Part 8. Dulce Domum

Image: The statue of Hodge, Johnson’s cat, in Gough Square. Photo by Natasha Ceridwen de Chroustchoff. CC0 2.0

The voice of Johnson is heard, bellowing off stage.

A cup of tea, Miss Williams!  When you can, a cup of tea! (After a pause)  Please!

(Johnson enters and sits down, stroking Hodge, his cat, whom he carries in his arms.)

JOHNSON Home again.  Home, sweet home!  I suppose that to be happy at home is the ultimate end of all ambition!  (Laughing to himself)  If Boswell were here, he’d be writing that down!  Poor Boswell!  But he’s a well-meaning lad!

(Miss Williams comes bustling in.)

MISS WILLIAMS          Tea!  Tea!  Nothing but tea.  Once you drank seventeen cups at a sitting!  Seventeen! (She sees Hodge.)  And that cat of yours, Sir, does nothing but eat!  I’ve seen you go out to buy oysters for it!  Ridiculous!

JOHNSON (To his cat) Come on Hodge.  You know, I have had cats that I have liked better than this.  (Then, as if apologising to Hodge) But he is a fine cat, a very fine cat indeed! 

And where is Levet?

MISS WILLIAMS  He was called out.  To some poor girl giving birth in Swandam Lane.  And he won’t take any money for it, as usual! I know he won’t.  In those cases, he never does!  Misguided kindness!  Mark my words Sir, Mr Levet is a misguided man.

JOHNSON (To himself)  Robert Levet:  “Of every friendless name, the friend.”  (To himself, as Miss Williams busies herself with the tea.)  Look at my household!  Williams hates everybody.  Levet hates Williams.  Hodge is suffered but not liked.  My family!  But they all need a home, and there’s an end of it. Perhaps they could do without me, but I could not do without them!  To come back to an empty house!  I couldn’t stand that.  We all need company.  (He sighs) But the endless bickering! (To Miss Williams)  Miss Williams, what a mess we make of the simple business of getting through life!

MISS WILLIAMS          Some more than others, Sir.  Some more than others!

(Boswell appears outside.  He smartens himself up and knocks on the door.)

JOHNSON Come in!  Come in!

BOSWELL (Coming into the room.)  It’s only me.  Boswell.

JOHNSON Why yes, the Scotsman!  You are welcome, Sir. You should have come before.  Miss Williams!  A cup of tea for Mr Boswell. (Miss Williams glares at Boswell, making clear he is unwelcome.) If you please!

BOSWELL (Enthusiastically) Thank you.  A cup of tea would be marvellous!

(Miss Williams pours three cups of tea. As usual, she keeps a finger at the top of each cup to tell her when it is full.)

BOSWELL Well, thank you, but I am really not very thirsty.

JOHNSON Have some tea, Bozzy.  Yes, that’s good!  Bozzy is a good name for you!  Busy Bozzy!

The greatness of this country of ours is directly derived from the number of cups of tea that we drink!  (Boswell takes out his pencil and pad.)  No, don’t write that down!  Heavens.  Can’t a man say anything without you recording it for posterity!

(Boswell hesitates to drink his tea.  Johnson pushes the cup towards him.)

Come, Bozzy.  Have a cup of tea and make Britain great!

(Boswell, with a resigned glance at Miss Williams, who smiles at him maliciously, sips his tea.)

MISS WILLIAMS     Well, if you will excuse me, I must go to the kitchen.  Some of us have to prepare dinner.  (She looks at Boswell)  Some of us are useful in this world.  (She goes out.  Boswell moves her chair aside to give himself more room at the table.)

JOHNSON  Her bark, Bozzy, is worse than her bite.  She has a warm heart, but she conceals it well.

BOSWELL Yes, she conceals it very well indeed. Now that we have a moment alone, Sir, tell me about your early life.  Your life at home.  Your father and mother.  Tell me about them.

JOHNSON My mother lived until quite recently, you know.  She lived till she was ninety.  That’s a good age, Bozzy, a good age.  As long as the head can keep pace with the body, ninety is a good age.

BOSWELL But go back to when you were a child, Sir.  What memories do you have of your childhood?

