Monday, 29 May 2023


 The new issue of Slightly Foxed, the refreshingly independent-minded literary quarterly, is out now, and is, as always, full of good stuff. Laura Freeman's piece on Hall's Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art  ('See Also Tortoise') actually inspired me to buy the book. There are also some reflections on Samuel Johnson and Lichfield by me...

In Johnson's Footsteps

‘We’re thinking of moving,’ announced our son one evening last year. ‘To Lichfield.’ Lichfield! The name was music to my ears. I have long had a soft spot for that little gem of a cathedral city, once the ecclesiastical capital of Mercia, now a delightful Staffordshire market town. I would be more than happy to follow the son, daughter-in-law and three of the grandchildren to Lichfield (and my wife, less familiar with Lichfield, would follow them wherever they went anyway).
  They went, we followed, and now here we are, settling into life in a place very different from the south London suburb* that was our previous home. Why was I so keen to move here? The cathedral of course, with its three graceful spires rising over the waters of the Minster Pool, and the streets of Georgian brick and stone interspersed with half-timbering, the wonderful parks and open spaces, the gentle pace of life, the friendly openness of the people… And one very special reason: the evident pride the town takes in its most famous native son – Samuel Johnson.
  For years I have enjoyed Johnson’s writings – the Rambler essays, his life of Richard Savage, The Vanity of Human Wishes, even the great Dictionary – and, thanks to Boswell’s extraordinary Life, surely the most rounded and affectionate biography ever written, I have also loved him as a man, for all his faults. He could be overbearing, pompous and opinionated, yet he was also tender-hearted, affectionate, sympathetic, and well aware of his own shortcomings. To be living in the town where he was born and spent his formative years was a pleasing prospect, especially as he is still so very present there.
 Johnson, who once opined that ‘Every man has a lurking wish to appear considerable in his native place’, would be gratified to see that he still appears very considerable in Lichfield, where he was born in 1709. The city signs proudly declare Lichfield the ‘Birthplace of Samuel Johnson’, his statue stands in the marketplace, and, remarkably, his birthplace, which was his father’s bookshop, survives, and is now a Johnson museum – and a bookshop. There is even a Samuel Johnson Community Hospital – which would have pleased him, as he took a lively interest in ‘physic’ (medicine) and his father had a sideline in selling patent medicines.
 The Johnson statue looms large in the marketplace. Atop a tall plinth decorated with scenes from his Lichfield years, Johnson sits brooding, chin on fist, in a throne-like chair. When the statue was unveiled in 1838, it was regarded by some as insufficiently classical and heroic in style, but it conveys the introspective, melancholic aspect of Johnson’s personality rather effectively. Anyway, it is nicely offset by the statue at the other end of the marketplace – a jaunty figure, on a smaller scale, of (who else but) James Boswell. The birthplace museum, also on the marketplace, is a pleasing mix of original and reconstructed interiors, with steep narrow staircases and small rooms with creaking floors, displaying various items of Jonhsoniana, including the famous Nollekens bust, many books and pictures, and some of Johnson’s furniture and effects. And the second-hand bookshop downstairs is excellent.
 One of the rooms of the museum is the one in which Johnson was born. 'My mother had a very difficult and dangerous labour,' he wrote in a posthumously published memoir. 'I was born almost dead, and could not cry for some time. When [the man-midwife] had me in his arms, he said, "Here is a brave boy".' Johnson's father was that year Sheriff of Lichfield, and due to ride the Circuit of the County, a ceremonial occasion of great pomp. To celebrate his son's birth, 'he feasted the citizens with uncommon magnificence'.
 Soon after this, the baby Samuel was, 'by my father's persuasion', put out to a wet-nurse. Clearly his mother was not happy with this arrangement: 
'My mother visited me every day, and used to go different ways, that her assiduity might not expose her to ridicule; and often left her fan or glove behind her, that she might have a pretence to come back unexpected; but she never discovered any token of neglect. Dr Swinfen [a young doctor lodging with the Johnsons at the time of Samuel’s birth] told me, that the scrofulous sores which afflicted me proceeded from the bad humours of the nurse, whose son had the same distemper, and was likewise short-sighted, but in a less degree. My mother thought my diseases derived from her family. In ten weeks I was taken home, a poor, diseased infant, almost blind. I remember my aunt told me … that she would not have picked such a poor creature up in the street.'
