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Perhaps it’s the co-incidence of numbers (there are a 100 stories in the one, and 101 in the other), perhaps the similar sizes of the two books, but suddenly the tales of Para Handy collection reminded me of my copy of the short stories of O Henry.

There are other similarities: the length of the stories for one. Both writers favoured shorter pieces that conform to the modern idea of a flash fiction. I’ve just finished reading the slightly longer fourteenth Para Handy tale, Para Handy’s Piper, and that has another similarity with O Henry (and isn’t, on reflection, the first to do so).

Para Handy’s Piper is a clever little story, in which Para tells of the time he had his very own Highland piper (something that clan chiefs could boast of rather than Clyde Puffer skippers). It turns out that Para had his piper for one day only, and that while he was bringing the piper to a cousin’s wedding. Para has found the man, and his pipes, standing outside an inn, and did a quick deal with him to play at the wedding for five shillings, and drink!

It’s a day’s sailing to where the wedding will be held and on the way Para feeds and waters (whiskies in fact) the piper, both on board and at ports of call along the way. He doesn’t manage to get a note of music out of the man, though, and just before they reach the wedding venue, the piper absconds, with his as yet un-played pipes.

The explanation: he was standing outside the inn holding another man’s pipes for him. Para Handy and his crew are left accomplices to a theft! And Dougie, the mate, has to play a Jew’s Harp at the wedding.

It’s a ‘twist in the tail’ ending such as O Henry became famous, and eventually infamous for. You could call it a punch-line ending, which is what a joke demands after all, and humorous little stories like these, which some might dismiss (rather than simply describe) as anecdotes, often call for them.

There is, of course, an obvious difference between the tales of O Henry, and Neil Munro’s Para Handy stories, and that is that the latter are all seen through, and in the main told through the filter of a single character. O Henry’s tales, though told in a recognisable authorial voice are filtered through Henry’s perceptions and put into a wide variety of created narrators. Munro’s are told through the perceptions of his single created character, and the usually present narrator to whom they are being told, and by whom passed on, though often in Para’s own words.

About ten years ago I created a character called Kowalski, and wrote somewhere around fifty or sixty little stories told in his voice, with one or two told about him by his long suffering wife. Reading Munro recently and remembering O Henry, which I read a few years ago, I could see that I had been trying to do something not entirely dissimilar.

Such stories, and there are many other examples by other writers and of other fictional creations, work on the basis (when they do work) of viewing, not so much the character of the creation, as the consequence of the filter that the character brings with him or her. It is the view of the situation seen through that filter, and perhaps also the degree of contrast between that view and the view that the reader would expect to have of the same situation, which provides the humour. There is also, perhaps, the frisson of the reader discovering that he or she has a tinge or more, of those contrasting views lying deep, or not so deep, in their own psyches – not to mention that of the writer.

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I posted last time about Neil Munro’s handling of his Para Handy character’s dialect speech, but what about the stories themselves?

The west coast of Scotland is strung with piers and harbours and wee landing stages, and sands that a Clyde Puffer could be driven aground on quite happily, and Para Handy calls in at them a’. The bulk of the stories are set on the Firth of Clyde, and the sea lochs of Fyne and Long, but Para Handy has taken a dram from Stornoway to Ailsa Craig, from Londonderry (as Munro calls it) to Kilmartin. Munro himself was an Inverary man. He names the bays, the towns, the villages, the ports and the cities, and when the tales go ashore he names the streets and the pubs and the haunts of sailors, and all this gives not only credence and authority to the stories, but hooks the images that lie already in readers’ minds, when they know those places.

It’s mostly in the character though, of the character: of the way he speaks about the way he and others have acted. It’s that whimsical kind of humour that results in hearing someone say something quite absurdly unexpected, or perhaps only too ironically expected. That first story in the collection, The Vital Spark, the story which introduces Para Handy to the world (Para Handy, Master Mariner) sets the tone for all that follow, in that it gives Para Handy the chance to show himself as he sees himself, which, because we see him differently, will amuse us.

As part of that initial tale he explains how come he lost the command of his beloved Puffer, the eponymous, Vital Spark, or as he pronounces it, Fital Spark. This type of humour depends upon that difference between how characters are seen, and see themselves. It depends upon that human ability to see through a type of rose tinted glasses – for Para Handy is one of those characters we characterise as ‘a lovable rogue’, or the euphemism of your choice.

