Image: “The Penance of Dr Johnson” by Eyre Crowe 1784 (1869) (c) Dr Johnson’s House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.
BOSWELL We’re back in Lichfield again. Johnson keeps coming back to the place. Shakespeare went back to Stratford from time to time and then he retired there. He pottered about in his garden at New Place and left London to itself! Johnson comes back here to Lichfield every year, but he will never leave London. He can’t manage without London air and London talk. Johnson needs London, and in a way, London needs him!
But he loves to travel. When you’re on the move, you manage to give the slip to some of your troubles. Not all, but some of them. It’s when you stay at home that they get to you. That’s where you’re defenceless!
Anyway, every year he goes round England to visit the same friends in the same places. He goes to Oxford to reminisce. Then to Birmingham. That’s where Edmund Hector lives. Hector was at school with Johnson. Everyone should see their old school friends regularly. They reconcile you to your grey hair! You realise you are all in the same boat! Then he comes here to Lichfield. Lucy Porter still lives here. Lucy is Tetty’s daughter by her first marriage, Johnson’s stepdaughter, you see. She accepted Johnson right from the start, although her brothers didn’t. Anyway, that’s another story. Then he goes up to Ashbourne in Derbyshire to see John Taylor. You remember, the John Taylor who was at Christchurch. He used to take the lecture notes over to Johnson.
Yes, Johnson has his annual round. It is a sort of royal progress around the country. Now Johnson and his court (that’s me!) have reached Lichfield again. Here he visits all his friends with me tagging along behind. I’m even becoming known here myself. Sometimes people greet Johnson and then look over his shoulder to see if his Scottish friend has come along too. But today was different.
Yes, today was different! After breakfast, without a word, he went off. I followed him at a distance, discreetly. Yes, even I can be discreet at times, though I am not noted for it. Normally I’m not one for the low profile! Well, he climbed into the stage and just went off. Later I asked where the coach had gone to, and they said Uttoxeter. Yes, Uttoxeter! Apparently, that stage leaves for Uttoxeter at 10 o’clock every morning. Very odd. What on earth can Johnson have to do in Uttoxeter?
It has been a miserable day here. It has rained the whole time. It may let up a little this evening and the sun might come in low under the clouds as it sometimes does after a day of rain. We shall see. Though I don’t hold out much hope of it. And it’s certainly not a day for journeys! Now it’s five in the afternoon. He still isn’t back, and I’ve been wondering…
(There is a noise at the door and Johnson comes in. His hat and coat are drenched with rain.)
JOHNSON What still indoors, Sir? You are still cooped up inside here, with all the good people of Lichfield out there to be visited? Have you no energy? Bad weather always looks darker and wetter from inside the house, you know. When you get outside and get wet, it really isn’t so bad. That’s what the old bricklayer said, you know. I was a child, here in Lichfield, and I was complaining to him about the rain. “Listen, lad,” he said. “When I am working in the rain, this is what I say! Half wet, half annoyed! Completely wet, and you start to enjoy it!” That’s what he said about working in the rain, and I have never forgotten it!
BOSWELL I kept to my room today.
JOHNSON I can never sit in my room and write when there is something more interesting to do. And there usually is!
BOSWELL Well, you went off so suddenly, Sir. I thought I had better wait here till you came back.
JOHNSON Ever faithful, Bozzy. Ever faithful! That was good of you, and I thank you for it.
(As Boswell waits, Johnson starts reluctantly to speak.)
I went out, as you say. I took the stage. In fact, if you must know, I went to Uttoxeter.
BOSWELL To Uttoxeter!
JOHNSON (Angrily) Yes, Sir. Uttoxeter. And why shouldn’t a man go to Uttoxeter? You look as if I had said Timbuktu!
(He sighs and sits down tiredly)
Ask for some tea, Bozzy.
BOSWELL They start brewing up, Sir, when they see you arrive. There is no need to ask.
JOHNSON You are interested in all these things, Bozzy, so you might as well know why I went to Uttoxeter. My father had a bookshop here. Well, you know that already. This bookshop never did well. The people of Lichfield don’t read as much as they should, Bozzy, or if they do like a book, that book goes the rounds, and the whole town manages with just one copy. People here are reluctant to share anything with their neighbours except their books and their colds.
(Boswell takes up his pen.)
Don’t write that down, Bozzy! Just listen.
Before I went to university, the shop was doing worse than ever. To help with the takings, my father opened a stall, a bookstall, in Uttoxeter market. He went over on Saturday mornings. One market day he was ill. His worries made him ill, poor man. He worried about everything. He asked me to ride over to Uttoxeter and sell the books for him. I refused, Bozzy. I felt it was beneath me. Our parents in their love bring us up to think we are better than themselves. And we become ungrateful brats. I have never forgotten that day. It has been in my mind ever since. I don’t suppose a week has gone by in the last fifty years when I have not thought of it. Some things stay with us all our lives.
BOSWELL This happens to us all, Sir.
JOHNSON No, it does not, Bozzy! Many people would have put that behind them. Today is Saturday so I went over to Uttoxeter, and I stood in the market on the exact spot where my father used to have his stall. I took off my hat, in spite of the rain, and stood there for one hour. Ha, you can imagine the comments! ‘Poor old man! Look at him, just look at him, without a hat and in this rain too. Standing stock still, he is! Just look at him!’ They thought that old age had turned my senses. But I stood it out! In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory.
BOSWELL (Trying to offer some comfort.) I am sure it was, Sir. I am sure it was. Ah, I’ll fetch that tea!
(He goes out.)
JOHNSON Poor Bozzy. I have embarrassed him, but I think he is beginning to understand. Yes, I am beginning to tie the ends together. Things always come full circle in the end. I don’t want to leave too much undone. After all, I have been given more than seventy years so I should be tidying up a bit. At least that is one more thing completed. One more thing ticked off the list!
Come on Bozzy! Where is that tea?
Doing penance is thirsty work. But when you have a cup of tea in your hand and someone to drink it with, life can’t be that bad!
(He shouts again.)
The tea, Bozzy! The tea!
BOSWELL (Shouting from off-stage) Coming! ‘A watched pot never boils,’ you know.
JOHNSON ‘A watched pot never boils’. True enough, I suppose. True enough. (He shouts again impatiently) The tea, Bozzy! The tea!