It was on this day – September 20, 1777 – that Dr Johnson uttered his famous phrase about London. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.
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London Walks here with your daily London fix.
Story time. History time.
How do you do it?
How do you not do it?
That’s the rock and the hard place for this one.
It – as in how do you do it – “it” is the single most famous thing ever said about London. It’s so famous – so well known – commentary is superfluous. But precisely because it’s the single most famous utterance about London, how do you not do it? It’s the elephant on the patio – how can you possibly not do it?
It’s a conundrum. Squaring the circle.
But let’s have a go nevertheless.
And why today? Because it was on this day – September 20th, 1777 – that that famous pronouncement was made.
And come to think of it, that’s a start. That’s maybe a handhold. Like everybody else I of course knew that Dr Samuel Johnson said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” I did not know he launched those words into orbit on this day – September 20th. It’s small beer but it’s nice to know. Think of that American baseball parlance – winning the pennant. The pennant is a flag that shows that a particular baseball team is the winner in its league. The team affixes its pennants permanently to a frieze near the top of the stadium. Or flies them from flag poles that ring the upper deck of the stadium. Well, from now on, for me, if each day in the year is a stadium, the September 20th stadium will forever be flying the pennant “when a man is tired of London he is tired of life.”
Everyone knows the quote but I suspect almost no one knows the context. So let’s go there. That might be another handhold. Those lapidary words were uttered in Ashbourne, in Derbyshire.
The great man of letters had just marked his 68th birthday. He was born on September 7th, 1709. He’s very much on the home stretch of his tenure amongst the quick, the living. He dies on December 13th, 1784. Expiring, he uttered two Latin words – this is so Dr Johnson – “iam moriturus” – which means, ’now about to die’.
My hunch is that approaching 70, he felt the shadows drawing in. He was always terrified of death. And that’s not in any way to fault his courage. His last days were excruciating. He had a painful tumour on his scrotum. Now cover your ears if you’re squeamish: he performed, on himself, without benefit of anaesthesia, surgery on the afflicted body part.
So with increasing physical infirmities in his late 60s, the great Cham, as he was affectionately known, was travelling while he could. Getting out and about. Visiting old haunts, old friends.
The year before, 1776, he’d moved to his last London residence. 8 Bolt Court, up an alleyway leading off Fleet Street. He’d gone on a springtime ramble to Oxford, Lichfield and Ashbourne. Lichfield was his hometown. He’d attended Pembroke College at Oxford half a century earlier. He’d applied for a teaching job at Ashbourne. And stayed there with a friend. Indeed, fell in love with an Ashbourne woman. These were his old haunts prior to his coming to London. He was making his valedictory tours.
And there were trips in 1776 to Bath, Bristol and Brighton.
The next year – our year, 1777 – there was another trip to Oxford. And Ashbourne. His young Scots friend – and biographer – James Boswell joined him for a week in Ashbourne. And over the course of one of their wide-ranging conversations, the lapidary words came forth. Boswell tells us, “we entered seriously upon a question of much importance to me, which Johnson was pleased to consider with friendly attention. I had long complained to him that I felt myself discontented in Scotland, as too narrow a sphere, and that I wished to make my chief residence in London, the great scene of ambition, instruction, and amusement: a scene, which was to me, comparatively speaking, a heaven upon earth.”
Johnson said, “Why, Sir, I never knew anyone who had such a gust for London as you have: and I cannot blame you for your wish to live there: yet, Sir, were I in your father’s place, I should not consent to your settling there; for I have the old feudal notions, and I should be afraid that Auchinleck would be deserted, as you would soon find it more desirable to have a country seat in a better climate.”
Boswell – he who had such a gust for London – then confessed to Johnson that he did have one misgiving about moving there. He said, “I suggested a doubt, that if I were to reside in London, the exquisite zest with which I relished it in occasional visits might go off, and I might grow tired of it.”
That sentiment was a red flag to a bull. Johnson thundered at him, “Why, Sir, you find no man at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Case closed. Game, set, match.
