Dr. Johnson in Scotland – An Englishman in his Near Abroad

Cuilinns

DR. JOHNSON IN SCOTLAND – 

AN ENGLISHMAN IN HIS NEAR ABROAD

Samuel Johnson was nearly sixty-four when he made an unexpected journey. One day in 1773, the internationally-renowned lexicographer, essayist, poet, and novelist, who somehow combined being one of the great thinkers of Europe with being a personification of bluff Englishness, suddenly switched his great gaze north, in search of a dream of youth. His one good eye ranged restlessly beyond the metropolis whose intellectual life he characterised and whose very language he had helped codify, over the midlands from which he had emerged, across an echoing border and still further north and west, until it lighted at last on certain storm-swept islands he had never seen, but which had long ago taken hold of his heart. He avers in his 1775 account, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, 

I had desired to visit the Hebrides, or Western Islands of Scotland, so long, that I scarcely remember how the wish was originally excited.

How, indeed?

The expedition took many admirers and friends by surprise, because what could there be in such outlandish outcrops to engage the interest of so lambent an intellect? Furthermore, the Great Cham of English literature was noted for anti-Scottish squibs, such as calling Scotland “a worse England”, or chortling that

The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!

He had also been one of the first to doubt the authenticity of James Macpherson’s 1760 Ossian epic poem cycle, which purported to be translations of ancient Gaelic texts, but which Johnson dismissed as being “as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with” – a piece of brusquerie which earned him the resentment of many Scots seeking cultural compensation for political subjection.

Remote islands have an intrinsic fascination, and Johnson had read Pliny’s Natural History, the first text to mention the archipelagoes. In the course of a lifetime’s reading, he would have come across other allusions and references, ranging from Ptolemy’s Deucaledonian Sea to Thomas Pennant, author of A Tour of Scotland And Voyage to the Hebrides (1772). He may have read parts of the 14th/15th century fantastical-factual Scotichronicon, as well as recent historiographies – and had probably pored over the 1654 Blaeu Atlas, the first atlas of Scotland, but which drew on maps from 1583. If so, he must have been tantalized by The Westerne Iles’ convoluted coasts, scanty settlements, and evocative blue expanses broken only by tiny sloops, watched over by wind-spirits and bare-breasted Gaels propping up cartouches.

Johnson was always aware he had not travelled much, and which other locale within striking distance could be more divergent from modern England? What an adventure such an expedition must have seemed, for someone who always combined melancholia and gravitas with impishness – “frisking” through London in the smallest hours, exchanging abuse with Thames watermen, or rolling down a Lincolnshire hillside to the surprise of old friend Bennet Langton. Eldritch islands lost in mists of spray and tradition were the antithesis of well-lit salons. He was a man who clove to solidity – exemplified in his dismissal of Berkeley’s immaterialism (Johnson kicked a stone hard, and cried “I refute it thus!”).

He knew of scientific excursions by fossilists researching the new concept of “deep time”, and the 1772 trip of his botanist friend Sir  Joseph Banks, who had been awed by the basalt cliffs of Staffa. He also wanted to see something of “the ancient state of Britain” before it altered, and to hear Gaelic, long in decline and which most thought must soon disappear. For him languages were “the pedigree of nations”, that once lost could never be recovered. More specifically, as a young pamphleteer he had disparaged the Hanoverians and praised the Stuarts, so that some had thought him seditious. In 1739, he had published Marmor Norfolciense, which contained the lines,

Then o’er the world shall discord stretch her wings,

Kings change their laws, and kingdoms change their kings,

a sentiment interpreted dangerously by some as a “bloody Jacobitical pamphlet”.

The youthful Johnson was certainly not immune to what Henry James would call “the most romantic episode in the world”, but as Boswell noted shrewdly,

Mr. Johnson is not properly a Jacobite. He does not hold the jus divinum of kings. He founds their right on long possession, which ought not to be disturbed upon slight grounds.

James L. Clifford summed up Johnson’s contradictions in Young Samuel Johnson (1957),

Tradition, orthodoxy, strict legitimacy of succession, had powerful appeals. The Stuart cause aroused in him deep responses. But by temperament he was also rational and realistic, placing common sense high in the scale of human values.

Late in life, Johnson remarked to Boswell that if he could have held up his hand to secure the victory of Charles at Culloden he was uncertain he would have done so. But in 1773 he still contained a residuum of chivalry; his reservations about Scots were always tempered by admiration for the dedication of many to their lost cause, their “King over the water”. On top of this, he had heard about injustices meted out to Highlanders in the wake of the ’45 which offended against his sense of natural justice.

Johnson also knew his span was running out. He had always been robust, notwithstanding childhood tuberculosis and scrofula (which had badly scarred his face), his eyesight, partial deafness, and Tourette’s Syndrome, which made him twitch, claw the air and gesticulate uncontrollably at times, and “blow out his breath like a whale” at the end of sentences. But now he was losing strength and starting to have difficulty walking, so there would be few other opportunities to make so demanding a trip.

Providentially, he had to hand thirty-two year old Auchinleck aristocrat James Boswell – energetic, desperate to give Johnson a better impression of his homeland, and himself curious to see the Highlands, which even to many Scots seemed like a barbaric foreign country. He was also understandably eager to show off his celebrated friend to his North British acquaintance – and to have Johnson to himself for an extended period, because he was meditating writing his Life. So on 6th August, Johnson left London on what would be a eighty-three day trek. Thomas Trotter made a now-famous engraving to accompany Boswell’s 1786 Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides – the Doctor in travelling garb, a shambling, awkward, but imposing figure, a large, bushy, greyish wig, sturdy boots, and what Boswell describes as

…a very wide brown cloth great coat with pockets which might almost have held the two volumes of his folio dictionary,

leaning on an oak staff with nails driven in at intervals of a foot and a yard. (Johnson admonishes expeditionaries “no man should travel unprovided with instruments for taking heights and distances.”) His luggage contained an un-bookish brace of pistols – although he left these in Edinburgh, once his fellow-traveller had persuaded him the Highlands were not infested with bandits.

At Edinburgh, Boswell introduced him to some of the leading lights of the “Athens of the North”, and showed him Holyrood Palace, the university, libraries, and courts, while hoping he would not notice the smells wafting from wynds. They visited the church of St. Giles which had been knocked about by Presbyterians, about which Johnson was silent until they arrived at the Royal Infirmary, where a board instructed visitors “Clean your feet!” Johnson turned to Boswell and said slyly,

There is no occasion for putting this at the doors of your churches!

Johnson was always saddened by the destruction of churches, and at St. Andrews he stood bareheaded within the former precincts of the cathedral. When Boswell wondered where John Knox had been buried, the indignant Doctor answered,

I hope in the high-way: I have been looking upon his reformations.

But Johnson was never inconsolably nostalgic. Boswell asked why he ate heavily after viewing shattered antiquities, and received the superbly practical reply,

When comparing a worse present state with a better that is past, you cannot but feel sorrow. It is not cured by reason, but by the incursions of present objects.

They travelled via Dundee, Arbroath, Montrose, Aberdeen (where Johnson was made a freeman), Inverness and down the Great Glen. They examined a wayside hovel, asking the ancient, Gaelic-monoglot inhabitant where she slept, which made her fear they wanted to bed her. Only Boswell had the effrontery to insist on seeing her bed-chamber. They visited the eminent jurist Lord Monboddo – dressed, comically, in “a rustick suit” and little round hat, and holding a specimen of corn from his fields – and the military commanders at Forts George and Augustus. Military commanders were still thought a necessity. Apart from the usual problems of policing a remote region (still occasionally fallen upon by Barbary slavers), it was just twenty-seven years since the Young Pretender had last left for France. He was no longer a threat, nor even “Bonnie”, sunk into dipsomania in Rome, while his religiously-inclined sole sibling had no worldly ambitions. But redcoats were nonetheless needed to enforce palpably unjust laws onto a poor and proud people, still smarting from the severities of “Butcher” Cumberland’s suppression. Johnson despised these laws,

…which, though they cannot be called cruel, have produced much discontent, because they operate upon the surface of life, and make every eye bear witness to subjection.

Under the “Clan Act” of 1715, the estates of Jacobite nobles had been forfeited, while tenants who had supported the crown were given two years rent remission (the Act was mitigated later). Hereditary posts were abolished, and carpetbaggers advanced – many connected with the aggressive Campbells of Argyll, execrated for the Massacre of Glencoe, and furthermore Presbyterian. Some whose septs had dominated the Highlands since time out of mind were still in exile, while others were marginalized. Symbols of old allegiances were also forbidden, aiding cultural amnesia. Highlanders were forbidden to wear tartan, on pain of six months imprisonment or transportation to the colonies. There were disarming acts in 1716, 1725 and 1747 (these “arms” included bagpipes).

