wanted to talk about (via the Samuel Johnson Soundbite Page) and was only looking to see the context. Johnson finds satisfaction in reflecting that the abuser will die alone, having alienated his children and asks why more isn’t done to punish cruel parents. Johnson himself did not die alone, and was joined at his deathbed by Francis Barber, who’d been given to Johnson as a twelve-year-old boy and had developed a warm, if not always smooth, relationship.

Knowing my sister and her husband, my niece will not be growing up in an atmosphere of terror and pain. Indeed, I predict, and hope many years of felicity and I look forward to being part of it as much as I can. 

Wednesday 14 February 2024

Christopher Smart, Asthmatic


This week’s entry is an acknowledgment of failure. I had an interesting idea, I managed to gather some pieces that tended towards it but I couldn’t quite find enough to put all the pieces together.

It’s to do with one of my old favourites, Christopher Smart. As anyone who spends a little time on this blog will know, he was committed to St Luke’s Hospital for a year on a suspicion of madness exacerbated by alcoholism and released after a year as incurable. He was then sequestered in Mr Potter’s private madhouse for seven years (or possibly two madhouses).

The whole thing is a little strange and sketchy. Although his admission papers to St Luke’s were mostly about his drinking, the stories about him were mainly about his bizarre religious notions, particularly his take on St Paul’s injunction to ‘pray without ceasing’. It was said that he’d stop suddenly in the street and start praying. Lines in Jubilate Agno suggest that he held up traffic in St James’s Park before being forcefully moved on. My thought, sparked by something I read in one of the works on Smart (and I can neither remember nor find the part now) - that Smart’s prayerfulness might be linked to his asthma.

Like much about Christopher Smart, it’s not certain that he did suffer from asthma. However, one of the earlier biographies said he had an addiction to hartshorn, a medicine that was essentially ammonia. A later biography suggested that, as hartshorn was used to treat asthma - I suppose ammonia does clear the tubes a little - that he was asthmatic. 

This leads to a very interesting supposition about the suddenness of his prayers. One of the symptoms of an oncoming asthma attack is ‘a sense of doom’ and, in an age before inhalers, it would have been especially important to not succumb to this and regulate the breathing. What could be better for soothing himself and entering into regular breathing then a prayer? He was to later write, in Jubilate Agno, that, “loud prayer is good for weak lungs and for a vitiated throat.”

These are all the pieces I wanted to put together. 

Unfortunately, despite skimming all my Kit Smart books, I couldn’t find the description of an addiction to hartshorn, nor the supposition that this meant he has asthma. Nor could I even find any evidence of hartshorn being used as a asthma treatment. I looked at many articles about the history of asthma, but they did the thing nearly all general histories do. They started with the ancients, with Galen and descriptions of asthma in Ancient Egypt and China, then they mentioned the Tudors and the injunction of people with bad lungs to smoke tobacco and improve their lungs, then is jumps to the 1830s and the first modern description of the disease. As usual, the eighteenth century was jumped over. 

So I was not left with much except an intriguing idea and a sense of frustration, both of which I know pass on to the reader.

Wednesday 7 February 2024

Review: Patterns of Love by Oliver Other

These books are a little different to my usual stuff on here, but I don't think anyone else has ever talked about them.

 I picked up these unusual books at the Skoob bookshop in the Brunswick centre. There are three of them, sharing the same blurb, dedication and, most unusually, a table of birthdays for the main characters so you can read their star signs.

Written by Oliver Other, a clear pseudonym, they were published in 1975 by United Writers in Cornwall, a vanity publisher which is still running today. The books are clearly not a typical publication, and the font is a small typewritten one, rather than a more standard book size and font. Most interestingly, the first of the three books contained newspaper clippings from the Sunday and Financial Times. These were less reviews, more press releases as they both use the same phrases. Oliver Other must have had some money or contacts to put them into these national papers. What’s more, I can’t think who would have sought out and kept these clippings but the author, so I suppose they may very well be the author’s own copies. 

The dedication is both prickly and rambling - and is the reason I bought the books. The author says that he would have loved to dedicate the book to ‘a very splendid person’ but he suspects that recipient would not appreciated the books. He says that he’d only showed the books to two people and they both disliked them. This is because they present, “an excessively unpopular code of morality which will soon be dead and buried forever.” The dedication then says that all the points of views that the characters hold come from him although, “no one else agrees with them, approves of them, or consider they contain the remotest degree of truth”. It ends with a two paragraph rant about how he had to include some real places in the book to make it feel real but insists everything in it has been made up.

I was very intrigued about what this dangerous, unfashionable morality would be and was prepared for the bizarre and reprehensible. I also suspected that, contrary to his protestations, hints of the real author would show up.

