Skip to content

Why we love Samuel Johnson. On this his birthday.


Samuel Johnson shares a birthday with Christopher Ricks.  And Russ Abbot.  That’s pretty special.  He also shares a birthday with Matthew Prior’s death day.  Matthew Prior died on Samuel Johnson’s 12th birthday, which I’m sure ruined the entire party.

(Yes, the revision of my Matthew Prior book proceeds apace – thank you for asking.)

Poet, (one-off) dramatist, essayist, (one-off sort of) novelist, critic, biographer, lexicographer and ghostbuster… what is it about this behemoth that continues to inspire so much love?

As a critic, he’s to be cherished because he’s always challenging preferences and assumptions.  All readers disagree with Johnson on important issues, authors and texts. Like any great critic of anything, he has the power to make you think hard about why you like what you like and why you don’t like what you don’t like.  This kind of critical reflexivity is thoroughly opposed to the sort of “touchstones of sensibility” approach fatally popularised by Coleridge a generation or so later.    Even in Johnson’s lifetime, a proto-Coleridgian form of this notion of texts judging readers rather than the other way round was prevalent. Thomas and Frances Sheridan would read out stretches of Ossian to their dinner guests and judge them ethically according to their (in)ability to swoon to it.  For Johnson, the determined reader is always sovereign.

Perhaps we love Johnson because this indefatigable persistence of critical responsibility. In his verse as well as in his prose,  Johnson insists beings blessed with any capacity for discernment continue to try to exercise this responsibility, rather that relax into the tramlines of a pre-existing system.  Johnson himself was wedded to a demanding version of Christianity which involved a continual grasping after difficult truths.  He was “orthodox” in the sense of being  loyal, but not in the sense of ever being comfortable or feeling secure.

There is not a greater paradox in the life of Johnson than the fact that he became as renowned for his off the cuff remarks as for his writing.  Johnson’s whole life and career cherished writing over speech – the considered permanent record over the spontaneous reaction.  This attitude is reflected in his preference for set prayers and liturgy over extempore worship and intercession.  How can someone give their assent to the beginning of a prayer if they have no idea how it it’s going to end?  Something like a book of Common Prayer gives you the chance to meditate on the beginning, middle, and end of your address.

And there’s our capacity to be surprised by Johnson.  Even hard-core Johnsonians continue to be surprised by Johnson.  That’s why they’re Johnsonians.  His capacity for unexpected friendships and paradoxical affinities is a sign of a restless intellect and a concern for humanity in its fascinating complexity.  Above all we love Johnson because he never stopped trying to learn new stuff, never tried to numb his own capacity to be surprised by life and never preferred comforting familiarity to disturbing strangeness.

He lived it large.



Awake my St John… Happy Birthday Lord Bolinbroke.

Today is the birthday of a fascinating political figure.  Here he is as a dolled-up bigwig.


And here he is in “undress” wearing a turban.


The bigwig denotes public status, the turban – private abstraction.  The wig and the turban do not describe two different men, but rather complimentary aspects of an Augustan mover and shaker.

It is axiomatic that writers will complain that politicians don’t really care about aesthetics.  Ever since the reign of Emperor Tiberius, right up until ten minutes ago – the ruling classes are always presumed to be philistine by those claiming to speak for “the Arts”.

However, the reign of Queen Anne was a little different.  When people like Henry St John and Robert Harley were in charge – men of letters seemed to be blinking in the daylight of a rare historical moment when they seemed to be actually treated seriously by those in power.  In the first decade of the eighteenth-century, Addison, Swift and Prior found themselves close to actual political decision making.

Both Prior and Swift found themselves fraught by the bickering between Harley and St John.  Swift in particular longed for them to get on better.  With the triumph of the Hanoverian Whigs, Harley stayed in London and was arraigned for treason.  Bolinbroke fled to France and declared for the Pretender.  Although he was eventually allowed home (rather generously), his political life was over.

