Part 20. Looking Back

Boswell is writing at his table at the side of the stage.  He looks up and reads what he has just written.

BOSWELL  This afternoon, 30 June, 1784, I said goodbye to Johnson.

(He stops reading, turns and speaks directly to the audience.)

I have said goodbye to him often enough before, but this time it worries me.  He is not well, not at all well.  Still, when you foresee bad things, they don’t usually happen.  Death usually barges in, unexpected and uninvited.  But he was worried too.  I could see that.  It was a quick goodbye.  A short goodbye.  When there is too much to be said, we say nothing.  A quick handshake, a quick look in the eyes, and then we turn away. No hugging. That’s normal.

Ah well, to Scotland then.  Back to Scotland.  I’ll write to him the moment I get there.

(He puts things one by one into a trunk.)

Some cheese for my wife, toy soldiers for the children, tea for me, and books.  No one should travel without books! 

(He picks one up.)

Now what have we here?  ‘The Lives of the Poets’ by Samuel Johnson!   (He opens it and reads the inscription on the flyleaf.)  ‘Strive to be good.  God bless you.  Samuel Johnson.’  I’ll keep that one with me, and I’ll read it on the way.  If I can read anything bouncing up and down on that coach.  

(He continues packing.)

Chocolate for the children.  More toys.  We make toys in Scotland, don’t we?  Now why did I buy so many?

He’ll be alone now.

(The light leaves Boswell and finds Johnson on the other side of the stage. Wearing an enormous pair of hedger’s gloves, he is going through the books he has written, taking them one by one from the shelf and blowing the dust off each as he picks it up.)

JOHNSON  ‘The Life of Savage’, 1744, by Samuel Johnson.  Poor old Savage.  He was good to me when I first came here and when I knew nothing.  We had great times wandering the streets of London together.  He has been dead these many years.  Died penniless in Bristol.  Richard Savage.  Poet, playwright and incapable of looking after himself.  I enjoyed writing this.  I put the record straight, I think.  I did him justice.  This was my first book.

(He picks up two huge volumes.)

‘The Dictionary of the English Language’ by Samuel Johnson. These are heavy! Drudgery! That’s what it was! Drudgery! But the years of the Dictionary were easy in a way. They gave me something to get up for each day, something to engage myself in.  It was steady work! Heavens, we all need that.  We all need work. It’s the ballast in the ship.  Without it we all capsize.

By Samuel Johnson. Yes, my Dictionary!  I have done some good, I think.  The Dictionary will last. 

(He picks up another book.)

‘The Rambler’.  ‘Essays by Samuel Johnson’. Oh yes, ‘The Rambler.  That was a treadmill!  Twice a week for two years.  Over a hundred essays in the end!  I remember the printer’s boy waiting, fidgeting, as I dashed off the last line.  Poor lad.  Twice a week he had to wait for me to finish.  Then he was scolded by the printer for not returning sooner. I wonder what became of him.  Now, where is it?  The last one.  Ah, here it is.  (He reads) ‘Time, which puts an end to all human pleasures and sorrows, has likewise concluded the labour of the Rambler.’ 

Yes, yes, moral essays.  Sounds heavy going, doesn’t it, but some of them are not bad at all.  Tetty thought highly of them.  What did she say? ‘I thought very well of you before; but I did not imagine you could have written anything equal to this!’ Her praise was more important to me than that of all the great men in our universities.   

‘And sure th’Eternal Master found

The single talent well employ’d.’

Have I employed my talent well?  I don’t know.  It’s hard to assess your own life, isn’t it!  Some of us try to be honest and then we are too strict with ourselves.  I have it. Just put yourself in the place of a friend and then assess yourself, that’s it.  That’s the answer. That would give a clearer picture. 

‘So, Samuel Johnson, as a good friend I don’t think you have done too badly.  Could have done better, as they say, but it’s not been so bad.  Perhaps seven out of ten for effort?’ 

I hope so.  I did try, I do know that.

(He picks up more books.)

‘The Idler’.  More essays!  ‘The Voyage to Abyssinia’.  That was an early one.  Yes, here it is. 1734.  ‘Rasselas’.  I wrote that when my mother died.  I wrote it in the evenings of one week and it helped me to pay for her funeral. 

And here’s my edition of Shakespeare.  This one is ‘The Lives of the Poets’.  I think I gave Bozzy a copy years ago.  I think so but I may be wrong.  My memory is terrible these days. He’s probably left it on a shelf somewhere!  I wrote that in the summer house at Streatham.  Happy days.  We were all happier then.  Ah, Mrs Thrale!  Mrs Piozzi now!  Ugh! Why on earth did she have to marry again?

I have heard that there is a plan afoot to take me to Italy to spend the winter there.  It is good of them, and I am grateful.  I think Reynolds is involved, and Burke and Langton.  It is kind, but it is as much as saying that I won’t last through the English winter.  But I’ll stay here.  (Raising his voice) and death will have to come for me.  I’ll face him on my own ground!  I’ll face the old devil here in London not among the olive trees of Italy or under a Mediterranean sky be it ever so blue. I’ll face him here in the frost and the mist.  I’ll face him next to my own fire and looking out of my own windows.  He’ll choose his own time, of that you can be sure, but I will be ready.  The readiness is all.

Anyway, what does it matter how a man dies?  How a man lives, that is what is important.  That is what we will have to account for.  Dying is a moment of little importance.

Come on then, you wrinkled old rascal with your scythe!       

These are my books, and that was my life.  That’s all in the bag, and no one can take it away from me!  (He looks up) I am ready but I’ll not come without a fight, I promise you! I’ll not make it easy!

(He lies down, grunts and picks up a book that is lying to hand.  He looks at the spine.)

Ah, ‘Robinson Crusoe’. Wonderful. Yes, here we are. 

(He reads.)

‘I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that county.’  Yes, yes.  I have enjoyed this book for almost seventy years. Now, what page was I on? Where was I?

(He sits down and continues to read ‘Robinson Crusoe’.)