'In this way I shall preserve many things that would otherwise be lost in oblivion. I shall find daily employment for myself, which will save me from indolence and help to keep off the spleen, and I shall lay up a store of entertainment for my after life.'

For James Boswell posts please follow the labels on the right.

This blog mainly contains reviews from the Edinburgh Festivals from 2008 to 2010 which I wrote for the Edinburgh Festivals Magazine. These reviews cover everything from comedy to contemporary dance; children's theatre to Handel.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Know thy City

'The liberty and the whim that reigns there occasions a variety of perfect and curious characters. Then the immense crowd and hurry and bustle of business and diversion, the great number of public places of entertainment, the noble churches and the superb buildings of different kinds, agitate, amuse, and elevate the mind. Besides, the satisfaction of pursuing whatever plan is most agreeable, without being known, or looked at, is very great.’ 

As an outsider in the metropolis, the sheer scale, complexity and liveliness of London is still something of fascination. I come from a town of less than 3,000 people; I live next to a forest, and, on some days, see more deer than human beings. I recognise almost everyone I pass in the street at home; anonymity is not an option. The predominant industry revolves around farming. 

Feelings of excitement at London are heightened as a result. Especially when one considers the history of the place; a great palimpsest documented back to the Roman invasion in 54 AD. The streets I walk along and places I visit - the Strand, Fleet Street, Somerset House - have been trodden by figures like Boswell and Johnson. This is appealing for an historical mind: London has thousands of fascinating little stories to tell. The city knows lots of little things. 

Hogarth is famous for his ability to capture the gritty hustle and bustle of
eighteenth-century London. Whores, drunks and thieves are all included. 
Forests and nature, conversely, have an ageless quality and simplicity about them. One can take in the forest, rather than every individual tree. The forest knows one big thing. This too is appealing, and any balanced personality is attracted to both ideas. The tendency of religion, however, seems to lean towards expanses of nature.  Cities, conversely, tend to produce commercial and historical thinking; unlike cyclical and gradual nature, change and progress is obvious. 

Full of expectations in London, as the 'son setting out from home for the wide world and the idea of being my own master' is an appealing prospect. 'The noise, the crowd, the glare of shops and signs' in London 'agreeably confused' Boswell. It is a feeling of dizziness at the incredible concentration of human activity. A Scotsman from the country is surely to stand in awe of it. 

'My companion could not understand my feelings. He considered London just as a place where he was to receive orders from the East India Company.' Indeed, many seem to consider London as little else: a place to work and make money. This is to deny the city any soul or past. Indeed, Boswell later notes that ‘a person of small fortune who has only the common views of life and would just be as well as anybody else, cannot like London.' Simply put, approaching the place with a common sense view which fails to look beyond the immediate logistical problems of life, will result in a failure to appreciate London. Yet, as Boswell goes on, 'a person of imagination and feeling, such as the 'Spectator' finely describes, can have the most lively enjoyment from the sight of external objects without regard to property at all.' 

Wednesday, 12 January 2011


I seem to remember scoffing at the very idea several years ago. Surely this is just a form of literary self-psychiatry, for public display? A haven for the bored and opinionated?  Who would want to be exposed to my fluctuating opinions and thoughts? Employers - apparently - who like the idea of bright technology savvy youths, in touch with 'community' and 'innovation' on the net, rather than just porn. 

I have kept a diary, on-and-off, for a few years now and have always considered it a good way to spend ten minutes. It's a useful reminder of what I've actually done; something which keeps my writing sharp and brain active, and a potential source of later amusement. 'It would be a very good exercise, and would yield me infinite satisfaction when the ideas were faded from my remembrance.' There also seems to be a connection between writing a diary and gaining perspective on events. Often, however, it becomes less about zeitgeist and Events, and more about petty meetings, vacuous theories and silly romances.

Boswell by Willison: The owl could mean wisdom. Or 
that he enjoyed 'night-time activities', like 
boozing and chasing women. 
Blogs, which are public, have less in common with the above. Written with publication or a reader in mind, they share similarities with Boswell's London Journal, which was meant for Samuel Johnson's consumption. A balance needs struck between personal opinions and emotions - which can become tiring, preachy and self-important  - and news worthy issues - too many of which can lack intimacy. All the time anything public should be entertaining first and fore most. Boswell's London Journal is generally seen to get this balance right; a happy medium between the impersonal statesman-like Pepys and the introspective and emotionally volatile Rousseau. Ideally it's what all blogs should aim for. 

This comes warts and all, and Boswell displays many human fallibilities. Indeed, so do most good diarists. Think of the political diaries of the philandering Alan Clarke or the depression prone Alistair Campbell. When it comes to diaries, or personal accounts generally, we just don't seem to connect with a Porcelain white literary tale of innocence. Boswell, then, sometimes can't be bothered writing entries at all, catching up by writing days at a time. Entries are often almost non-existent:  'We had a very good day of it and got at night to Doncaster', suffices for November 17th 1762. No mention of the Seven Years' War; no sense of a wider picture; no evocative scenes of North England in the mid-eighteenth-century. I cannot begin to compete with Boswell; expect days, maybe weeks of silence. But then it's human, and perhaps appealing because of it.