“worth seeing yes, but not worth going to see”: An article on Samuel Johnson and Ireland, written for the Johnson Tercentenary in 2009

Going through old emails, I came across this. It was written for History Ireland magazine who accepted it… but I don’t think it ever appeared. One for the 310th anniversary I guess



Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, on September 18th 1709. One of the great ironies of literary history is the fact that he is best known to posterity as the subject of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and perhaps a distant second as the “harmless drudge” of a lexicographer who produced a seminal dictionary. Johnson’s own output was vast and tremendously varied. In the tercentary celebrations in 2009, one would hope that the Irish connection will not be forgotten. It was Trinity College Dublin that put the “Dr” in Dr Johnson – and it could be also argued that it set Johnson on a literary course forever.


In 1728, after his mother received a legacy, Johnson enrolled in Pembroke College, Oxford. Later in life, Johnson described his undergraduate self as “rude and violent, [possessed of] bitterness that they mistook for frolic. I was miserably poor, and I thought to fight my way by my literature and my wit; so I disregarded all power and authority.” Indolent, and refusing to attend lectures or present work, he ended up leaving Oxford without a degree in December 1729. The following decade was one of struggle and poverty. He did occasional translation work, married the much older widow Elizabeth “Tetty” Porter, and opened a school in Edial, Staffordshire, in 1735. This was not a success.


Johnson’s lack of a degree was a major obstacle.  He would require support and recommendations from whatever influential persons he could contact. One such was Lord Gower of Trentham, who was not personally acquainted with Johnson, but knew of his reputation as a scholar. Mutual friends persuaded Lord Gower to write to an unknown Irish friend on August 1st 1739 “to prevail upon you to write to Dean Swift, to persuade the University of Dublin to send a diploma to me, constituting this poor man Master of Arts in their University.”


Swift seems to have made no response. Alexander Pope also generously tried to use his influence to obtain a Trinity MA degree for Johnson, but to no avail.  This was Johnson’s last attempt to enter the world of schoolmastering. Over the coming years he eked out an existence of literary drudgery, working on the Gentleman’s Magazine on articles, brief biographies, occasional verses and translations. He  reported on parliamentary debates, which was banned – so the proceedings were printed as those of the Senate of Lilliput.  Four years later, he published his first major prose work, The Life of Richard Savage. Much difficulty, personal, financial and literary lay ahead – widowerhood, poverty, disease, the epic genesis of his Dictionary, supposedly patronised by Lord Chesterfield, to whom Johnson delivered the magnificent rebuke “is not a patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?” However Johnson’s path from 1739 would be a literary one, thanks perhaps to the silence of Swift and Trinity.


In 1765 the year Johnson published his edition of Shakespeare with its famous Preface, Trinity College Dublin recognised Johnson’s eminence and awarded him the degree of Doctor of Laws.  Johnson never travelled to receive this degree (Lord Gower, in his 1739 letter, wrote that Johnson “is not afraid of the strictest examination, though he is of so long a journey”) and, as he was notoriously averse to travel. Johnson never visited Ireland – he damned Dublin as a “worse capital” and the Giant’s Causeway as “worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see.”



Despite these sentiments there is much to suggest a more positive view of Ireland. He certainly does not seem to held the aversion towards the Irish that he held towards the Scots. Boswell reported him advising an Irish acquaintance “Do not make a union with us, Sir. We should unite with you, only to rob you. We should have robbed the Scotch, if they had had any thing of which we could have robbed them.” In a similar spirit, he observed “”The Irish are in a most unnatural state; for we see there the minority prevailing over the majority. There is no instance, even in the ten persecutions [of the early Church] , of such severity as that which the protestants of Ireland have exercised against the Catholicks. Did we tell them we have conquered them, it would be above board: to punish them by confiscation and other penalties, as rebels, was monstrous injustice.”


He wrote to a correspondent “I have long wished that the Irish literature were cultivated. Ireland is known by tradition to have been once the seat of piety and learning; and surely it would be very acceptable to all those who are curious either in the original of nations, or the affinities of languages, to be further informed of the revolution of a people so ancient, and once so illustrious.” And who could disagree with Johnson’s view that “the Irish are a fair people; — they never speak well of one another.””