The story he tells involves a cargo of coal, eagerly awaited by a buyer along the coast, but Para Handy and Dougie, a crewman who tends to ‘lead him astray’, have gone into Greenock, and drunk away a couple of days. The buyer makes enquiries, and even sends a pound note, to help the Vital Spark on its way. But the pound note gets nailed to the wall of a bar, and drink is plied until it’s ‘done’. The upshot is that Para Handy loses the cargo, and command of the puffer.

The film, The Maggie, plays on this theme with its Para Handy-like skipper, but in that story it is a cargo of new furniture that is delayed, and eventually dumped overboard. It all depends upon us either not caring about those who suffer from Para Handy’s actions, or feeling that there has been some compensatory pay-off for them too. Of course, in real life that’s rarely the case, but yet there is still that desire to see the ‘chancer’ pull off his coup, the ‘gambler’ to get away with his stake intact and his winnings in his pocket. And those victims, they too we’re happy to see get their come-uppance, for they are shysters also, or too well heeled to miss their losses. Like Robin Hood, Para Handy will never rip off the poor or the vulnerable (well, not the deserving poor at any rate, and only those vulnerable by virtue of their naivety, and being outsiders), though he’ll not pass on his gains either. In many of the stories it’s Para Handy himself, or members of the crew, who finish at the sharp end of the joke.

There is an innocence to Para Handy that takes the edge off his innate selfishness. He has an instinctive generosity that somehow seems always to lie parallel to his own best interests. A good example is when he lets a couple of ‘Gleska’ tourists sleep aboard for two nights, because they can’t get accommodation ashore. He thinks first he’ll charge them two shillings, but gets to like them, and thinks maybe he’ll no charge them at a’. Then they get a bit demanding, and he thinks maybe two shillings wasnae enough. But when they decide to stay for a week – which, they tell him, they’re legally allowed to do – Para Handy makes ready to sail – for the Pacific! As they hurriedly leave, he realises he’s forgotten to take any of their money.

There’s a whiff of the ‘good soldier Sveijk’ about Para Handy. These are stories of the biter bit, the slip between cup and lip, and the wit outwitted. Canny, sly, easily diverted from the purposes of his employment, Para Handy, innocent abroad, or cunning sea-wolf, is never the villain.

 

I don’t know about you, but I have mixed feelings when it comes to dialects, accents and idiosyncratic speech in written fictional dialogue. (Cor blimey, Mary Poppins, yaurrawunda!)

Kipling’s Soldiers Three drive me mad, though I take my hat off to the man for managing to differentiate the accents between them. His Suffolk accents, in later stories, are a little more refined.

I shouldn’t carp. Didn’t I write a character called Kowalski about a decade ago? And didn’t he have a way of speaking that would curdle the milk, so it would? Well, sure he did.

Kowalski, of course was based on TV accents, and I left it to readers to pin him to New York (no. He didn’t sound a bit like the voice in the two lines above!).

So I’m not averse to dialects in dialogues. In fact, mostly, I like them. A character, characters in general, should have their own personal ways of speaking. We all do, after all!

One example I read recently though, set me back on my heels: not because it was too strong, or impenetrable, or lousy, but rather the opposite. It was so damned good the walls of my own writerly self-regard came tumbling down after the first couple of lines. Even Kowalski would have blushed. Ya see, that’s what ya get! That’s what ya get for readin’ writers who can write ya regional accents the way they oughta do!

I’m talking about the Scottish writer, Neil Munro. I’d never read any Neil Munro before; never seen any of the TV adaptations of his stories. I am a big fan of the nineteen fifty something or other movie, The Maggie, which claims a lineage from him. And while we were in Scotland – my favourite foreign country, by the way – earlier in the year, I dropped on a fat doorstep of a book called simply Para Handy. Those of you in the know won’t need telling that Para Handy, the eponymous hero of the book, is the main character in the hundred stories included (of which eighteen were previously uncollected).

They are comic stories, set on Scotland’s west coast, among the fishing boats, coastal steamers and Clyde Puffers that stitched the islands to each other and to the mainland in the days before cruise ships and roll-on-roll-off ferries. The introductory essays pin them to the period 1900-1920. Munro himself, lived 1863-1930, though many official records show his date of birth as one year later. He wrote his comic short stories under the pen name of Hugh Foulis, because, apparently, like the literary establishment that celebrated him as a ‘serious’ writer, he undervalued comic fiction (and possibly the short story).

