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, and is reprinted with permission

Testing for humanity – The Plague Dogs


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.


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