As a coda, one twentieth century Irish dramatist  was a tremendous admirer of Johnson and conceived a trilogy of plays based on his life. His name? Samuel Beckett.


This Be The Best

In 2013 I entered this in one of the Spectator’s poetry competitions, if memory serves a version of a well-known poem endeavouring to convey the precisely opposite message. With apologies to Philip Larkin:

They raised you well, your mum and dad,

You might not think so, but they did.

They made the most of what they had

And tried their utmost for their kid.

They were well brought up in their turn

By dedicated caregiver, teacher, and so on.

I am glad the soldiers were made return,

So our children could afford this glorious dawn.

Man hands on incremental progress to man

All rising, clear shore to sunny beach.

Reproduce as quickly as you can

And always enthusiastically teach.

Happy 50th Birthday Ballocephala verrucospora

I’ve posted quite a few bits from John Wright’s wonderful “The Naming of the Shrew” . Quite a fewin fact.  It is quite the treasure trove of entertaining and informative material. I have taken the liberty of yet another post to mark the 50th Anniversary of the discovery of a new species of fungus upon a tiny creature in sheep dung. I am sure you are all well aware of this occasion, but just to recap:

Mike Richardson is another such enthusiast. A fellow devotee of fungi, he and I were sharing an Indian meal in an Edinburgh restaurant one evening when he told me the story of Ballocephala verrucospora. Back in the late sixties, he was attending his son’s first birthday party, something which, frankly, can be a bit of a trial for the adults tasked with keeping the little darlings happy. Unable to face a gruelling afternoon of cake and tears, he decided to go for a walk instead. It took him to the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh, where he had only sheep for company. Where there are sheep there are sheep droppings, and knowing that sheep droppings can be more interesting than most people might suspect, he took some home to incubate. A few days later, Mike noticed some small white clumps on the surface of the droppings. Studying his treasures with the help of a dissecting microscope, he discovered that these white clumps were growing from the surface of deceased tardigrades. A tardigrade (its name means ‘slow walker’) is a tiny creature (1.5 millimetres long makes one a giant of the clan), with eight short, fat legs and an ambling gait that has provided it with the common name of ‘water bear’– the ‘water’ part coming from its preference for damp habitats. Mike likes tardigrades (who wouldn’t?), but it was the white clumps that interested him because they were a fungus. Many small creatures can end up as a fungus’s dinner, consumed by the thread-like hyphae that invade their bodies and suck out their precious bodily fluids. A search of the literature enabled Mike to assign the fungus to an existing genus, Ballocephala. But he noticed that its spores were larger than those of the only species known at that time, and were covered in little warts. This and other considerations led Mike to believe at first that he had an undescribed variety of Ballocephala sphaerospora on his hands. However, a fellow mycologist was sure that the find was sufficiently distinct to constitute a new species.


An exciting development, one must surely agree, and Wrights takes us through what happened next:

Mike’s publication of his new species followed the typical pattern that had been used for more than a century (although such a publication is likely to be considerably more complex nowadays than when Mike was writing back in 1970). His paper (referred to as a ‘protologue’ because it is the first word on a species*) begins with an introduction, explaining why he considers his find to be a new species. Then comes the description proper, starting with the heading: ‘Ballocephala verrucospora sp.nov.’ Judith Winston in Describing Specieswrote that while some people approach the naming of a new species with trepidation, others are like expectant parents, asking friends for suggestions and making lists of good candidates. Ballocephala was the name already given to the genus by Charles Drechsler in 1951. It means ‘head thrower’, a reference to the way in which the packet containing the spores (the sporangium) is released by being thrown by the arm-like sporangiophore. The specific epithet verrucospora was provided by Mike himself and simply means ‘warty spores’. This was a good choice, because it describes one of the characters that ‘differentiates’ this species from B. sphaerospora, although there is no rule to say that a specific epithet must represent a difference (differentia in the trade, see here). The abbreviation ‘sp. nov.’ stand for species nova or ‘new species’. Because it is a new species there is no reference to previous descriptions or authors, as would have been necessary had he been reviewing an existing species. In a nice piece of conventional modesty, now dispensed with, Mike does not cite his own name – that is for later writers to do. The next part of the description begins: ‘Hyphae hyalinae, inclusae in corpore hospitis, constantes de cellis secedentibus 20-40 x 10-12 µm diam. Sporangiophora crescentia per superficiem dorsi hospitalis, 50-150 µm alta x 5-7 µm diam, septata solum AD basem