The first volume of Patterns of Love has the very awkward subtitle of Robin & Charles, Robin & Angela, Charles and Charlotte.

The first part tells the love story between Robin and Charles, two schoolboys at a prestigious private school. Robin is the son of a provincial print-works owner, who feels that he is very hum-drum and, given his background is destined to lead a hum-drum life. He is dazzled when he meets Charles, an extraordinarily dapper and handsome boy, who has a stammer.

Throughout the first half of the book, Robin tries to draw closer to the impossible Charles, eventually becoming his friend. Despite his stammer, Charles speaks multiple languages, both living and dead, is a poet, a great cricketer and a skilled boxer. In his private study he drinks loose leaf tea with a silver teapot and eats quince jam with his toast. He’s also a dedicated Christian and does his best to inspire Robin to do find God, and do find more in his life.

The main conflict is due to a boy called BJ. He is head of the house’s boxing team and instructs Charles to end his fights with knockouts, which he never does, instead dazzling the judges with his technical points. As this is the kind of school with fags, and prefects who can beat their juniors, Charles goes to be beaten every time he wins a fight without a knockout. Something he describes as, “a pain in.. I mean on, the bum.”

You see, BJ is gay. Not just gay but a rare, genuine “male homo”, one of those “desperately unhappy people without any hope.” It’s a strange form of homophobia, as it’s one tinged with pity. The reader is encouraged to feel sorry for “those perverted degenerates” because they can’t help their “deformity” and the world won’t (and shouldn’t) allow them a place in it. The descriptions of BJ are also tied in with anti-semitism. He is the son of Jewish emigres, described as looking like Fagin and Shylock, with one character wishing his parents had “stayed in Nazi-land” and met their fate. The ugly side of the author’s ‘morality’ certainly show in these parts… yet, it’s not a book in favour of the Nazis, Charles’s own mother was a French woman whose whole family had been killed by ‘the Boche’. 

Charles doesn’t tell on BJ for his sexual abuses, as he pities him and is simply waiting for him to leave school, which he wants him to do without a stain on his name. Everything comes out in a boxing match between the two though, which Charles (naturally) wins.

The next section, Robin & Angela, is all about Robin’s surprise scholarship to Cambridge. How his friendship with Charles has inspired him to set his sights on more and how he’s working hard to become the man Charles would want him to be. The only problem is Angela, the sister of another schoolfriend, who relentlessly pursues him. She also enlists her parents, and his, to secure marriage.

When this doesn’t work, she gets Robin drunk on brandy, rapes him and then blackmails him into marriage with the threat of a coming baby. As such, Robin gives up on his dreams, becomes the ho-hum manager of his father’s print-works and settles down to live in the new, suburban home his wife has picked up. It’s a terribly drab life and he blames Charles for ever inspiring him to want better, cutting him out of his life.

In Charles & Charlotte, we find that Charles has become a newspaper reporter. The paper he works for is called The Trust - it’s a paper that only prints the unbiased news and no gossip. As such, it’s dreadfully dull and nobody reads it, except it’s also the most influential newspaper in the world. (I suspect Oliver Other was a newspaperman, who creates in The Trust, his ideal newspaper - I also suspect it was those contacts which got his press releases into the national papers).

Charles loves Charlotte, the most expensive prostitute in the country and he visits her every time he is in London, asking her to marry him. She says no, but because it’s Charles, she only charges him £5 a visit, Her establishment is described in full, with it all being very old fashioned and almost nurserylike, there are lots of references to sleeping like a baby, being cradled and swaddled, there are stuffed toys all around and punters eat nothing but omelettes, which are fed to them. 

We learn of Charles’s impossibly heroic job, smuggling reports out of war-torn countries with mules and almost singlehandedly breaking every important story ever. We also learn of his sexual education, which he undertook as a course of study and includes far more kinky stuff then can ever be expected of the always vanilla Charles - though he is vanilla pod not extract.

After being blinded while reporting a patrol in Vietnam, Charlotte asks Charles to marry her. As they make plans, a monk comes to visit Charles in hospital and reveals that he is BJ. He now travels the world, building shelters and praying. He thanks Charles for saving his soul. 

The most surprising thing about the first volume of Patterns of Love is how readable it is. The blurb and dedication are such hurrumphing rambles, I expected the book to be too, but the characters and situations are engaging and the writing is only a little over-egged sometimes. As for the ‘unpopular morality’, there are clear cases of homophobia and anti-semitism but there is also a sense of pity, of trying to help each other and a (sometimes) persuasive notion of belief in God as a pursuit of love. It’s certainly old fashioned (and there is a fetishism of old-fashioned things within the book) but it’s not the gadfly, firebrand invective the dedication suggested.