But he remained a friend and patron to the Tory/Country/Opposition party and a particular friend to Alexander Pope.  He also wrote extensively on speculative deistical topics, and is sensibly regarded as a major philosophical source for Pope’s Essay on Man, which is addressed to Bolinbroke.

In all probability, Pope – a stubborn if ecumenical Catholic – did not process the full irreligious consequences of Bolinbroke’s thought – and many orthodox divines regarded Pope’s poem as perfectly compatible with a fairly sunny and complacent version of Christianity.   Samuel Johnson of course – a Christian pessimist who was incapable of ducking hard consequences, regarded the central message of Pope and Bolinbroke’s aesthetic vindication of partial evils as utterly deplorable and subversive of any compassionate concern for the reality of suffering.

Bolinbroke also wrote Idea of a Patriot King for the popular Prince Frederick who (like all Hanoverians) hated and was hated by his royal father (Fred was killed – possibly by a cricket ball – too soon to be hated by his own son George III).   Bolinbroke therefore stands as an exemplary case of anti-Whiggish rhetoric of vigorous defence of ancient freedoms and privileges in opposition to urban court corruption.  Or rather, such was his intended stand.

He has a kind of legacy – an aristocratic contempt for those actually in power – a sense of a noblesse oblige and a paradise lost – an aestheticised melancholy sense that the truest of politician is always better “out” than “in”.

Black Wednesday 25 Years On. I miss “The Economy”…


Yes, on this day in 1992, John Major’s government, only months after its surprise re-election, was forced to withdraw Britain from the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

The 1992 election is famous for the end of Neil Kinnock, the hubristic “rally” with its Queen soundtrack, and the surprising appeal of John Major standing on a box in a market place.   (Of course, the important thing about John Major standing on a box in a market place was that he was shown on national television news standing on a box in a market place.)

I campaigned in the 1992 election – knocked on doors etc.  In my constituency, the candidate I was championing actually won.  She subsequently resigned from the Blair administration over the invasion of Iraq.  I feel vindicated.

Norman Lamont, Chancellor of the Exchequer, was not a natural media performer.  A badger-faced problem deflator, he looked like someone who was both out of his depth and supremely unaware that he was out of his depth.  In fact, he’s been implementing John Major’s preferred policy, but he was  Chancellor – the man with the battered case – and the man who seemed most culpable.

Regardless of the ins and the outs of the ins and outs of the exchange rate mechanism, regardless of the “actual” economic damage that the fiasco caused – the real casualty of the Britain’s emergency withdrawal from the ERM was the Conservative and Unionist Party’s special relationship with an idea of economic competence.  Throughout the eighties and very early nineties, people who were sincerely  concerned about Thatcherite attacks on the basic social fabric, were still persuaded to grit their teeth and vote Tory on the basis Tories seemed to know how to “manage” the economy and that nothing was ultimately more important than that.

After 16 September 1992, thanks to a volte face that could not possibly look anything other than a major economic misjudgement, the idea that there was anything natural about Tory economic probity was forever shattered and the Major government started to very slowly die.  It took nearly five years.

Twenty five years on, what I think I really miss, is the whole idea of “the economy”.  Economics is now so globalised and profits so outsourced that there is no longer any “the” to put in front of “economy”.  There is no longer any common aggregate of economic circumstances that everyone in a country is meant to share.

Governments are more concerned now with “managing the narrative”.  If things are going so well for you, your family, your town, or chunk of the country, then governments concern themselves with establishing scapegoats.  Can the victims of recession be persuaded to turn on one another?  Better yet – are foreigners somewhere to blame?  Economic “success” is no longer defined in any collective terms.  Donald Trump never talk of “creating jobs” – but only “bringing jobs back home” – re-enshrining his campaign narrative that if you don’t have a job it’s because some evil foreign type has stolen it.  The recession that is overtaking Brexit Britain will not trouble the May (Gove? Mogg?  Davis?  Leadsom?) administration because foreigners will be blamed for it.

