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Part 17. At Oxford Again

(Boswell comes in hurriedly.)

BOSWELL We are in Oxford now.  Brasenose is just over there, the Bodleian is behind me and there is the spire of St Mary’s. Time is passing.  Johnson is getting older.  I can see it in his ways.  Little changes, walking a little slower, his head and shoulders a little more stooped.  Little things.  I am getting older too, I suppose.  The students here certainly look more boyish than before.  I used to be able to mingle with them unnoticed.  I am well past that now. Still, upwards and onwards!

I thought I’d surprise him by getting up early and buying some rolls for his breakfast.  I… but here he is.  He’s up and about already.  I must get to the baker’s quickly.  Now if I go down here, that should bring me to the Broad, and the Broad will take me to Cornmarket where the baker’s is.  (He goes quickly.)

JOHNSON (Walking in from the other direction.)

Was that Boswell skulking off?  It looked like Boswell.  No, Bozzy is never up this early! I also stay in bed far too long, but a change of place works wonders.  I will get up early every day I am here! (He sighs) I wonder how long that will last!

(He looks around.)

Back here at Oxford!

(He points out the buildings, north, south, east and west.)

The Bodleian library.  Brasenose.  All Souls.  And over there, St Mary’s, the University Church. 

(He indicates two parallel streets.)

The High and the Broad. 

It is strange how geography, a place, can fool us.  Standing on these stones I feel just as I felt when I was here at 19. Coming back to the same place recreates the old fears and the old hopes just as if the years in between had not passed by.  That can happen with an old school friend that you have not seen for years.  After a moment or so you both carry on chatting as if you had said goodbye to each other the night before.  We don’t change much, do we!  With a little twist and a skip, I could still be the same student I was.  I used to go through that door, I remember, and I used to run up those stairs.  I was always late for my tutorial! Huh! There’s not much running in me now.

Now this must be Bozzy!

(Boswell comes in, a bag of rolls in his hand.)

Bozzy, you are out and about so early?  That’s not like you!

BOSWELL Bread rolls, Sir.  Still hot!  Have one.

JOHNSON From the bakery in the Cornmarket?

BOSWELL Of course.

JOHNSON Then I’ll have two!

(He sees a group of undergraduates walking by, off stage.)

Look at them!  Books, gowns, shining faces!

There they go.  This year’s batch.  They look so pale and thin.  They haven’t filled out yet. They are still overgrown boys.  There they go, running up the same stairs as I did, late for their tutorials.  No wonder the steps are worn!

Poor students!  ‘The finest days of your life’; they say!  How little they know.

All students fall into one of several groups, you know, Bozzy.  First, there are the pensive, melancholy ones.  They are all too aware of the time slipping by.  They think too much, and they forget to live.  Their youth goes anyway.  They might as well enjoy it!  That is what youth is for!

Group two!  The workers!  And how they work!  They spend hour after hour in the Bodleian here.  Heads down, elbows on the desk.  Page after page!  Book after book! Fame is the spur, I suppose! 

‘O’er Bodley’s dome his future labours spread

And Bacon’s mansion trembles o’er his head.

BOSWELL What’s that, Sir?

JOHNSON ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’, Bozzy.  Stanza 13.  You haven’t read it?  Really Bozzy, there are some gaps in your knowledge which you should take immediate steps to fill.  I wrote that in 49, when I was much younger.  That was when I was at war with the world!

Look at them.  Look at their worried frowns as they make to the library.  These are the palest and thinnest group!  Fools!  There they go!  Just look at them!  And they are all so lonely!  You can’t cuddle up to a book at night!  Can you confide in your mother or your father when you are a brilliant young man?  It’s just not done!  Can you open your mind to a fellow student and be honest when it is the fashion to be cynical?  Your fellow student is probably as lonely as you, but neither of you know this, the more’s the pity.

And then there is group three.  You see them over there, Bozzy? There they go, walking unsteadily along the pavement, each one holding up another to stop them falling in the gutter.  They haven’t gone to bed.  They have spent the whole night carousing in some inn or other!  They lead a life of drinking and eating but mainly drinking. You would be in this group, Bozzy!  Am I right?  At least they fill up their three short years!  Perhaps they are the wisest group!  Get some good times in the bag when you’re young.  That’s their philosophy. There’s plenty of time later on to be serious.  

Then there are those who spend their time falling in and out of love. It’s all so new to them. They mix up love with an empty infatuation! They never get it right! And they are never happy!

How we change. How we grow! Look at John Donne.  All those passionate love poems when he was young.