Don’t worry if your Latin is a little rusty, Wright demystifies it beautifully, and introduces what, to me, was a new meaning of the word “diagnosis”:

This is the beginning of the Latin description, which is one hundred words in this case but could be shorter or longer. For a mycologist, even one whose Latin is a hazy memory from school, this description is not too difficult to understand. The Latin of biology is quite different from that of Ancient Rome and different again from Church Latin. It is a highly stylised language all of its own, brimming with specialist Latinised terms that would make Mike’s description almost completely incomprehensible to Cicero. Hyphae hyalinae means something like ‘glassy web’, but here a mycologist would understand it to mean that the hollow fibres (hyphae) that are the ‘cells’ of the fungus are transparent (hyaline). All branches of biology have developed their own specialised nouns and adjectives, usually derived from Greek or Latin, so a description written by a zoologist might make little sense to a mycologist or botanist.

As is traditional, the description is repeated in English translation: ‘Hyphae hyaline, internal in the body of the host, composed of disjointed cells 20–40 x 10–12 µm diam. Sporangiophores growing through the dorsal surface of the host, 50–150 µm high x 5–7 µm diam, septate only at the base.’ What Mike provides is a ‘description’, but he could have given us a description and something called a ‘diagnosis’, or even just a diagnosis. Diagnoses explain what is sufficiently different about the species in question to qualify it for species status. They can be extremely short. For example, if all that differentiated a new species of rabbit from others in its genus was that it was blue, then ‘blue’, would be a sufficient diagnosis. A diagnosis has long been required in zoology but is optional in botany and mycology, where either or both are sufficient.*

Below the description comes this line: ‘Habitat parasitus in Tardigradis (Macrobiotus?). In fimo ovino, West Kip (550 m), Midlothian, Scotland, II. i. 1969. Typus IMI 148042.’ This tells us the habitat – parasitic on tardigrades; that the tardigrade could possibly be a member of the genus Macrobiotus, and that it was found in sheep’s dung (‘In fimo ovino’). It also states where it was found. ‘Typus IMI 148042’ is very important. It tells anyone who needs to check on the original specimens studied by Mike where they can find them – in this case at the International Mycological Institute, reference number 148042. More on ‘types’ later (see here). Just before ‘Typus’ is ‘11. i. 1969’. This is the date on which the specimens were discovered and also, of course, someone’s birthday

So, happy 51st birthday Mr Richardson Jnr and happy 50th birthday to Ballocephala verrucospora

Review of Robert Pogue Harrison’s “Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition”, Nthposition 2009

Another review of mine from the departed nthposition.com. I quite enjoyed this from Robert Pogue Harrison. And  I am now even further along my immersion in the “dull adult world”, ten years later.


Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition

Robert Pogue Harrison

University of Chicago Press.



In adolescence, gardening seems to embody the dull adult world. Why waste time weeding and pruning and mowing when you could be listening to some angry young band or other convince you that the world is there for the easy changing, or wrapping you in a comically soggy blanket of miserabilism? As you get older gardening begins to gain some appeal, though if you need some convincing of the value of it Robert Pogue Harrison’s book is invaluable.


Harrison is the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University, and has previously written on forests and on graves. He is poetic, digressive, discursive – with some respect for the sciences of botany and horticulture, but ultimately siding with poets (especially female ones).  “When it comes to speculation about origins we would do better to credit the intuition of poets rather than the conventional wisdom.”


Harrison begins with Voltaire’s injunction at the end of Candide  that “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” and ends with Firmin in Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano haunted in his alcoholic despair by his own mistranslation of a sign encouraging us not to destroy este jardín  on a neighbouring municipal garden. Firmin believes the sign is really a statement of threat, and one of Harrson’s themes is the Western perception of life as being all about force and purpose. We are “driven but aimless” in his conception, and he writes well and passionately about our times of goal-setting and to-do lists but of nothing beyond narcissism to do.


