I knew not to hasten this man for whom words
were not to be wasted, but handled with care,
so I watched and I waited while he debated
in silence that night at his house in Gough Square.
A clock in a darkened recess to my right
was lost to the eye in the gloom, but outside
the bells of St Brides chimed for nine,
and on hearing them, Johnson replied:
‘It saddens me greatly that summoning London
to mind should bring on this fatigue,
and would counsel that only embracing
the city can ease your vexatious disease.’
(He stood and he paced,
hands behind back.)
‘For when a man grows tired of London,
yet more he will tire of life –
what next, we wonder, might stifle his humour?
His work, his children, his wife?’
‘But it’s only a week of paid leave,’ I explained.
‘My desire is not to offend.’
But it seems that I had, for he opened the door
and our audience came to an end.
I gathered my satchel, and with his back turned
I stole his life’s work, the book (incomplete)
of words and their meanings, which once back outside
I tore and I scattered, like snow on the street.
I’ve come to regret that moment of madness
that left many holes in our language
like vookle and vernet and persept and pring,
and most precious of all nerolandage.
But I rather enjoyed my final revenge
in rewriting some others as nonsense,
such that ‘tit’ became breast, and ‘shag’ now means sex,
and for phallus I chose the word Johnson.
‘Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’ – Dr Samuel Johnson to James Boswell, 20 September, 1777.