JOHNSON I learnt of Jack and the beanstalk and Dick Whittington and the Sleeping Beauty.  Oh, and Aladdin.  (Smiling) Don’t forget Aladdin and the lamp. (Reminiscing happily) And Ali Baba and Sinbad.  Sinbad, now he was a real man!  See how many of our tales come from the east.  We have a great debt to the east, Bozzy.  The east is free of our puritanical sense of duty, Bozzy, and that is why the tales are magical.  How many stories are there in the world?

BOSWELL Stories?  In the world? There must be hundreds.

JOHNDON There are only five.  There are only five different stories in existence and one of them is Cinderella! The rest are mere variations.

BOSWELL (Despairingly) But your mother, Sir.

JOHNSON (Impatiently) If you will have it, Sir, here it is.  My earliest recollection of my mother is her telling me, not of Cinderella, not of Aladdin, but of the difference between Heaven and Hell.  “There are two places” she used to say, “Heaven and Hell.  Hell is a sad place for those who do wrong.”  And I learnt the lesson well, to my cost, for I can never forget it.  It has been the millstone of my life, an irrational worry about futurity.  (Johnson walks around the room, talking as much to himself as to Boswell) And it is irrational, Sir, for God is Love and he is just, and he will judge us on how honestly we try.  But irrational fears are fears none the less.  They cause you just as much suffering.  And religious fears are the worst fears of all.

BOSWELL And you feel that you have your mother to thank for this?

JOHNSON I didn’t say that, Bozzy.  She meant well, I suppose. And what another child would have forgotten or laughed away, I have remembered all my life.  We grow up, Bozzy, but at heart we stay the same children that we always were.  I really don’t think we grow much wiser or that we change at all.  We get fatter, that’s all!

BOSWELL And what about your father?  He kept the bookshop in Lichfield, I believe.

JOHNSON My father was a sad man.  From him I inherited a vile melancholy.  I slide down too easily into despair, Bozzy.  You remember Edwards?  Of course, you don’t. Oliver Edwards.  He was with me at Pembroke. He tried to study philosophy, you know, but, as he said to me once, “I could never be a philosopher because cheerfulness was always breaking in.” I wish I was like him, Bozzy. Cheerfulness is one of the greatest gifts we can have. What with taking after my father in his melancholy and with my mother’s lessons on hell, I had a good start in life.

BOSWELL That was a hard beginning, Sir.

JOHNSON It is terrible to be melancholic, Bozzy.  It’s like the mark of Cain, but it is not here on your forehead.  It’s all inside.  No one sees it, so no one pities you.  If you have a broken leg, people rush to help you up the stairs.  But with a broken mind?  Who rushes to help you then? You can have a hundred miserable thoughts gnawing at you and no one cares tuppence!

BOSWELL But you were lucky to have books, Sir!

JOHNSON Ah, the books!  My father’s bookshop was my playground!  With these books I had the world at my feet.  I used to read in the little upstairs room – I’ll show it to you some day, Bozzy, up the narrow stairs on the third floor, a small room with a small window.  It’s still there.  It’s all just the same as it used to be. I would sit by that window on a couple of old atlases with my back against a third.  In that little room I used to travel to China and to Katmandu and to Arabia and Tibet.  I talked with kings and with princesses.  And all the princesses fell in love with me!  I chatted with Hercules about his labours, and I helped Sinbad steer his ship.  My books were my world!  My books were my escape!

BOSWELL From Lichfield, you mean.

JOHNSON No, not from Lichfield!  From myself!  Lichfield was fair enough.  Nothing wrong with Lichfield, Bozzy.  Never speak ill of your home town!

BOSWELL Unless it’s in Scotland, I suppose Sir. Ha, ha! (He laughs but Johnson does not join in.)

JOHNSON Why some Scots are well enough, Bozzy.  Much may be made of a Scotsman if he be caught young!  In fact, you are the most unscottified of your countrymen that I know!

BOSWELL Coming back to your father’s bookshop, Sir.  Did you read serious literature?

JOHNSON “Serious literature!” Now what is that, Bozzy?  Why should literature be serious? The purpose of literature is to help us better to enjoy life or better to endure it.  Heaven protect us from “serious literature”!   I used to choose books by the colour of their bindings! First, I took down all the bright red ones.  Behind others, I would hide fruit.  An apple behind the Bible.  A couple of pears behind Chaucer and in September ripe plums behind the twenty volumes of Shakespeare!  A row of red plums, all hidden by Shakespeare! 

BOSWELL But surely children should be encouraged to read good works.