Harrrison rather grudgingly gives us a note on Versailles, which for him is incarnates “highly refined vice…The cultivation of envy, spite, pride or greed does not transform those vices into virtues: on the contrary, by submitting them to extremely regimented rules and protocols, it gives them a style that renders them sublime while leaving their vicious essence intact.” The majesty of Versailles is exactly that, majesty, and for Harrison the vast scale and order of the place incarnate a certain evil.


He writes of the magic gardens of Gilgamesh and the Garden of Eden, ideal pleasure gardens perhaps but ones which humankind could not bear for very long. Think of Odysseus desperate to leave Circe’s idyll. For Harrison, humanity was shaped by Care (personified in an ancient fable as moulding and naming humanity) and needs to exercise Care to achieve fulfillment. Gardening is the epitome of care taking –  all gardeners are constant gardeners. The Czech author Karel Capek (who coined the word “robot”) is a particular favourite. His “The Gardeners Year” is the source of some of Harrison’s most impressive and thought-provoking reflections. For Capek, before becoming a real gardener, “a certain maturity, or let us say paternity, is necessary” – in youth, one “eats the fruits of life which one has not produced oneself” and one believes a flower is “what one carries in a buttonhole, or presents a girl with.” The gardener is concerned with long time, with the future in the broadest sense.


Gardens and thought are closely related. A garden can be the most exciting place in the world, a place suspended in time, away from the world and yet part of the world. For Harrison, a garden should not be isolated from the world around it, for to be a “still centre of the world” requires the tension that comes from the presence of the world. He writes about Plato’s Academy, a garden for training future leaders, and contrasts it with Epicurus’ Garden School with its principled “idiocy” or withdrawal from public life and competition, and cultivation of gardening and friendship.


We read of princely gardens intended to embody state power, of university gardens, of Japanese gardens, of the convent gardens profaned by Boccacio’s heroes, of the gardens of the homeless in New York City. The book is wide ranging, allusive, and erudite, but it is not authoritative or definitive. There is no Montaigne, or Shakespeare. There is no Garden of Forking Paths. Harrison deals with monastic gardens incredibly briefly and dismissively. His big ideas are at times fascinating, at times tendentious. He devotes much energy to suggesting that the faultline between Islam and the “west” is partly due to the specificity of the Islamic conception of paradise as a pleasure garden of fulfillment, versus the vagueness of the Christian, which may indeed involve further yearning. More profitable is his use of Orlando Furioso as a key text to understand the chaotic nihilism of modernism.


We stray quite far from the garden in the later pages of the essay, and one is relieved to get back to the firm earth. If the gardener is opposed to anything, it is to nihilism. The garden is life-affirming because of its very insistence on care and need for care. Care is what makes life worthwhile, and in Harrison’s reading it was Eve who agitated to get out of the Garden of Eden because everything there was provided all too easily.




Review of “Tom Harris”, Stefan Themerson, Nthposition/SF Site 2011

This review originally reviewed on the now defunct nthposition.com, and with a few tweaks re appeared on  SF Site  which is still online but not active. Re-reading this review, I recall enjoying this book and finding the formal innovations were in harmony with the story, rather than seeming artificial:

Successful novelists are impresarios. I choose the word “impresario” deliberately, rather than, say, “theatre director,” because of its connotations of old-school music hall theatre and indeed rather hard-headed commercialism (oh, and by “successful”, I mean of course successful in achieving the objective of the writing, even if that objective be abstract or unknown to the author, rather than any commercial consideration). As he wrote the sequence of novels that would become known as the Sword of Honour trilogy, Evelyn Waugh found himself creating one of the immortal comic characters of twentieth-century literature — the thunder-box owning old soldier Apthorpe. A secondary character who threatens to overwhelm the action, Sibthorp shuffles off the stage, victim of tropical illness, relatively early in the sequence. Waugh compares the decision to that of an impresario knowing when a beloved, but perhaps domineering, character should leave the stage. The novelist-as-impresario may seem an unusual, even irrelevant comparison for an avant-garde or experimental or modernist writer. Yet the successful writer of experimental fiction will have more in common with the old-fashioned creator of “well-made” novels than one might think.