I’d only got about a page in to the first story, in which Para Handy is encountered by the narrator for the first time, before I realised what a codged up, half arsed, bodged job of a dialect dialogue I’ve been dishing up. So here’s a snippet of a real master at work; understated, perfectly pitched, caught on the ear like a butterfly in the net…from Para Handy, Master Mariner, opening story of the collection The Vital Spark:

 

‘As sure as daith,’ said he, ‘I’m chust Para Handy, and I ken

your name fine, but I cannot chust mind your face.’ ……

 

….. ‘and you’ll be writing things for the papers? Cot bless me! and

do you tell me you can be makin’ a living off that? I’m not asking

you, mind, hoo much you’ll be makin’, don’t tell me; not a cheep!

not a cheep! But I’ll wager it’s more than Maclean the munister…..

 

Word order, choice of words, that softening of the consonants and the skewing of the vowels, and not too much of any of it… the reader’s internal voice (or his outer one, if like me he (or she) favours reading aloud, slowing down to the pace of slack water between tides. In fact, one of the main pleasures in these stories is the way Para Handy, rather than Munro’s narrator tells them, which is why you’ll find moments like this (from Wee Teeny):

 

‘The adventures of Wee Teeny from this stage may be better told as Para Handy told it to me some time afterwards.’

 

With a character like Para Handy, the trick is always to get them to speak directly to the reader! Read it and weep, as they say.

 

I recently fell upon a Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) short story that I’d not read before. This was David Swan and was taken from Twice Told Tales. I found it in a 1967 reprint of a 1935 anthology edited by R.W.Jepson.

The eponymous hero of the story is rare, in my experience, by virtue of being asleep for almost the whole of the story. He falls asleep near the top of the second of the nine pages, and wakes with only half a page to go until the end.

Travelling the road to Boston on a hot day, he takes a roadside nap while waiting for the stagecoach to carry him into town. While he sleeps, ‘in a little tuft of maples with a delightful recess in the midst’ he is visited by three fellow travellers on the same road. Each might bring him a significant, life-changing event if he were to wake and encounter them. The first is of Wealth, the second of Love, and the third, in the shape of ‘a couple of rascals’, the likelihood of Death.

But none of the three do wake him. They only speculate about what his future with them might hold, though Love drives away a bee, and Death begins to riffle through his bundle of clothes, searching for a pocket book or coins.

Each passes on, leaving David to be woken by the arrival of the stage, on which he too leaves the maple grove. The last paragraph is taken back by the narrator, who pleads proof of an ‘superintending Providence’ from the evidence of ‘the airy footprints of the strange things that almost happen.’

Curiously, the editor of the anthology, among the brief biographies that he (or she?) provides for each of the included authors, raise a question (actually, two questions, though related) about the writing, something that is not done in quite so specific a way for any of the others. That question is, ‘How do you think the theme of David Swan would have been treated by a short story writer such as Ambrose Bierce or H.H.Munro? Would they have begun and ended the story as Hawthorne does?’

Bierce and Munro, as you might expect, are both in the anthology, the former with the terrifying A Horseman in the Sky, and Munro with the comic, The Boar-Pig. A short answer, at least to the second part, would be ‘no’, but I suspect that what Jepson really wants us to do – the anthology was perhaps produced for schools – is to notice more clearly what Hawthorne has done, and perhaps describe it.

If you’ve read much on this blog, you’ll know that I’m interested in the structure of short stories, and in particular, in the way that the ‘rest’ of the story contextualises the ending. Here, Hawthorne begins by introducing his theme: ‘We can be but partially acquainted even with the events which actually influence our course through life, and our final destiny.’ You can see, I think, even from that opener, where he might be going with this. And of course, that ending, which I have described, is where you might expect it to end up!

The full laying out of his opening premise takes up about the first half page. Half a page follows of back-story for David. Once we have him sleeping peacefully, about another half page, the three visitations with their speculative futures arrive and are played out. Then David is whisked away on the Boston stage, and Hawthorne is left to make, through his proxy-narrator, the final summation.

It’s a simple, elegant story, and reminds of several I’ve encountered recently, where the author creates an opportunity for a philosophical discussion to be aired. Later writers, and I’m thinking of a couple of Kipling stories primarily – The Eye of Allah and The Debt for example – seem to have put the discussion into the mouths of the characters, with the narrator providing the location, whereas here, Hawthorne has kept the discussion for himself, and allowed the characters to play out a series of illustrative events.

