Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Bohemians, Blockheads and Blockbusting Novels

I’ve just finished watching a series of television programmes called ‘How to be a Bohemian with Victoria Coren’. It’s an appealing title, I think it may be nice to live a Bohemian lifestyle with a poker-playing host of impossible quiz shows - but unfortunately, it only meant she was presenting it.

The series started with the Paris set of artists first called Bohemian. Vic Gatrell (author of one my favourites, City of Laughter) recently wrote a book about Covent Garden in the mid eighteenth century called The First Bohemians. In this book, he skims around Grub Street and argues them as being the first wave of the Bohemian torch.

But there is one major difference, and that is embodied in the approaching Samuel Johnson quote. Whilst the Parisian Bohemians believed in ‘art for art’s sake’, the Grub Street Hacks believed;

‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money’.

The writer and artist’s first duty was not to art or truth, but to their belly. 

It could be argued that Johnson was something of a Bohemian; he was shabby, opinionated, kept a busy and disorganised household of waifs and strays, and liked to ├ępater le bourgeois. This quote comes from Boswell’s life, in which he is trying to shock some cultured literati. 

At the time, it was considered best if writers were gentlemen of substance. This is probably a little of snobbery but there was a pretty good line of reason behind it also. It was thought that a writer who needed to write for their belly would write anything they thought they could sell or use to wheedle their way into a rich political faction. Their morals were for sale with their words. A gentleman, who could live without writing, would be a disinterested party. Only a gentleman could write for truth.

Johnson’s point was that a professional class of writer would write better, and that money was as good an incentive as any. It’s a delightfully practical, unbohemian way of looking at it, and far more appealing to me.

That said, here I am, writing this blog for no reason other than it popped it my head. I am also working on novels which may never be published. If Johnson is right, I am a blockhead. 

As much as I kind-of identify with the Grub Street Hacks, I am not one of them. The majority were unconcerned with the quality of their work compared to sales, it was sales that enabled them to soldier on to the next day. Though there were residents of Grub Street that did great works; Johnson, Goldsmith and Kit Smart being may favourite triumvirate, most of them never did write anything lasting. Grubstreet is itself a word in Johnson’s dictionary implying some ephemeral or small work.

My Dad often asks me why I don’t ‘sell out’ and write what is trendy. I try to explain that it’s hard enough to write a book (and he should know, he has done) when it is something that really pulls you, let alone a vain attempt to jump on a bandwagon. I also try and explain that most of the people that really benefit from popularity were those who wrote what felt good to them and a bandwagon was created around it.

So I suppose I may well be closer to ‘art for art’s sake’ when it comes to my writing but it makes me uncomfortable. The phrase seems so shallow and selfish. ‘Art for art’s sake’ seems the surest way to create boring, self-swallowing art. I don’t even believe the novel is an art, it’s a craft, albeit one which can be done artfully.

I suppose I see myself as a weird combination of an actor and a carpenter. I’m keep whittling away at my wood to create a beautiful but functional table and wait for the big break when I can invite everyone to come and have dinner off it.

Or maybe I’m just a blockhead.


Talking of Blockheads…

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Goldsmith and the bed bugs,

I’ve been a little busy recently. My recent housing crisis has resolved itself, in that I shall get a pay rise on the completion of a course - which means I am doing a course at the moment. As well as this I am doing another course with FutureLearn about the future of the museum - I completely recommend FutureLearn for anyone looking for a bit of new mental stimulus, it’s free and pretty engaging.

As well as these, I am writing this new draft of Dreamonger, which comes on apace. It’s fiddly work though, each small change creates larger ones further on and it almost feels like writing a new book. I feel the voice is changing as I go, becoming closer to the voice in my more recent writing.

Add to all this and I have moved. It’s a lovely little studio place in Northwest London. The only problem I have had with it (except the prohibitive cost) have been the bedbugs.