The Second book is called Apple Charlotte.

It starts off with updating us on where Robin has got to seven years after we left him. He is miserable. He hates his wife, his job, his house and his life. Indeed, he’s had all those things taken away from him. His Dad died and took the company down with him, his wife left him because he’s poor now and she took every minute thing from the house, even the wall tacks. In response, Robin makes what he calls ‘idiot dumplings’, they are an overdose of over-the-counter medication mushed into a paste. Just as he starts eating them, the phone rings.. it’s Charlie, and the two have a last conversation as Robin dies.

This is a bit of a strange turn of events. Robin was our introductory character, I had assumed the full Patterns of Love book would be telling the two lives concurrently, now one is over. It’s the Charlie show now, alas. 

Despite being blind, Charlie is still a wunderkind. He has written a bestselling book, healed from being blown up by the Vietcong in record time and set up home in Merrydown. This place is a farm where Charlie and Charlotte rear rare black chickens and supernaturally rare and tasty apples. Everything is done in the best way in Merrydown, i.e, the old fashioned way. We learn of the victorian style kitchen where the French chef makes all the best foods - six or seven pages about each pan, the worktop, the oven.. every accoutrement. There’s over fifty pages of what is essentially a house tour, explaining how everything in it is the best, the classiest, the most traditional.

What’s more Merrydown has a kind of magic to it. Charlie and Charlotte are impossibly in love and their love transforms the place. All their friends come and are refreshed by it. The whole town (especially the little church) are re-invigorated by it and even outright villains, like Charlotte’s brother St John, are healed by it. Another person who finds a home is Peter, the little ‘mongoloid’ boy and his scruffy dog. It’s heaven on earth.

On the seventh anniversary of their marriage (the book from now on is structured in sevens) Charlotte reveals she is to have a baby. The whole populace celebrate, eating, drinking and singing hymns in the local church long into the night. 

Only St John is worried. He knows his family’s long history of incest and so rings his brother to see if his brother’s kids are alright. They are not. 

  As the elder brother says; “My eldest son is mentally retarded and the youngest is sexually malformed…with a quaint little lower organ like a fur button…we decided to clarify him as a boy because that’s slightly less repugnant.” Or as St John sums it up, “one idiot and one freak.”

This fear of the possible outcome of the Charles/Charlotte pairing is not an important part of the book though because the next day they go to town and Charlotte dies in the most ridiculous way possible. A learner driver mistakes brake and acceleration, drives into a shop front and the glass decapitates her. 

Charles is of course distraught, but only for one night. After a bizarre several page psychodrama where he rambles to himself about differential equations, he opens up and allows God’s light to enter him and with him, Charlotte. Now he is with Charlotte all the time and everything is bright and sunny for him.

However, Charlotte’s death also opens the door to the real enemy of the work - the Welfare State. Because of the way he organised his finances, all his (many millions) of savings and the whole of his Merrydown business and home must go to the government in death duty. This leads to over one hundred pages of ranting about how the Welfare State take from the poor millionaires and gives to the greedy gimme gimmes. There’s also stuff about how students don’t go to university to learn but to protest and commit crimes. And a fair amount about how the country has opened itself to all the ‘backwards races’ to be part of this gimme gimme onslaught on the nation. 

Oddly, none of this matters to Charles, these rants are given to all the other characters. He’s quite happy to lose his home and livelihood because he’s with Charlotte and can be happy anywhere. We do learn though, that when Charles left Merrydown, the poor little ‘mongoloid’ kid died because he had no one to look after him, and so did his dog. That Welfare State takes everything.

The third book, or part in the story is Amongst the Olive Groves and this is a very bizarre, unhinged dystopia of a future ‘Britannia’. Any oddness before is nothing compared to this one.

Charlie is hauled up in a bedsit in London but is perfectly content with the spirit of his beloved Charlotte with him at all times. Outside of their little bubble, everything is going wrong. In the first page, The Trust - the mythical perfect newspaper Charlie used to work for, is bankrupt and kaput. Its editor and his wife have died of broken hearts. By the third page the wonderful eye hospital that nursed Charlie has gone, and the doctor and his wife have moved to Switzerland. By the thirtieth page, every person Charlie loved and respected has emigrated because the UK has become totally and evilly leftwing. Even his beloved school, Amersham, picks up sticks and moves to France because everything is being bought up and run by the state.