JOHNSON I would let a child read any book which happens to take their fancy!  At least, they are reading something!  They’ll get better books afterwards.

BOSWELL And what happened to your father, Sir?

JOHNSON My father. (Pause) Life grew too much for him.  His periods of sadness became more frequent.  In fact, they all joined up together, and there was no normal time in between. He fussed about details.  (Pulling himself up energetically.)  Never fuss about details, Bozzy.  Grab the essentials of your subject.  Shake the trunk of the tree and the leaves will fall.    Listen.  My father had a workshop outside the town.  It was for making parchment.  Yes, it sounds odd, but it was a little stone building where he produced parchment in the old way.  You see the bookshop was bringing in less and less, and he had to make ends meet.  This old building began to fall into ruins.  When the wind begins the lift the tiles and the rain starts to leak in, that’s when you have to act, Bozzy.  But my father was beyond action. At the back of the workshop the wall came down.  It was just a pile of stones on the ground, and anyone could scramble in and take the few things my father kept there. Some children who lived nearby used it as their den and played there in the mornings in the school holidays! There wasn’t much to take, yet each evening as it grew dark, my father would lock the door at the front and then go back and check that he had locked it, and then go back again. And all the time it was all wide open at the back!  That was fussing, Sir, fussing about details.

BOSWELL And do you fuss, Sir?

JOHNSON (After a pause) I do, and I know it, and I do my best not to.  I do my best!  Why do we always inherit the worst from our parents and why do all their good qualities pass us by?  Why is that, Bozzy?

BOSWELL I have no idea!  And did you help your father in the business?

JOHNSON The business, as you call it, was never good.  It is very difficult to make money from books! Whether selling them or writing them.  There may be the one or two lucky people who become rich but how many thousands are hopefully writing away, day by day, in their little rooms!  But hope springs eternal, Bozzy, hope springs eternal.

BOSWELL So there is no money from books, Sir.

JOHNSON None at all.  If you want to make money, sell perfumes, sell silk dresses, sell sedan chairs, sell luxuries that no one needs and everyone desires!  But do not sell books.  And don’t write them either!  I have spent a lifetime not making money from writing books.

BOSWELL But did you serve in the shop?

JOHNSON There was no one to serve!  My father even opened a bookstall in Uttoxeter market.  But enough of that.  I will tell you about Uttoxeter one day, Bozzy, but not now.  Not now.

BOSWELL Your father worked hard, Sir.

JOHNSON My father did what he could, but I did not realise that at the time.  No boy appreciates his father enough.  Then when he needs him and would like to turn to him for advice, his father is no longer there. It is the common lot. For both fathers and for boys. I was guilty of that, Bozzy.  Take my advice and listen to your father.  But you won’t.  You won’t. (After a pause, he pulls himself together and looks at Boswell.) Now, Bozzy, where were we?

(Miss Williams comes bustling in, and knocks over a chair.)

MISS WILLIAMS   Who put that there?  (She glares angrily in Boswell’s direction.)  That chair is not normally there.  That chair does not live there! (She angrily moves the chair into position.) It lives here! (To Johnson)  More tea, Mr Johnson?  Will you take more tea?

JOHNSON (Brightening at once.)  Another cup of tea, Bozzy?  Tea with Miss Williams?  You’ll stay?

BOSWELL I’m afraid I must be off, Sir. (To himself) I must write all this down. I mustn’t talk to anyone on the way, or I’ll forget it all!  More of Miss Williams’s tea!  Ugh! (To Miss Williams)  It would have been an honour, Madam, a great honour. (He leaves.)

JOHNSON Come again, Bozzy.  Come again. (To Miss Williams) Life goes by and then we realise we have not seen enough of our friends. (He calls again though he knows that by this time Boswell will be out of earshot in the street.)  Come again!

(He turns to Miss Williams)   

You know if you sit down and work out how many times you see a certain friend in one year and then think how many years you may have in front of you, you can then calculate the number of minutes you have left to chat to your friend.  It’s a sobering thought, I can tell you.

(Earnestly he thumps the fist of one hand into the palm of the other.)

Yes, we must keep our friendships in good repair!

Now pour the tea, Miss Williams! Pour the tea and let me hear the gossip of the town.  Boswell doesn’t tell me much!  He just listens to me, and I have a suspicion that he writes it all down when he gets home!  Now, Miss Williams, tell me.  What is happening in the real world?