It turns out bedbugs are massively on the increase in large populations, having made a comeback from very low numbers in the fifties. I have isolated my bed, laid my diaphanous earth, heated the laundry and all other steps. My landlord has been great, steaming the area everyday and buying a new bed and mattress and now the problem seems to have gone.

The little biters were a problem in Oliver Goldsmith’s day as well. In his History of the Natural World he describes them thus;

‘By day it lurks, like a robber, in the most secret parts of the bed; takes the advantage of every chink and cranny, to make a secret lodgement; and contrives its habitation with so much art, that scarce any industry can discover its retreat.’

He’s not wrong. They are so good at hiding, apparently they can fit in any space you can slide a credit card in, due to their flat bodies. He goes on;

‘When darkness promises security, it then issues from every corner of the bed, drops from the tester, crawls from behind the arras, and travels with great assiduity to the unhappy patient, who vainly wishes for rest and refreshment.’

And boy do they. Even when I encased myself in clothes, put on some old costume tights to secure my feet - they just bit me on the face and hands. A few nights of this and any hope of refreshment goes, instead  it is replaced by a paranoia that wakes you up every few hours, covered in phantom bugs (and maybe the odd real one).

He then talks about the bad smell, which luckily I didn’t experience. Then he talks about the fact that France had them worse, more of them and insatiable;

‘The beds, particularly their inns, swarm with them; and every piece of furniture seems to afford them retreat. They grow larger also with them then with us, and bite with more cruel appetite.’

I don’t know whether this reflects prejudice or his own experiences of bumming around the continent. Goldsmith follows with a detailed description of the beast, ending with it’s sensitivity to light which means that;

‘They are seldom caught, though the bed swarms with them.’

Luckily, this is not so much the case now. I have bed traps and mattress protectors and all sorts, and have been unmolested for some days. 

The enemy.

However, the eighteenth century did have protection from the little beasties. This is from a pest control manual from 1777 called The Complete Vermin Killer.

‘Spread Gun-powder, beaten small, about the crevices of your bedstead ; sire it with a match, and keep the smoak in - do this for an hour or more.’

It is also recommended to burn brimstone under the bed every three days, but keep out the room as you do it. 

The bed is recommended to be washed in various ointments; from vinegar mixed with glue, herbs in suet, onions, wormwood, and finally water. It is also recommended to hang a bearskin, which will frighten them away or entice them into rabbit guts under the bed. Here is another tip;

‘Basket-makers sell a Trap made of Wicker to catch Bugs. It must be about eighteen inches in depth, and four feet and an half long, or more if the bed be wide. Place this at the head of the bed, at the bottom of the pillow ; and in the morning they will creep into it, when they may be easily taken away and destroyed.’

Luckily, I didn’t have to resort to these method and am now set up and cosy in my new home.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

A Trip to the City of Philosophers

"I lately took my friend Boswell and showed him genuine civilised life in an English provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield." - Samuel Johnson

Hello everyone, long time no see.

For Christmas, I was given tickets to go to a most magical place, The Midlands. 

I went to Lichfield, birthplace of Samuel Johnson. I have wanted to go there for years, since I discovered that his birthplace museum has more artefacts belonging to Johnson then the museum in Gough Square. 

I am a sucker for a cathedral city. I spent a wonderful day in St Albans, and a few wonderful ones in Canterbury, so I was looking forward to it. I had two days there and I feel I imbibed most of what the city has to offer.

First of all, it’s like Disneyland for Johnsonians. As soon as I got off the train, I crossed the road and found myself at the site of the old Grammar School, where Johnson, Garrick and Addison took their early lessons. Wondering around is magical. You turn a corner and there was Johnson’s Dame school, where he once walked home alone and seeing the mistress of the school following him to check he was safe, turned round and attacked her out of pride. You walk all over and find places that resonate; the Garrick home, the house of Gilbert Walmisley where Johnson first practiced his debating skills and the Stowe Pool where his father taught him to swim.

