Thursday, September 20, 2007

Window Dressing

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...


R.H. said...

I just watched my poor old arthritic dog crouch for a shit in the front garden and he finished it okay then couldn't straighten up and sat straight on it. When I was in London a cockney threw a tin of kitekat at a Pakistani bus conducter saying they live on it. Big citys are cruel.

R.H. said...

When you're in Australia will you keep this moderation going? I hate it.

Wisewebwoman said...

Pants, my dear:
Sometimes your writing just about takes my breath away.

Ms Baroque said...

What a wonderful outing! I am deeply chagrined never to have gone there. The doctor still looms large in London - I always think of him in the Strand, too.


Reading the Signs said...

Hi Dr. Pants - London, I remember that. But I never got much beyond Chat's Palace in the last years, babies' buggies and whatnot. I bumped into Dr. Johnson in a museum in Tobermory. I think it might have been the Hebrides that did for him.

I am sad that the sun will no longer illuminate his face.

Kris said...

Love your quote.

PC Bitseach are get close to being done with fuckwits, but probaby require a few more years, just to be convinced.

That's so pants said...


One of the things I'm seriously done with is this govt's perpetual panic about social bleeding 'cohesion'. I agree that city living puts pressure on everyone but in my experience of living in a multicultural community over a long period of time, overt incidents such as the one you describe are mercifully rare.


That's very kind of you, thanks but are you sure it's not just the thin air up there in Canada?

Hi Ms Baroque

Johnson's House is open all year round. It costs about £4.50 normally. Well worth it.

Hi Signs

Don't be sad - I was probably exaggerating that bit about the sun or, at the very least, speculating metaphorically. This national treasure is safe as houses.

Hi Kris

The cost/benefit analysis is very difficult to get right. The old girl just needs to produce one lovely day and you're right back in love with her again.



Minx said...

I can't hear that name without thinking of Robbie Coltrane in Blackadder. I wonder if the good Dr every played word association.....

R.H. said...

Don't laugh but I washed my underpants because I have to go out today, then I put them on the gas heater to dry and they caught fire. Wooh!- total disaster! So looks like I'll be needing old Johnno's dictionary to find a word for dressed but feeling naked.


Political Umpire said...

London is the worst place in the world to live, aside from all the others.

That's so pants said...

Hi Minx

Very likely he invented it as a diversion. It is said that his original definition of 'dull' was 'compiling a dictionary'. I suppose it seemed like a good idea at the time.


How about 'unbonded' or 'neo-Calvinist'?

Hi Pumpie

Absolutely. There is no substitute for her which is why I'm not even going to try another city. It's green acres for me now.



Dame Honoria Glossop said...

I loved the Dickens museum in Doughty Street, and Kelmscott House. I just find London such hard work these days. I'm sure the traffic is smellier than ever, & so much rubbish everywhere, black bags full all over the pavements. Being a "wobbler" with a walking stick, I don't do crowds anymore.

R.H. said...

It's a ridiculous comment. And I regret it. But unhappiness can be entertaining, and I do like to brighten other people's lives with my own misfortunes.

Please don't use fancy words with me, it's annoying having to look them up.

That's so pants said...

Greetings Your Dameship,

Surely you must be entitled to have public buildings closed down on a whim - why be part of the aristocracy otherwise? I'd speak to someone about that if I were you. Seriously, you are right about London and there is zero tolerance of anyone who can't leap onto a moving platform at a second's notice.


Sorry. I was trying to be funny. It's amazing how often that doesn't work for me. I feel a Guinness Book of World Records post coming on. Haven't done one of those for an age. Anyway - here's my fractured thought process laid out for you to enjoy or despise

Bond as in Chesty
Calvin as in Klein



R.H. said...

Chesty Bond and Klein, what a double, it would never work in the bush.

(And then I cop: rooeohw. Truly.)

That's so pants said...


But even I know you don't need clean smalls in the bush.



R.H. said...

Yes well it has to be clean in the city, whatever size.

-Risque RH.

That's so pants said...

Quite, RH, quite.



Ann O'Dyne said...

1. yes yes - wot 'wisewebwoman' said.
I had great pleasure in the reading of your account.

2. yes yes I said yes: "the way we are FORCED to live now"

3. I think Calvin would dream of meeting someone like Chesty Bond.

4. RH must have been in London in the mid-70's when Paki-bashing was prevalent.

5. clean smalls is an important part of that city social-cohesion you mentioned.
I spend a lot of time isolated in rural areas ... so I ask

'clean' compared to what?

That's so pants said...

Hi Annie

I quite agree. I'm anticipating a welcome descent into feraldom very soon.


R.H. said...

Right on, Miss Annie.