Writers of Hawthorne’s generation, and period, are often cited as being at the beginning of ‘the modern’ short story, but you don’t have to look hard to find earlier versions of the genre. Jepson, in the Introduction, cites Boccaccio, and more generally, even earlier storytellers. Hammerton’s twenty volume World’s Thousand Best Stories, which is my regular quarry for short fiction goes way back to the Ancients of Rome, and Greece, to the Middle East and beyond. Often these stories, through to the Middle Ages, are in the form of what some commentators refer to as ‘Exemplars’, where events are described to illustrate some moral or philosophical teaching.

It does seem to me that Hawthorne’s David Swan might be seen as a step on the road of the evolution of that form.

Here’s the paperback version of my Kipling short story essay collection.

Since I was given the Folio Society’s five volume collection of Rudyard Kipling stories a couple of Christmases ago I’ve been reading, and writing about them.

Like many of my generation I was given The Jungle Book as a child, and can remember taking my copy in to my Junior School Friday afternoon (I think) sessions, where we read out our favourite pieces. Mine were from the poems of the camp animals (camp in a canvas sense that is). I don’t have a copy today, otherwise I’d be turning to read them again, but even over a sixty year gap I can still remember, falsely or otherwise, mule, buffalo, and war horse poems being among ‘em!

I can remember in addition to the Mowgli stories, The White Seal, and Riki Tiki Tavi (spelling not guaranteed), but what I didn’t ever read was what you might call Kipling’s adult stories – or grown-up stories, to avoid another connotation! After that I guess I was made to feel a bit guilty about reading writers ‘like Rudyard Kipling’, because of the racism and imperialism attributed to them.

But of course, when you do read the grown-up short stories, what you find is not the denigration of any particular race, creed or breed, but a canon of thoughtful, and thought provoking stories about the human condition, in love, loss, war and service. You find too, stories of the children of many races and in the care of many creeds, and some of them dead children.

I can’t remember which story I wrote about first, but it wasn’t long before I began to build up a number of short (and simple) essays, responses to what I found. As I’ve suggested  before, repeatingly no doubt, readers ask ‘what’s it about?’ but writers ask ‘How’s it done?’ and I hope the essays go some way to beginning to answer both of those questions. A few have been published previously, on the now archived Thresholds website, in The Blue Nib, in Southlight Magazine, and on the TSS Publishing site, but most are unpublished, and I thought it time to collect them up and make them more widely available. The digital version is now online, and a paperback edition will, I hope, follow!

A quotation I use more than once in the collection, which I’ve called Kipling’s Own People, comes as a sort of tag line to one of his short story collections. It is, he tells us, ‘a native proverb’: ‘I met a hundred men on the road to Dehli and they were all my brothers’ and it seems to me as good a single line representation of what I found in Kipling as any I’m likely to find.

Hemingway wrote of a single ‘true sentence’ within a story acting as a sort of validator of the story, and of the writer. It’s certainly true that sometimes single sentences seem to leap out of stories, making a powerful impact by their insight, potency or simple originality.

In Colonel Baigent’s Christmas, by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, I encountered such a sentence.

Quiller-Couch, Q to some, was a well known writer and editor in his lifetime, but seems to have fallen out of sight. He published several collections of short stories as well as a few novels, mostly set in his native Cornwall. His story Captain Knot, from the Penguin 1957 Selected Short Stories, tells of an ex-slaver Captain who comes to reflect on the possibility that ships have souls, and, not coincidentally upon the souls of men.

Colonel Baigent’s Christmas didn’t make it into that collection, but I found it in an anthology, first published in 1935.

Here’s a sentence that struck me forcibly. It’s about the eponymous Colonel, and the shadow is thrown by the Minster in the unnamed town in which the story is set: ‘So much of his life had been spent under it – and yet, of all his sowing, one small act alone, long forgotten, had taken root here and survived.’

 

That’s what this eighteen page story is all about. The seed was an act of kindness done by him when he was boy, and then forgotten; but not forgotten by the one who benefited from it.

During the contextualisation of the ending to which this story is heading, we learn that the Colonel has returned after many years to the town where he grew up. It is Christmas Eve. He is alone, friendless, unmarried, with all family ‘gone’, and not welcome at the hotel into which he has booked.

He dines alone, winning the reluctant respect of the waiters, who would rather be elsewhere, and he reflects upon his life, and upon the people with whom he was connected before moving away. His memories are brought to an abrupt stop when they reach the year ‘fifty seven’ – that of the Indian Mutiny, in which he had won the VC, and ‘along with it a curious tone in his voice, and an inexpressible gentleness with all women and children.’