But the advance of Enlightenment ideas  – Edinburgh was home to Adam Smith and David Hume – and mercantilism also called time on the clans. Chiefs became land-owners instead of lords, and wardholder clansmen became tenants. Chiefs’ power had ended, although prestige lingered like old perfume. In any case, chiefs had fewer potential followers. Proto-agronomists were introducing less labour-intensive crops, and advocating agriculture that favoured sheep over people. The Highlands, inhabited since the Mesolithic era, were emptying as the uprooted sailed for new shores, some gulled by tracts like one Johnson mentions, which claimed the climate of Nova Scotia was like that of Italy. The Clearances had begun – an insidious dispossession, cloaked in cant, which would carry on well into the 19th century, memory of which still envenoms Scottish nationalism (although many clearers were Scots). Johnson was indignant,

To hinder insurrection, by driving away the people, and to govern peaceably, by having no subjects, is an expedient that argues no great profundity of politicks.

Once off the military roads, travelling became slower and more laborious, often along sinuous heathery lanes scarcely more than sheep tracks. It was also often dangerous, with steep slopes and precipices, and at times they had to dismount from their ponies – doubtless to the animals’ great relief, as Johnson was unusually heavy. This is not to mention the firths, lochs, sounds and straits separating the islands from each other and the mainland – notoriously windy and rocky, with unpredictable weather, complex currents and seething undertows, of which the Corryvreckan whirlpool, the “Cauldron of the Hag”, was only the most feared. The landscape did not beguile the time. Johnson was not an admirer of rugged scenery for its own sake. He frequently referred to the dearth of trees (he exaggerated this, and there has been subsequent afforestation), more apparent the further west they wended. He wrote of the fêted islands of Loch Lomond that they

…court the gazer at a distance, [but] disgust him at his approach.

As for the deep Highlands,

…the appearance is that of matter incapable of form or usefulness, dismissed by nature from her care and disinherited of her favours.

Dislike of this kind of countryside was the default setting of the 18th century; refined travellers sometimes closed the blinds of their carriages to avoid having to see such un-tailored topography. There was growing enthusiasm for “landskips” among artists and aristocrats, but for now  Johnson helped police the taste boundaries, once telling Boswell a mountain he had called “impressive” was only “a considerable protuberance”.

Had Johnson been dreamier, he might have liked it more. With a cultural geography combining trace elements of pre-Celtic ur-myth with Celtic Christianity, Pictish symbolism, Norse mythology, medieval Catholicism, and witch-suspecting Protestantism, the west was invested with uncanniness. Each tide-race was populated with fictive fauna, like the Mester Stoorworm sea-serpent, the seal-human hybrid silkie, or the tiny Blue Men of the Minch. Ashore, the eerie account was equally compendious, every lochan seemingly having its kelpie (water-horse), every tract of ling, rowan, or sliding scree its tricksy brownie or glaistig. Folk-tales were current of the People of the Hollow Hills, the Spirit of the Speckled Mountain, the Unseelie (unlucky) Court, the Little Weeper of Sorrow, the Washerwoman of Death, evil eyes, clan amulets, and midnight coronachs heard where no human piper could be playing. But although Johnson liked traditionary hazes on Tory principle, he treated superstitions with scorn. The only one he did not toss and gore was “second sight”, the supposed ability to see things from afar, or foretell the future. He quizzed believers (many educated) closely, and at last averred that disbelievers

presupposed more knowledge of the universal system than man has attained.

Duntulm

All along the way, and in whatever unlikely surroundings, Johnson emitted opinions and aphorisms on everything – defending Pope Sixtus IV for signing death-warrants on his death-bed, criticising Montesquieu for citing foreign practices to defend “strange opinions”, ridiculing Peter the Great for working as a shipwright to understand shipbuilding (“Sir Christopher Wren might as well have served his time to a bricklayer, and first, indeed, to a brick maker.”). Boswell was equally impressed by Johnson’s interest in medicine, distilling, milling, brewing, whey-making, coining, thatching, glazing, shoes, or potatoes. Eager to be informed – or to show off – Johnson interrogated everyone, to the extent some thought him a practitioner.

Much of the charm of Boswell’s book is showing Johnson in such unexpected guises – the literary lion un-proudly learning from the unlettered. Or the magisterial mind condescending into roguish wit or even clowning – Johnson astride a Shetland pony, brandishing a broadsword, wearing a large blue bonnet, or enjoying the bagpipes with his good ear pressed close to the drone. But he was always alive to indignity. Once, he was unguarded enough to say,

I have often thought, that, if I kept a seraglio, the ladies should all wear linen gowns, – or cotton…I would not have silk; you cannot tell when it is clean.

But when Boswell laughs, Johnson

…retaliated with such keen sarcastick wit, and with such a variety of degrading images, of every one of which I was the object…that I would gladly expunge from my mind every trace of this severe retort.

They came to Glenelg, on the mainland opposite Skye, after a day made tolerable only by having been informed there was an inn, “a house of lime and slate and glass”, which Johnson refers to wickedly as an “image of magnificence”. But they found a damp and dirty room, no food and only whisky to drink, and a smoke-blackened workman who leapt out of a “wretched bed” as the hungry travellers brushed past to their adjacent piles of hay. Johnson hated missing food (“He who does not mind his belly, will hardly mind anything else”). In Scotland, he liked the breakfasts, but shuddered at the slices of cheshire cheese which “pollute the tea-table”. Boswell teased him by telling a hostess that Johnson liked cold sheep’s-head for breakfast, knowing Johnson would be offended to be offered it.

The Cuillin hills dominate Skye, and from them radiate the peninsulas of Sleat, Minginish, Waternish and Trotternish. Johnson and Boswell landed at Armadale (which they spell Armidel) on Sleat, to stay with Sir Alexander Macdonald, head of a clan that came somehow out of those centuries when, narrates the 13th-century Norse chronicle Heimskringla,  “…the hunger battle-birds were filled in Skye with blood of foemen killed.” Later Macdonalds crimsoned themselves with equal enthusiasm (although the clan stayed at home in 1745), and in peacetime devised such pragmatic schemes as selling superfluous Skye and South Uist peasants into slavery. But Johnson’s host, the 9th Baronet of Sleat, was Eton-educated, married to a Yorkshire heiress, and “entirely anti-Celtic” in his tastes. He had raised rents, forcing many tenants onto emigrant ships, and clearly found his antecedents an embarrassment. He showed surprise at his guest’s boyish rhapsodizing. “The Highland chief”, Johnson said, only half-humorously,

…should not be allowed to go farther south than Aberdeen – in general, they will be tamed into insignificance…Were I in your place, sir, in seven years I would make this an independent island. I would roast oxen whole, and hang out a flag as a signal to the Macdonalds to come and get beef and whisky…Sir, I would have a magazine of arms.

When the baronet protested,  “Sir, they would rust”, Johnson responded,

Let there be men to keep them clean. Your ancestors did not use to let their arms rust!

Johnson saw an otter at Armadale – almost his only reference to the animal kingdom. He would probably have been surprised by modern eco-tourism – and scornful of my pleasure in seeing golden eagles, or standing in gentle rain in hills above Tobermory on Mull, listening to an intimate colloquy of nesting ravens, “hunger battle-birds” at home in an ash.

Their McKinnon host at Coriatachan provided Gaelic songs, copious whisky, and a “numerous and cheerful company”. Johnson retired early, but he had clearly been over-excited by the atmosphere, writing an ode, part of which runs,

I roam through clans of savage men,

Untamed by arts, untaught by pen

Or cower within some squalid den,

O’er reeking soil.

They stayed at Coriatachan (now vanished) again, giving a delightful image of Johnson at his most relaxed,

…one of our married ladies, a lively pretty little woman, good-humouredly sat down upon Dr. Johnson’s knee, and, being encouraged by some of the company, put her hands around his neck, and kissed him. – ‘Do it again (said he,) – and let us see who will tire first.’

Johnson distrusted ships, and en route over restive seas to Raasay, Boswell records him “high on the stern, like a magnificent Triton”, muttering an Horatian ode Otium Divos rogan in patent, Prensus Aegaeo (“Peace the sailor prays, caught in a storm on the open Aegean”). But unease turns into Odyssean imagery in Johnson’s words as they neared land,

The singing of our rowers was succeeded by that of reapers.

Johnson loved Raasay,

Without is the rough ocean and the rocky land, the beating billows and the howling storm: within is plenty of elegance, beauty and gaiety, the song and the dance.… nor did ever fairies trip with greater alacrity.

Boswell conjures it in detail –

Rasay himself danced with as much spirit as any man, and Malcolm bounded like a roe….much jovial noise…It entertained me to observe [Johnson] sitting by, while we danced, sometimes in deep meditation – sometimes smiling complacently, – sometimes looking upon Hooke’s Roman History, – and sometimes talking a little, amidst the noise of the ball, to Mr. Donald McQueen, who anxiously gathered knowledge from him.

There is a 1970s photo of that room, the stucco flaking, the lath showing through the plaster, taken shortly before the house was demolished. Raasay has melancholy associations for many, conveyed exquisitely in Hallaig by communist-sympathising islander Sorley MacLean,

Time, the deer, is in Hallaig Wood

There’s a board nailed across the window

I looked through to see the west

And my love is a birch forever

By Halal Stream, at her tryst

Between Inver and Milk Hollow…

Johnson respected the dead equally, Boswell recording his “striking appearance of horrour” at seeing uncovered human bones in a hypaethral chapel.