1992 is a year charged with nostalgia because its humiliations were informed by a jettisoned optimistic premise.  I miss those days when governments wrecked the economy, because it reminds me of when “the economy” was presumed somehow to exist.

The “Battle of Britain” is still commemorated … but in Hard Brexit Britain – for how long?


With the victory this week of a parliamentary coup designed to facilitate only the Hardest of Hard Brexits, certain historical anniversaries are going to prove increasingly problematic in the national narrative of whatever bits and pieces of Britain survive the next few tumultuous decades.

History, of course, is always being abused and manipulated the louder it is being invoked, but there are some anniversaries that are so unequivocal as to present a nagging difficulty for Britain in the decades to come.

Today’s date, September 15, is the anniversary of a very large and decisive aerial engagement that perhaps offers the supreme symbol of any nation’s commitment to the future Europe.  Other episodes, like Dunkirk, can perhaps be customised to suit an isolationist “world” view, but the core grammar of the so-called “Battle of Britain” is far too passionate and sacrificially Europhile to submit to bend or warp to the new political reality.

In 1940, with France defeated (before Churchill’s proposals for political union with France could come to anything), and Britain driven off the continent of Europe, Hitler repeatedly offered Britain the chance to disengage from Europe and trade with the wider world instead.  Hitler had no interest in British territory as Germanic lebensraum and nor was he keen on British imperial disengagement.  If Nigel Farage had been the UK Prime Minister in 1940, who can possible doubt that he would have accepted Hitler’s terms with alacrity and nobody today would have ever heard of Spitfires?

At a time when everybody in Britain is supposed to be patriotically turning their backs on Europe September 15 symbolises a stubborn determination to save Europe – to risk everything on Europe’s behalf.  Rather than embrace isolationist security, the RAF, with decisive help from refugees from eastern Europe, was deployed to fight on – determined to save the continent from Nazi domination at all costs.

Given the intransigent truth of this narrative, it seems hard to imagine that any Hard Brexiter can contemplate these Battle of Britain monuments or note this date in the calendar without experiencing a shudder of revulsion.  These brazen spitfires function, surely, as a blue flag to a bull as far as many of the movers and shakers of Hard Brexit Britain are concerned. This “Battle of Britain” must increasingly be felt as a shameful episode in Britain‘s past – cherished by saboteur remoaners, a shameful memory to be smothered rather than commemorated.

A nation or any section of a nation that cherishes the Battle of Britain sufficiently to know the first thing about it, can never be fully assimilated to the Hard Brexit project. There is a lot of global discussion about the removal of statues and monuments nowadays. Many statues are coming down.  In this international context it seems inconceivable that any monuments that stand in open defiance to the policy of the government of the day (albeit a very unrepresentative and minority government) can be allowed to stand for much longer.

In the meantime, while waiting for their removal, we can expect them to be extensively daubed with that most instinctive and fluent of Hard Brexit slogans.

“You lost.  Get over it.”

Shitstorm in a Teacup. “The Shitstorm” reviewed.


Simon Doyle likes fancy words.  Simon Doyle likes feminized punk rock – the Slits, the Banshees etc.  etc.   It is good to like these things.

However, it is not clear from The Shitstorm, now playing at the Peacock, that a mighty wind can necessarily force these things into a compellingly unified experience.

Doyle pares the cast of The Tempest back down to the original unmolested dysfunctional family of Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, and Caliban.  Miranda is the only character to remain on stage throughout, and it is her story that’s being told.  This is not, therefore,  The Tempest but a claustrophobic piece of surrealist theatre using characters from The Tempest.

The stage is covered initially with books and subsequently with scraps of paper.  The deplorable and paranoid old Prospero (who would be the villain of the piece were there any substance to him) lives on an island with his daughter and two slave-sprites.  He has appropriated this island without taking any real responsibility for it and he decides early on in the play that he’s leaving – destroying his books in the -process.  He is absent for most of the play.  We are offered various narratives from Caliban as to whether he jumped or was pushed off a cliff but nobody is invited to care.  His books are returned in the shape of sodden scraps of paper as the storm rages.