 As well as the scrofula detected by Dr Swinfen – which left Johnson scarred and visually impaired for life – he later developed an alarming range of tics and twitches that might well have been a form of Tourette’s syndrome. He was also, from his youth, dogged by what we would now call depression.
 His was not a promising start in life, and his family circumstances were far from ideal. Johnson senior was a hopeless businessman who never thought to keep any kind of accounts, and as a result was in chronic financial difficulty. When asked in later life why he said little about his early years, Johnson replied, ‘One has so little pleasure in reciting the anecdotes of beggary’ – an exaggeration, but certainly the young Johnson lived in straitened circumstances. Although he was a brilliant scholar, the star pupil of Lichfield Grammar School, he was only able to take up a place at Pembroke College, Oxford, because of a timely bequest by an aunt. And even then, he had to return home after a little over a year, the money having run out. Several unhappy years followed, in which Johnson, trying to find a way ahead, became a schoolteacher, a job for which he was woefully unsuited.
 His great good fortune was to find love with Elizabeth Porter, the widow of a friend, who was 21 years his senior, but was happy to marry this impoverished young man, and was to be the love of his life, his ‘Tetty’, whose loss (she died in 1752) grieved him all his days. Elizabeth was a woman of property, and with the help of her capital, she and Johnson set up a school at Edial Hall, near Lichfield. Sadly it was a failure, never attracting more than a handful of pupils, but one of them was David Garrick, also an alumnus of Lichfield Grammar School, and later to be the most celebrated actor of his day. He and Johnson became firm friends and, when the school failed in 1737, they decided their best course would be to make their way to London in search of fame and fortune, or at least, in Johnson’s case, a decent income. Elizabeth would follow in due course, when Johnson had found his feet.
 It was a struggle, in the course of which Johnson saw much of the seamy side of London life and the lower depths of the literary world, the Grub Street of desperate hacks and dubious dealings – but his talent, as poet, essayist, biographer and novelist (Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia), won through, and he was soon embarked on what was to be a brilliant, if arduous, career. His future was clearly going to be in London, not Lichfield, where the literary scene was very much more limited. There, only one star shone at all brightly – Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles and himself a pioneer of evolutionary theory.
 Erasmus Darwin was a polymath – physician, naturalist, philosopher, inventor and poet – who presented his scientific findings to the world in (rather bad) verse, and was a leading light of the Lunar Society, an affiliation of scientists, philosophers, writers, engineers and businessmen that was at the heart of what we now call the Midlands Enlightenment. But that is another story (for which see Jenny Uglow’s excellent The Lunar Men) and one in which Johnson, as only an occasional visitor to Lichfield, played little or no part. On the few occasions when Johnson and Darwin, men of equally huge physique and presence, met, ‘mutual and strong dislike subsisted between them’, according to Anna Seward, the ‘Swan of Lichfield’, poetess and queen bee of the city’s litterati. The touchy Seward declared that she could not forgive Johnson his ‘many hints of Lichfield’s intellectual barrenness’. But did he really make such remarks, or did the Swan of Lichfield resent the great man’s pardonable reluctance to meet her, despite Boswell’s efforts to bring such a meeting about?
 At other times Johnson was certainly happy to sing the virtues of his native city, describing it as ‘a city of philosophers’, and on one occasion relating how ‘I lately took my friend Boswell and showed him genuine civilised life in a provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield, my native city, that he might see for once real civility.’ Lichfield is even honoured with a mention in Johnson’s Dictionary, under his definition of ‘lich’ (‘a dead carcase’): ‘Lichfield, the field of the dead, a city in Staffordshire, so named from martyred Christians. Salve magna parens [Hail, great parent].'
 Towards the end of his life, Johnson ensured that his parents were remembered with a suitably dignified stone slab, inscribed with a long Latin epitaph written by their son, in the floor of St Michael’s church in Lichfield (where another pair of literary parents – Philip Larkin’s – are buried in the graveyard). Johnson certainly loved London – and he could hardly have pursued his particular career anywhere else – but it is clear, too, that the city of his birth always had a place in his heart, and Lichfield, happily, seems to feel much the same way about him. As a new Lichfieldian and former Londoner, I am happy to find myself living in the city of his birth. Johnson famously said that ‘He who is tired of London is tired of life.’ I would update that to ‘He who is tired of London [as increasing numbers are] should seriously consider moving to Lichfield.’

