Presidential address given to the Johnson Society on September 20th 2003 in the Guildhall, Lichfield.
My wife, Mary, and I are delighted to be here. We have not properly visited the town before. I think we once paid a lightning visit, but that was not enough. I can only echo the words of Dr Johnson himself. 'I lately,' he said 'took my friend Boswell and showed him genuine civilized life in an English provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield my native city, that he might see for once real civility; for you know he lives among savages in Scotland, and among rakes in London.'
But not everything is as it seems, and if you think my speech will be entirely straightforward, don't forget that I was nominated for the post of President of the Johnson Society by the doyenne herself, Beryl Bainbridge. In her marvellous evocation of the last years of Dr Johnson, According to Queeney, she draws a rather different picture of what Lichfield can be like. She refers to the story of the widow Mearns of these parts, who was widely suspected, though it could not be proved, of poisoning her husband by means of honey cakes.
It reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock talking about the delights of television. He said that television had managed to bring murder back into the home, where it belongs.
I would like to dedicate this speech to my stepfather, who died nearly 30 years ago. C.E. Stevens, known as Tom, was not only a great admirer of Dr Johnson, he was remarkably like him. A classics don at Oxford, he had a prodigious memory; he was immensely learned, a great conversationalist and enormous fun. I metaphorically, sat at his feet, like Boswell did with Johnson, the differences in our ages being almost the same as it was with them. Tom, like Johnson, was eccentric in many ways, although both would be irritated to be called eccentric, for them neatness in thought was far more important than neatness of dress. They were both blind in one eye, but not for the same reason. Tom had been injured in a motorcycle accident, the only advantage being that he never rode a motorcycle again. You can see why his family held this view if you imagine what it would be like to have Dr Johnson, bearing down on you on a Harley Davidson. Tom's literary output was on nothing like the scale of the great king of the Dictionary, but both of them through force circumstance became journalists of a sort.
Tom was employed during the Second World War in black propaganda, a more polite term for lying. His job was to make up stories, which were broadcast in German as if from a patriotic German radio station. Perhaps his only real claim to fame is that he pointed out that the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth symphony - dah, dah, dah daah - happen to make the letter V in the Morse Code. As a result, all over occupied Europe, the opening bars of that symphony became a V for Victory, a rallying call for the Resistance.
Samuel Johnson's first experience of journalism was very different, or was it? He was employed by the foremost magazine of the day, the Gentlemen's Magazine, to make up speeches that had been spoken behind closed doors in Parliament. Officially no record of the proceedings could be published. So were these accounts prepared by Dr Johnson, who never himself heard any of the debates, a form of black propaganda? That would be too strong, though the great sage admitted that he never let the Whig dogs get the better of the argument. Would it be fairer to call Dr Johnson the first great spin doctor? If we look at the way these parliamentary reports were obtained it's difficult to resist the temptation of asking: what would Lord Hutton think?
The reports of the debates would appear under the Swiftian description 'The Senate of Lilliput'. Sometimes the names of the speakers would simply be made up, at other times the names would be formed as an anagram, as Boswell puts it 'so that they might easily be deciphered.' During the Hutton enquiry some of the junior legal staff have been busy thinking up anagrams to while away the time. The best one was formed from the names Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair. Rearrange the letters and you get a lawyer's joke: 'Tis Liar A, Campbell, Liar B Tony'. And, equally subversive, what can you make of 'Alastair Campbell resigns'? That's easy: 'a rat, escaping Blair's smell'.
By the time Boswell's Life of Johnson was published, Parliament's self-imposed secrecy had been partly lifted: accurate reports were printed, though not to universal acclaim. Boswell complains of the petulance 'with which obscure scribblers have presumed to treat men of the most respectable character and situation.' Step forward all the less than Worshipful Masters of today's press gallery, Mathew Paris, Simon Hoggart and Quentin Lefts.
Why did the eighteenth century Parliament insist on private debates'? Boswell gives one explanation: 'Parliament,' he says 'then kept the press in a kind of mysterious awe, which made it necessary to have recourse to such devices.' So what's changed?
