Thursday, September 20, 2007
Stained glass window - 17 Gough Street London EC4
When a man is tired of London he is tired of life - Dr Johnson
When a woman is tired of London she's done with fuckwits - Dr Pants
There are many things I'll miss about this old girl. Open House London is a wonderful weekend in September when anyone can stroll through almost any of the gracious abodes and cathedrals of commerce and government that this city has to offer without the slightest obligation to mind their pricelessness, cultural significance or unique history. The obligatory touristic reverence countenanced by the smug superiority that normally accompanies the demand for a fistful of foreign for the privilege of queuing interminably behind an arbitrary, fraying velvet cordon is temporarily suspended. Sour-faced, underpaid staff in ill-fitting uniforms with a penchant for discussing their out of hours activities very loudly are temporarily replaced by enthusiastic volunteers wearing their own clothes, green stickers and an unmistakable passion for the individual lives and labours that occurred under the thatch in which you both stand, many long years ago.
I had the good fortune to be one of few who managed to locate the house where Dr Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first comprehensive English Dictionary lived and worked. The queue was about five minutes long and consisted only of seasoned freebie hunters from the home counties whose original 70s canvas hats and buckled rucksacks might have redeemed the price of their saver rail tickets if they were to float them on e-Bay. Gough Street, EC4 is sequestered in a tiny higgledy-piggle of 18th Century London now dwarfed by huge concrete and glass pretensions to futurism.
It was a happy house. Johnson had been gone for two hundred years but the sense of him was everywhere. The library contained many editions of his dictionary and just as many of the book that rendered him even more famous; James Boswell's biography. I learned that Johnson supported the blind poet Anna Williams for much of her life and nursed her at the end of it and that he left most of his money to his freed slave man servant Francis Barber. I also learned that he'd tutored the young David Garrick who became the most famous actor in England.
The fourth floor garret where Johnson spent eleven years creating the prototype dictionary on which all others would be modelled, is currently hosting an exhibition of Garrick memorabilia. Interestingly, in my (admittedly old) Collins English Dictionary, 'garret' immediately precedes Garrick n. David. Sweet. I learned that David Garrick, celebrated impresario as well as actor, painstakingly compiled a compendium of the running times of every act of every show in the West End. This was not because he was some kind of proto-trainspotter, rather to enable gentlemen to have their coaches standing by for a prompt exit.
If you've been to a London show lately, you'll know that you're lucky to escape the theatre at all. If by some miracle you manage to get out into the street without being trampled by giant Mr and Mrs Magoos in coordinated pastels, you are almost certain to be mown down by homicidal maniacs wielding bicycle rickshaws. A determined band of survivors then competes for the one taxi that has bucked the classic London tradition of changing shifts at exactly the time when they are most likely to be in demand. Not quite what Dr Johnson or David Garrick had in mind as they sat in the oak sitting room of 17 Gough Street having been expediently if not comfortably conveyed by carriage from Drury Lane.
London is a fine city with approximately five million people too many in it. If most of them decide to do something else for the day, it's bliss. But this hardly ever happens. Mostly you end up spending far too much time in unhappily close proximity with people who'd prefer not to be examining your armpits either. It's about the only thing on which you would mutually agree, if you ever actually spoke - which you wouldn't. When people get that close to each other, a conversation is the least appropriate option. Johnson also said,
As I know more of mankind I expect less of them, and am ready now to call a man a good man upon easier terms than I was formerly.
That has to be a guy thing. But then Johnson didn't get calls every five minutes from someone trying to sell him a mobile phone. I like to think his tolerance might have been tested by the way we are forced to live now and that he'd be drafting objections to the hideous office block being constructed as I write that will ensure his stained glass window never again gets enough sun to illuminate his face...