Lichfield also has some very interesting non-eighteenth century history. The cathedral close had been fortified in the middle ages, meaning that it was the recipient of three tough sieges during the English Civil War. In the first siege, the parliamentarian general was killed by a dumb sharpshooter in the tower, looking at the distance it seemed impossible. (Chatting with some local history-buffs, it may be that a different tower was meant). I wonder how much Johnson’s own royalism (and occasional Jacobism) are influenced by the town’s Civil War Experience, where the cathedral was near destroyed by the parliament men.

I also wonder about how his protestantism was affected by the fact that the market square was the scene of several people being burnt at the stake in the reign of Mary I, including the last person to be killed in that way.

The market square is a brilliant spot for Johnson-philes. On one side is his parish church, where he was christened and attended until some of the roof fell on the family pew. On the other side stands his birthplace. The square itself now has a lovely brooding statue of Johnson on a chair, there is a sprightly one of Boswell as well but he is hidden behind stalls on market days.

Just up from the market place is The George. That is where I stayed. It’s a coaching house, the setting for Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem and where he stayed when he was a recruiting office in the town. Just up from that is The Swan, where Hester Thrale stayed during her visit (now an Ask Pizza place) and The King’s Head, where the First Staffordshire Regiment was founded.

But what about Johnson’s Birthplace itself? I was delighted that the front room was still a bookshop, as it had been in Michael and Samuel’s day. There was something magical about going down into the kitchen where Johnson as a boy read Hamlet and was so scared by the ghost that he ran up the stairs and outside to see other living people.

Some of the objects also gave me the shivers. There was Johnson’s wedding ring and a saucer he used everyday which he nicknamed ‘Tetty’. There was the very writing slope he rushed out Rambler essays. There were canes and boot buckles. The fact that each of these items were part of his daily life gave me goosebumps and I stood in awe of the writing slope like someone in a reliquary.

The place was a little let down by old museum presentation techniques, the stiff mannequin with audio recording method of dramatising moments of Samuel’s life seemed a bit unnecessary. It also wasn’t helped by some aloof staff, who didn’t engage much with a fan and the fact that the only other visitors were two bored Lichfield teenagers on their Easter break, running up and down the stairs. But there were enough special moments in there to make it a thrilling experience for me. 

Back across the marketplace to his parish church housed the Lichfield City Museum. This was another creaky place, empty and a little mothworn. That said, it did give a very useful overview of the city.

The three spires of the Cathedral dominate the centre. I spent a lot of time reading (Christopher Hibbert’s ‘The Personal History of Samuel Johnson’) at the Minster Pool, where the sun shone and the spires reflected hazily in the pool. I also went inside. The most fascinating thing there were the remnants of Anglo-Saxon worship, including an angel with an axe scar through it and St Chad’s Gospel, a beautiful 8th century book still used in worship. Later on, I took a walk down the Stowe Pools to St Chad’s well, an old pilgrimage site.

Finally, I went to another house in the Cathedral Close, the house of Erasmus Darwin. I did not know much about him, except that he and Johnson didn’t hit it off. I’m currently reading his biography and can see why; Darwin was a deist, revolutionary who believed morals should be taught without religion.

But Darwin was a really interesting man, and completely different to dear old Sammy. He was an optimist, a thinker who allowed his mind to roam and experiment, and a generally affable and interesting person.

The house was a little larger than Johnson’s, there were the obligatory mannequins with audio in two of the rooms. One of these was about his personal life, he had two wives and a mistress (not all at the same time). The other was him in his day job as a medical doctor. Erasmus travelled 10,000 miles a year on Georgian roads, well supplied with a bookcase, writing desk and hamper of food. (He liked his food, cutting a semi-circular hole in his dining table to fit in more comfortably.)

He also liked to invent and one room had working versions and models of some of his inventions. He created the system of steering that modern cars use; drew designs for a steam carriage, made a vertical windmill, lifts for locks, created a model of a bird that used two of the (then undiscovered) secrets of how birds fly. He also made a machine that could make simultaneous copies of documents and a sort of ‘robot head’ that could say ‘ma-ma and da-da’. Reading his biography, it seems like he could have advanced science fifty years if he had been brave enough to publish.