I think the other thing about trying to get that famous remark into even sharper perspective is to put on a really wide-angle lens and view it through same. Including earth-shaking world events. The French Revolution, for example – it was twelve years in the future, undreamt of in that room that night in that house in Ashbourne. What was known was what happened the year before, 1776, on July 4th in Philadelphia. How that would play itself out was also probably unimaginable, even to a mind as searching and as astute and powerful as Dr Johnson’s.
Out of curiosity, though, I did a bit of digging. Drew to an inside straight and hit it.
While the great Dr Johnson and his young Scottish admirer were conversationally drinking toasts to the wonders of London, 3 and a half thousand miles to the west a British regiment was waiting for nightfall near Paoli, Pennsylvania. In the dead of night they were going to set upon an unsuspecting, sleeping force of American rebels. To take the sleeping Americans by surprise, the British Commander, Colonel Charles Grey, the first Earl Grey, ordered the British troops to remove their flints and use the bayonet. In the engagement more than 420 Americans were killed, captured or wounded. The Americans termed it a massacre and portrayed “No Flint” Grey as a monster. In time, Pennsylvanians erected a monument on the site to the victims of “British barbarity.”
Well, nothing to do with Johnson and Boswell – but, coincidence though it is, I suppose it’s a black pennant flying from the September 20th stadium. Depending of course on whose side you take. Something like that today we would know in seconds – extraordinary to think that it would have been at least six weeks before news of the massacre – or victory as it would have been termed here – reached London in 1777.
And thinking about London sending Redcoats across the ocean to try to stamp out that fire that was spreading over there in the 1770s is actually a way of circling back to Dr Johnson’s famous remark. I’ve turned over and over in my mind the question, what is it about this place, why does one love it so much. It’s not because it’s an especially beautiful city. It’s not because of the climate. The word that I always come to in the last analysis is stimulating. This place is just so stimulating. You never get bored here. There’s so much going on. And in relation to that bit of history, I think you can add, London has this mysterious power of making you feel personally historic. Even historically important. Today – the Queen’s funeral – is a perfect example of that. It happened here. In our town. We were part of it. This place has seen so much history that living here – well, some sort of extraordinary alchemy kicks in and you end up feeling a part of all that, you feel personally historic. Which is pretty cool.
Now how to end this. Dr Johnson is a joy to guide. So many good stories about him. It wouldn’t be in the spirit of this podcast series to trot out the most famous utterance ever made about London and leave it at that. Let’s end by telling you a story or two that you probably didn’t know. Nobody had a better mind than Dr Samuel Johnson. This was one smart guy. But he wasn’t infallible. He sometimes got it spectacularly wrong. Of all of his bellyfloppers my favourite is his humdinger about swallows. Here’s what he said. “Swallows certainly sleep all the winter. A number of them conglobulate together, by flying round and round, and then all in a heap throw themselves under water, and lie in the bed of a river.”
God knows how he got that idea. And what I wouldn’t give for it to be true and see it. But we do have the takeaway of that verb conglobulate. Come to think of it, I suppose we could say London Walkers conglobulate together, circle round and round a guide and then all in a heap throw themselves under the spell of said guide and his bit of London.
And another favourite Johnson tale. He was friends three little old London ladies. Old dears. They adored him. He adored them. When he completed his great masterwork, his dictionary – it took him over eight years and he did it virtually singlehanded – to get that into perspective for you the comparable French dictionary took a team of 40 French academicians over 20 years and even then they hadn’t completed it – anyway, when Dr Johnson finished his great dictionary the three little old dears invited him over to tea to celebrate the completion of his magnum opus. And a wonderful time was had. They were having tea and cakes and sandwiches – and as I said, they adored him and he adored them. And then one of them said that what they were most pleased about was that he’d left out the naughty words.
Dr Johnson roared at them, “aha, my dears, I see you’ve been looking for them.”
And on that note… I’ve probably – in this Today in London slot – already recommended a visit to Dr Johnson’s House. But no harm in doubling down on that. And if you do go there, nip round the corner into Bolt Court, where his last residence was. Maybe don’t think about his personally performing surgery on his scrotum but the courage and class of his dying words – that Latin phrase “iam moriturus” – “about to die” – that can always be held up for a second look. Held up – and admired.
You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from www.walks.com – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.
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It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for.
Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.
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And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.
And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. See ya tomorrow.