Back on Skye, Johnson met Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald. After Culloden, when the army was combing South Uist for the fugitive Charles, offering a £30,000 reward, Hugh Macdonald, captaining militia but secretly a Jacobite, put him in contact with his resourceful step-daughter. The voyage of Flora, the Prince (dressed as an unusually tall Irish maid), and several boatmen, “Over the sea to Skye” in an open boat has passed into song. Three miles out, a storm came up, but Charles helped maintain morale by telling stories and singing vainglorious anthems. Next day, they rowed for hours without making headway, the Prince’s offers to take his turn refused. They finally got ashore but were fired upon, and then Flora had to find a safe house. When at last they parted, Charles repaid money owed, gave her a miniature, and said he hoped to welcome her some day at St. James’s Palace – while holding four clean shirts, a chicken in a handkerchief, and a bottle each of whisky and brandy. Flora was questioned in the Tower of London, but no witnesses came forward, and she was reluctantly let go. She later went to America, where her sons fought for Britain, and her ship was attacked by the French, and she ruminated wryly that she had risked her life for both the Stuarts and the Brunswicks, for little return.

This was a high point for Boswell –

To see Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great champion of the English Tories, salute Miss Flora MacDonald in the isle of Sky, was a striking sight; for though somewhat congenial in their motions, it was very improbable they should meet there.

The following morning, Boswell found in Johnson’s room a slip of paper on which his friend had pencilled “Quantum cedar virtutibus aurum” (“with virtue weigh’d, what worthless trash is gold”). Another Johnson tribute is incised on Flora’s monument in Kilmuir, at the northern tip of Skye,

A name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.

They stayed at Dunvegan Castle, hosted by Norman MacLeod, the 23rd chief of that ilk. The castle stands on the loch-shore, surrounded by lichened gardens, through which courses a cascade called Rory Mór’s Nurse, because the 15th chief couldn’t sleep unless he could hear its tumult. Inside can still be seen things Johnson inspected – the Great Sword, a 16th century claymore (Johnson decided he would prefer a dirk), and the Faery Flag, a tattered silk good-luck talisman of unknown origin, which always had an hereditary custodian to carry it into battles; photographs of the Flag were carried by MacLeod R.A.F. pilots during World War Two. The 23rd chief’s wife was a moderniser, considering quitting the castle altogether, but Johnson disconcerted her by energetically arguing against, saying it was

…the very jewel of the estate. It looks as if it had been let down from heaven by the four corners, to be the residence of a Chief.

Boswell also records her being aghast at Johnson’s appraisal of humanity.

Lady McLeod asked, if any man was naturally good? Johnson – No madam, no more than a wolf. Boswell – Nor no woman, sir? J – No, sir. Lady McLeod started at this, saying, in a low voice, This is worse than Swift.

Johnson was disinclined to leave Dunvegan, but perhaps his hosts were relieved when he departed for Armadale, and thence across to Mull. They ran into a storm, of which Boswell gives a vivid account –

…what I never saw before, a prodigious sea, with immense billows coming upon a vessel, so as that it seemed hardly possible to escape.

A sailor with one eye steered them, the gunwales at times within an inch of the waves, the sails almost splitting, sparks flying from a burning peat held aloft as a signal. The travellers were seasick, but even in the throes of nausea and terror, Boswell could admire his friend, lying belowdecks “in philosophick tranquillity, with a greyhound of Col’s at his back, keeping him warm.” They abandoned ideas of Mull and instead after a dangerous struggle Col got them to safety on his island. “Col” was Donald Maclean, eldest son of the Laird of Coll, striving to preserve his coming inheritance through innovation. He told them stories while they were “stormstayed” – 500 years of Macleans, shapeshifting hare-women, and the “Religion of the Yellow Stick” (the Laird’s 1715 conversion of the Romanist islanders by the expedient of hitting one of them on the head with a cane and driving them to the kirk) – also of his many plans to enrich the island and avert emigration. Sadly, Col drowned not long after they had left his unusually optimistic island.

They got to Mull at last – a place of fossil trees, red granites, caves, rockfalls and earthquakes, standing stones and circles – another Maclean domain marked by their castles, and trawled around by prospectors hoping to drag up Armada bullion. They went onto the nearby island of Ulva, where Johnson slept in “an elegant bed of Indian cotton, spread with fine sheets” standing in a puddle on an earthen floor. On Inch Kenneth, they stayed with Sir Allan MacLean, head of the clan, and his daughters. Johnson rejoiced to find a road marked by cart-wheels, and

…this little desart [sic.] in these depths of Western obscurity, occupied not by a gross herdsman, or amphibious fisherman, but by a gentleman and two ladies, of high birth, polished manners and elegant conversation.

As so often, the travellers were struck by contrasts – wilderness and worsening weather outside, while inside were Latin books, and a girl playing a 1667 spinet.

The last island on their itinerary was also the most illustrious. Johnson, tiring of travel, allowed Boswell to persuade him into the mile-long voyage from Mull to Iona – a ferry route in operation continuously since the 6th century. But having been persuaded, he threw himself into the idea – literally, because whereas Boswell and Sir Allan were carried ashore by the boatmen who could not bring their craft alongside, Johnson leapt into the water and waded to land. In 563, the Irish St. Columba had likewise landed on the west coast of this little island of white sand, coloured stones, and puffing-holes, probably in the Bay at the End of the Ocean. It was the perfect land apart, and he promptly raised the Cairn with its Back to Ireland, and a cell. From these would come an abbey, a monastery, and a newly proselytising Christianity.

Bish

Iona grew until the Synod of Whitby (664), when its child, the Northumbrian church, opted for Roman dating and tonsures. But even in long retreat Iona was synonymous with sanctity and scholarship. Some of Columba’s remains were carried in the reliquary called the Brecbennoch of Columba, which was brought into battle to bring luck to Scottish arms as late as Bannockburn. This palladium could not prevent Vikings raiding and robbing Columba’s island, nor the massacre of 68 monks in 806, and the relics were sent to other churches  – but still the aura remained, and for centuries kings’ corpses (including Macbeth’s) would be ported along the Sráid na Marbh (Street of the Dead) to St. Oran’s burial place. In 1549, the High Dean of the Isles saw tombs for “fortey-eight crouned Scotts kings”, “four Ireland kings” and “eight kings of Norroway” – but a decade later they were smashed by iconoclasts, who also unroofed the abbey and destroyed all but three of 360 wayside crosses. Johnson repined,

The inhabitants are remarkably gross, and remarkably neglected…The island, which was once the metropolis of learning and piety, now has no school for education, nor temple for worship, only two inhabitants that can speak English, and not one that can write or read.

But he was glad he was there, striding bareheaded among half-walls and outlines of old buildings, visualising that island-universe. It inspired his Journey’s most-cited segment:

 Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.

He would have appreciated the 20th century re-roofing of the abbey and reinstatement of some old monuments.

Finally to Oban, news-sheets from Edinburgh, letters from friends, and eastwards and southwards on, easing again into England, but often looking back. It had been, Johnson assured Boswell, “the pleasantest part of his life”, and “I got an acquisition of more ideas by it than by anything I can remember”. His Journey is suffused with a sense of achievement; he was inspired to visit Wales and Paris, and even pondered a history of Skye. Although he would still occasionally be called anti-Scottish, the visit of so respected an arbiter undoubtedly also helped bring England and Scotland closer together.

Looking out an Armadale window one day, he had marvelled –

I cannot but laugh, to think of myself roving among the Hebrides at sixty. I wonder where I shall rove at fourscore!

In 1777, he was still prone to wanderlust –

I am a kind of ship with a wide sail, and without an anchor.

But he would never travel again (except to friends’ houses), or even get to fourscore, dying in London in 1784. Hopefully during his final frightened hours, he saw again images of his odyssey, and remembered sudden insights and Raasay nights – times when he had been supremely happy, when he bestrode an alien landscape and made it almost his own.

This article appeared in the August 2016 issue of Chronicles, and is reprinted with permission

John Aubrey – remembrancer and forward-thinker

JOHN AUBREY – REMEMBRANCER AND FORWARD-THINKER

John Aubrey, My Own Life

Ruth Scurr, London: Chatto & Windus, 2015, hb., 518pp, £25

Just as English painting is renowned for portraiture, so English letters have been illuminated by some of the greatest biographers ever to burnish world literature. After Boswell, the best-known is John Aubrey (1626-1697), whose Brief Lives broke through deferential and stylistic boundaries to leave us vivid vignettes of historical figures of a kind that had previously been buried with their subjects, omitted from epitaphs, lost in posthumous politesse. Ruth Scurr seeks to remind readers just how original and engaging he was, and how fascinating his era.

Brief Lives is a congeries of notes and random jottings that was never intended for publication as a whole. It contains over 500 character studies, few of them complete (one consists of two words – “Simple man”), and many of the subjects were obscure even then. But taken as a whole, they amply bear out John Fowles’ opinion,

Not even with Pepys are we closer to an existential awareness of what it was like to be alive then.