‘I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I

Did, till we loved?  Were we not weaned till then?

But sucked on country pleasures, childishly.’

And then he became Dean of St Pauls. 

‘No man is an island! Never send to know for whom the bell tolls.  It tolls for thee.’

What lines, Bozzy.  What lines.  We are privileged to have them.

All these students are wearing the stone doorsteps a little bit lower, and they will still be here in a hundred years.  

BOSWELL  The doorsteps, Sir?

JOHNSON  Of course, the steps will still be here, but so will the students, Bozzy! So will the students! The youth of Oxford doesn’t grow any older. Have you noticed that?  The students are always the same age! And they matter! The students are what’s important here, not the tutors and professors you see ambling up and down the High! (He looks at himself and smiles.)  Not even this tired old man come back to reminisce!

BOSWELL So life here at university is not as easy as people think?

JOHNSON The young take themselves so seriously, Bozzy!  They think they can change the world. But in their zeal, they are thinking of themselves, Bozzy, not of the world!

They have a hard time here, Bozzy.  They feel that their real way lies down the road they didn’t take.  They plumb depths that we old and feeble people can never reach! There is much unhappiness at Oxford, Bozzy, behind the bright smiling faces!  (He looks up at the college building.)

What stories these old rooms could tell!

(He points to another group of students.)

Yes, there they go! And their predecessors and all their successors are all alike.  They come with bright eyes in the autumn.  But it is a hard winter, the first winter at Oxford!

BOSWELL Still it can’t be all bad, Sir.

JOHNSON No, Bozzy, it is not.  I met an old friend last night, Bozzy, between Pembroke and Christchurch.  He came up to me in the street and introduced himself.  Oliver Edwards!  Ollie!  I last saw him 50 years ago. You see we all come doddering back here for a last look.

BOSWELL That must have been a memorable meeting, Sir.

JOHNSON It was.  ‘Dr Johnson’ he said to me after we had been talking a little.  ‘Dr Johnson, you are a philosopher.  I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher, but I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in!’

That’s the way to look at things, Bozzy. 

(He makes gestures with his hands.)

Always rise up to cheerfulness.  

BOSWELL How is Mr Edwards, Sir?

JOHNSON He has lived a good, solid life.  He has never set the Thames on fire but he has, I am sure, done many little acts of kindness, and they count, Bozzy.  They count more than setting rivers on fire.

He was a solicitor for many years.  Then he retired to a farm.  He lives a good regular life and I envy it.  ‘Dr Johnson,’ he said, ‘I must have my regular meals and a glass of good wine.  I find I require it.  And a late supper.  A late supper I consider a turnpike which a man must pass through in order to get to bed.’

How easily some people sail through life, Bozzy!  Oxford, the law, a farm, a glass of wine and a pleasant supper before going to bed!  I suppose they have their worries too, but they deal with them.  That’s the secret, Bozzy.  It’s not what life throws at you, but it’s how you deal with it!  Some people have the answer.  They are born happy!  What a gift.  Their whole journey is a happy one, and I envy them.  Still, up and on!  What do you think, Bozzy?

BOSWELL I think we should have a drink, Sir.  I have a terrible thirst. Let’s find an inn.  You must know them all.

JOHNSON (Brightening)  The Bear Inn, Bozzy.  The other side of the High.  Not far at all. I’ll race you there.  On to the Bear! 

(Johnson starts at a slow trot, calling as he leaves.)

Come on, Bozzy!  Come on!

(Boswell follows with a sigh and a gesture of resignation.)

JOHNSON (Crossing the stage again.)  A short cut.  There always used to be a short cut through here.  Straight through the Dean’s garden.  But this door always used to be open.  Fifty years ago, it was always open.  (He looks up.)  Perhaps I could get over the wall.  One foot here.  The second foot there.  That’s it. Here we go! 

(He climbs the wall and enters the garden.)

VOICE (off)  Hey, you there!  This garden is private property! Get out!

BOSWELL (Running in.)  Where’s he gone now?  Not far at all! 

(He shouts to a person off stage.) 

Excuse me!  Where is the Bear Inn? 

VOICE       Well, it’s not through this garden.  Someone has just climbed the wall and trampled on all my geraniums.  Go round by the road like everybody else!

BOSWELL Johnson will get us both arrested!  The philosopher of ‘The Rambler’ in Oxford jail!  Heavens!

JOHNSON (Off, shouting) Come on, Bozzy!

BOSWELL I’ll Bozzy him.  Where was that from?  Must be over there. (He shouts) I’m coming, Sir! (He leaves hurriedly.)