This revelation will perhaps wrong foot us in our expectations of where Q will take the story, for a child appears in the story, and one who, unexpectedly, recognises, and ‘knows’ the Colonel. It turns out that, as a hero he is and has been long celebrated by her aunt. He agrees to go with the child and her mother, to visit the aunt, in whose house is a virtual shrine to his memory.

Anyone who has read of the Indian Mutiny – which we know has had such a profound effect on the Colonel that it brings his memories to a halt each time he reflects – must be aware of the cruelty inflicted upon the women and children, particularly those of European descent, during that conflict, and Q’s readers, I think, would have been rather more aware than those of subsequent generations.

But the Colonel has not rescued the aunt from mutineers. It is his small act of kindness when a boy – the picking up of a dropped bundle – that she has never forgotten.

This encounter leads the Colonel, on that Christmas Eve, to a sort of kick-starting of his stalled life, but Quiller-Couch leaves us with an intriguing suggestion, and one which, I suppose, he must have intended the story to encapsulate:

 

‘And the conclusion seems to be that you can not only say the

same thing in different ways, but quite different things in identical

words.’

 

-Which I found rather pleasing, even before I had worked out just what had been said.

I’ve recently read Anthony Beevor’s battle history, Arnhem. (Penguin/Random House/Viking,2018)

I met one or two ex-Arnhem soldiers during my quarter century as a second-hand book dealer, including a Polish gentlemen (whose name, regrettably, eludes me). He told me that he had been an Officer of General Sosabowski’s staff, and recounted a hair-raising encounter with German soldiers, within earshot, whom he successfully evaded!

About seventy books on the battle passed through my hands, and I read somewhere between several and many of them, but that was all ten years ago. Beevor’s book, published in 2018, revisited the horrors of that September clash, and seemed to do so with greater vehemence than memory of earlier reads evoked. Perhaps I have grown more sensitive over the decade.

I can remember being shocked at the incompetence, or rather the intransigent denial, of the men who planned the campaign, their insistence on what would work, and their public-school, boyish enthusiasm for what was described, on occasion in terms of a game. It’s a practice that was still in vogue thirty years later, with headlines like ‘own goal’ for violent losses of life in a different campaign. Reading Beevor though, it was anger this time that caught me. Resonating with current politics, there was also that instinct for denial when the senior officers came to lay blame for the eventual failure, and to claim success for it.

Beevor’s book, for me, also brought out, more than I can remember others having done, the immense suffering of the Dutch civilians around and within whose homes the battle was fought, and whose lives were taken in revenge, after the battle, by the occupying forces. In quotation after quotation he reveals how those forces could not accept, or even understand, the sense of resentment that the Dutch felt at their country having been abused by invasion and occupation, but viewed them as ‘traitors’ for having greeted the paratroopers and men of XXX Corps as liberators. You’ll recall, no doubt, at least one sitting MP in the UK Parliament (on behalf of his constituents, presumably), recently describing people who disagreed with him over Brexit, as ‘traitors’.

Beevor’s story is a hard tell. The bravery, endurance, compassion and brutality of those dealing the destruction is astonishing; that of the civilians (and others) who worked to put it right, even during the worst of moments is humbling.

 

The phrase ‘Institutional Inertia’ comes, I think, from the history of another World War Two battle. That is the battle on the beach at Dieppe. It too was a badly planned affair. I can’t remember the name of the author, but it was a Canadian gentleman, and he (I think) coined the phrase to describe the way in which institutions develop a momentum, with weight and direction sufficient to overwhelm any factual information that would tend to undermine belief in the wisdom, or indeed practicality of what is being planned.

It doesn’t need to be a military plan. It could be economic, social, or political, I imagine. So long as the milieu is one in which an established hierarchy rides the loyalty and sense of belonging of its minions over the fences of common sense, knowledge, intelligence and wisdom, Institutional Inertia will be in danger of carrying the event forward to a disaster that will then be denied, talked down, explained away, and blamed on ‘someone else’ – it’s a version of that old schoolboy excuse that perhaps we’ve all used to get us out of trouble: ‘a big boy did it and ran away’.

An interesting little flurry on Facebook a week or so back, regarding the difference between Sci-fi and fantasy.

Me and another guy simply commented ‘Science’ (though he used all capitals). And it’s a good distinction, but could be expanded. There’s a Philip K. Dick quotation I’ve used more than once, in which he says Science Fiction should be, rather than the question What if?, the stronger, Wow! What if!