Brief Lives throws open a casement onto the tumultuous country Aubrey knew, in all its violence and eloquence, bawdiness and loftiness, wistfulness and war, ignorant iconoclasm and soaring intellectualism. It is, in fact, just as well the text was never prepared for publication, because all kinds of piquant details would never have made the final cut. As Aubrey wrote to Anthony Wood, the peevish antiquary who had imposed on him the “Taske” of writing the book,

Now these Arcana are not fitt to lett flie abroad, till about 30 years hence; for the author and the Persons (like Medlars) ought first to be rotten.

We learn from him (and only from him) that the Cavalier poet Sir John Suckling practised card-sharping in bed. The seventeenth Earl of Oxford was so embarrassed by farting when bowing to the Queen that he went abroad for seven years (when he returned the Queen told him she had “quite forgot the fart”). We are told what happened when a loose stallion scented the mare being ridden in a church procession by a “mighty pontifical prowd” Dean of Hereford – that the jurist Sir John Selden “got more by his prick than he had done by his practice” – and that the funerary bust of the rather too “tractable” society beauty Venetia Digby, which had survived the Great Fire but lost its gilding, was for sale ten years afterwards on a market stall. One does not find such irreverent immediacies in Walton’s Lives or Fuller’s Worthies. As Aubrey said himself,

How these curiosities would be quite forgotten, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down!

Aubrey was clearly a quidnunc. He was also an astrologer, and the only book he published in his lifetime was Miscellanies, a gazeteer of omens and superstitions retailed as fact, with engaging anecdotes, such as Arise Evans who rubbed his “fungous nose” on Charles II’s hand. Yet he was also, as Anthony Powell noted in John Aubrey and His Friends (1948),

…one of the most arresting figures of the seventeenth century.

This stargazer and teller of tattle (Powell defends him against the charge of excessive credulity, saying he always wrote half-humorously) was simultaneously a noted antiquarian, who as Alain Schnapps opines in The Discovery of the Past, “ushered the antiquaries into a new world”, through pioneering the typological-chronological classification of monuments. Aubrey’s childhood of “eremetical solitude” in the haunted “thin blew landscape” around Stonehenge (he was the first to survey Avebury) lent impetus to a lifelong melancholia. His concern for the future of old monuments  and documents (it was common for medieval manuscripts to be used to clean guns, line pie-dishes or bung beer barrels) mirrored his concern about whether his writings would survive him; in a touching aside, he records watching the covers of his notebooks turn mouldy in the damp downland weather.

Unusually, the discoverer of the past was also a finder of the future, fascinated by developments in science, mathematics, engineering, philosophy, education, and the arts. He knew Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Browne, Edmund Waller, Edmund Halley,  John Locke, Isaac Newton, William Harvey, Robert Hooke and scores of others, from experimental chemists to poets, cartographers to politicians. He played an active role in the Royal Society, and wrote “tumultuarily” among all the noise of Civil War, Protectorate, Restoration, plague and Great Fire, legal tussles, bailiff-dodging, and endless money problems. He spent twenty years living in friends’ houses, carrying on voluminous correspondence and indefatigable researches from spare rooms. That he was able to do this for so long without falling out with any of these friends attests to his agreeability; one of the very few who spoke ill of him was, ironically, the ingrate Anthony Wood.

Although instinctively conservative, Aubrey’s non-doctrinaire outlook enabled him to form friendships with Royalists and Roundheads, Puritans, Anglicans and Catholics, give credit when due, and report foibles with amused tolerance. So unassuming was he that he almost disappeared from history, despite constant fretting about whether his writings would survive him. Powell observes,

He contemplated the life around him as in a mirror – the glass of the Lady of Shalott – scarcely counting himself as one of the actors on the stage.

The only nod Aubrey made to a putative Boswell or Lockhart were a few notes, fit only, he said with what feels like genuine modesty,

…to be interponed as a sheet of waste paper only in the binding of a book

Powell’s profile of Aubrey set a standard unlikely to be surpassed – although he concentrates on Aubrey’s nostalgia and scants his neophilia. Cambridge historian Ruth Scurr has sensibly done something quite different – consider how Aubrey might have chronicled his own career had he had the leisure and inclination, using his words when possible, and filling in lacunae with empathetic imagination. Some might term this infotainment, but that always implies shallowness, whereas she succeeds admirably in adding to rather than taking away from Aubrey’s reputation. From the front cover illustration onwards she displays both deep sensitivity towards her subject and knowledge of his context.

The author cleverly interlards likely day-to-day worries – money, health, lack of success in amours, footpads, menacing politics, the perennial peevishness of Anthony Wood – with longer-term preoccupations about posterity and progress, and of course colourful anecdotes. All are rendered with an excellent ear for his gossipy language, including some words lamentably fallen into desuetude. She transmits an acutely alive and likeable personality – one who was kind in a cruel era, constructive among a mass of destruction, sane in a sea of “fanatiques”, appreciative of brilliance whoever its originator and engirdled by whatever “inurbanitie”.

She wrote My Own Life, she tells us in her foreword, “playingly…but with purpose”, drawn to his quiet conservatism by its marked contrast to her previous biographical subject, the wholly antithetical Robespierre. Her tribute may be lightly written but it is not lightly conceived, and must surely bring new readers to the Lives, and new attention to that redolent, revolutionizing England.

This review first appeared on Quadrapheme.com, and is reprinted with permission

Testing for humanity – The Plague Dogs

TESTING FOR HUMANITY

The Plague Dogs (book 1977, film 1982)

I came across by chance recently a DVD of The Plague Dogs, a 1982 animation of Richard Adams’ bestselling 1977 novel. I was catapulted immediately back to childhood, when I had read the book shortly after publication, with a sense of distress and anger I can still taste. It had seemed to me an unusually powerful story, and I was surprised I had not known of the film’s existence. In general, the film seems to have been unduly neglected, notwithstanding a notable voice cast – including John Hurt, Patrick Stewart, James Bolam, Warren Mitchell and Bernard Hepton – and superb painting and animation. I accordingly purchased a copy of the book to remind myself why it is considered an anthropomorphic classic, on a par with Bambi (the book – although the Disney travesty has probably been more influential), Tarka the Otter, Ring of Bright Water, and Adams’ own Watership Down.

For most of their respective lengths, book and film follow the same storyline. Two dogs – Rowf, a large and fierce Labrador cross, and Snitter, a fox terrier – escape from a government animal research establishment in the Lake District. Rowf has been used to study physical endurance, and to this senseless end has been forced to swim daily in a water tank, while scientists monitor his functions and time his staying power. They always leave him in the tank until he starts to drown, only retrieving him when he sinks to the bottom. Snitter has been used for complex brain surgery, designed to make him confuse the objective and the subjective – and this has been all too successful.

Snitter is especially pitiable, because unlike Rowf he has known security and kindness from humans. He is only here because he was responsible for his master being knocked down by a lorry, and was subsequently sold to the institution by his master’s loathsome sister. He has frequent flashbacks to his old life, and this sharpens his confusion and sense of hurt at the latex-gloved hands of the ‘whitecoats’.

Nevertheless, Snitter has retained sufficient acuity to be able to spot an opportunity for he and Rowf to escape, and the two animals pass fearfully and uncomprehendingly at night through seemingly endless, Moreau-esque laboratories silent except for the subdued whimpering and fidgeting of animals deprived of one or other senses or body parts. They escape at last through a vent in the wall of the establishment’s incinerator, after resting for a time among the sharp bones of even less lucky inmates.

They find themselves at large in one of the very few places in England escaped dogs could hope to remain at large for lengthy periods – the sparsely-populated and barren Lake District, with winter coming on. Both book and film convey the spirit of this locale extremely effectively, the film unusually beautiful with its muted North Country palette, the novel featuring drawings by the renowned Alfred Wainwright, and both strewn with regionally-specific topography, nomenclature, flora, fauna, dialect and history. The fells, screes, becks, tarns and abandoned mines form a magnificent, merciless backdrop, and the animators shot most of the action from low-level, so that one gets the sense of painful progress along unyielding contours. Director Martin Rosen – who also directed the film of Watership Down – opted for a dog’s-eye view of the action, with human faces and expressions usually obscured or out of shot, adding to the meaningless nightmarishness.

Snitter is unusually intelligent and Rowf unusually strong, but they are also unaccustomed to fending for themselves, and with understandable behavioural problems – Rowf terrified of bodies of water, clearly at a disadvantage in this District, Snitter spasmodically hallucinating. The dogs nearly starve, but eventually contrive to kill and eat a sheep. They then fall in with a fox – the choice of James Bolam as “the tod’s”  voice was inspired – who offers survival tips if they share further “yows” with him, and for a while the uneasy alliance works. But farmers quickly notice their depredations, and the connection is soon made to the research establishment, despite bland official denials. A publicity stunt hunt for the sheep-killers is organized by a local businessman, but he is a kindly man haunted by the Holocaust, and when he sees the hideously scarred Snitter takes pity on the delighted dog, only to be killed by terrible accident when Snitter gets tangled in the trigger of his gun.