Simon Doyle likes words for their own sake.  Incompatible narratives are sequenced and characters (and the audience) are invited to pick their favourites.   Though Miranda despises her father’s books, Ariel insists that some restorative magic may reside in their soggy remains provided they are allowed to dry.

So in this play, there is a point to be made about a kind of pure unreferential love of language, a delight in linguistic reconfigurations and an existential belief that one’s stories and one’s autobiographies can stand or fall according to how appealing they sound at any give time.  Perhaps in a world of Donald Trump and “fake news”, this postmodern jouissance feels less appealing than it used to.

No problems with the cast here.  Bryan Quinn is a deliciously odious and wretched tyrant of the isle, who can’t even die with dignity.  Pom Boyd’s Ariel is strangely weary and eerily well informed – a spirit with firm yet incompatible convictions.  Ian Toner is a bedraggled Caliban who chafes against the trappings of civilisation in ways that are both appalling and sympathetic.  And at the heart of the play is Fionnuala Gygax whose cynicism and sulkiness gives way to a chiseled and focused idealism that seems, through the conviction of her performance – to form an entirely logical progression.

The cast are skilled at exploiting Doyle’s very literate script.  The strength of this play is in its detail rather than in its ambition.  There are alphabetic insult slams to enjoy.  The band-name bantering is perhaps the highlight of the evening.

You’ll have had a good evening if you shell out to see this show, but you won’t be entirely clear what you’ve had.   The evening ends with a “punk” set.  Miranda talks throughout about getting a band together and eventually such a band must sing and play.  Despite the constant referencing of seventies punk, (in particular by Caliban) the eventual performance is less Viv Albertine and more Hazel O’Connor or Toyah Wilcox.  The sombre bass line recalls those bands c. 1980 heavily influenced by Subway Sect and Joy Division.

You may enjoy yourself, but you won’t be humming any of these tunes on the bus home.

The performance ends with the set.  There’s no attempt to reintegrate the set into the drama.  It is as though the whole drama is merely long context for the punk-ish performance.  This lack of integration doesn’t seem willed enough to look like a formal critique of theatrical formalism.  Which I think is a problem.  This play is a labour of love, and the things that Simon Doyle loves are worth loving.  It’s just not clear that The Shitstorm provides a bag stable or capacious enough to carry these loveable things.   Perhaps he needs more than one bag.

Six years ago today, my Dad died.



The phone is ringing, but when I try to answer I’m disconnected.

We’re standing, as it happens, in Canada, next to the grave of our eldest child, who was taken from us in infancy six and a half years previously.  He lies in a corner plot next to the  bronze statue of the biblical Rachel grieving for her children.  It’s a warm September day, and time seems to be standing still.  We’ve rescheduled things a bit to make this little outing while his brother is at school.  It’s his first week.

So we’re standing at our child’s grave and somebody is desperate to get hold of me but can’t quite connect.  I feel not irritated by this ugly intrusion but strangely frightened so we hurry home and open the door to be greeted by another persistent ringing as we step into the living room.

As I lift the receiver of the…

View original post 1,600 more words

101 Years of Roald Dahl



Of course Roald Dahl affected me.  He affected us all.   It so happens he was born 101 years ago today, born in Wales to Norwegian parents.  Brutally beaten at schools (according to his own strangely detailed account), he was sent to East Africa, became a World War Two fighter pilot and an almost accidental author.  He married Oscar-winning movie star Patricia Neal, before experiencing horrific family tragedy and staggering global success.

