Having words

By Laurence Shelley

I had to ask six people for directions to the Samuel Johnson Museum before I found it. 'I'm shocked,' I told the hapless museum attendant, 'no-one seems to know where you are. There's not a sign in sight till you're almost outside. And twice I've been sent to the Samuel Johnson Community Hospital.'


He shrugged. 'I know. We've been on to the Council to do something.'


'But he's Lichfield's famous son,' I protested, 'born in this very house. People must come from all over the world. They need to find it.'


He started telling me what to see, but I interrupted. 'I have a book owned by Samuel Johnson junior that records all our family details. It was given to my great-great-grandmother. Could he be related?'


'Huh,' he said. 'The Samuel Johnson had no children of his own but everyone wanted to claim a connection. Why, twelve people jumped on his grave, all bent on writing his biography.'


That silenced me. He said it took Johnson nearly ten years to complete the dictionary, with 42,773 words, including 22 definitions of 'up' and 18 of 'in'. And 120,000 quotations, I could have added.


Time to see the video, an eye-opener. Poor Johnson suffered from scrofula as a child, had facial scarring, could only see a few inches in front of his face and had a variety of unsettling tics. As a young boy he escaped from school one day, crawling home on all fours when the headmistress caught up with him. He was so angry at being followed that he pushed her away, a sign of times to come. Boswell, his friend and biographer, accounted for one conversation as follows:


Johnson: "Well, we had a good talk."


Boswell: "Yes, sir, you tossed and gored several persons."


Was I slipping into his shoes? I inked in my protest at the lack of signage with the quill pen kindly provided for comments. About to leave, I said, 'I'm planning to follow in his footsteps to Scotland. But there's hardly anything about his three months there with Boswell, and just a mention of tics. Doing what he did with such afflictions is surely worth flagging up.' Those were my parting shots.


'I have to agree,' the man said. 'You know, before exiting a room he had to spin round three times and leave on the correct foot.'


Best foot forward then. I bought one of those biographies. 


I was in Oban on the royal wedding day. I took time out to walk the harbour front, admiring McCaig's Tower high above the town, like some Roman amphitheatre, built in 1897 by unemployed stonemasons as a memorial. Johnson and Boswell were here in 1773 so could not have seen it.


A display board commemorated Johnson's visit next to a bench on which a green-scarfed man gazed out to sea. I mentioned the wedding. 'It's a wedding, that's all,' he said. 'I'm off to Glasgow today for the football.'


Johnson might not have shared this man's passion for getting physical. Speaking of Lichfield, he said, "We are a city of philosophers, we work with our heads and make the boobies of Birmingham work for us with their hands."


Celtic beat Motherwell 2-0 in the Cup Final, a double treble apparently. This was 'a day that will last forever,' the Celtic manager said.


'An absurdly inappropriate choice of words,' Johnson might have observed.


But what would people speak up about today? I had to find out. A day was wasted when Johnson didn't meet someone new.


'What bugs you?' I asked a psychology student from a close-knit community in the Philippines. She had broken free from the religious orthodoxy but 'people think you're abnormal if not conforming,' she said, and still couldn't voice her deepest thoughts.


'So how do you manage?'


'I keep a journal,' she said, 'and write poetry.'


'Well done, but speak out,' Johnson would have urged. He felt something of an outsider too, but nothing stopped him from expressing his views, in print or verbally. 


A young jogger, Daniel from the USA, was taking a breather.


'What bothers you?' I asked.


A protracted silence followed - several minutes perhaps - as Daniel tried to articulate his answer. I nodded patiently while he hummed and hawed.


At last, it came out: 'It's people who take things at face value. If only they went just one step beyond.'


Johnson went way beyond. In his youth, he refused to man his sick father's market stall. Fifty years later he expiated his guilt by standing sentry-like at the very same spot for a whole hour.


I took the ferry to Mull and my questioning took off. 'There's too much forecasting,' one chap said, cleaning his car. 'Too much greed,' said someone else. 'Too many people,' said a lecturer from Paris. He had zero kids. Johnson too, I remembered.


At Tobermory, Johnson found the Port More Inn "tolerable", the only building then fronting the harbour. An inn no more, it sits anonymously at the back of the Co-op. At the tourism office, potholes were the bugbear. Just think of the hardship Johnson endured on horseback I felt like countering. 


On to the Isle of Ulva and a lunch of smoked mackerel pate with oatmeal biscuits. It had to be those after Johnson's infamous entry for 'oats' in the dictionary: A grain, which in England is generally given to horfes, but in Scotland supports the people. He didn't think that well of Scotland, calling it "a worse England."


His night on Ulva couldn't have helped. He and Boswell slept in a room with a broken window and wet clay floor. Johnson woke up to find his feet "in the mire", in what is now a stable. Despite his jaundiced view of Scotland, he could still say at the end of the journey: "I got an acquisition of more ideas by it than by anything that I can remember." No-one can argue with that.


heritage, protest, samuel johnson, dictionary