Friday, 2 October 2009

Senility has many joys, even though the medicinal evening Martini meets with disapproval from the Ferret.

Do try it. Four lumps of ice, pour over vodka to the count of ten, add a two-inch slice of twisted lemon peel and two drops of dry Martini. It is a recipe for which I am indebted to my friend Brian Hitchen who got it from a Mafia New York Capo de Tutti Capo who was godfather to his son. I count to twenty because I am usually very thirsty.

I also enjoy the pre- lunch toddle and delight in realising the only people who are worried about my weight are my future ex-wife and the poor devils who are going to be ranging themselves round the coffin handles. The funeral is sorted. No service but a Gathering of the Chums. My barbecue will be preceded by the Peterborough Pipe Band, which has at least one very fine piper, playing “The Flowers of the Forest “and “The Black Bear”.

When I am suitably crisp, there will be a boozy lunch at The Griffin whilst I get ready to be born again, hopefully not on a Delhi pavement.

I have little in common with this world to which I have been attached for rations and accommodation. Oddly enough, the things I will miss,family apart and they usually are, will be my constant companion Gormless, my Teddy bear, my computer and my walking sticks. assembled in tribute to Jogglebury Crowdey, one of R.S. Surtees' most lovable characters. “A fat estimable gentleman who devoted himself to the administration of the Poor Law, the propagation of his species and the manufacture of fancy headed walking sticks. Of children he had 12 with the prospect of more, to each of whom, he flattered himself, if he could leave a sufficiency of sticks he would make them independent.”

My Surtees and the rest of my books have given me so much pleasure that I would like to think of them going to a good home. The obvious solution seemed to be to sell them on Ebay.

I took down James Hogg's “Jacobite Relics”, a collection of the songs of the adherents to the House of Stuart. I loathe Bonnie Prince Charlie, a Polish wife beater who wrecked the Highlands. Anyone with doubts should read “The Private Passions of Bonnie Prince Charlie” by Hugh Douglas. But Hogg's collection of Jacobite lyrics and the Whig responses are superb. I learn that “Scotland the Brave”, the march of the Highland Division to which we former members must traditionally stand to attention, was a Whig ballad. Sadly, we assisted Butcher Cumberland, the hero of God Save the King, in his slaughter.

Hogg, a writer, was a farmer's son. He was dogged by the label “ The Ettrick Shepherd“ given to him by a writer in an Edinburgh satirical magazine.

Next my Allan Ramsay collection. A wigmaker by trade, he started the world's first lending library. He wrote poems in both English and Lalland, the argot of Edinburgh. His poetry salutes his friends who included aristocrats and bawds, topers all. His son was the eponymous painter to whom he wrote:

“With glowing colours thou canst show
Th' embroidered coat and nice toupee;
Draw him a firstrate blazing beau
Easy and airy, gay and free.

“But I can place him on a light
That will his higher merit show
Display what makes him much more bright
His courage. Learning and his wit.”

He is, so far as I know, the only poet who wrote an anacreon to an orange, or indeed one “On a slate falling on Mrs M's breast”. He wrote odes to Edinburgh's bawds and panegyrics to the aristocracy. He summed himself up in the preface to his Collected Poems: “'Tis none of the least of my diversions to see one part of the world laughing at the other, yet all seem fully satisfied with their own opinion and abilities; but I shall never quarrel with any man whose temper is the reverse of mine, and enters not in the same pleasures. 'Tis as ridiculous for one to be disobliged at another's way of thinking as it is to challenge him for having a nose out of shape with his.”

His son was a magnificent portrait painter. Our late Cousin John, whose estate is to be sold at Christie's next year, had several Ramsay paintings. If I can buy one I will die happy but I fear they will be beyond my purse.

The most valuable book I have is Burton's ”Anatomy of Melancholy”, which Dr Johnson said was his favourite book and the only book that got him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise. Burton was a 17th century Oxford scholar, astronomer and mathematician, and the last man to be able to say he had read every book in the world. I have had my copy for forty years and still haven't finished it. He published under the name of Democritus Junior, a philosopher who was “a waspish old man, very melancholy by nature, averse from company in his latter days and much given to solitariness.” He promised to “dissipate you in jests, pulverise you into salt and sacrifice you to the God of Mirth” and warns: "Yet one caution let me give by the way to my present or future reader, who is actually melancholy, that he read not the symptoms or prognostics in the following tract, lest by applying that which he reads to himself, aggravating, appropriating things generally spoken to his own person (as melancholy men for the most part do), he trouble or hurt himself, and get in conclusion more harm than good."

