Monday, October 17, 2016
A Working Morning at NYU-London and Visiting Dr. Johnson's House in Holborn
Monday, October 17, 2016
Early Morning Accomplishments:
If you can believe it, I awoke at 4. 30 am today and simply could not go back to sleep. After 20 minutes, I gave up the effort and switched on my laptop. I would get some work done and catch up on Twitter--which has become an important source of news gathering for me. I also sent out some email messages and reviewed a few blog posts. Finally, I worked on my Italy itinerary. Since I have been invited to give a lecture at the University of Padua, I am using the occasion of my journey there to see a part of Italy I have not yet explored--the island of Sicily. Using Lonely Planet, I tried to identify some budget-priced accommodation that would work for me. Once my itinerary was in place, I began to send out email messages to the various towns and cities--Catania, Mount Etna, Toarmina and Syracusa--as those are all I will manage in the time at my disposal. Time flew as I sent my messages out. Hopefully, I will have all accommodation sorted in the next couple of days.
By 8. 30 am, I was calling my Dad and brother Russel in Bombay and catching up with them. About a half hour later, I decided to start getting ready for work. I organized my breakfast--coffee with muesli with honey yoghurt--and then went in for a shower. Within 20 minutes, I'd got dressed and made myself a Stilton cheese sandwich for lunch. By 10. 15 am, more or less on schedule, I left my flat and set out for Bloomsbury.
A Working Morning in my Office:
I arrived at NYU at exactly 11.00 am and I stayed there till 2.00 pm. There was proofing to be done of the final chapters of my book as I have an end-October deadline to get them to my publisher. I also had loads of tickets to print out--air tickets, Easybus tickets for journeys to and from London's airport, itineraries. There was also a conference abstract that I had drafted over the weekend and sent out to the organizers. I have already received an acknowledgement for it and thought it best to print it all and file it away. Similarly, I printed out two more chapters of my book.
By 2.00 pm, I had finished proof reading both chapters and had printed out two more--one of which I carried home with me to work on through the evening and another of which I left in my office to work on tomorrow. I also ate my sandwich and prepared my packaged soup and feeling quite ready to face the next part of my day, I left our campus and moved on.
Off to Dr. Johnson's House at Holborn:
It has been about 30 years since I visited Dr. Johnson's House in Holborn for the first and last time. As a grad student who had only very recently been inspired by the life and work of Dr. Samuel Johnson through one of my professors at Elphinstone College in Bombay, Dr. Homai Shroff, whose Ph.D. dissertation was on the greatest writer of the 18th century, I had made a pilgrimage to his home. I remember enjoying the visit then...but, as in the case, of every place that I am re-visiting now, I realize how fully I relish these forays, how deeply engrossed I become and how easily I am able to relate to the history and complexity of the times that are being portrayed because my knowledge and understanding of these periods is now so much more profound.
And so it was with 17 Gough Court where Dr. Samuel Johnson lived for a good part of his life, initially with his wife, Elizabeth whom he knew as Tetty and then for years as a cantankerous widower in the company of a black manservant called Francis Barber who had arrived in England from Jamaica where he had been a slave.
As one of the most prolific of all English writers, Dr. Johnson worked day and night--a never-ending list of 'pot boilers'--that were literally written to keep his pot boiling (meaning: to put food on the table). He wrote reviews, essays, literary and theater criticism and, famously, a novel in a single week. His output was immense.
Given that he dodged poverty all his life, I was actually quite astonished to find out that the house is a handsome building with four floors--all of which were occupied by him and his family members. The visitor pays 6 pounds for the privilege of entering the home and perusing the rooms that are very well curated by a series of laminated handouts that give details about the use to which it would have been put in Johnson's time as well as the art work and furniture to be found within.
There was a film crew in the 'Parlor' when I arrived but they left about a half hour later. Meanwhile, I walked through the Dining Room (which is now the Reception Room) into the Entry Hallway which has a barred window above the main door (to prevent thieves from inserting children through them to commit the robberies. There is also a heavy chain across the main door (another form of security) with a twisted corkscrew arm on one side to prevent rods being inserted through the windows to detach the chain. It was fascinating to see how these elements of domestic security have been retained. For Johnson, who was perpetually broke, a break-in would have been disastrous. Hence, the multiple precautions.
In the Parlor, Johnson would have received visitors--he had many literary contemporaries with whom he was friendly (for example, Oliver Goldsmith) and his publishers who visited him at home. It was in this room that he would take tea for Johnson was a prodigious tea-drinker and was known to consume as many as 20 cups at one sitting. There is a beautiful porcelain tea service that belonged to a friend of his, a Mrs. Thrale, in a glass cabinet on view. Copies of oil portraits of Johnson by his friend, the renowned 19th century portraitist, Sir Joshua Reynolds, are to be found in each room above the fireplaces (as the fireplace was the only source of heat in the rooms). The Parlor was also where members of London's Fire Fighting Auxiliary took tea in the years when the house was being restored after severe bomb damage in World War II. They were provided tea by the care-taker of the home, a Mrs. Rowell, whose daughter ended up marrying one of them in the Church of St. Bartholomew in Smithfield followed by a reception for a hundred people in Dr. Johnson's House.
