Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Night Side of London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1858 - Dr. Johnson's Tavern

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DR JOHNSON'S TAVERN.

LEIGH HUNT, Barry Cornwall, and the Times are all eloquent in the praise of alcohol. It lifts us above this dull earth, it fires our genius, it gives to us the large utterances of the gods. Barry Cornwall tells us-
        "Bad are the times
          And bad the rhymes
         That scorn old wine."
Leigh Hunt translates "Bacchus in Tuscany," and sanctions such lines as the following- 
        "I would sooner take to poison
         Than a single cup set eyes on
         Of that bitter and guilty stuff we
         Talk of by the name of coffee;"
and the Times everywhere inculcates the idea that, without wine, poetry and eloquence and wit were dumb and dead. Was Sidney Smith witty, was Shelley a poet, or was he who in old times drew away the Hebrew multitude from the crowded streets of Jerusalem out into the desert, [-124-] whose food was locusts and wild honey, whose raiment was a leathern girdle - was he not eloquent, as he warned the terror-stricken mob that hung upon his lips of the wrath to come? Facts are not in favour of the wine-drinkers. Of Waller Dr Johnson writes, "In a time when fancy and gaiety were the most powerful recommendations to regard, it is not likely that Waller was forgotten. He passed his time in the company that was highest both in rank and wit, from which even his obstinate sobriety did not exclude him. Though he drank water, he was enabled by his fertility of mind to heighten the mirth of Bacchanalian assemblies; and Mr Saville said that 'no man in England should keep him company without drinking, but Ned Waller.'" "In Parliament," says Burnet, "he was the delight of the House, and, though old, said the liveliest things of any of them. The truth is, men have often reserved the outpourings of their mind for the social glass, and have fallen into the natural mistake of believing that it was the glass, and not the opportunity and the action of mind upon mind, that elicited a certain amount of joyous fun. I must quote an anecdote from Sir Walter Scott's Life to illus[-125-]trate my meaning. He tells us one of his school-fellows was always at the top of the class. Young Scott found that when asked a question the lad alluded to was in the habit of fumbling one peculiar button. Scott cut off that button. The next time the poor fellow was asked a question, as usual he put his hand to fumble the friendly button- alas ! it was gone, and with it his power, and he speedily lost his place. The writers I have quoted, to be consistent, should argue it was the button that made that lad sharp and clever.
    But if you still doubt, let us test the thing practically. In Bolt-court, Fleet-street, there is a tavern bearing the honoured name of Dr Johnson. Dr Johnson lived in this court, and hence, I suppose, the sign; but the Doctor was a total abstainer. He found he could not be a moderate drinker, so he verily gave up the drink altogether. He told that precious ass, Boswell, to drink water, because if he did that he would be sure not to get drunk, whereas if he drank wine he was not so sure; and Boswell, to whom the idea seems never to have occurred, prints the remark as an astonishing instance of his hero's sagacity. But I pass on to modern times. In [-126-] this Dr Johnson's Tavern is situated "The City Concert Room." I suppose the City does not care much about concerts, as I have generally found it very thinly attended. It is a handsome room, and perhaps there are about fifty or sixty gentlemen, chiefly young ones, present. You do not see swells here as at Evans's. They are all very plain-looking people, from the neighbouring shops, or from the warehouses in Cheapside. Just by me are three pale heavy-looking young men, whose intellects seem to me dead, except so far as a low cunning indicates a sharpness where money is concerned. One of them is stupidly beerv. Their great object is to get him to drink more, notwithstanding his repeated assurances, uttered, however, in a very husky tone, that he must go back to "Islin'ton" to-night. A lady at one end of the room, with a very handsome blue satin dress and a very powerful voice, is screaming out something about "Lovely Spring," but this little party is evidently indifferent to the charms of the song. Just beyond me is a gent with a short pipe and a very stiff collar. I watch him for an hour, and whether he is enjoying himself intensely, or whether he is enduring an indescribable amount of inward agony, I [-127-] cannot tell. A little further off is another gent with a very red scarf, equally stoical in appearance. Behind me are two verdant youths, of limited means I imagine; but they have the pleasure of speaking to the comic singer, and take tickets for that interesting gentleman's benefit. But the comic singer comes forward, and sings with appropriate action of the doings of a little insect very partial to comfortable quarters. That song I have known fifteen years. I have heard Sharp sing it, Ross sing it, Cowell sing it. Night after night in some drinking room in some part of London or other is a beery audience told- 
        "Creeping where no life doth be,
            A rare old plant is the lively flea."
And after a pursuit very vividly pantomimed, the little stranger is suffered to be caught, and to tell the catcher that it is his father's ghost, doomed for a season to walk the earth and nip him most infernally, and so on. Now I am sure that every one in the room has heard this dozens of times before, yet old men are laughing as if it was an absolute novelty. Talk about alcohol brightening men's intellects! When I come to such places as this, it always seems [-128-] to me to have a precisely contrary effect. Men could not sit and hear all these stale witticisms unless they drank. Sober, I am sure they could not do it, not even if they were paid for it; and yet all seem enraptured. I remark, however, one exception. Two waiters help to a seat by my side a very dirty little man with red eyes, and generally shabby appearance. The waiters set down by him a glass of grog, offer him a cigar, and then playfully shaking their fingers at him, as if to intimate he had better be quiet, leave him to his fate. After a few minutes of deep thought, he looks to me and beckons. I take no notice. He repeats the signal. I lean forward.
    "Very o-old, sir."
    "What do you mean?" we ask.
    "The comic singer very o-old, sir."
    We intimate as much.
    "But get him on a fresh piece, sir, and see how he can go-o." Here our friend began rolling one arm rapidly round the other, to give us an idea of the comic singer's powers.
    "Pity he don't give something new," repeats our friend. Another assenting nod on our part and the conversation ceases. But we suppose it [-129-] is with comic singers as with others. "A man who has settled his opinions does not love to have the tranquillity of his convictions disturbed," wrote Dr Johnson, and a comic singer does not like to have the bother of learning fresh songs. But the comic singer was applauded and encored, and then he treated us to a monologue, in which he describes how lie, the drunken husband, stays out all night, and makes it up with his "old ooman" when he gets home; and in the course of his remarks of course he declares teetotalism is humbug, that there was truth in wine, but he'd be blessed if there was any in water; that the man who would drink the latter would be a muddy cistern - forgetting all the while the tu quoque the water-drinkers would very fairly urge, on the authority even of Mr Henry Drummond; and then I came away, thinking that if drinking made men witty and lighthearted, I had been very unfortunate on the night of my visit. Once upon a time, as the writer was in the Cave of Harmony, the polite manager asked him his opinion of a new comic singer. Having given it, the red-faced little man turned to us with a sigh, and said, "Ah, sir, you have no idea what a dearth there is [-130-] of comic talent now-a-days." And truly he was right. There is little fun and comedy and wit anywhere. I know not where they are; I know where they are not. You will not find them in the taverns where men sit all the evening listening to music for which they do not care, and drinking all the while. How should there be, since wine is now admitted to be the product of the laboratory, not of the grape?