What Is This World Coming To?

"What is this world coming to?" I muttered to myself.

That, I suppose, is the remark of an old man. But before you go clicking yourself elsewhere, give me a moment to explain. What occasioned my curmudgeonliness was a recent trip to London. Nancy and I decided to pay a visit to the Samuel Johnson House at 17 Gough Square. I had expected some perfunctory experience in the usual "house of X" fashion. I was surprised. The house managed to give a genuine sense of what it was like when Johnson lived there.

Photograph of first floor taken from the Johnson House  home page
Portraits of his impressive circle of friends (Sir Joshua Reynolds, Boswell, of courrse, Oliver Goldsmith, Mrs. Williams, et al) were hung on the walls.  It brought the human traffic of the house into focus.  Oliver Goldsmith was a frequent guest, the author of Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:

                                   The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, 
                                   The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea...

Goldsmith's talent was inversely proportional to the weakness of his chin and he had a very weak chin. He had a fragile ego as well. Here is what Boswell in his The Life of Samuel Johnson has to say about Goldsmith:
  • Those who were in any way distinguished, excited envy in him to so ridiculous an excess, that the instances of it are hardly credible. When accompanying two beautiful young ladies with their mother on a tour in France, he was seriously angry that more attention was paid to them than to him; and once at the exhibition of the Fantoccini in London, when those who sat next him observed with what dexterity a puppet was made to toss a pike, he could not bear that it should have such praise, and exclaimed with some warmth, "Pshaw! I can do it better myself."

I bought a copy of James Boswell's biography in the reception area on the way out of the house. It is a 1248 page tome. I'm half-way through. It is a remarkable book consisting almost exclusively of Boswell's questions and Johnson's replies. I should have read the book first and then visited Gough Square.

But it isn't just the book and the pictures on the walls that bring the house to life. There are the tiny details, like the front door that  Johnson literally barred to keep out a butcher who had come to drag him off to debtor's prison. Had the butcher gotten in, Johnson would have been jailed. Thank goodness Johnson was a man of action as well as thought.

At the top of the Johnson House is a particularly sparse room that should be to lexicographers what the Vatican is to Catholics. This is where Johnson wrote his famous A Dictionary of the English Language, an amazing enterprise for one man that was nine years in the making. Its completion turned him from being a London scribbler to a British lion.

The room is sacred in a secular sort of way. This was where the model for James Murray's masterwork, The Oxford English Dictionary was constructed; bare floors, a deal table and slips of paper. This was where Johnson conceived the definition of a lexicographer as "a harmless drudge."

The picture that emerges from Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson is, above all, one of a group of people centered around Johnson who cherished the life of the mind. Boswell, Garrick, the actor, Joseph Banks, the naturalist who accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and many, many more, all of them members of the famous Literary Club, all of them children of the Enlightenment. They were first and foremost dealers in ideas. Conversation to them was the coin of the realm and, for Boswell, Johnson's was pure gold.  

So why, then, do I ask "What is this world coming to?"  

On a recent visit to London we stopped at a coffee shop to buy a pound of Finca Las Nubes for my son, who lives here. The young woman who helped us was thoroughly charming. Nor could she  have been more helpful. When I say young, I mean somewhere in her  twenties. We chatted.  She wanted to know the usual things. How long had we been here?  How long would we be staying? What had we seen today?

In answer to her last question I said, "We went to Samuel Johnson's house in Gough Square."

"Who is Samuel Johnson?" she asked.

I hid my astonishment. How could anyone educated in England not know who Samuel Johnson was?

The young woman recommended a restaurant on nearby Great Queen Street. She was right. It was excellent.  

Our waiter had a Scottish accent. He told me that he lived just outside Glasgow.  Boswell was Scottish.  In fact, Johnson had once said of him, "I will do you, Boswell, the justice to say, that you are the most unscottified of your countrymen.  You are almost the only instance of a Scotchman that I have known, who did not at every other sentence bring in some other Scotchman."

I couldn't resist asking, "What do you and your fellow Scotsmen think of James Boswell?"

"Who?" he replied.

Well, it is only a sample of two.  Still, these two gems of the British Isles ought to be savoured by everyone of its sons and daughters.  Instead, they have made me wonder whether Johnson and his faithful Boswell have disappeared into the shrouds of history.

What is this world coming to?