To begin with, Dr Johnson was given notes provided by William Guthrie, who did actually attend Parliament. He was said to be 'quick and tenacious,' qualities still admired by news editors. Guthrie was descended from an ancient Scottish family, which would have pleased Boswell and might have annoyed Johnson. A more serious disadvantage was his somewhat shaky memory. Boswell didn't put it quite in those terms, but he says that Guthrie's memory 'was surpassed by those who followed him in the same department.' As Lord Hutton would no doubt have been quick to point out: the key fact is that before long it was decided that Dr Johnson would do without Guthrie's account, and rely simply on scanty notes furnished by persons employed to attend in both Houses of Parliament. Sometimes they only supplied the names of the speakers and the part they took in the debate. (I put it to you Mr Gilligan: were the notes you made on your electronic organiser, detailed and complete?).
Is it unfair of me to suggest that Dr Johnson might have found this pared down system a lot easier? It would allow full reign for his imagination: it would be easier to inject the right amount of drama and indignation. I have often heard political reporters confess to each other that if some question is actually answered, if the real facts are known, their story could be ruined. And politicians often resort if not to lying, then at least to some vigorous twisting of the facts. I remember a splendid description of a Labour cabinet when Michael Foot intervened in some heated discussion: 'Look,' he said, 'we could always fall back on the truth.'
The editor of the Gentlemen's Magazine was obviously a little concerned that they weren't even trying to fall back on the truth. He wrote in a letter to a possible contributor: 'It would be a great satisfaction to me, as well as an honour to our work, to have the favour of the genuine speech.' He went on: 'It is a method that several have been pleased to take, as I could show, but I think myself under a restraint. I shall say so far, that I have had some by a third hand, which I understood well enough to come from the first, others by penny post, and others by the speakers themselves, who have been pleased to visit S. John's Gate, and show particular marks of them being pleased.'
It may not have been a case of Spin Doctor Johnson, but there seems little doubt that without meaning to he had slipped into the role of the modern spin doctor. Alastair Campbell has a point when he complains that journalists, too, can be spin doctors. And he should know. When he was a journalist, he now admits most of the time he was a propagandist for the Labour Party.
I think this shows there's nothing new in the practice of spinning words to make political points. It also demonstrates that we have got into a spin about the word spin. And the term has become seriously misleading. Now, it seems to be used only when things go wrong. Spin means deviousness, bending the truth, whereas the best spin passes without comment, and is often applauded. When George Bush needed a phrase to sum up rogue states his spin doctors went into a huddle. What about 'arc of evil', countries not disposed to the United States running in an arc across the Middle East? No, that's not quite right - what about 'Axis of evil'? Great, that has a whiff of the Second World War when the enemies were the axis powers. And so it went into the speech.
Sometimes politicians get so involved in the detail of what they are talking about that they can't even try to think up a neat phrase to sum up their discussions. Bernard Ingham was telling me recently what it had been like when as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, first met Mikhail Gorbachev at Chequers. They had the most intense conversation covering a wide range of topics. Bernard was wracking his brains trying to think how he could brief the press. Finally, in a fairly exasperated way, he said: 'Well, I suppose he's someone you could do business with ...' Mrs Thatcher agreed and the phrase went round the world.
The idea that as the world becomes ever more complicated you can somehow do away with spin is ludicrous. To say that is only to produce yet more spin. And who was the greatest spin doctor of the twentieth century? Churchill, I suppose, in Britain. And his greatest achievement in this field? Turning the appalling defeat at Dunkirk, into something else, if not a victory, at least into a kind of deliverance, for the British army. Yes, statesman spin. So what should journalists do?
Fortunately Dr Johnson addressed this point. When he was forty nine, long after he had given up trying to report Parliament, he wrote an essay entitled: 'Of the duty of a journalist.' He could hardly have been more emphatic. 'A journalist,'
is an historian, not indeed of the highest class, nor of the number of those whose works bestow immortality upon others or themselves; yet, like other historians, he distributes fora time reputation or infamy, regulates the opinion of the week, raises hopes and terrors, in flames or allays the violence of the people. He ought therefore to consider himself as subject to the first law of history, the obligation to tell the truth.
