Samuel johnson

The naming of cats

All sorts of animals have been kept as pets over the centuries. We know of sparrows in Catullus and John Skelton. There is a badger with a collar in a fresco by Signorelli – probably not much more biddable than the lobster Gerard de Nerval supposedly took for walks in Paris. The word ‘puss’ seems not to have referred to cats before the late 19th century but to hares, either a pet one (William Cowper had three, of whom Puss was sweet-natured and Tiney ‘the surliest of his kind’), or one being hunted in Surtees. Dogs always occupied a special place, with names and a position in the household. Cats

How the Georgians invented nightlife

Modern nightlife was invented in London around 1700. So argued the historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch, who traced this revolution in city life to its origins in court culture. Medieval and Renaissance courts held their festivities while it was still light outside, but by the late 17th century, aristocrats preferred to party after dark. The trend was rapidly commercialised: a new kind of conspicuous consumer descended on pleasure gardens like Vauxhall and Ranelagh, to eat, drink, stroll and listen to music by the many-coloured light of thousands of oil lamps. Before the 1700s, night was a fearful all-consuming presence, and the main challenge was to get through it Or you can give

Jonathan Bate weaves a memoir around madness in English literature

There is a trend for books in which academics write personally about their engagement with literature. Examples include Lara Feigel’s Free Woman, in which the author blends a memoir of her marriage break-up with a close reading of Doris Lessing’s fiction, and Sally Bayley’s Girl With Dove, which fuses an account of a traumatic childhood with sketches that focus on Bayley’s early love of books. Addressed to a wider readership, these works combine autobiography with literary criticism. They are carefully crafted, confessional and ask why literature matters. The advantage of this approach is that it avoids the pitfalls of the now highly professional discipline of English Literature, dominated in universities

The dark roots of ‘grim’

‘Thus I refute Bishop Berkeley,’ said my husband, multitasking by kicking the stone and slightly misquoting Samuel Johnson at the same time. It was his (my husband’s) notion of a little joke. Dr Johnson had demonstrated with his own kick the falsehood of thinking that all things are merely ideal, not material. The stone my husband kicked was a milestone outside the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington Gore. It said ‘To Hounslow 9 miles’ and ‘To London (Hyde Park Corner) 1 mile’. Helpfully, a manicule pointed out which way was which. I’m still unsure where Bishop Berkeley comes into this, but milestones have been everywhere recently, all of them grim.

Letters | 8 August 2019

We don’t cut God Sir: The Revd Dr Peter Mullen suggests (Letters, 3 August) that Boris Johnson told him my BBC Great Lives programme had cut from our broadcast treatment of Samuel Johnson an extended discussion of Christianity’s role in Dr Johnson’s life. Boris J championed Samuel J for our programme, and your correspondent has been persuaded that Mr J argued at length the centrality of religion to the great lexicographer. I am fascinated by religion. My producers would not relegate a person’s faith where it was claimed as central to their greatness. I seem to remember Mr J did say that Dr J’s faith was important to him, and that does appear

Letters | 1 August 2019

Poppycock Sir: Last week’s lead article (‘Boris begins’, 27 July) suggested that if we leave without a deal, ‘the Johnson government will have another huge challenge on its hands — how to avert large-scale economic damage’. I have some experience of the conduct of economic policy, and I hope you will forgive me for saying that this is poppycock. Leaving the EU without a trade deal will cause some short-term disruption, but the essence of good government is to do what is best for the medium and long term, whatever the short-term difficulties. And although the main purpose of Brexit is political — i.e. self-government — the economic consequences will be hugely positive,

Johnson & Johnson

To understand Boris Johnson, you have to understand the figure who has inspired him, shaped his worldview and accompanied him throughout his career. Admittedly Samuel Johnson has been dead since 1784, but his importance to Boris is unquestionable. Our next prime minister thinks the other Johnson is a ‘genius’ who ‘gave the world compassionate conservatism’. Britain, Boris once wrote, ‘has never produced an author with a better or more generous understanding of human nature’. It’s not just that Boris admires Samuel’s essays, his poetry and the pioneering Dictionary of the English Language. The influence goes deeper than that. When asked about offending everyone from Muslims to Scousers, Boris regretted hurting

Holy cats

It is claimed that the prophet Muhammad loved cats. His favourite was called Muezza and he would do without his cloak on a cold day rather than disturb his sleeping pet. Muhammad was not alone in finding these creatures beguiling. Indeed, despite there being no mention of them in the Bible, cats have a prestigious holy pedigree in Christianity too. The medieval mystic St Julian of Norwich locked herself away in a room attached to a church, dispensing prayer and advice to those who passed. It was a tough calling for she was alone, anchored to the church — which was why she was known as an anchoress. Her one

The curse of long life

A research professor has pointed out that lengthening human lifespan threatens to turn us into living zombies unless we can cure dementia. That would have come as no revelation to the ancients. They were well aware of the cognitive decline that set in at old age: but who did not want to be old? This provided an easy theme for the Roman satirist Juvenal. In his tenth satire (c. ad 120), known as ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ after Samuel Johnson’s imitation (1749), he mocked the false hopes raised by (among other things) a long life. The physical consequences were bad enough: wrinkled, baggy face, trembling limbs and voice, bald