An irresponsible newspaperman (a woman in the film) discovers that the establishment has a secret military section, where a former Buchenwald doctor is researching germ warfare – and in true tabloid fashion suggests that the dogs could have come into contact with bubonic plague fleas. Of course the dogs had not, but the suggestion naturally causes a frenzy. When the gaunt dogs devour the corpse of a fallen man (this scene was cut from most original releases of the film), public revulsion wells up. Soldiers are sent to the area to exterminate the dogs, and the wily fox’s luck runs out when he is killed by hounds.

The dogs manage one last lucky escape, by stowing away on a tourist train that carries them unseen through the military cordon, all the way down to the sea at Ravenglass. Here they are trapped between the terrifying and icy Irish Sea and the advancing soldiers, and eventually strike out to sea in a panicky attempt to find Snitter’s mythical “Isle of Dog”.

At this stage, the book and film diverge, but unusually the film is truer to the author’s intentions than the book – because the publishers prevailed upon Adams to alter his original ending. The film ends with the dogs still just afloat as Rowf’s strength ebbs for the last time and cold chews into their bones, while far out in front flickers a mirage of the green land they will never reach. This lump-swallowing outcome would probably be upsetting for most adults as well as children, and must be why the film never really caught on.

By contrast, in the book as redacted by the publisher, it transpires that Snitter’s master is not dead after all, but merely seriously injured. Recognizing one of the fugitives as his beloved terrier, he contacts the newspaperman, who had in any case been hoping for an uplifting end to the saga. The journalist castigates the master’s sister, and rushes Snitter’s owner to the beach at Ravenglass. Real-life naturalist Sir Peter Scott sails providentially into the bay, with just enough time to haul the foundering beasts aboard. Snitter is reunited with his owner, who also gives Rowf his first home. In both book and film, there is redemption for a young scientist who realises the awfulness of his employment and quits, liberating a test monkey and taking it home.

Reading it again now, this last chapter feels highly contrived, and tacked-on – but one can easily understand why a publisher in this (to use a tabloid cliché) “nation of dog-lovers” would have wanted such a conclusion to so unrelenting a story. Some earlier segments also seem heavy-handed – especially those to do with the media and politicians – and there are even a few Victorian-style examples of “Dear Reader…” But these things are amply compensated for by the moral and social significance of the subject, and Adams’ evocations of sensate animality – as the dogs wander and chase down prey or talk to the shrewd tod, they seem to transmute at times into the wolves that loped up and down Lakeland as recently as the 14th century. (There is a tradition that the last English wolf was killed in 1390 on Humphrey Head, an outlying fell of the District.)

As Adams notes in his introduction, Animal Research, Scientific and Experimental (with its ponderously jocose acronym) is unlike real establishments, because too many different kinds of experiments on too many different species are carried on there. Yet all the experiments described in the book were or are still carried out on real animals, and the sheer superfluity of many of these experiments shock and sicken now as they shocked and sickened in 1977. That the two central characters are dogs makes the story particularly poignant, because dogs have the closest relationship with men of any animal, and are bywords for trust and loyalty.

In the UK, vivisection has been pared back in recent decades, largely in response to hostile public opinion as formed by Adams and others, with companies that had carried out non-medical research often being pressurized into discontinuing (sometimes through violent direct action). This public opinion is fickle and at times hypocritical, because many who detest vivisection yet benefit from the medical advances that stem in part from these practices. In 2009 3.6 million procedures were carried out on live animals in British laboratories (1). While these things may make us “sick with horror” (to use Darwin’s words about animal experiments), it seems clear that sometimes there is no alternative, and that animal testing will be with us into the foreseeable future. Always in the background, powering our guilty emotions will be Adams’ story of harried innocents in one of England’s last wildernesses, which even if dated in specifics, still adds something to great, ongoing questions – about what it means to be an animal and, even more importantly, human.

NOTE

1. The official UK figures for 2009 may be found by following this link. The global figure is estimated as anything between 50 and 100 million vertebrates. The number of animals used is expected to rise again across the EU, in order to comply with ever more stringent food and medicine safety laws

Star Wars, star wares

Star Wars, star wares

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe

Chris Taylor, London: Head of Zeus, 2015

In 1977, like millions of other prepubescents, I trooped excitedly along to a cinema to see the first instalment of Star Wars. I was twelve, anxious about acne, fond of sci-fi comics, and sick with ruthless fantasies about remaking a boringly bourgeois universe. In short, I was an ideal audient—and from the moment the score began and the famous words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” started to scroll I was transfixed.

We saw a lurid cosmos studded with desert, ice and jungle planets, and traversed by menaced princesses, mysterious exiles, farm-boys who find greatness, wanderers who are redeemed, peculiar animals, and automata with personalities, all harried by a lethal tyranny with a supreme weapon—the ensemble made realer by (then) impressive special effects and attention to detail, like layering dust on uniforms. It may have been lurid, but it felt like a “used universe”, lived-in and even oddly familiar—an impression aided by the archetypal characters and the saga-like sweep of the story.

I was at the upper age limit for the audience, and I never watched the succeeding films until years later, when I watched them all in chronological sequence as a cinematic curiosity. I was never ‘destined’ (to use a central Star Wars concept) to become an obsessive like many who feature in Chris Taylor’s book, who amass (but never unwrap) action dolls and make droids out of dustbins, and eviscerate the oeuvre in search of (absent) hidden meanings. But Star Wars nevertheless deserves attention as an oblique insight into the modern West, the way it sees itself and sometimes really is. How Star Wars Conquered the Universe is welcome as a comprehensive insight into the messy way big films are conceived—and with what blend of inspiration, improvisation, intensity, determination, compromise, error, and luck they are finally ejected into the void.

The business journalist-cum-fanboy author has conscientiously included a great deal of information about financing. This belongs in the story, because there would never have been any Star Wars had there not been highly lucrative Star Wares. But merchandising is always going to be less entertaining than such minutiae as that in early scripts “The Force” was “The Bogan”, and Luke Skywalker dined delightedly on “bum-bum extract”.

Few fans will see the films as mere money-making enterprises—even if they agree with Alec Guinness about the dialogue, find the gnomic gnome Yoda plain tiresome, or loathe (as everyone seems to) the jive-talking, prat-falling Jar Jar Binks. For millions, mostly Westerners, mostly male, Star Wars is more poetic than toyetic—fairytale, monomyth, interstellar Iliad, Christian allegory, cowboy story, anti-authoritarian fable, demolition derby in space, simple son et lumière, or some combination of several of these. It is also part of millions of childhood memories. Even now, Star Wars imagery and dialogue crop up constantly in popular culture, whether as in-jokes or straightforward hommage. Externally adult men manufacture styrofoam stormtroopers and plywood Millennium Falcons, check canonical detail on Wookieepedia, chat to themselves on RebelForce Radio or Jedi News UK, form legions of the like-minded, and cluster at conventions where they ‘learn’ about the morphology of midi-chlorians, the larvahood traumas of Jabba the Hutt, or how long it would take to mop the Death Star. They are looking forward in impatient agony to Disney’s issuance of The Force Awakens in December—then two further films at two-yearly intervals.

In a crass 2008 comment, George Lucas—called “The Creator” by fanboys—said he was the Father of the Star Wars movie world, the licensing company the Son, and fans the Holy Ghost. Taylor likewise lets himself get swept up in quasi-Christian fervour:

And so it came to pass that [a Lucasfilm executive] allowed herself to be photographed and tweeted next to an Artoo.

In this world, the socially maladroit can sometimes be saints:

Those Dungeons & Dragons players who switched to playing Star Wars would be like the Irish monks who saved civilization by copying ancient scrolls through the Dark Ages.

This is clearly misplaced, but although the films are shallow and at times ridiculous, they are intrinsically small-c conservative, celebrating masculinity, martial values, heroism, chivalry and filial loyalty. The good guys may be republicans, but they are oddly respectful of royal bloodlines and prerogatives, and the traditions of different planets. Lucas always had predictably left-wing politics, but from boyhood in Modesto, CA he had also drenched himself in folk-tale derived sci-fi, in which the mores and sometimes even the modes of medieval Europe were projected into far futurity. These things were not lost on sneerers who execrated the Eurocentrism, and compared the famous medal-giving ceremony at the end of the first film with Triumph of the Will—sci-fa rather than sci-fi.

Taylor claims that

Every culture around the planet, whether embattled or entitled, sees itself as the Rebel Alliance.

This is hyperbole, and indeed his assessment of cultural impact is confined to post-Christian countries—except Turkey, where a Darth Vader dress-alike led a couple of marches through Istanbul, and Japan and South Korea, where people purchase studio-pleasing quantities of plastic figures.