He was also a member of the Lunar Society; a group that included Boulton, Watt, Wedgewood, Mariah Edgeworth’s father and a man called Day who did a very dodgy experiment when he tried to train his own perfect wife. These people were at the hub of the industrial revolution, discussing everything from steam power to the abolition of the slave trade.

Finally, Darwin was a poet, the most popular just before the romantics came along. His poetry inspired them and in one of his books he described a belief of his that animals had changed, evolved and adapted over time to suit their environments - a belief taken up and expanded upon by his grandson, Charles.

Now, it may seem I have lost Johnson behind….he is still my favourite but Erasmus Darwin is a much unacknowledged and fascinating individual. His museum was staffed by proper Erasmus-nuts and they made it a great place to be.

In summary, I would utterly recommend a day trip to Lichfield. Make it a long day, make sure you visit Johnson and Erasmus and say hi for me.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Under the Glass...Three - Castles in the Sky

These ‘Under the Glass bits have somehow become one of the most personal elements on this site. Todays one may be the most personal of them all.

It comes from the (brilliant) introduction to ‘The Essay of Humane Understanding’ by John Locke.

When I say the introduction is brilliant, I mean it. There are some wonderfully tuned phrases about the intrinsic joy of knowledge which I will probably look at another time. Todays quote is the following;

‘If mine prove a castle in the air, I will endeavour it shall be all of a piece and hang together.’

Within the context of the introduction, it serves to make a point found in many early modern prologues, that the work about to be presented may have its flaws but is presented with all the best possible intentions. 

I was instantly struck by the image, not of the castle in the sky, but of it being of a piece and hanging together. That mental picture of a huge, solid edifice, detailed and carved with time and effort and love with an internal cohesion that defies its possibly shaky foundations.

But like most of these quotes, it’s what it means outside of context and into the context of my own life that gives it such meaning to me - and like many of these quotes, it serves as a way of cheering me up and encouraging me to go on. It’s a personal rallying cry.

A rallying cry for what? Here’s where it gets a little personal.

It was at university, while avoiding a course I detested, that I began and completed my first novel. I had made my first scratchings at it in my lonely room in the first term of the first year and finished it in the lonely room in the easter break of the third. By the end of this year, I knew what I wanted to be for the first time in my life. I wanted to write novels that other people would read.

With this being my only real goal or interest, I left university, not into a job or placement but to carry on working my student job in York, life in a shared house with some classmates, write and wait for my literary ship to sail triumphantly in. What really happened was that the shared house fell through and I ended up moving back to my parents in a city that all my friends had left.

I found it hard to get work and ended up getting the same job I had during sixth form when I was saving up to go to university, but due to new laws, for a lesser wage. At the same time, great swathes of my extended family died and the house was deep in mourning for a few months. What’s more, despite a few positive notes, it was clear my ship was not sailing in any time soon. I was lost.

To give myself some momentum, I decided to go back into education and take a part time MA in writing. I took simple jobs that would be flexible around my university and writing time. Sometimes those simple jobs did not come through and I found myself unemployed for eight months, and for  a couple of months I lived off £5 a week, borrowing money off friends and family and even having to beg on the street for travel money to get to interviews.

Since then I have come into a steady job with a reliable (if unspectacular) wage and an unprecedentedly good deal on my rent. In June, the house will return to its private owners and I will need to rent a normal priced room again. I’m not sure I can. Even for a pus-ridden scum-hole, the monthly rent leaves me with almost nothing for food, travel and books - it looks like I might have to go to the bad old days.

To remedy this, I went on an urgent and focussed job hunt. It would appear that my CV, a combination of relative academic achievement, dead-end jobs and mediocre writing success are not the employer catnip I was hoping for. I can’t even get a job selling books at the Museum of London bookshop - despite the fact that I’ve read almost all their stock, and can use a till.
The fact is, the choices I have made, whether good or bad, all stemmed from my wish to become a novelist. Whether I went about this realistically or sensibly (almost certainly not) they were made with that goal in mind. It is my castle and although the foundations still seem to be in thin air, at least the edifice itself is all of a piece and hangs together. 

