Boswell in London

Johnson’s friend Boswell, who was given to fits of melancholy, sees the buildings of London as sources of strong emotional response:

“After dinner I sauntered in a pleasing humour to London Bridge, viewed the Thames’s silver expanse and the springy bosom of the surrounding fields. I then went up to the top of the Monument. This is a most amazing building. It is a pillar two hundred feet high. In the inside, a turnpike stair runs up all the way. When I was about half way up, I grew frightened. I would have come down again, but thought I would despise myself for my timidity. Thus does the spirit of pride get the better of fear. I mounted to the top and got upon the balcony. It was horrid to find myself so monstrous a way up in the air, so far above London and all its spires. I durst not look round me. There is no real danger, as there is a strong rail both on the stair and balcony. But I shuddered, and as every heavy wagon passed down Gracechurch Street, dreaded that the shaking of the earth would make the tremendous pile tumble to the foundation.”

(London Journal, Saturday 2 April, 1763)

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Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1784)

The joys of London life:

On the 30th of September (1769) we dined at the Mitre...Talking of a London life, he said, ’The happiness of London is not to be conceived but by those who have been in it. I will venture to say, there is more learning and science within the circumference of ten miles from where we now sit, than in all the rest of the kingdom. BOSWELL. ’The only disadvantage is the great distance at which people live from one another.’ JOHNSON. ’Yes, Sir; but that is occasioned by the largeness of the city, which is the cause of all the other advantages.
Johnson was much attached to London: he observed, that a man stored his mind better there, than anywhere else; and that in remote situations a man’s body might be feasted, but his mind was starved, and his faculties apt to degenerate, from want to exercise and competition. No place, (he said,) cured a man’s vanity or arrogance so well as London; for as no man was either great or good per se, but as compared with others not so good or great, he was sure to find in the metropolis many of his equals, and some of his superiors. He observed, that a man in London was less in danger of falling in love indiscreetly, than any where else; for there the difficulty of deciding between the conflicting pretensions of a vast variety of objects, kept him safe. He told me, that he had frequently been offered country preferment, if he would consent to take orders; but he could not leave the improved society of the capital, or consent to exchange the exhilarating joys and splendid decorations of public life, for the obscurity, insipidity, and uniformity of remote situations.

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The poor:

On Sunday, October 10, we dined together at Mr Strahan’s.
We talked of the state of the poor in London — JOHNSON. ’Saunders Welch, the Justice, who was once High-Constable of Holborn, and had the best opportunities of knowing the state of the poor, told me, that I under-rated the number, when I computed that twenty a week, that is, above a thousand a year, died of hunger; not absolutely of immediate hunger, but of the wasting and other diseases which are the consequences of hunger. This happens only in so large a place as London, where people are not known. What we are told about the great sums got by begging is not true: the trade is overstocked. And, you may depend upon it, there are many who cannot get work. A particular kind of manufacture fails: those who had been used to work at it, can, for some time, work at nothing else. You meet a man begging; you charge him with idleness: he says, “I am willing to labour. Will you give me work?” — I cannot.“—”Why, then you have no right to charge me with idleness."’
BOSWELL. ’I observe in London, that the poor go about and gather bones, which I understand are manufactured.’ JOHNSON. ’Yes, Sir, they boil them, and extract a grease from them for greasing wheels and other purposes. Of the best pieces they make a mock ivory, which is used for halts to knives, and various other things; the coarser pieces they burn and pound, and sell the ashes.’ BOSWELL.’For what purpose, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ’Why, Sir, for making a furnace for the chymists for melting iron. A paste made of burnt bones will stand a stronger heat than anything else.’