* 'South London suburb'? Is that any way to talk of the erstwhile 'suburban demiparadise'?

Saturday, 27 May 2023

To Satan in Heaven

 Time for a poem...
This is by Donald Justice – a plea for forgiveness addressed not to God but to Satan. Which might seem perverse, but isn't there something very approachable about Satan, something rather attractive and compelling, something indeed like us? It is certainly easier for us to recognise ourselves in him than in God. For all his ill doing, he is the undoubted hero of Paradise Lost (and, as William Booth observed, he had all the best tunes). As an incarnation of evil, I don't think he was ever very convincing, and the efforts of hellfire Christians to terrify believers with the prospect of eternal punishment were (are?) morbid, wrong-headed and probably owing more to Zoroastrianism and neurosis than to anything in Jesus's teachings. Or so it seems to me. But I digress. 
I love the image at the end of this subtle and supple poem, so unlike any other butterfly imagery in verse, where butterflies are invariably images of liberation, aspiration and transcendence, not weary creatures of downward yearning, wishing themselves back in the cocoon, or even caught in 'the looping net'. 

To Satan in Heaven

Forgive, Satan, virtue's pedants, all such
As have broken our habits, or had none,
The keepers of promises, prize-winners,
Meek as leaves in the wind's circus, evenings;
Our simple wish to be elsewhere forgive
Shy touchers of library atlases,
Envious of bird-flight, the whale's submersion;
And us forgive, who have forgotten how,
The melancholy who, lacing a shoe,
Choose not to continue, the merely bored,
Who have modelled our lives after cloud-shapes;
For which confessing, have mercy on us,
The different and the indifferent,
In inverse proportion to our merit,
For we have affirmed thee secretly, by
Candle-glint in the polish of silver,
Between courses, murmured amenities,
Seen thee in mirrors by morning, shaving,
Or head in loose curls on the next pillow,
Reduced thee to our own scope and purpose,
Satan, who, though in heaven, downward yearned,
As the butterfly, weary of flowers,
Longs for the cocoon or the looping net.

Thursday, 25 May 2023


 And still the deaths keep on coming... The latest batch includes George Logan (Dr Evadne Hinge of the fondly remembered musical duo Hinge and Bracket), Rolf Harris (of whom the less said the better) and, I learn today, Tina Turner and Kenneth Anger. I hadn't thought of Anger for a long while, and I guess I assumed he was dead (he was 96 years old so that was reasonable enough). I remember, from my days as an achingly trendy young cinĂ©aste, sitting through his arcane experimental films – Fireworks, Scorpio Rising, Invocation of the Pleasure Dome and the rest – in a state of awe-struck reverence to which boredom and incomprehension might well have contributed something. Heaven knows what I'd make of them now... 
As for that fine woman Tina Turner, her post-Ike style of high-octane, high-energy, high-decibel can belto was not my cup of tea, but her (and Ike's) work with Phil Spector was another matter. My first listen to the seven-inch single of River Deep, Mountain High was one of the most thrilling, horripilating musical experiences of my adolescence (and I had a few – that was the golden age of the single). Tina was perhaps the only singer who could meet Spector's wall of sound on equal terms, and the result was something quite extraordinary. River Deep is surely one of the greatest singles ever cut – but there's also this little number. Turn up the volume...