Plus, this new draft of ‘Dreamonger’ is turning out brilliantly…

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Top Ten Eighteenth Century Works (Part Two)

And here it is, after the clamouring, shouting and pleading; the second part of the Top Ten Eighteenth Century Works.

Number 5

Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart.

The only person to have two entries on the list but I don’t think it’s cheating, the Christopher Smart who wrote Jubilate Agno is not the same as the one who wrote The Midwife.

Midwife era Smart is playful and silly, not seemingly serious about anything. Jubilate Agno era Smart is still playful, still sometimes silly but this time there is something he takes extraordinarily seriously, his faith. This is a rich, constantly perplexing work. I think someone on a dessert island with nothing but Jubilate Agno and a Bible would ever get to the very bottom of it.

There are occasions when this can be baffling, there are even stretches of boring but there are enough highlights of absolutely stunning originality and moments of clear thinking mixed up with all the Biblical names and battiness.

I would recommend that anybody try this book out.

Number 4

The Citizen of the World by Oliver Goldsmith.

The original audience read these letters as part of a serial magazine but I, like all the readers since 1762, read it in one go and have read it several times since.

My favourite element of the book are the characters. Lien Chi Altangi is a bit of a hypocrite but ultimately loveable, Beau Tibbs is also a flawed but interesting character and The Man in Black is one the best characters in all of eighteenth century writing.

I’ve written a whole review of this before but if you can find a copy, read it.

Number 3

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne.

I’ve not read many other books like this. It is such a frustrating thing. It’s the most annoyingly digressive, objectively pointless and nail gnawingly ridiculous bit of work. But, my goodness, it is something wonderful.

The key to it are the characters. Tristram is very little himself but his father Walter and his Uncle Toby are beautifully realised people. Everyone in the world of Shandy Hall has a hobbyhorse, one key obsession that drives their lives. But from this one hobbyhorse, whole characters evolve. Uncle Toby is obsessed with wars and fortifications, he lives and breathes battles and sieges but is himself the most peaceful of people. If trapped in a room with an irritating fly, he will remove the fly rather than kill it. It’s details such as this that make you want to follow him and those around through their labyrinthine journeys.

That and the book is staggeringly original. If the reader learns to relax and enjoy the ride, then they will be treated to constant surprises and always shifting floors but the reader must give into it.

Number 2

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.

This just edged Tristram Shandy because although it didn’t have the loopy originality of that book, it is a much more satisfying read.

I liked Tom, I liked Sofia, I loved Squire Western, Partridge, Thwackum and Square. The characters in this book are wonderful and lively. Henry Fielding knows exactly how to set up and present a set piece better than almost all the other eighteenth-century writer. The chapters at the Inn in Upton are some of the busiest, liveliest and most sparkling I’ve ever read.

Also, Fielding has the most wonderful voice. He is constantly ironic and uses the tools of hyperbole and understatement with the fine hand of a master craftsmen. Almost the whole of the first book of Tom Jones is written with almost total irony. It’s a breathtakingly impressive bit of work.

...and of course.

Number 1

The Rambler by Samuel Johnson.

I’ve had a shit day; the children in the school have driven me crazy, the staff have driven me crazier, the bank crazier still and my house seems dingy and sad. It is one of those days when the sky is so heavy and nothing goes right and I am irritable with everything and everyone.

Then I make a cup of tea and read a few Ramblers.

I have a theory that the length and flow of a Johnsonian sentence has a calming property; on one hand is his ability to summarise a complex point in few words and on the other is his ability to contrast that with an equally complex and well summarised point that defies the first. He is even able to get the synthesis in the same sentence. This ebb requires concentration to follow but Johnson never waffles, he always hits at least one, usually a few more, points a sentence. It’s like the mental equivalent of breathing in and breathing out, it’s impossible not to relax.

