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Part 14. In Lichfield

Boswell is writing at a table.  There is a bottle of wine in front of him.  He takes a drink and then looks up.

BOSWELL Time has passed, as it always does. Now Johnson is showing me his native city.  No, not London, but Lichfield. We are in Lichfield, near Birmingham, and a miserable winter’s day it is.  It’s the sort of day when you’ve got to keep busy to stay cheerful.  It rained all yesterday, and it’s been raining all today, and (he walks over to the window) it’s still raining now.  Look at the people scurrying along, heads down, collars up.  Look at the women holding their skirts as they walk around the puddles, and the young boys making directly for those same puddles just to splash everybody else.  It’s not fit for a dog to be out in. 

Still, Lichfield is not that bad a place.  This is where he came from, and if I’m going to write his life, I have to see where he spent his childhood. It’s important.  Childhood is always important.  We have been visiting his friends here.  He is still out. (A door slams very loudly.) Ah no.  He’s back. 

JOHNSON (He comes in and takes off a dripping sack which he had around his shoulders.) Lichfield rain, Bozzy!  It makes me feel at home! There’s nothing like a good shower of rain! In some strange way it cheers me up!  (He throws the sack over a chair.)  The coach boy gave it to me.  It was good of him.

Today I have seen several friends, Bozzy.  I have seen friends from my schooldays, and they look old, which makes me suspect that I myself am no longer young.  But I feel young.  I am the same Sam Johnson that went sliding on the ice in Christchurch meadow when I should have been inside listening to my tutor. What young man with any enthusiasm for life  can resist sliding on the ice?  Why, I would do it this afternoon if only this rain would stop and everything froze over! Christchurch meadow has a great ice slide.  Oxford in winter is the coldest place in England!  Did you know that?  It used to feel like it anyway.  We took turns to slide and at each go we built up speed. And after each turn the slide became longer and faster. At 5 o’clock, when night fell, it was the greatest slide in the world!

BOSWELL But you do not look old, Sir!

JOHNSON But I do, Bozzy.  When a young woman helps you kindly across the street and then, after leaving you safely on the other side, says, ‘Now you take care of yourself, Sir’, then you are old!

Why are we judged by how long we have been on this planet? 

(He mimics typical conversations)

‘I have just seen John?’

Ah yes, he’s getting on, you know.

‘I have been talking to Sarah Jane.’

‘And yes, and she’s not as young as she was, not by a long chalk!

As if it matters how old a person is!

BOSWELL But age makes a person wiser.

JOHNSON Does it?  I wish it did.  I wonder if I am more sensible now than I was twenty years ago, or forty years ago.  Perhaps I am more resigned.  I did take myself so seriously!  If I have learned that I do not matter that much, and that is something gained.  But old?  Never!

BOSWELL It will be a long time before you get old, Sir.

JOHNSON Never, Bozzy, if I can help it.  We can age but there is no need to get old.  And we must not moan, however much there is to moan about.  Those with most grievances moan least.  Have you noticed that?  Don’t be a moaner, Bozzy!  It’s the quickest way to lose friends.

Now is that wine for drinking? (He points to Boswell’s bottle on the table.)

(Boswell finds another glass, fills it and gives it to Johnson.)

BOSWELL Just what you need, Sir.

JOHNSON I have done a lot today, Bozzy, and when I am busy, I am well.  I’ve just spent the afternoon with Lucy Porter.  She does talk rather a lot, but she makes a very good cup of tea.  I sip the tea and nod and just say ‘Yes, my dear’ from time to time, and she is happy. She is Tetty’s daughter… my stepdaughter, you see.  She’s well, bless her, and she reminds me of Tetty.  Yes, I have had a good day.  I like to be occupied.

BOSWELL You have always been busy, Sir.

JOHNSON When I was young, I was not busy.  When I was young, I wasted day after day here in Lichfield.  I was listless. I was in limbo.  Some days I was so lethargic that I couldn’t even make out the time on the town clock.  Yes, that one over there in the square. It will be there, striking the hours when I am gone.  Clocks are remorseless, Bozzy.  I shall have to account for those days I wasted, Bozzy.  That’s the only good thing about poverty, Bozzy.  It drives you to do something.

BOSWELL But now your life is very different, Sir.

JOHNSON  I have learned to keep busy and not to think so much of myself.  There you have the two essential ingredients of happiness!

BOSWELL  Where’s my notebook? And where’s my pencil? 

JOHNSON  Will you stop taking notes, Bozzy! Can’t a man say anything without it being recorded! I enjoy my visits here after the immensity of London. It’s good to be known about a place.  And I talk like the people of Lichfield. I share the same vowels with the good people here, and that is comforting. It is good to be a part of things.

BOSWELL All people love their birthplace, I think.

JOHNSON  It doesn’t matter where you were born.  But where you were a child, that’s what’s important.  That’s the place where you opened your eyes to the world.

You remember the first trees you climbed?  Well, ever after, those trees are the trees for you, and every other tree for the rest of your life has to measure up to them.  Your first schoolroom, your first church, your first playmates, they set the standard for the rest of your life. I was lucky to be born in Lichfield, Bozzy!  One’s hometown is sacred!  You must show me your hometown some time.

BOSWELL A drop more wine, Sir?

JOHNSON (He lifts his glass.) Yes, a drop more wine, Bozzy.  Now, let’s in to dinner. Then I must write to Miss Williams.  You see, I’m rather worried about Hodge.  No one looks after him like I do. 

(He goes.)

BOSWELL Now to dinner!  When am I going to write all this down?

(He takes out a piece of paper and starts writing frantically.)

The first trees you climb, ever after, those trees…

(Johnson shouts off stage.)

JOHNSON The wine, Bozzy!

(Boswell sighs, puts away his paper, and then, grabbing the two glasses, he hurries off.)

No, the bottle, Bozzy!  Fetch the bottle!

(Boswell comes running back, still with the glasses, and collects the bottle.  He leaves, muttering.)

BOSWELL   Your first schoolroom, your first church, your first playmates…

JOHNSON Hurry up!  The dinner is getting cold.

BOSWELL (As he leaves) I’m coming!  I’m coming!