I saw him once as a kid.  As a subscriber to Penguin Books’ youth wing (“The Puffin Club”), I showed up annually at a sort of book-related jamboree.  And there was Dahl, thin and intense, sat in a chair and signing books.    The queue to meet Dahl was very long, however and Dahl didn’t look very friendly.  I looked into his eyes and saw something keen and impatient, something that might judge me.  I passed on the…

View original post 689 more words

Nun Horror. Retrieved. Partially Exorcised.

quiet as a nun

Every so often it’s fun to revisit a childhood fear.  Such a homecoming proves an exercise which provokes a whole new fear – the fear that the childhood fear will now be inexplicable, irrecoverable, and therefore, horribly… all for nothing.  Waste.  There’s nothing more horrifying, from a Wordsworthian point of view, than an intensity of feeling that you can no longer connect with.

Anyone who can still remember the Armchair Thriller series Quiet as a Nun (1978) is already screaming “OMG OMG OMG the black nun in the tower! Save me from the black nun in the tower!” in their head, if not actually out loud.

Here is the notorious scene…


The “Armchair Thrillers” had a wonderful title sequence.  A shadow approaches an armchair, turns and sits down in it.  As a jarring chord strikes, the fingers of the shadow splay wide and the shadow jerks forward.  We zoom in on the shadow’s head.  In fact, the title sequence is scary for precisely the same reason that the most famous scene in an Armchair Thriller is scary.

So I rewatched the entirety of Quiet as a Nun so as to give this scene some context.  I have not read any of the Jemima Shore Investigates series by Antonia Fraser and I’m not sure that my endlessly spiraling “must read” list will ever contract sufficiently to squeeze these books in.  My self-appointed task was to recover the memory of a ten year old being frightened.  And the ten year old hadn’t read Antonia Fraser either.

When the scene approached, I found my pulse racing yet again.  Even though I knew exactly what was to come, the anticipation of fear became my own version of fear.  I wasn’t frightened of the nun.   I was frightened of being a small boy in 1978 being frightened of a nun.  And on those terms, the scene still worked.  Better yet, at the end of episode five as Jemima and little Tessa flee along a corridor knowing the black nun might catch up with them any moment, I found my pulse racing again.  This was a scene I didn’t remember.  I wasn’t recalling a memory of fear… I was being frightened in real time – frightened not of a memory but of something that was, for all intents and purposes “new”.

The series has its own intrinsic interest.  Maria Aitken leads as Jemima Shore – a worldly and secular investigative TV journalist.  She carrying on a rather lethargic affair (an affair so routinised it might as well be a marriage) with a lefty-liberal MP who is, in his own predictable way, a very establishment figure.  He’s played by David Burke who went on to be an effective Dr Watson to Jeremy Brett’s incomparable Sherlock Holmes.

Opposed to this authorised version of reformist politics is the beardy radical, played by James Lawrenson.   The plot of Quiet as a Nun concerns whether or not a will left by a nun who still had access to considerable property did indeed leave said property to the convent or to beardy radical’s proposal for a nostalgic William Morris socialistic land redistribution scheme?  Was the nun murdered?  How many wills were there?

Maria Aitken’s Shore is not a perfect detective and discovers the truth as much by courageous persistence as by brilliant insight.  The drama is as much about her spirituality or lack of spirituality as anything else?  Is a desire for faith the same as having it?  Is respect for faith the same as having it?  And how does a desire to preserve a childhood experience inform an adult identity?  The nuns themselves and their vocation are treated with skepticism but not cynicism.  Most delightful is Brenda Bruce’s Sister Elizabeth who quotes Wordsworth and Shelley with starry eyed relished and seems herself surprised that she is the only nun in the convent with a detailed appreciation for the work of James Joyce, quoting his description of the sea as “scrotumtightening” with sincere and oddly innocent relish.

The nuns are, for the most part, nicer than the elder schoolgirls, who are snarky rich kids with a surprisingly profane vocabulary and who are invariably mean to their juniors. (The pivotal younger child role is played, incidentally, by future serial band-wrecker Patsy Kensit.)