And the content, it is pure Johnson. He said his other works were watered down but the Ramblers were his ‘pure wine’. It’s Johnson in his utmost Johnson-ness; warm and wise and often very funny.

It’s like medicine, a bit miffed to long dark night of the soul,  a few Rambler essays will ease the pain. As Johnson said (in a review and not a Rambler unfortunately) “The only end of writing is to enable readers better to enjoy life, or endure it.” Samuel succeeds marvellously here.

All yours

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Top Ten Eighteenth Century Works (Part One)

In January I made a list of my top fifteen favourite books of the previous year. I had wondered why the list had been fifteen and not the usual ten, then I tried it. It was hard. 

Well today, I am going to try something even more difficult; I am going to try an make a list of my top ten favourite eighteenth-century bits of writing. I have decided to include everything from periodical essays to plays. If it fits the time period and I have read it, it counts.

I’ve decided to split this up, 5 today and five tomorrow.

So with no more ado…

Number 10

Pompey the Little by Francis Coventry.

The books that didn’t made this list; Evelina, Captain Jack, Joseph Adams, Rape of the Lock, John Ball… And I have put Pompey the Little above them. Why?

It’s fun. The narrative voice is similar to Henry Fielding but is younger and more optimistic about life and the people that weave through it. Although he doesn’t have Fielding’s mastery of the ironic tone, his youthful pleasure makes up for it.

The novel doesn’t get boring. Pompey moves from owner to owner with such rapidity that no one owner drags for too long. The people who take him in are also different enough in station and personality to keep the journey varied and interesting. What’s more, Coventry is so good at his brief pen-portraits that the characters Pompey meets are full of life for the brief moment he knows them.

Besides, anyone who can write a moment of such beauty and clarity as the following extract, deserves to be on the list.

“‘Mr Rhymer was walking home in a pensive solitary mood, wrapped up in contemplation on the stars of heaven, and perhaps forgetting for a few moments that he had three-pence half-penny in his pocket.”

Number 9

Vathek by William Beckford.

This is a strange book.

We are introduced to Vathek, with his eyes that could kill and his unimaginable wealth and we are already unsettled. This is a man who is hungry for knowledge and flesh and will do anything to pursue them. The prophecies of a mysterious merchant send him on an insane quest for the ultimate in power and knowledge but lead ultimately to Hell.

This is the book I was hoping ‘Castle of Otranto’ would be. It is is deranged and obsessed and builds up a remarkably strong sense of inexorable doom for its short length. The reader comes out the other side feeling sullied by it, borne on its constant push towards the mouth of Hell at the end.

These strong, emotional, almost abstract effects, distinguish it from all the other books on this list and set it apart.

Number 8

The Midwife by Christopher Smart.

Here we get Christopher Smart before his incarceration and he is silly and funny. 

The Midwife is a magazine written in the character of Mary Midnight, an old spinster who is the secret fount of wit and wisdom in Europe, or so she would believe.

More rambunctious then the Spectator, slyer then the Grub Street Journal and sillier than The Rambler, this set of magazines remind me a lot of Spike Milligan’s Q Series of TV programmes. There are mills to grind people young, learned discourses about fossilised turds, romantic advice to ancient widows and all other manner of parody and all out silliness.

I would deny the notion that there was biting satire secreted in the pages that got Smart unjustly locked away for being mad, and say that the politics in this are like those of the Goon Show; anarchic, anti-establishment and for the ordinary person. And I’d recommend the reader to dig some out.

Number 7

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.

Although Vathek is the book on this list that operates most on an emotional level, Gulliver’s Travels is the one that lingered longest.

It’s such a bitter book when viewed as a whole. Gulliver is inflated, deflated, tossed around the unknowable sea of learning and then anchored with the rational Houyhnhnm before being wrenched from them and landed back on our shore.

Gulliver is a changed man by the end of the book and I think the reader is in a small way. It’s an elegant book, it’s a funny one but it is rooted deep in the ‘savage indignation’ declared in Swift’s epitaph.

