29 January 2011

Boswell's hangover...

I've mentioned To the Hebrides once or twice before. A splicing of Dr Samuel Johnson's Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and James Boswell's more confiding Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, the book combines these two rather different accounts of their 1773 jaunt, side by side. While Johnson's tone is generalising and impersonal, Boswell's writing sets down a far more human, observational account of their traipsing  and voyaging (although most of their time seems to have been spent slurping and chomping in the houses of local persons of quality, able to put the beefy pair up for a night or three). With its eye for human detail and its more honest-seeming authorial voice, owning up to life's little scandals and embarrassments, I find Boswell's the more entertaining and engaging of the two. That said, Boswell exults in the long (and stodgily-formed, broad bodied and tun bellied) shadow of the Englishman and obsessively sets down the impression he made on their new friends and acquaintances amongst the Gaels. This was clearly an almost child-like fixation on and admiration for the older man. You get the sense that Boswell was permanently fretting about being in his pulpsome English companion's good esteem, intimate but intimidated.

Blessed with a pinch of humour and I dare say a good deal of impish mischief, manifesting in the permanent intellectual persecution of all he encountered, Johnson himself cuts an irresistibly bumptious figure, who at times bears a striking resemblance to the traditional pub bore, improbably expert in most matters and always keen to dispense his insights into everything from farming, butchery, high literature to matters of piety and sundry Scotch deficiencies. I liked him better after following an editor's footnote to this anecdote from one Reverend Robert Forbes. It's a scene that is easily conjured, and I never could resist a comic spot of social awkwardness...

"You know the famous Doctor Johnson has been amongst us. Several anecdotes could I give you of him, but one is most singular. Dining at the table of one of the Lords of Session [a judge of the Court of Session], the company stumbled upon characters, particularly it would appear of kings.  "Well, well," said the bluff Doctor, "George the 1st was a robber, George the 2nd a fool and George the 3rd an idiot." How the company stared I leave you to judge." (2007, To the Hebrides, 536).

For myself, I find Boswell at his most likeable when he is living up to the frivolous, cheerful, bluff dimensions of his nature - and at his least plausible when he pinches himself with earnest but not wholly convincing conscientious pieties. The following excerpt from Boswell's Journal neatly touches on all of these things. With wonderful preciseness, it takes us to the isle of Skye on Saturday the 25th and Sunday the 26th of September in the year 1773. A 33 year old Boswell reminds us that a hangover as a potentially universal human experience, and a humble hair-of-the-dog wisdom prevailed, even in the 18th century...

"Dr Johnson went to bed soon. When one bowl of punch was finished, I rose, and was near the door, in my way up stairs to bed; but Coirechatachan said, it was the first time Coll had been in his house, and he should have his bowl; and would not I join in drinking it? The heartiness of my honest landlord, and the desire of doing social honour to our very obliging conductor, induced me to sit down again. Coll's bowl was finished; and by that time we were well warmed. A third bowl was soon made, and that too was finished. We were cordial, and merry to a high degree; but of what passed I have no recollection, with any accuracy. I remember calling Coirechatachan by the familiar appellation of Corrie, which his friends do. A fourth bowl was made, by which time Coll, and young Mackinnon, Coirechatachan's son, slipped away to bed. I continued a little with Corrie and Knockow; but at last I left them. It was near five in the morning when I got to bed.

SUNDAY S26 SEPTEMBER. I awakened at noon, with a severe head-ach. I was much vexed that I should have been guilty of such a riot, and afraid of a reproof from Dr Johnson. I thought it very inconsistent with that conduct which Iought to maintain, while the companion of the Rambler. About one he came into my room, and accosted me, "What, dry yet?"

His tone of voice was not that of severe upbraiding; so I was relieved a little. "Sir," said I, "they kept me up".

He answered, "No, you kept them up you drunken dog."

This he said with good-humoured English pleasantry. Soon afterwards, Coirechatachan, Coll, and other friends assembled round my bed. Corrie had a brandy-bottle and a glass with him, and insisted I should take a dram. "Ay", said Dr Johnson, "fill him drunk again. Do it in the morning, that we may laugh at him all day. It is a poor thing for a fellow to get drunk at night, and sculk to bed, and let his friends have no sport."

Finding him thus jocular, I became quite easy; and when I offered to get up, he very good-naturedly said, "You need be in no hurry now".  I took my host's advice, and drank some brandy, which I found an effectual cure for my head-ach. When I rose, I went into Dr Johnson's room, and taking up Mrs Mackinnon's prayer-book, I opened it at the twentieth Sunday after Trinity, in the epistle for which I read, "And be not drunk with wine, wherein there is excess". Some would have taken this as a divine interposition." (2007, To the Hebrides, 273).

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