The health service can’t have specialised eye hospitals, because of the swarms of people from ‘backward’ nations flooding the country for free hand-outs. “Planeloads of Asians poured into Britain to queue for their benefits off the welfare state.” ‘Coloureds’ are compared to flies and the country is filling up. What’s more, these ‘backward’ nations mature sexually quicker than the civilised whites, with ‘the Blacks’ reaching maturity at nine - and what with the welfare state handing over more money per child - they are being encouraged to breed the native Britains out of the country.

The government is penalising the poor rich people. One man dies and is discovered to have only committed a little bit of tax fraud, so all his estates are swallowed up. His widow is forced to send her precious children to (gulp) state school. Within a year, her thirteen-year-old boy has been arrested for vandalism, her fourteen-year-old daughter has had an abortion and her sixteen-year-old son has been imprisoned for armed robbery. That’s just what state school is like, with every child being “sucked down into the bog of state education, becoming razor carrying drug addicts fornicating before they’re fourteen.”

But things get worse. All housing is state owned, so the building Charlie has a bedsit in is flooded with immigrants who fill the house with “the nauseous smell of curry”. Merrydown has been built over with flyovers and tower blocks, Kensington Park has become a hypermarket and absolutely nothing works because everyone is on strike or on benefits, which pays better than working (though inflation ends up meaning the money is worth nothing).

Finally, all private schools are abolished and the current Amersham headmaster becomes the head of a state school. Within a fortnight he has been murdered, stabbed two-thousand times, kicked and punched and then finally crucified. It’s a full dystopia.

However, none of this affects Charles. He and the spirit of Charlotte get by writing love stories for foreign markets. He spends time in the church of St Jude, patron saint of impossible causes. In that church they create a haven from everything. What’s odd, is that the factors that all the other characters rail against are what builds this little patch of heaven. The welfare state means everyone has time and energy to engage in community and use their skills and the multicultural influence means it is a harmonious hodge-podge of influences across the world. For all the racism that the narrator and other characters indulge in, Charles never does and St Judes becomes a beacon because of the interplay of different cultures.

Finally, the communist British government declare they can’t run the country any longer and invite the Chinese to invade and set up work camps. At this, a peaceful protest, led by a comedian, lock the government into the Royal Albert Hall. They declare, not a martial law, but a comedian law, with a cabinet of comics. They announce the closure of borders and measures of how the country can clean up its mess.. all of a sudden all the wealthy expats who fled the country, the good old private school boys, are coming back to rebuild their country in the spirit of patriotism. (Wonder what Oliver Other would make of the most recent crop of private school boys who’ve near crippled the place?) Though, this is not before anarchists blow up every one of the UK’s cultural landmarks.

Amongst all this, Charlie dies. It’s not a sad death, it just happens to be seven years after Charlotte’s death and it’s time for him to rejoin her and God in heaven and end his part in the Patterns of Love.

However, he leaves a letter. It’s sixty pages of unparagraphed and mostly dull prose in very small typeset font. However, the end is interesting. Charlie recognises all the privileges he has had in life. The rich and caring parents, the school with two pupils to every master, the connections and old boys’ networks. He recognises that in a rapidly filling and unfair world, breeding specialist hens and mythical apples is a luxury that benefits very few people. He even understands the loss of institutions like Amersham and the eye hospital - though he is grateful he was there to use them. He posits a society run like his church of St Judes, saying that communism is the way forward but a Christian communism where people want to share rather than are forced to. He has only good to say about the immigrants and people on welfare, who deserve to live as fulfilling lives as he did. He thinks that Britain (or Britannia, as he always refers to it) is a special, unique nation that has fallen into the dystopia it did so that it can forge the new Christian way ahead and be a shining beacon to everyone else. 

It’s a strange place to end, and Charlie really ended up as something of an exceptional character. The last two books of the set are full of disgusting rhetoric against foreigners, lefties and poor people. Really disgusting, I’ve barely quoted any of it and it fills at least three-hundred pages of the books. I’ve not gone into the stuff about how Africans are basically bush people and Asians are useless, grasping children. I’ve not talked about how poor people are essentially vicious entitled and lazy. All this stuff is clearly how Oliver Other thinks about it - yet they aren’t how Charlie does. Charlie is actually open to all these people and thinks that the reactionary’s dystopia the country falls into during the book is actually a necessary step to something better. What’s more his something better is oddly a little inspiring, and far more open, multicultural and socially progressive than the progressive ideas constantly attacked in the book. Even the Christian element isn’t theocratical, as Charlie only perceives God as the patterns of love, which all faiths can partake in. 

I wonder if the conservative, reactionary, even border-line fascist author that Oliver Other seems to be has understood what a progressive, open society he imagines at the end of this book?

Like everything else in Patterns of Love, it’s a mystery.