Even in countries where the films have become memes, there is little evidence that they have had any significant influence. Reagan is often said to have used the phrase “evil empire” in a nod to the films, but this is denied by his chief speechwriter, The ‘Star Wars’ films are intrinsically small-c conservative, celebrating masculinity, martial values, heroism, chivalry and filial loyaltywho points out gently that in fact there were unpleasant empires (real ones) prior to 1977. NASA may have transmitted the film’s theme music to a space-shuttle, but the shuttle would have been out there anyway—and NASA scientists apparently prefer Star Trek. First Worlders may all have seen Star Wars, but even as we gape at immemorial archetypes lightsabering it out, we have become much more corpulent and conformist than we were in 1977 (which itself has begun to look like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). If Star Wars really has “conquered the universe”, it has done very little with it.

But pabulum though the films are, at their heart there is still a sprinkling of stardust—something more than just the geeky imaginings of George Lucas, or the wish-fulfillment of over-comfortable kidults. Overarching everything else, the films offer a kind of window into the West, an Apollonian civilization still radiating energy outwards even as it bulges into a gigantic ball of gas. Chris Taylor’s assiduity in telling his tale will undoubtedly help perpetuate a valuable franchise—and maybe also that priceless outlook.

This review first appeared in Quadrapheme, and is reproduced with permission

John Aubrey – remembrancer, Romantic and forward-thinker

JOHN AUBREY – REMEMBRANCER, ROMANTIC AND FORWARD-THINKER

John Aubrey, My Own Life

Ruth Scurr, London: Chatto & Windus, 2015, hb., 518pp, £25

Just as English painting is renowned for portraiture, so English letters have been illuminated by some of the greatest biographers ever to burnish world literature. After Boswell, the best-known is John Aubrey (1626-1697), whose Brief Lives broke through deferential and stylistic boundaries to leave us vivid vignettes of historical figures of a kind that had previously been buried with their subjects, omitted from epitaphs, lost in posthumous politesse. Ruth Scurr seeks to remind readers just how original and engaging he was, and how fascinating his era.

Brief Lives is a congeries of notes and random jottings that was never intended for publication as a whole. It contains over 500 character studies, few of them complete (one consists of two words – “Simple man”), and many of the subjects were obscure even then. But taken as a whole, they amply bear out John Fowles’ opinion,

Not even with Pepys are we closer to an existential awareness of what it was like to be alive then.

Brief Lives throws open a casement onto the tumultuous country Aubrey knew, in all its violence and eloquence, bawdiness and loftiness, wistfulness and war, ignorant iconoclasm and soaring intellectualism. It is, in fact, just as well the text was never prepared for publication, because all kinds of piquant details would never have made the final cut. As Aubrey wrote to Anthony Wood, the peevish antiquary who had imposed on him the “Taske” of writing the book,

Now these Arcana are not fitt to lett flie abroad, till about 30 years hence; for the author and the Persons (like Medlars) ought first to be rotten.

We learn from him (and only from him) that the Cavalier poet Sir John Suckling practised card-sharping in bed. The seventeenth Earl of Oxford was so embarrassed by farting when bowing to the Queen that he went abroad for seven years (when he returned the Queen told him she had “quite forgot the fart”). We are told what happened when a loose stallion scented the mare being ridden in a church procession by a “mighty pontifical prowd” Dean of Hereford – that the jurist Sir John Selden “got more by his prick than he had done by his practice” – and that the funerary bust of the rather too “tractable” society beauty Venetia Digby, which had survived the Great Fire but lost its gilding, was for sale ten years afterwards on a market stall. One does not find such irreverent immediacies in Walton’s Lives or Fuller’s Worthies. As Aubrey said himself,

How these curiosities would be quite forgotten, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down!

Aubrey was clearly a quidnunc. He was also an astrologer, and the only book he published in his lifetime was Miscellanies, a gazeteer of omens and superstitions retailed as fact, with engaging anecdotes, such as Arise Evans who rubbed his “fungous nose” on Charles II’s hand. Yet he was also, as Anthony Powell noted in John Aubrey and His Friends (1948),

…one of the most arresting figures of the seventeenth century.

This stargazer and teller of tattle (Powell defends him against the charge of excessive credulity, saying he always wrote half-humorously) was simultaneously a noted antiquarian, who as Alain Schnapps opines in The Discovery of the Past, “ushered the antiquaries into a new world”, through pioneering the typological-chronological classification of monuments. Aubrey’s childhood of “eremetical solitude” in the haunted “thin blew landscape” around Stonehenge (he was the first to survey Avebury) lent impetus to a lifelong melancholia. His concern for the future of old monuments  and documents (it was common for medieval manuscripts to be used to clean guns, line pie-dishes or bung beer barrels) mirrored his concern about whether his writings would survive him; in a touching aside, he records watching the covers of his notebooks turn mouldy in the damp downland weather.

Unusually, the discoverer of the past was also a finder of the future, fascinated by developments in science, mathematics, engineering, philosophy, education, and the arts. He knew Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Browne, Edmund Waller, Edmund Halley,  John Locke, Isaac Newton, William Harvey, Robert Hooke and scores of others, from experimental chemists to poets, cartographers to politicians. He played an active role in the Royal Society, and wrote “tumultuarily” among all the noise of Civil War, Protectorate, Restoration, plague and Great Fire, legal tussles, bailiff-dodging, and endless money problems. He spent twenty years living in friends’ houses, carrying on voluminous correspondence and indefatigable researches from spare rooms. That he was able to do this for so long without falling out with any of these friends attests to his agreeability; one of the very few who spoke ill of him was, ironically, the ingrate Anthony Wood.

Although instinctively conservative, Aubrey’s non-doctrinaire outlook enabled him to form friendships with Royalists and Roundheads, Puritans, Anglicans and Catholics, give credit when due, and report foibles with amused tolerance. So unassuming was he that he almost disappeared from history, despite constant fretting about whether his writings would survive him. Powell observes,

He contemplated the life around him as in a mirror – the glass of the Lady of Shalott – scarcely counting himself as one of the actors on the stage.

The only nod Aubrey made to a putative Boswell or Lockhart were a few notes, fit only, he said with what feels like genuine modesty,

…to be interponed as a sheet of waste paper only in the binding of a book

Powell’s profile of Aubrey set a standard unlikely to be surpassed – although he concentrates on Aubrey’s nostalgia and scants his neophilia. Cambridge historian Ruth Scurr has sensibly done something quite different – consider how Aubrey might have chronicled his own career had he had the leisure and inclination, using his words when possible, and filling in lacunae with empathetic imagination. Some might term this infotainment, but that always implies shallowness, whereas she succeeds admirably in adding to rather than taking away from Aubrey’s reputation. From the front cover illustration onwards she displays both deep sensitivity towards her subject and knowledge of his context.

The author cleverly interlards likely day-to-day worries – money, health, lack of success in amours, footpads, menacing politics, the perennial peevishness of Anthony Wood – with longer-term preoccupations about posterity and progress, and of course colourful anecdotes. All are rendered with an excellent ear for his gossipy language, including some words lamentably fallen into desuetude. She transmits an acutely alive and likeable personality – one who was kind in a cruel era, constructive among a mass of destruction, sane in a sea of “fanatiques”, appreciative of brilliance whoever its originator and engirdled by whatever “inurbanitie”.

She wrote My Own Life, she tells us in her foreword, “playingly…but with purpose”, drawn to his quiet conservatism by its marked contrast to her previous biographical subject, the wholly antithetical Robespierre. Her tribute may be lightly written but it is not lightly conceived, and must surely bring new readers to the Lives, and new attention to that redolent, revolutionizing England.

This review first appeared on Quadrapheme.com, and is reprinted with permission

Testing for humanity – revisiting The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams

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TESTING FOR HUMANITY

The Plague Dogs (book 1977, film 1982)

I came across by chance recently a DVD of The Plague Dogs, a 1982 animation of Richard Adams’ bestselling 1977 novel. I was catapulted immediately back to childhood, when I had read the book shortly after publication, with a sense of distress and anger I can still taste. It had seemed to me an unusually powerful story, and I was surprised I had not known of the film’s existence. In general, the film seems to have been unduly neglected, notwithstanding a notable voice cast – including John Hurt, Patrick Stewart, James Bolam, Warren Mitchell and Bernard Hepton – and superb painting and animation. I accordingly purchased a copy of the book to remind myself why it is considered an anthropomorphic classic, on a par with Bambi (the book – although the Disney travesty has probably been more influential), Tarka the Otter, Ring of Bright Water, and Adams’ own Watership Down.

For most of their respective lengths, book and film follow the same storyline. Two dogs – Rowf, a large and fierce Labrador cross, and Snitter, a fox terrier – escape from a government animal research establishment in the Lake District. Rowf has been used to study physical endurance, and to this senseless end has been forced to swim daily in a water tank, while scientists monitor his functions and time his staying power. They always leave him in the tank until he starts to drown, only retrieving him when he sinks to the bottom. Snitter has been used for complex brain surgery, designed to make him confuse the objective and the subjective – and this has been all too successful.

Snitter is especially pitiable, because unlike Rowf he has known security and kindness from humans. He is only here because he was responsible for his master being knocked down by a lorry, and was subsequently sold to the institution by his master’s loathsome sister. He has frequent flashbacks to his old life, and this sharpens his confusion and sense of hurt at the latex-gloved hands of the ‘whitecoats’.