Besides the fireplace in the Parlor is the little cupboard in which wigs would have been powdered with white or grey powder as was the fashion in the 18th century among both men and women. Johnson, as did all public personalities, was never seen without a wig.
On the first floor (American second) is the room that Johnson used as a bedroom and another used by his housekeeper, Mrs. Williams. On the floor above it is his Library--a really interesting room that showcases the eclectic collection of books he owned. All of them were sold soon after he died, but with careful attempts, many of them are being tracked down at auctions and returned to the home. Naturally, there is a full set of the famous Dictionary that he took 9 years to write in this home with the help of a number of assistants as well as a complete set of the many volumes of his Lives of the Poets. A copy of the first edition of the Dictionary is also on display. Johnson's closest friend and associate was James Boswell and, in his company, Johnson spent endless hours. After Johnson's death, Boswell produced a biography of his friend called Life of Johnson that has remained continually in print since the late 18th century. Most of Boswell's works are also in the library. Above the mantelpiece is another oil portrait of Johnson.
At the very top of the house is the Garrett--a long room (far brighter than I had imagined garrets to be) in which the actual work on the Dictionary was undertaken at a very long center table at which a number of assistants would have worked under Johnson's supervision. There is one oil painting in this room that is really moving--it shows Johnson doing penance at a marketplace where he stands in the open as rain pours down on him. It was his way of making amends for the fact that he disobeyed his father who was a shop keeper in the market and did not help him to sell his wares when requested because pride held him back. In his later years, Johnson realized the selfishness of his refusal and decided to make up for it by undertaking self-atonement.
It is also interesting to see a brick from the Great Wall of China in a show case in the house. Johnson had a great interest in China, the country, as well as the china (porcelain) that it produced. This interest was enhanced by his love of tea which, in those days, came to England mostly from China. As a gesture of goodwill, it seems that the Chinese government have presented the brick to Johnson's House as he had often talked about having a desire to travel to China to walk upon its Great Wall.
In many ways, a visit to Johnson's House offers insight into the hard work, dedication, ambition, perseverance and tenacity of the man. It enables us to understand his enduring love for Shakespeare (he wrote a criticism of all Shakespeare's plays) and Milton and for the written word in general. He courted friendships with Shakespearean stage actresses whose work he admired at a time when they were thought of as no better than prostitutes. He paid his assistants well although never well endowed himself. But his greatest example of compassion was revealed in the relationship he created with the former slave Barber whom he employed to run his home and to whom he willed a very generous Endowment. A copy of his Will hangs in its entirely in one of the rooms and we see how equitably he thought of all human beings and how well he treated them irrespective of their skin color or race.
We learn that he was a sickly man, overweight (because he loved food too much and did not eat in moderation), plagued by gout and someone who fought depression all his life. In fact, he was often on the brink of a complete mental breakdown as was his friend Boswell (who had his first breakdown at the age of 17). We realize that, in the end, it was a series of strokes that left him with severe facial tics and a speech impediment and ultimately, took his life.
But what a life! Truly, any writer can take inspiration and courage from Johnson's life--for he teaches us that there is no such thing as Writer's Block and that genius is 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration! He brought a new meaning to the word 'prolific' and I have to say that I, for one, was deeply moved by my entire 'experience' of this house--far more than I can remember being when I was a grad student. Johnson is the second most frequently quoted writer after Shakespeare and he is the source of one of my favorite quotes of all time: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life itself!" Hear, hear!
Outside, in the courtyard, I paused by the sculpture of Dr. Johnson's cat, Hodge, of whom he was very fond and who was so indulged that towards the end of his life all he ever ate were oysters! I took a few pictures of the exterior of the house and left the courtyard.
Walking through Holborn on my Way Back:
I got out of Dr. Johnson's Gough Court and found myself on Fetter Lane from where I emerged on to High Holborn. It was part of the Dickens' London Walk that I had started a few days ago and which I decided to complete. It took me to Barnard's Inn (not a hostel--just another courtyard) where the famous Gresham Lectures are held, free of charge for the public and into Staple Inn, the only Elizabethan house that survived the Great Fire of London. It's handsome black half-timbered façade leads you to another picturesque courtyard at the back and a very pretty second courtyard filled with late-summer roses and petunias. Out of Staple Lane, I got back on to High Holborn and disappeared down the stairwell of the Chancery Lane Tube Station from where I took a Central Line train straight home to Ealing. It is always a pleasure to be back in my former stomping ground of Holborn--but today I was too tired to linger.
I stopped at Morrison's on my walk home to pick up a few groceries and then put the kettle on for a cup of tea which I had with two pistachio biscuits and the last of a chocolate éclair. While I sipped and munched, I caught up on episodes of Cold Feet and then stopped to type this blog post.
It is now time for dinner to which I am looking forward as I shall watch another episode of Cold Feet and then get ready for bed. Tomorrow, I will probably proof read the chapter I have carried home with me--but for the moment, I have had a full and productive day and feel entitled to some more down time!
Until tomorrow, cheerio...