As I riffled through it, I had a pleasant surprise. I found a caricature of me in my youth by another dazzling talent, my great friend Jack Stoneley, who could draw nearly as well as he could write.

Thomas Warton, the Poet Laureate, wrote of “Melancholy” in 1785: “The author's variety of learning, his quotations from rare and curious books, his pedantry sparkling with rude wit and shapeless elegance ... have rendered it a repertory of amusement and information."

Michel de Montaigne, the inventor of the essay, is my favourite human being. He wrote about himself because he said that was the only subject on which he was an expert.
“The Autobiography”, which Lowenthal, an American scholar, produced, is apparently an oxymoron. In fact, Lowenthal has collected everything Montaigne wrote in his letters, travel journals and essays to assemble using the witty Frenchman's own words to create this marvel of a book.I first came across it as a schoolboy in our village library, in the far off days when libaris still had books. The new multi milllion pound library in Cambridge has far more space than it has bookshelves

Boswell's Life of Johnson is another favourite but I much prefer the doctor's Collected Works which once saved me from going mad. His prose is like crystal water, liquid, clear and flowing. In his journal “To The Western Islands” he explains in great detail how Scottish windows differ from the English variety. Then adds:
“These diminutive observations seem to take away something from the dignity of writing, and are therefore never communicated but with hesitation, and a little fear of abasement and contempt. But it must be remembered that life consists not of a series of illustrious actions or elegant enjoyments, the greater part of our life passes in compliance with necessities.”

Thanks to Boswell, Johnson has come down to us as a boor. He was nothing of the kind. At night, walking the silent streets, if he came across an urchin sleeping in a doorway, without wakening him, he would slip a coin into his hand. Wakening, they would think they had been visited by an angel.

In a way they had.

I was lucky enough to find the collected works of the Rev Sydney Smith, who founded the Edinburgh Review, He wrote to an unhappy friend, Lady Morpeth, these suggestions. They are as sound now as they were almost 200 years ago.
“1st. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75 or 80 degrees. 3rd. Amusing books. 4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea. 5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you.
7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best.
12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep good blazing fires.

My treasured books have all been written by lovable scholars. None more so than a Norwich doctor, Sir Thomas Browne, who wrote “The Religion of a Doctor“. The book tries to reconcile science and religion. It was placed on the Papal Index because of its unorthodox religious speculations.
Goodness knows what the Pope would make of “Sum” which I am reading now. Very short stories about the Afterlife by a scientist David Eagleman where heaven is variously a place where one is judged by one's credit card ratings, in age groups or where you are forced to live with annoying versions of what you could have been. On a recent radio programme he described his religion as Possibilianism. He claims our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position, agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious fiction (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. But with Possibilianism, he says, “I'm hoping to define a new position -- one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story."

Browne and Eagleman would have got on like a house on fire. Browne was knighted by accident when the Mayor of Norwich refused the honour. He invented many of the words we use today. His “Enquiries into Common and Vulgar Errors “ is my favourite. It includes the beliefs that an elephant has no knees and thus can only sleep leaning against a tree. The best way of catching them is to saw down the tree.

In the 17th century he prophesied America would become the economic equal of Europe: “That is, when America shall be so well peopled, civilized and divided into Kingdoms, they are likely to have so little regard of their Originals, as to acknowledge no subjection unto them: they may also have a distinct commerce between themselves, or but independently with those of Europe, and may hostilely and pyratically assault them, even as the Greek and Roman Colonies after a long time dealt with their Original Countries.”

Three history books are essential. Merry gossipy Herodotus, David Fromkin's masterly analysis of Versailles and its attendant follies “A Peace to End All Peace” and the “Armies of the Sand” by John Sabini which tells of the war between Egypt and the Wahabi in the early 19th century over the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina..Important I believe because they explain the collective suicide of Western civilisation

There are so many favourites on my shelves. My “Winnie the Pooh”, “Wind in the Willows”, my collection of Old Bill cartoons, the facsimiles of medieval Books of Hours and the “Tournaments of King Rene”, a magnificently illustrated book of rules of jousting.

It is no use. E-Bay is out. I had a blind friend who continued to collect books because their presence comforted her. I know how she feels. To paraphrase the childhood prayer, there may or may not be angels round my death bed. If there are, they will be sitting on a wall of books.