Tom Harris has the form of a detective story, one that consistently throws the reader off kilter, does not allow complacency or certainty, yet a detective story nevertheless. A detective thriller, even. A detective story that suddenly breaks down, for this is a book of two halves, the second very different from the first. Some questions are answered but most aren’t. This is no classic whodunnit, partly because we don’t quite know whatwozit in the first place.

We begin with an unnamed, unknown narrator, recounting the time in 1938 he waited outside Paddington Station where the eponymous Harris was being interrogated. Why? And why do his interrogators let him go, to take the train to a small village where Harris has a mysterious encounter with a woman and her lover — followed by the narrator and two detectives? We don’t find out, at least not at this early stage. On his return to London, Harris manages to purchase a monkey and to break the invisible barrier between himself, the men trailing him, and our narrator.

Next we are in Milan, Spring 1963, and our narrator is on a train. Opposite an older man and a younger woman canoodled — “to me, they looked refreshing. Especially as just the day before, a young Italian poet, whose father owned a cinema and whose sister was a teacher, had sighed and said his grandfather was the happiest of us all: a peasant in Calabria. This remark whetted my appetite for any human being that looked happy; all in vain… til I saw them.” We soon discover this happiness is illusory too. This is one of the recurrent themes of the book — the disparity between appearance and reality, especially in the everyday way we make judgements and decisions based entirely on initial appearances. Why do we see some faces as “noble,” “honest,” “kind,” etc. and others as their opposites? Mirrors, appearances, beauty, truth, goodness — all are in the mix. Harris himself is a detective, a self-appointed one whose mission is to discover the truth behind appearances. Or is it?

This is to jump ahead, to mix the detective story style plot with the later metaphysical speculations of Tom Harris. Perhaps this jumping ahead is appropriate. The rest of part one is an enjoyable read, an immersion into a world of passion and intrigue, set in Northern Italy around the time of the death of Pope John XXIII. Part two consists of attempted reconstructions by the narrator of Tom Harris’s notebooks. The stream-of-consciousness of Harris’s notebooks (or rather, our narrator’s reconstruction of those, we think) would not be nearly as effective without the intrigue of the first section. As it is, Tom Harris’s thoughts are fascinating, irritating, sometimes a little boring, answering some of the questions posed by the first half of the book but by no means all or many.

Tom Harris, we learn eventually, was a working class boy, “a dull boy,” who had exactly the kind of face people expect to be coarse and stupid, who rather liked being thought dull because people tended to leave one alone and therefore drifted out of school into hairdressing. He stole an encyclopaedia once which becomes the foundation for his transformation into an autodidact. His thought processes, as represented in the reconstruction, have the fascinating, tangential, somewhat obsessional quality that the self-educated often have.

A few words on the author, one who is largely unknown but has his knot of devoted devotees. Themerson was Polish, who during the First World War lived in Russia with his parents before returning to Poland after the Revolution. He began and then abandoned studies in physics and architecture, but left both to devote himself to avant garde film making. In 1938, he moved to Paris and thence to London. He successively wrote in Polish, French and English. Like his compatriot Conrad, his achievement in not merely mastering but excelling in a foreign tongue is humbling. And in some respects, while Conrad’s English always bore a somewhat French, abstracted stamp, Themerson has the demotic quality of Harris’s inner monologue and of English discourse down perfectly. You can believe that the younger Harris is a man of the 30s, while the narrator is one of the early 60s. Themerson and his wife founded and ran Gaberbocchus Press, whose mission was to produced “best-lookers rather than best-sellers” and published Jarry and Queneau in translation. Gaberbocchus became a sort of collective at which artists, scientists, philosophers and others could meet and discuss common ground. Tom Harris and the unnamed narrator, as well as other characters, reflect these preoccupations, and there is an eerily predictive quality to some of the discussion of neural nets and what sounds like chaos theory.

