Memory is the primary and fundamental power, without which there could be no other intellectual operation.Sam Johnson, Idler 44 (Saturday, February 17, 1759)
I had a great chat this past Sunday with my condo neighbour Shelley, who is also a Sam Johnson enthusiast. In fact he had been kind enough to agree to be the first interviewee for my podcast, 3 More Minutes about Sam, a link to which now appears at the end of all my blog posts. We covered a wide range of topics, and it wasn’t really an interview so much as a chat, with Shelley perhaps asking me as many questions as I asked him. Here are some things we discussed:
- Sam’s writing. Shelley described it (I think I am getting the quote write) as “hard to discern but a joy to read.” All those subordinate clauses, you know.
- Sam’s writing 2. Shelley is a fan of John Wain’s biography and also of Sam’s letters. I had given him an extra copy I had of a selection of the letters and he was happy to have a book that you could open up at any point and find pleasure in the reading. Sam’s character comes through as well, including his warmth, politeness, and civility.
- Sam’s living arrangement. In the last 20 years or so of his life, Sam was fortunate to be able to spend as much time as he wanted at his friend Hester Thrale’s estate (called Streatham), where there was luxury and solitude and good company. He wasn’t there all the time though, and so he would return from Streatham and be at his regular house at Gough Square in London, or elsewhere, where there was little solitude and a lot of disagreement. Sam had a few people who lived there permanently with him (a blind poet, a servant, a doctor who might not have been a doctor), but he also hauled in people from the streets for the night as well. The occasional prostitute was temporarily rescued for at least a night in this way. As Shelley described the motley crew, “everyone seemed to be arguing with everyone else.” The common theme for Sam though is people. He was no introvert and was most comfortable when people, whatever people, were around him.
- The famous letter to Lord Chesterfield. I told Shelley this is one of my favourite things of anything Sam ever wrote. Controlled, firm, brutally honest, and not caring that it was a Lord who would be the recipient.
- Sam’s self-criticism. We both agreed that this was surprising and distressing to read from a man who accomplished far more than most people did and do.
If you do click the link to the podcast at the end, you’ll notice that my conversation with Shelley is not what you hear. That’s because I spoke to him on the phone, made sure that the mic was plugged into the phone, saw that the app which records phone calls was working, and had earbuds in so that I could hear Shelley and also so that my voice would be as clear as his on the recording. And then I forgot to turn on the mic.