Nevertheless, Snitter has retained sufficient acuity to be able to spot an opportunity for he and Rowf to escape, and the two animals pass fearfully and uncomprehendingly at night through seemingly endless, Moreau-esque laboratories silent except for the subdued whimpering and fidgeting of animals deprived of one or other senses or body parts. They escape at last through a vent in the wall of the establishment’s incinerator, after resting for a time among the sharp bones of even less lucky inmates.

 

They find themselves at large in one of the very few places in England escaped dogs could hope to remain at large for lengthy periods – the sparsely-populated and barren Lake District, with winter coming on. Both book and film convey the spirit of this locale extremely effectively, the film unusually beautiful with its muted North Country palette, the novel featuring drawings by the renowned Alfred Wainwright, and both strewn with regionally-specific topography, nomenclature, flora, fauna, dialect and history. The fells, screes, becks, tarns and abandoned mines form a magnificent, merciless backdrop, and the animators shot most of the action from low-level, so that one gets the sense of painful progress along unyielding contours. Director Martin Rosen – who also directed the film of Watership Down – opted for a dog’s-eye view of the action, with human faces and expressions usually obscured or out of shot, adding to the meaningless nightmarishness.

Snitter is unusually intelligent and Rowf unusually strong, but they are also unaccustomed to fending for themselves, and with understandable behavioural problems – Rowf terrified of bodies of water, clearly at a disadvantage in this District, Snitter spasmodically hallucinating. The dogs nearly starve, but eventually contrive to kill and eat a sheep. They then fall in with a fox – the choice of James Bolam as “the tod’s”  voice was inspired – who offers survival tips if they share further “yows” with him, and for a while the uneasy alliance works. But farmers quickly notice their depredations, and the connection is soon made to the research establishment, despite bland official denials. A publicity stunt hunt for the sheep-killers is organized by a local businessman, but he is a kindly man haunted by the Holocaust, and when he sees the hideously scarred Snitter takes pity on the delighted dog, only to be killed by terrible accident when Snitter gets tangled in the trigger of his gun.

An irresponsible newspaperman (a woman in the film) discovers that the establishment has a secret military section, where a former Buchenwald doctor is researching germ warfare – and in true tabloid fashion suggests that the dogs could have come into contact with bubonic plague fleas. Of course the dogs had not, but the suggestion naturally causes a frenzy. When the gaunt dogs devour the corpse of a fallen man (this scene was cut from most original releases of the film), public revulsion wells up. Soldiers are sent to the area to exterminate the dogs, and the wily fox’s luck runs out when he is killed by hounds.

The dogs manage one last lucky escape, by stowing away on a tourist train that carries them unseen through the military cordon, all the way down to the sea at Ravenglass. Here they are trapped between the terrifying and icy Irish Sea and the advancing soldiers, and eventually strike out to sea in a panicky attempt to find Snitter’s mythical “Isle of Dog”.

At this stage, the book and film diverge, but unusually the film is truer to the author’s intentions than the book – because the publishers prevailed upon Adams to alter his original ending. The film ends with the dogs still just afloat as Rowf’s strength ebbs for the last time and cold chews into their bones, while far out in front flickers a mirage of the green land they will never reach. This lump-swallowing outcome would probably be upsetting for most adults as well as children, and must be why the film never really caught on.

By contrast, in the book as redacted by the publisher, it transpires that Snitter’s master is not dead after all, but merely seriously injured. Recognizing one of the fugitives as his beloved terrier, he contacts the newspaperman, who had in any case been hoping for an uplifting end to the saga. The journalist castigates the master’s sister, and rushes Snitter’s owner to the beach at Ravenglass. Real-life naturalist Sir Peter Scott sails providentially into the bay, with just enough time to haul the foundering beasts aboard. Snitter is reunited with his owner, who also gives Rowf his first home. In both book and film, there is redemption for a young scientist who realises the awfulness of his employment and quits, liberating a test monkey and taking it home.

 

Reading it again now, this last chapter feels highly contrived, and tacked-on – but one can easily understand why a publisher in this (to use a tabloid cliché) “nation of dog-lovers” would have wanted such a conclusion to so unrelenting a story. Some earlier segments also seem heavy-handed – especially those to do with the media and politicians – and there are even a few Victorian-style examples of “Dear Reader…” But these things are amply compensated for by the moral and social significance of the subject, and Adams’ evocations of sensate animality – as the dogs wander and chase down prey or talk to the shrewd tod, they seem to transmute at times into the wolves that loped up and down Lakeland as recently as the 14th century. (There is a tradition that the last English wolf was killed in 1390 on Humphrey Head, an outlying fell of the District.)

As Adams notes in his introduction, Animal Research, Scientific and Experimental (with its ponderously jocose acronym) is unlike real establishments, because too many different kinds of experiments on too many different species are carried on there. Yet all the experiments described in the book were or are still carried out on real animals, and the sheer superfluity of many of these experiments shock and sicken now as they shocked and sickened in 1977. That the two central characters are dogs makes the story particularly poignant, because dogs have the closest relationship with men of any animal, and are bywords for trust and loyalty.

In the UK, vivisection has been pared back in recent decades, largely in response to hostile public opinion as formed by Adams and others, with companies that had carried out non-medical research often being pressurized into discontinuing (sometimes through violent direct action). This public opinion is fickle and at times hypocritical, because many who detest vivisection yet benefit from the medical advances that stem in part from these practices. In 2009 3.6 million procedures were carried out on live animals in British laboratories (1). While these things may make us “sick with horror” (to use Darwin’s words about animal experiments), it seems clear that sometimes there is no alternative, and that animal testing will be with us into the foreseeable future. Always in the background, powering our guilty emotions will be Adams’ story of harried innocents in one of England’s last wildernesses, which even if dated in specifics, still adds something to great, ongoing questions – about what it means to be an animal and, even more importantly, human.

NOTE

1. The official UK figures for 2009 may be found by following this link. The global figure is estimated as anything between 50 and 100 million vertebrates. The number of animals used is expected to rise again across the EU, in order to comply with ever more stringent food and medicine safety laws

First review of Displacement, and an interview with Barney Campbell

The first review of Displacement has just been published by Quadrapheme, written by the inestimable Barney Campbell.

http://www.quadrapheme.com/fiction-review-displacement/

My thanks to Barney Campbell for his insight and generosity, both in his review and in this interview, which appeared the previous day.

http://www.quadrapheme.com/displacement-21st-century-alienation/

 

Star Wars, star wares – review of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor

Star Wars, star wares

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe

Chris Taylor, London: Head of Zeus, 2015

In 1977, like millions of other prepubescents, I trooped excitedly along to a cinema to see the first instalment of Star Wars. I was twelve, anxious about acne, fond of sci-fi comics, and sick with ruthless fantasies about remaking a boringly bourgeois universe. In short, I was an ideal audient—and from the moment the score began and the famous words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” started to scroll I was transfixed.

We saw a lurid cosmos studded with desert, ice and jungle planets, and traversed by menaced princesses, mysterious exiles, farm-boys who find greatness, wanderers who are redeemed, peculiar animals, and automata with personalities, all harried by a lethal tyranny with a supreme weapon—the ensemble made realer by (then) impressive special effects and attention to detail, like layering dust on uniforms. It may have been lurid, but it felt like a “used universe”, lived-in and even oddly familiar—an impression aided by the archetypal characters and the saga-like sweep of the story.

I was at the upper age limit for the audience, and I never watched the succeeding films until years later, when I watched them all in chronological sequence as a cinematic curiosity. I was never ‘destined’ (to use a central Star Wars concept) to become an obsessive like many who feature in Chris Taylor’s book, who amass (but never unwrap) action dolls and make droids out of dustbins, and eviscerate the oeuvre in search of (absent) hidden meanings. But Star Wars nevertheless deserves attention as an oblique insight into the modern West, the way it sees itself and sometimes really is. How Star Wars Conquered the Universe is welcome as a comprehensive insight into the messy way big films are conceived—and with what blend of inspiration, improvisation, intensity, determination, compromise, error, and luck they are finally ejected into the void.

The business journalist-cum-fanboy author has conscientiously included a great deal of information about financing. This belongs in the story, because there would never have been any Star Wars had there not been highly lucrative Star Wares. But merchandising is always going to be less entertaining than such minutiae as that in early scripts “The Force” was “The Bogan”, and Luke Skywalker delightedly dined on “bum-bum extract”.

Few fans will see the films as mere money-making enterprises—even if they agree with Alec Guinness about the dialogue, find the gnomic gnome Yoda plain tiresome, or loathe (as everyone seems to) the jive-talking, prat-falling Jar Jar Binks. For millions, mostly Westerners, mostly male, Star Wars is more poetic than toyetic—fairytale, monomyth, interstellar Iliad, Christian allegory, cowboy story, anti-authoritarian fable, demolition derby in space, simple son et lumière, or some combination of several of these. It is also part of millions of childhood memories. Even now, Star Wars imagery and dialogue crop up constantly in popular culture, whether as in-jokes or straightforward hommage. Externally adult men manufacture styrofoam stormtroopers and plywood Millennium Falcons, check canonical detail on Wookieepedia, chat to themselves on RebelForce Radio or Jedi News UK, form legions of the like-minded, and cluster at conventions where they ‘learn’ about the morphology of midi-chlorians, the larvahood traumas of Jabba the Hutt, or how long it would take to mop the Death Star. They are looking forward in impatient agony to Disney’s issuance of The Force Awakens in December—then two further films at two-yearly intervals.