He went on:
The journalist, indeed, however honest, will frequently deceive, because he will frequently be deceived himself. He is obliged to transmit The earliest intelligence before he knows how far it may be credited (Did someone mention Andrew Gilligan?) He relates transactions yet fluctuating in uncertainty; he delivers reports of which he knows not the authors. It cannot be expected that he should know more than he is told, or that he should not sometimes be hurried down the current of a popular clamour. All that he can do Is to consider attentively, and determine impartially, to admit no falsehoods by design, and to retract those which he shall have adopted by mistake. (If it pleases, your Lordship, Lord Hutton, on behalf of Mr Gilligan, I rest my case.)
But what of Dr Johnson and the reports of the 'Senate of Lilliput?' which he wrote just over fifteen years earlier, before he became famous? How can this sensible, moral, Olympian view be squared with the desperate, early attempts, spread over nearly two years, to make a living as a jobbing journalist? As so often happens with Dr Johnson it is difficult to be censorious: he knocks you over with his own remorse. You may remember when he refused to go with his father the bookseller to help him sell books in Uttoxeter; and how years later he stood bare-headed in the marketplace at Uttoxeter with the rain pouring down, as an act of atonement.
To begin with, when Boswell questions him about the morality of his early journalism, there is a certain amount of bluster. This is how it is put in the Life:
Johnson told me that as soon as he found that the speeches were thought genuine, he determined that he would write no more of them for he would not be accessory to the propagation of falsehood.
Boswell tries, as always, to help out the old man.
He agreed with me in thinking that the debates which he had framed were to be valued as orations upon questions of public importance. I must, however, observe that although there is in these debates a wonderful store of political information, and very powerful eloquence, I cannot agree that they exhibit the manner of each particular speaker.
Truth is an awfully hard task master. When the great Dictionary was published Johnson knew that there would be people who would not be able to resist making savage criticisms, which might well turn out to be right. He had written the dictionary, effectively on his own. In France, they had employed forty scholars on the same task. With some of the critics he was contrite, often I think in an exaggerated fashion, as a way of drawing the poison. A.woman asked him why he had written a false definition and he immediately replied, 'Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance.'
One of his mistakes, in modern eyes, is his failure to describe accurately a giraffe. It was not his fault. Before zoos and, of course, before films, how was he to know what a giraffe looked like? This is what Johnson's dictionary says, of an animal described as a camelopard, the eighteenth century name for a giraffe:
An Abyssian animal, taller than an elephant, but not so thick. He is so named, because he has a neck and head like a camel; he is spotted like a leopard, but his spots are white upon a red ground. The Italians call him 'giaraffa.'
It reminds me of the difficulty even journalists have of defining what is news. The most famous definition is that news is something that someone somewhere wants to prevent being published; all the rest is advertising. That comes from Lord Northcliffe. Another simpler version is that to a journalist news is like an elephant. It's difficult to describe, but when it comes through the door, you know exactly what it is.
Dr Johnson, who some say was the greatest literary Englishman second only to Shakespeare, died in 1784, at the age of seventy five. Even close to the end he was worried about his doubtful work, reporting Parliament for the Gentlemen's Magazine. As Boswell records:
Such was the tenderness of his conscience, that a short time before his death, he expressed a regret for his having been the author of fictions, which had passed for realities.
After his death his friend, William Hamilton, said that no one could fill the chasm, which had opened up:
There is nobody; no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.
Nearly two hundred years later I was reading Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson when my stepfather, Tom Stevens, who did resemble him in so many ways, died. He would have been surprised and thrilled to know that I had become President of the Johnson Society and had come to Lichfield to speak. At the time of Tom's death I was so upset that I stopped reading the book, which reminded me so strongly of the friend and tutor I had lost. Now, I am just as thrilled and surprised as he would have been.