From a literary point of view, the experimental features seem necessary and organic to the story. There is experimentation, there are games played with narration, with characters overlapping — but none seems like a literary game. The detective thriller touches suit the theme, just as the stream of consciousness does. Perhaps the most salient characteristic of the novelist-as-impresario is that you cannot see the joins, that the work seems as logical and necessary as a theorem. Tom Harrisamply succeeds on those terms. Even if, reading purely hedonistically, the latter stages in which we enter Harris’s febrile, disjointed, creative and rather sad thought-world are harder work than the elegant, William Gerhardiesque world of absurdity and chaos of the first part, it is worth persisting with. Part of me wonders if the whole was written in the style of the first half, would it have been overall more successful as a novel — but perhaps then Harris’s mind would never have been unveiled for the reader. Bertrand Russell — who struck up an epistolary friendship with Themerson in the last years of his life — described another novel of Themerson’s as “nearly as mad as the world.” Tom Harris — the novel — is nearly as chaotic and exciting and sad and lonely as life.

One of the nice things about growing older is that you lose some of the inhibitions about admitting you haven’t read a particular writer. One of the less nice things is that your tastes can become a bit ossified and (internally) predictable.

All of which is prelude to saying that I haven’t read the works of Henry Miller, and up to now he he has been a writer I wasn’t terribly interested in reading. Why did I have this prejudice (a literal pre-judging)? I guess what I had read about did not incline me to read more, and in my mind he was conflated with  a certain rather self-conscious American-in-Paris literary pose which grates. Not very edifying on my part, although I do suspect that all our literary tastes have such not very reasonable lacunae.

However recently I have been reading the wonderful blog of Lee Watkins and his discussions / summaries of some of Miller’s work.  The highest praise one can surely give to a literary blog is that it makes you want to read the works featured, and in Watkins’ case it is even better – he makes me want to read a writer that not only I have not read, but one I would not have thought I would ever want to read.

This post by Watkins encapsulates what is it about Miller (or, more properly, what Watkins captures about Miller) that attracts: a commitment to truth and an awareness of his own flaws:

Occasionally people will ask about Henry Miller: was he even a real writer? Wasn’t he a fraud who fooled the world into believing he was the real thing?

Miller’s books are, on the one hand, like nothing else that had ever come before: sprawling and spiralling things without beginning middle or end, so that nothing he wrote could ever be called a “novel” or even really an “autobiography”. Miller found himself unable to write a story and so he played to his strengths and created his own way of expressing himself in writing.

On the other hand, Miller’s books can seem derivative of the avant-garde that had arrived long before him – Dada and Surrealism, for example – so that you could ask yourself: What did Henry Miller really contribute as an artist?

Miller’s books speak to me directly as almost no other writing does. And so I know that Miller was the real thing. But it’s interesting to see that Miller doubted himself as much as his critics did.

He knew that he was capable of lies and fraud, and he spent a lot of time bluffing his way through life before he succeeded as a writer, as we see in his “Rosy Crucifixion” trilogy (SexusPlexus, and Nexus).

The elevator attendant in Chapter 7 of Nexus is bizarrely rude to Henry. We wonder what exactly his problem is. Still, it’s strange to see Henry march back up to him and confront him with “Why do you hate me?” It seems like a sure way to start a fight.

But the encounter is quite revealing. The elevator attendant, a war veteran, has seen through him, he says. He knows a fake when he sees one, and literally has the scars to prove it. Henry is terrified and feels that the man has seen right into his soul

For all that Miller may have used tricks to get by – both in his writing and in his daily life, borrowing and stealing – we see throughout Nexus what it is that he really wants: to find the truth in himself and express it to the world. He is miserable for as long as he is forced to lie and pretend and play a part, and he has to become a writer not because of the expectations of others – since almost no-one expects him to succeed anyway – but because he must do it for himself, to raise himself up to a higher spiritual level. He needs to be able to tell the truth, and to live truthfully.

Miller’s books are an answer to a serious question he posed for himself, and answered truthfully as he could: Who am I? And because he struggled honestly, earnestly, and for so long with this question, a question we all ask ourselves from time to time, he was able, finally, to write books that are really worth reading.

Anyway, here is a Christmas with Henry Miller. I found this story moving for its very ordinariness, and also subverting my (and Watkins’) expectations about what a Christmas with Henry Miller might be like!