I recommend it as so much more than a fun adventure but warn the reader they may want something jollier to cheer them up afterwards.

Number 6

The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay.

I think I know the words to most of the songs. This is the first bit of eighteenth-century writing I came into contact with and the love has remained. 

Like a lot of my favourite stuff, the characters are clear and relatable without being fully types. I root for Macheath even though he is a scoundrel, I love the argument song between Polly and Lucy, I enjoy the scheming of Peachum and Lockitt. Even the naff happy ending makes me smile.

In some ways the view of life is as pessimistic as in Gulliver but the characters themselves never realise it. They carry on scheming, loving, drinking and singing because it’s all they can do.

‘Think of this maxim and put off your sorrow, the wretch of today can be happy tomorrow.’

So, what will the top five be? I think it’ll be pretty obvious but I’ll pretend there’s a mystery.

All yours

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Under the Glass.... Two - Might as well be cucumbers.

One of the best things about quotes is how, once out of the body of the work they originate from, they are open to as much abuse as you want to give them. Today I am going to bash three quotes together to make a little conversation.

"The old peripatetic principle that nature abhors a vacuum, may be properly applied to the intellect, which will embrace anything, however absurd or criminal, than be wholly without object.'

Samuel Johnson, Rambler 85

"Better to think about cucumbers even, then not to think at all."

TH White, Mistress Masham's Repose

"It has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a  cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing."

Boswell, quoting Johnson in The Journal of a tour of the Hebrides

There's a lot going on here.

The first quote is from Johnson's Rambler of January 8th 1751. In it, he quotes a principal of physics attributed to Aristotle. He goes on to make a point he makes frequently, that the human mind needs distraction to survive. 

The second comes from TH White's 1945 children's book, where The Professor, upon meeting some genuine Lilliputians has gone off on a tangent about Gulliver's Travels. He feels it's unfair to laugh at the scientist in the Academy of Legardo for trying to make sunlight from cucumbers because at least he is thinking about something. Earlier on in the book, the crimes of the baddies was attributed to them having 'a few instincts about money and about appearing respectable, but for many and many years they had not has any thoughts on real ideas at all.'

Finally,, we have Boswell reporting Johnson saying what he has heard doctors say. Poor old cucumbers are given a battering in this quote. It's not even worth eating them, let alone thinking of them.

I spend a lot of my time thinking and reading about things that have no real point or purpose. At the moment, I face eviction and moving somewhere I can't afford to live. I should be trying to find a better job or a cheaper garrett, and to the best of my ability, I am. But as I sit in relative poverty with prospective penury a few months away, I am more likely to be thinking about eighteenth century personal ads or the history of the snowman. I am caught up in the lives of Becky Sharpe and Rawdon Crawley; I am trying to untangle the fictional lives of Eve Lewis and her Mother, who has now turned up in the nth draft of Dreamonger.

This Friday, I dressed as a Gruffalo at work, came home 
watched episodes of Hustle. On Saturday I went for a walk 
and wondered what all the other people were up to and what 
they were doing.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about cucumbers (metaphorically).

I spend some of my time thinking about cucumbers 


Little Digression...

The cucumber is the fruit of a creeping vine and its cultivation goes back to the dawn of civilisation. Gilgamesh is reported eating cucumbers, the Israelites ate them in Egypt. Charlemagne had huge cucumber gardens. They were introduced to Britain by the Archbishop of Canterbury's gardener in 1326. In the 17th century, uncooked vegetables were regarded as suspicious and Pepys reported two deaths by 'cowcumber' in his diary, though John Evelyn was bullish they'd grow popular.

End of Little Digression....

Is it so bad to 'think of cucumbers'?

If Sammy Johnson was right, and he so often seems to be, a mind that thinks of little at all can fall prey to absurdity and criminality. Even if the cucumbers of the mind are only good to be sliced, seasoned and thrown away, it is better to think of them then to think of nothing.

So, adieu as I attend to my cucumbers and I will let you attend to yours.