In a crass 2008 comment, George Lucas—called “The Creator” by fanboys—said he was the Father of the Star Wars movie world, the licensing company the Son, and fans the Holy Ghost. Taylor likewise lets himself get swept up in quasi-Christian fervour:

And so it came to pass that [a Lucasfilm executive] allowed herself to be photographed and tweeted next to an Artoo.

In this world, the socially maladroit can sometimes be saints:

Those Dungeons & Dragons players who switched to playing Star Wars would be like the Irish monks who saved civilization by copying ancient scrolls through the Dark Ages.

This is clearly misplaced, but although the films are shallow and at times ridiculous, they are intrinsically small-c conservative, celebrating masculinity, martial values, heroism, chivalry and filial loyalty. The good guys may be republicans, but they are oddly respectful of royal bloodlines and prerogatives, and the traditions of different planets. Lucas always had predictably left-wing politics, but from boyhood in Modesto, CA he had also drenched himself in folk-tale derived sci-fi, in which the mores and sometimes even the modes of medieval Europe were projected into far futurity. These things were not lost on sneerers who execrated the Eurocentrism, and compared the famous medal-giving ceremony at the end of the first film with Triumph of the Will—sci-fa rather than sci-fi.

Taylor claims that

Every culture around the planet, whether embattled or entitled, sees itself as the Rebel Alliance.

This is hyperbole, and indeed his assessment of cultural impact is confined to post-Christian countries—except Turkey, where a Darth Vader dress-alike led a couple of marches through Istanbul, and Japan and South Korea, where people purchase studio-pleasing quantities of plastic figures.

Even in countries where the films have become memes, there is little evidence that they have had any significant influence. Reagan is often said to have used the phrase “evil empire” in a nod to the films, but this is denied by his chief speechwriter, The ‘Star Wars’ films are intrinsically small-c conservative, celebrating masculinity, martial values, heroism, chivalry and filial loyaltywho points out gently that in fact there were unpleasant empires (real ones) prior to 1977. NASA may have transmitted the film’s theme music to a space-shuttle, but the shuttle would have been out there anyway—and NASA scientists apparently prefer Star Trek. First Worlders may all have seen Star Wars, but even as we gape at immemorial archetypes lightsabering it out, we have become much more corpulent and conformist than we were in 1977 (which itself has begun to look like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). If Star Wars really has “conquered the universe”, it has done very little with it.

But pabulum though the films are, at their heart there is still a sprinkling of stardust—something more than just the geeky imaginings of George Lucas, or the wish-fulfillment of over-comfortable kidults. Overarching everything else, the films offer a kind of window into the West, an Apollonian civilization still radiating energy outwards even as it bulges into a gigantic ball of gas. Chris Taylor’s assiduity in telling his tale will undoubtedly help perpetuate a valuable franchise—and maybe also that priceless outlook.

This review first appeared in Quadrapheme, and is reproduced with permission

The world-island of England – review of The Island by Stephen Walter

THE WORLD-ISLAND OF ENGLAND

The Island: London Mapped

Stephen Walter, foreword by Peter Barber, London: Prestel, 2015, hb., 143 pps., £15.30

It is a cliché to say London is unlike the rest of England. It is original to take this trite conceit one stage further, and depict the Great Wen as an actual island, set in seas of hinterland, where streets have somehow become strands and landlocked places suddenly find themselves ports. Ballard famously imagined London as a Drowned_World, but for Stephen Walter’s purposes it is the rest of the world that may as well not exist. For both, it is a place of secret significances and hidden troves.

His odd island – or more accurately archipelago, because there are outcroppings of London protruding above the metaphorical main in such latitudes as Leatherhead, Grays and Tilbury, and even an American colonial outpost at Runnymede – is old, and multilayered. Its surface is almost completely covered with tiny, neo-primitive drawings signifying habitation from Roman times to now – battle sites, wells, plague pits, cathedrals, universities, roads, houses, bridges, railways, sports grounds, supermarkets, tower blocks, petrol stations, speed cameras, the national flags of immigrant groups. The names of suburbs are given, often in their Anglo-Saxon form, along with natural features, and historical snippets such as “(1709) William Derham records the speed of sounds using a pocket watch and telescope and a gun fired from Rainham”. This is the long and familiar tale of London as transmitted to us by writers and depicters stretching from Tacitus via Wenceslaus Hollar, Hogarth and Dickens to Christopher Hibbert, Peter Ackroyd, Ian Sinclair, and The London A-Z – all given a wry, post-modern twist.

There is room for romance too, such as “Ghosts of the 40 Douai Martyrs” etched across Ickenham, Middlesex (an allusion to a local school). There are more recent ghosts at Ponders End, where he records the “1977-8 The Green St. Poltergeist”. On Peckham Rye, “William Blake had a vision of an angel in a tree (1765)”. However, we also find (if we do not already know) the locales of unromantic, usually unrecorded activities – “Suburban Car Washing”, “Fish & Chips”, “Traveller Site (With Litter)”, “Hoodie Walkin [sic] Pit Bull”, “Ice Cream Popular Here”, “Road Rage”, “Alfresco Bonking”, and even “Use Hot Iron, C-Cold, M-Medium”. There are even tiny pints of beer, presumably to show establishments where the artist slaked his inner obsessive.

Deliberate misspellings, complex in-jokes and deeply personal notes are lavished across his highly idiosyncratic atlas. The white space that is Essex east of Ockendon is marked by a skull-and crossbones and the words “Rouge Tradesmen” (a simultaneous allusion to Essex girls’ over-love of make-up, the quality of Essex workmanship, the popular trash TV programme Rogue Traders, and the sociocultural make-up of the eastern fringes of London). Theydon Bois has turned into Theydon Buoy, and Carshalton Beeches into Carshalton Beaches.

A cafe on the way towards Potters Bar served (maybe still serves) “Rubbish food”, while Creekmouth where the Lea joins the Thames is “Pork scratchings country”. Poor Rayners Lane is dismissed with “Not a lot to say about the area” – although Barking fares even worse as “Arm-pit of the world”. Edmonton is “No more Green”, “Harsh Suburbia”, “Incinerator”, “Pumping Station” and even “Nu Trainerz – yu get me!”, beside a tiny outline of an apparently unreliable shoe. The artist feels the unlucky outlier’s Saxon founder “Eadholm would turn in his grave”.

Stereotypical net curtains twitch across suburban swathes, tower blocks beetle, lesbians swim in certain ponds, huge footballs show what most matters to the residents of West Ham or Arsenal. We wonder what he did or did not do in Belsize Park, because there he has inserted a note to himself – “You must do things properly here or you will get complaints”. More significantly, in Hadley the artist “Finally became friends with my mum”. The map is confessional and childlike, arch and at times overpowering, like the city itself when you start to walk it, wondering what on earth to look at first.

The personal cartography is interleaved with a political, which is more conventional. On the site of Buckingham Palace is a large crown and the words “One of the homes of the expensive family”. Finchley, inevitably, has “Thatcher Country! What a bitch”. In Winchmore Hill, “General Pinochet was here”. A nasty-looking dog yaps “BNP!” in Barking. He shows areas where there are “Many English flags”, with an implied sniff. His London is menaced by stock villains – the rich, developers, gentrifiers, Americans, Tories, Anglo-Saxon exceptionalists, racists – although he does scrawl “Dangerous” across un-rich, un-Tory, un-English, un-racist Clapton (a.k.a. “Crapton”). But these are attitudes rather than an agenda, and are only to be expected from an artist who glories in grit and whose work is democratic to the point of self-negation –

My own artistic expressions were becoming diluted in the mass of others and entering into illegibility.

The Island was featured in a 2010 British Library exhibition Magnificent Maps, and in his Foreword the Library’s Peter Barber writes of the purposes of maps, and the impossibility of objectivity even amongst cartographers who may really feel they are depicting reality. Thus Matthew Paris (the earliest maps of London are by him) showed a city centred on religious institutions, royalist mapmakers showed a prosperous and loyal burgh, and 1740s maps give us graceful Georgian facades but omit Gin Lane. More reliable maps came from seventeenth century merchants, then insurance assessors, statisticians and campaigners, like Charles Booth, whose famous late nineteenth century Poverty Map of London appalled Victorian public opinion and helped birth the Labour movement.

Walter’s map is much more playful than purposeful, but as well as making it more enjoyable it does not negate potential usefulness to future historians interested in the texture of early twenty-first century London as it slipped finally from Britannic capital to global city. Everyone’s London is different, but anyone who loves (or loved) the place will be able to find room for imaginative roaming even in the crowded continent of The Island.

This review was first published in Quadrapheme, and is reproduced with permission