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Part 2. Oxford

BOSWELL  Yes, we’re at Oxford now.  Dreaming spires and home of lost causes and all that!  Johnson went there when he was 19.  Ah, university days!  “The best years of your life!”  Everyone says that! If only they knew!  Well, they may be the best years for some but for so many, they are hard, very hard.  For a few, they are anguish.  These are young men, and young women now of course, trying to map out their whole lives, to sink or swim in a very wide sea, to set themselves standards, to right the wrongs of the whole wide world, refusing to accept help from anyone and taking themselves so very seriously. 

Johnson’s father went over to Oxford with him, proud as a peacock, as the fathers of young people going up to Oxford always are.  Ha!

When his father had said goodbye and had started on his journey back to Lichfield, Johnson was left alone in his room in Pembroke College.  That’s the college on the right, you know, as you go down the road from Carfax, the crossroads, down towards the Thames.  It’s near Christchurch, but then everything in Oxford is near Christchurch!  Christchurch is so big! The first evening at Oxford, and it’s not school anymore.  No, university is not easy.  It’s certainly not all cakes and ale!

The light on Boswell fades, and Johnson is seen pacing his room.

JOHNSON  (At the window of his room) Bye, bye. (He waves) Oh, he’s not looking. (He turns away) Come on! Its bad luck to watch someone out of sight.  The horse is set for home.  That horse is terrible.  On the outward journey it refuses to put one foot in front of the other, but the moment it turns for home, it’s off in a flash!

(He looks round the room) Now the fire.  Where the devil is the fireplace?  I’ll freeze without a fire.  (He looks around.) They’ve given me the room in the tower!  Four outside walls!  And no fire!  Didn’t medieval masons know how to build a chimney?  It’s just a hole in the wall after all. How can you think great thoughts if you’re freezing cold?  It was all right for Aristotle.  He lived in Greece!  It’s warm there! How many English Aristotles could there have been if our philosophers hadn’t had to spend their time searching for firewood and trying to keep warm? (He goes to his trunk and opens it.) Scarf, socks, blanket. Only one blanket? Oh dear.  Now where are my gloves? (Sits down) I’ve left my gloves in Lichfield!  (shouts) Aargh!

BOSWELL The days passed into weeks, and the weeks became months. The trees in Christchurch meadow lost their leaves, and the nights drew in. The mists coming down from the River Cherwell met those coming up from the River Thames, and then they filled the streets of the city and the very quadrangles of the colleges when it grew dark in the early afternoon.

JOHNSON (In greatcoat and scarf) Yes, here I can spread my wings!  Here, at last, is learning.  But the place is sometimes lacking in common sense. What use is learning without common sense?  What is the point of speaking five languages if you are an idiot in each one of them?  Better to be a fool in English than a fool in Greek.  There is nothing worse than an Athenian blockhead!

And what use is university to me?  I haven’t even the money to pay for my breakfast.  How many sons of rich men will get their degree, in time, just by eating enough suppers here, and sitting around for a few years. They just stay until a little learning brushes off on them, like mud on a post by the road! But I shall be lucky to last one year!

I have some good friends here though.  But somehow college friends are not what school friends are.  School friends stay with you for life!  They are part of you.  If an old school friend walks through the door, however long has passed in between, you just carry on exactly where you left off years before.     

Taylor’s a good friend.  John Taylor.  He comes over from Christchurch to give me the lectures.  I can’t go there because of my shoes!  My shoes are full of holes!  The hallowed ground of Christchurch will not accept my holy shoes!  Holy shoes!  (He gives a hollow laugh.) Ha ha! How many mediocre men have the run of the place because their fathers can give them fine shoes!  That’s what you need at Oxford!  New shoes!

But come on Sam.  Up and meet it!   If I cannot go to Christchurch, then Christchurch can come to me.  Come on,Taylor!   

I’ve translated Alexander Pope’s “Messiah” into Latin.  My tutor praised it.  Alexander Pope praised it.  Everyone praised it.  But you can’t live off praise. A couple of fried eggs with bacon is more use than praise.  At least they fill your stomach! Praise leaves you very hungry!

(Knocking on the door.)

Come in!  Come in, Taylor!

TAYLOR    (Entering with papers in his hand) I’ve got it Sam! 

JOHNSON  Well, let’s have it then.  (Johnson finds Taylor a chair and they both sit at the table.  Johnson clears papers, plates and clothes from the table to make room.) 

TAYLOR    Geometry.  We did geometry today.  It was Euclid!

JOHNSON  Euclid.  That’s promising!

TAYLOR    (Musing happily) A very fine lecture.  A very fine lecture indeed!  A lot of people there, you know.  It was Smithson again. He has a beautiful delivery.

JOHNSON  Yes, man.  But what did he say?

TAYLOR    Ah well.  You see this figure here. (Producing his notes)  This line here.  No, it was this one.  I think.  Yes, this one.  If it is parallel to that one, it is exactly half its length.


TAYLOR    Well.  The square on the … No, no.  That was last week. Well, it’s logically correct.  It must be.  (Johnson looks at him questioningly.)

I know. I should have written it all down.  I’ll go back to Christchurch and get him to tell me again.  (Sighs) It all seemed so clear at the time.  (He leaves.)


Taylor’s a fine fellow, and he’s good to me, but he’ll never set the Thames on fire.

(He looks round his room.)  My father’s books.  He gave me over a hundred when I came here.  He has invested in me!  And I will be worth it!  I can do it! I know I can!

Look at Edwards.  Oliver Edwards.  He’s happy here.  He enjoys life without much effort.  What did he say the other day?  “I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.”  That’s not bad!  And then we talked about eating late at night and he said, “I consider supper as a turnpike through which one must pass in order to get to bed!”   Not bad!  He’ll get his degree and work happily in his profession.  He won’t excel but he’ll fill his niche.  He’ll be content.  I make every effort to be happy and I get nowhere. But if I can’t be happy, at least I’ll not be miserable.  I’ll fight it!  I’ll fight it!

BOSWELL   And fight it he did with all the energy of youth. And so it went on. He had good memories of Pembroke though. Later when asked about poetry there, he replied, “Sir, we were a nest of singing birds!” But here’s poor Taylor once more.

TAYLOR (Bursting in, rather out of breath, with more papers in his hand. Johnson at once changes his mood to friendly enthusiasm) Got it.  I’ve got it, Sam!  Crystal clear! Look!

JOHNSON   (Looking at the paper) Yes, that’s it!  Euclid is not so hard after all!  I think, John, we can crack Euclid between us!  A beer on it?  What about a beer?

TAYLOR    The Bear Tavern?

JOHNSON  The Bear Tavern.

(They go out, Johnson singing.)

Good beer does more than Milton can,

(Taylor joins in.)  To justify God’s ways to man!