The sorrow that turns sweet

It was the phrase ‘sad sweet feeling in your heart’ that arrested my attention. But who would have thought it would have been Abraham Lincoln who found those words? I’ve been searching for an adequate description of something we’ve all experienced but which is rarely discussed. Many years ago, beachcombing for pithily disobliging quotes for Scorn, my anthology of insult and invective, I was arrested by a remark of Samuel Johnson’s. ‘Depend upon it,’ Boswell quotes the great man as saying, ‘that, if a man talks of his misfortunes, there is something in them that is not disagree-able to him; for where there is nothing but pure misery, there never

Come rain or shine

‘Pray don’t talk to me about the weather, Mr Worthing,’ pleads Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest. ‘Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me quite nervous.’ Weatherland would make Gwendolen very nervous indeed. Our observations of the sky, Alexandra Harris reveals in this extended outlook, have always meant something else. Weatherland is a literary biography of the climate. Beginning with the Fall (in the Biblical rather than the autumnal sense) and ending with Alice Oswald, Harris condenses 2,000 years of weather ‘as it is recreated in the human imagination’. It is the weather-consciousness of

Demonised Barber of Fleet Street

We know a great deal about Samuel Johnson and virtually nothing about his Jamaican servant, Francis Barber. The few facts of which we can be certain are these: born into slavery, Barber was aged about seven when his owner, Colonel Richard Bathhurst — who may, Michael Bundock suggests here, have been his father — brought him to England in 1750 and placed him in a Yorkshire school. Five years later, on his deathbed, Bathurst bequeathed Barber £12 and his freedom. It was Bathurst’s son who introduced Francis, now 12 years old, to Dr Johnson, whose wife had died two weeks earlier. Thus Barber spent his next 30 years in Gough


I was interested by the widespread annoyance at the use of progressive by the lefty parties before the election. Irritation is not the essence of a love of language (philology), but it is a symptom. The suspicion here was that socialism is so pejorative that a euphemism was being sought. It is true that when Milton wrote of ‘Their wandring course… Progressive, retrograde, or standing still,’ he wasn’t referring to the left, the right and the Lib Dems. He was taking about the apparent motion of the planets relative to the sun and other stars, a science more familiar to learned people of his day and before than today. A

Dickens’s dark side: walking at night helped ease his conscience at killing off characters

In England, walking about at night was a crime for a very long time. William the Conqueror ordained that a bell should be rung at 8 p.m., at which point Londoners were supposed to put their fires and candles out and their heads down. Again and again, until modern times, Matthew Beaumont tells us, specifically nocturnal laws were promulgated against draw-latchets, roberdsmen, barraters, roysterers, roarers, harlots and other nefarious nightwalkers — including those ‘eavesdroppers’ who stood listening in the close darkness where the rain dripped from a house’s eaves. Beaumont reads such laws as being designed to exert political and social control. To walk the city streets at night, by

Ancients on oldies: tips on ageing from the Romans are all Greek to Richard Ingrams

A few months ago I went to a lunch at Univ, my old college in Oxford, to celebrate the 95th birthday of my Ancient History tutor George Cawkwell. There were toasts and speeches, including one from George himself and my fellow student Robin (now Lord) Butler, who did a brilliant imitation of George getting all excited when describing the battle of Marathon and reverting, temporarily, to his native New Zealand accent. In the company of such men, not forgetting another fine speechmaker, Edward Enfield, also one of George’s pupils, I felt ill at ease. There they were, overflowing with classical allusions, and there was I, wondering how I could have

The Stonewall dinner left me with one question: why are volunteers so horrible to one another?

I watched the video with some trepidation. Stonewall (the campaigning gay and lesbian equality organisation) had just sent me the YouTube link. This was to a short film of the dinner that Stonewall’s founders attended last year to celebrate the quarter-century anniversary of our existence; and most of us had been there. Now we were but wrinkled reminders of the young revolutionaries we had once been. So this could have been a rather mellow occasion. We had started the organisation as a defiant response to what came to be known as ‘Section 28’: a small measure that was part of a sprawling local government bill and intended to stop the

Should ‘suicide’ mean pig-killing?

There was a marvellous man in Shakespeare’s day known as John Smyth the Sebaptist. ‘In an act so deeply shocking as to be denied by Baptist historians for two and a half centuries,’ Stephen Wright, the expert on separatist clergy wrote, ‘he rebaptised first himself and then his followers, and set out his new views in The Character of the Beast (1610).’ His former confederate Richard Bernard fired a counterblast in that year showing (to his own satisfaction) that ‘the Church of England is Apostolicall, the Separation Schismaticall’. Reading a word like sebaptist we take the prefix se- to indicate a reflexive act, a self-baptism, as we would if reading

Forget the Nobel – it’s the Samuel Johnson prize that really excites

Spare a thought for the authors in the running for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction: the announcement of its shortlist yesterday was somewhat overshadowed by the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, with the nation’s literati stampeding as one to frantically Google ‘Patrick Mondiano novelist’. The clash is rather a shame, as this year’s set of nominations are an interesting and unusual bunch, in what the Financial Times says is ‘a vintage year for non-fiction’: if the novel is indeed dead, there won’t be any shortage of worthwhile alternative reading-matter. In part the list is remarkable for its preponderance of female authors, dispiriting though it is that such

My tax avoidance tip – win literary prizes!

David Cameron is said to want a woman to be chairman of the BBC Trust, now that Chris Patten has had to retire early because of ill health. Perhaps he has a bad conscience about what happened last time. By far the best candidate then was the runner-up, Patricia Hodgson, a distinguished BBC veteran who is committed to its virtues and has always understood its vices. She would have led a return to the BBC’s core strengths, and saved licence fee money in the process. But the government did not know what it wanted, so it chose the nearest chum, Lord Patten, who accepted in that casual and complacent spirit