Wednesday, 24 May 2023

Apocalypse Not Yet

 News of the imminent Insect Apocalypse, about which St David Attenborough was warning us recently (citing a decidedly dubious research finding – where's the BBC's 'Reality Check' when you need it?), doesn't seem to have reached the insects of Lichfield. Tiny flying things of all descriptions are swarming everywhere, and on many of the town's paths pedestrians are reduced to sweeping their hands to and fro like windscreen wipers to clear a passage through the airborne biomass. I've had insects flying into my eyes and mouth and settling on my clothes – they're inescapable. A few I can identify, including the lovely little Alder Leaf Beetle [below], which is everywhere just now (Lichfield is a well watered city with many fine alder trees). Most, however, remain unidentified flying objects, very tiny, abundant and ubiquitous ones. Happily this wealth of insect life has drawn the swifts back to town, after a slow start with only occasional sightings. Now they are circling overhead, gratefully hoovering up all that airborne protein. Summer is on its way.

Monday, 22 May 2023

Marcelle Meyer

 This crowded portrait by Jacques-Emile Blanche (Dieppe's finest) shows the pianist Marcelle Meyer surrounded by five of the group of composers known as Les Six, plus Jean Cocteau and Jean Wiener. I must admit I had never heard of Marcelle Meyer until I was looking for different versions of Rameau's keyboard works – he's a composer I'm rather obsessed with – and discovered that she had made two remarkable recordings of Rameau in 1946 and 1953, and that they are available on double CD. I am now thoroughly immersed in that double CD (listening to music is one thing I can do in my depleted postviral condition – yes, it's still going on) and I am hugely impressed by her artistry: 'an imperious, serene sound imagination', as the translated liner notes say. Also 'a miracle of curved fluidity, polyphonic depth, variety of timbres and attacks'. Well, yes, true enough. She certainly brings Rameau fully alive, making the music sound fresh and new-minted. Here she is with 'Les Tendres Plaintes' – enjoy...


Sunday, 21 May 2023

Martin Amis

 The news of Martin Amis's death came as an awful shock. Quite irrationally, I'd always thought of him as a young writer, even though I knew he was my age. And at my age, of course, people quite often die. Martin actually lived a little longer that his father  – and surely no one was thinking of Kingsley as a young writer by the time he died... 
There will be tributes and assessments everywhere today, I'm sure. I'm not going to join in, partly because I have read nothing of his for years, apart from his memoir Experience. I will only say that I'll always be grateful to Martin Amis for gifting me some of the most intensely pleasurable reading experiences of my life in those scabrous, flashy, ultra-stylised early novels – back in the day, when he and I were both young. RIP.

Saturday, 20 May 2023


 Finding myself lately with little energy for more demanding work, thanks to a particularly stubborn 'bug', I have been compiling, at a leisurely pace, an Index of Names and Places (and a few other things) for that 'odd book', The Mother of Beauty. It's been a long time since it came out, and I don't suppose anyone cares any more, but I did feel, and still do, the lack of an index, and I know there were readers who felt the same. So now I've gone ahead and done it, and I must admit I rather enjoyed doing it; I found it quite a relaxing and even therapeutic occupation.
  It's a fairly basic index, with none of the fun and games that make some indexes such enjoyable reading – this one, for example (see para. 4), or indeed the index to that imperishable classic, Me Cheeta. Chapter 8 of that book is devoted to one of Cheeta's bĂȘtes noires, Esther Williams – but the entire chapter has been 'removed for legal reasons', leaving only the title ('F*cking Bitch'). In the index, however, the entry for 'Williams, Esther' gives us a comprehensive rundown of the chapter in all its libellous glory. Clever stuff.
  My index, on the other hand, is purely utilitarian (though I did get a small thrill of pleasure from writing 'Parsons, Gram ....... 199'). It exists in the form of a PDF which can be sent as an attachment to anyone who might want it. Printed out, it amounts to four pages, which could tuck into the back of the book easily enough. If anyone is interested (a big 'if', I suspect), please email me ( and I'll reply with the index attached.