But what if can be postulating something that has no basis whatsoever in something that we ‘know’, which the word ‘science’, because of its root, implies. Knowledge is all provisional. It carries the proviso ‘as far as we know’. That differentiates it from belief, which seems so often to carry the proviso ‘despite what we know’.

I wonder if the deeper difference is one of intent. Writing about what’s recent, new or on some sort horizon in our knowledge and technology, has a speculative function. It says, look, we might have to deal with this when we get that. H.G.Wells was such a writer. Such stories are rooted in experience, and experiences to come. Even William Morris’s News from Nowhere could be viewed as a sort of sci-fi, though admittedly with regard to the social rather than the technological sciences.

Fantasy, on the other hand, seems to imply, we won’t have to deal with this, but it might be fun to imagine what it would be like if we did! Of course there’s a huge potential overlap in both directions. We probably won’t have to deal with most of what the sci-fi writer ‘what ifs’ whereas research and development in whatever field (or street) might throw up the most fantastical set of possibilities that we will.

So maybe the difference is to do, not so much with what the story is, as what it’s thought to be at the time of writing (and reading).

Boswell’s London

Looking for something else I stumbled on a copy of James Boswell’s London Jounral (1762-3) which a friend had given me years ago and I had never got around to reading.

I can remember Boswell from school, where we were tasked to read his Tour to The Hebrides (with that old so and so, Johnson). I found him dreadfully dull and boring, and read Ulysses instead.

But I picked up the copy of the Journal and flipped it open. I read a paragraph, and laughed out loud. Then I started at the very beginning, and have been laughing out loud (and wincing occasionally) ever since.

It’s a Reprint Society edition, hardback – no dust jacket – and in generally good condition. Published in 1952, which turns out to be only two years after the ‘first’ publication. The manuscript had sat undiscovered, and then withheld, to protect the family dignity, for nearly two centuries.

There’s a lot to like in it; not least that it’s an ‘easy’ read, by which I mean that the sentences are comprehensible at a first attempt, in the main. Part of the interest is in the view of eighteenth century London life – at least among the non-labouring classes – the tea drinking and the coffee-houses, the steak houses and the theatres. Boswell enjoys it all, along with various ‘amores’, one of which ends in what, I suspect, is the most famous dose of the clap in literature. He’s a self conscious writer, but his finicky dissection of his own thoughts and actions reveals more, I think, that he perhaps intended, and sometimes I found myself laughing at, rather than with him.

Unexpectedly there are gems, of politics and social observation that seem particularly relevant to today, and not least among these, the conversations he reports, and reports upon about the practice, and usefulness of being a writer.

I suspect most of what he covers would have seemed boring to me if I had read it at the age he was when writing, but as a man about to embark on extra time (by the three score years and ten criterion), it seems like a litany of common sense, and folly, that I might have done well to come to grips with several decades ago!

There are two endpaper maps in this edition. They show the London of his time. Only two bridges cross the Thames: Westminster Bridge and London Bridge. They, and Boswell’s text, show how much, and how little the city has changed, and in many ways it dominates his story. What I particularly liked was Boswell’s repeated references to having ‘sauntered’ away a morning or afternoon, which I must admit I myself enjoy doing in any city!

A curious connection to my own life and times occurs in the introductory essay, in which it is revealed that at one point in MS’s history, a half-share in it was left to Carlisle’s Cumberland Infirmary, and by a Mrs Mounsey…the Mounsey name is still known in the Border city. Boswell’s London, and his United Kingdom seems so far from, and so close to our own. Equally surprising, and relating to a blog post on this site a few weeks ago, are the repeated references that Boswell makes to the character MacHeath from John Gay’s play The Beggar’s Opera. MacHeath, you might recall, is the whoring Highwayman of this eighteenth century romp, in which the eponymous hero is brought down by his dependency upon and his abuse of the women in the story. Seemingly without irony, Boswell compares himself to this character, and in doing so perhaps underscores the most significant difference between his time and ours… or then again, perhaps not.

As for that ‘so and so’, I was amazed how interesting I found what Boswell takes from, or puts into Samuel Johnson’s mouth. Not least among them was this pithy explanation of what might be going on at the moment: ‘Thus it is better in general that a nation should have a supreme legislative power, although it may at times be abused. But then there is this consideration: that if the abuse be enormous, Nature will rise up, and claiming her original rights, overturn a corrupted political system.’