To revisit the childhood terror of this series is to in many ways inhabit Jemima’s character.  Watching it decades after its broadcast is to do what Jemima is doing – it’s to see whether or not you can feel the same things you felt as a child.  Indeed, this really is a series to watch in a state of half comprehending terror when you are ten and then revisit as a half-jaded and half-yearning adult.  That way you actually get to be Jemima Shore.

Is it worth pointing out that Quiet as a Nun is adapted for television by a woman from a novel written by a woman – that is directed and produced by women and the cast consists almost entirely of women?  If we lived in an equitable and generous world then no it wouldn’t be.  But we don’t.  So it is.



Happy 100th Birthday Herbert Lom – Supreme exponent of the “Herbert Lom”.


In our house we use “Herbert Lom” as a verb.  It describes that moment of perilously suppressed rage where one eye stares and the other flickers slightly.

When someone inadvertently  “Herbert Loms”, it means that their best efforts to remain calm risk causing psychological and physiological damage.  The best way to deal with someone who is Herbert Lomming is to address the situation directly.  If you stare into the face of someone who has one eye fixed and the other flickering and just say “please don’t Herbert Lom me” then the Herbert Lommer will remember Herbert Lom in the Pink Panther films and will smile with affectionate nostalgia.  The tension in the room will be dissipated.

Herbert Lom was born 100 years ago today.  He was actually born Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru in Prague.  Sadly, he’s no longer with us, although he made it to 95 years of age, passing only in 2012.  He traveled to England on the eve of the Nazi takeover of his homeland – along with his Jewish girlfriend.   His girlfriend did not, however, have quite the right papers – and turned away by Dover immigration.  She perished in a death camp a few years later.

Lom carried that trauma for the rest of his life and in subtle and myriad ways it must have informed his darkest performance – and his most hilarious performances are all about playing with darkness.  Of course, he was the most sinister of the Ladykillers gang (1955) and made a very interesting Phantom of the Opera.  For decades you could see him in small parts and the films he made are strong enough to be regularly re-shown. And all these film are improved by him and all our stints on the sofa are improved by the moment where we sit up and say “oh look – it’s Herbert Lom!”  I particularly like him in Asylum (1972) – one of those Amicus portmanteau films that everybody thinks is Hammer but isn’t.

Is there anything in the fact that his memorable eye-twitching role as Clousseau’s boss is given the name “Dreyfus”?  Is there something about the most notorious political persecution in French history that is transferable to the slow torture of the Parisian commissioner?  Lom portrayed agony so well – agony that seemed to have deep unexplained historical roots.   There’s something about the pain of Dreyfus that is incommensurate even with having your office wrecked on a regular basis.  Clousseau’s idiocy is not merely irritating to Dreyfus, it is offensive at a level that can only be explained by a dynastic scale of grievance.  There has been a version of Dreyfus enraged by a version of Clousseau for many decades.

But we’re talking about comedy here – the power to explore and dissipate pain.  I think on this special centenary the best tribute to Herbert Lom is not to go out Herbert Lomming people, but rather to call out the Herbert Loms and the Herbert Lommings whenever and wherever we see them.  Puncture a face of suppressed rage by referencing the talents of Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru and thereby, possibly, save a life.


Teaching Mary Wollstonecraft

On the anniversary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s death…


Mary_Wollstonecraft_by_John_Opie_(c._1797)Re-reading Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman for a class, I’m struck with the sheer quality of the prose.

This book offers regulated passion.  Anger, sadness, disappointment and excitement are all accommodated in this book and then ruthlessly sublimated into a statement of political consistency.

Again and again, she attacks hereditary privilege.  For Wollstonecraft, there can be no feminist revolution without a social revolution and no social revolution without a feminist revolution:

There must be more equality established in society, or morality will never gain ground, and this virtuous equality will not rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one half of mankind are chained to its bottom by fate, for they will be continually undermining it through ignorance or pride.

The ongoing French Revolution will be thwarted in its end if the infantilizing effects of patriarchy deprive the nation of one half of its virtuous patriots…

View original post 553 more words