John Aubrey. Photo: Wikimedia
Show Hide image

In feather light sentences, antiquarian John Aubrey captured the spirit of an age

Ruth Scurr's biography of the draughtsman, archeologist and diarist is a moving, delicate record of a man - and an era.

John Aubrey
Ruth Scurr
Chatto & Windus, 544pp, £25  

John Aubrey, the 17th-century antiquarian, historian of architecture and England’s first archaeologist, is best known for Brief Lives, a collection of portraits that catches, in a matter of brushstrokes, the spirit of his age. “A life,” as Aubrey put it with his usual clarity, “is a short history in which minute details about a famous person should be gratefully recorded.” Thus John Selden, praised by Milton as “the chief of learned men reputed in this land”, is memorialised by Aubrey for getting “more by his prick than ever he had donne by his practice”.

A lover of minutiae, Aubrey had no in­terest in the eulogies of conventional biography. “Pox take your orators and poets,” he declared. “They spoile lives & histories.” Lives and histories, he said, should get at “the naked and plaine truth”, exposed “so bare that the very pudenda are not covered”. It is easy to forget that biography, like the novel, was born raffish – that those Victorian volumes were the joyless offspring of bohemian parents.

He was friends with Thomas Hobbes, Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, Elias Ashmole and Lord Rochester; he took Charles II to see the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge, which are named after him; he lived through the Great Fire of London, the civil war, the Interregnum and the Restoration. Aubrey, who taught us to date buildings by their windows, is not a man we see so much as see through: he lends us his eyes. So rich is the tapestry of his life, writes Ruth Scurr, a Cambridge historian and biographer of Robespierre, that he is in danger of disappearing into the background, of being “crowded out” by both his companions and historical events.

What, then, is his biographer to do? How, with so much going on around him, can we glimpse Aubrey’s own “pudenda”? His was the great age of the journal and Scurr, in an act of nerve-racking boldness, has chosen to get at the naked and plain truth of John Aubrey by turning the tables on biography altogether and giving us his life as a series of diary entries. “No one,” as she puts it, “gets crowded out of his or her own diary.”

As with Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (which was really the biography of Stein), Scurr’s idea is joyously witty. The diary is a form perfectly suited to Aubrey, a collector of fragments. And as a man less interested in the present than the past – “This searching after antiquities is a wearisome task,” one entry reads, “yet nobody else will do it” – he can look backwards while we look down into his soul.

Lifting his voice from manuscripts and published sources such as Monumenta Britannica and The Natural History of Wiltshire, Scurr gives us Aubrey in as many of his own words as possible. “I have made my first address to Joan Sumner,” he notes after several failed courtships, “whom I hope I shall marry and thereby rescue my finances.” At first, things go well: “Joan has given me a recipe to stop dogs barking which, she tells me, thieves used to use. It involves mixing boar’s fat and cumin seeds in a horn.” But then, disaster: “There are treacheries and enmities in abundance against me. Joan Sumner is now claiming that she never agreed to marry me.”

Sumner’s litigations are never given too much space. Despite his problems with women and the debts he inherited, Aubrey saw himself as a fortunate man. He thought deeply but never about himself. “Mr Hooke and I watched the eclipse of the moon,” he notes of 19 October 1678. When he looked at the moon, it was the moon he was looking at and not his mortality. It was the thingness of things that Aubrey loved.

The principal effect of this paring away of narrative is that Scurr, rather than Aubrey, disappears into the background. These days, it is rare to find a biography in which the author does not interrupt the reader’s journey like a Tannoy system on a train, or elbow their way in to tell you how they feel about the subject. John Aubrey: My Own Life has no evident narrator, nor any narrative tension. Diaries are great levellers of experience. What is important to Aubrey – “My fine box has been stolen from me” – and what is important to us – “On this day the King summoned Parliament for the first time since 1629” – rub shoulders in parity.

Scurr’s voice is heard only in the opening section, in which she gives us a brief life of the man: the dates (1626-97), the facts, the curriculum vitae. We are then, in the slow motion of the diary entries, reminded of the stillness of his days. His father, a gentleman, was “born for hawking”, Aubrey notes as a child, “whereas I know already that I am made for books and drawing” – which is exactly what he did. He never married or travelled; he explored Surrey and Wiltshire with a pencil and paper and his topological and architectural drawings, generously reproduced here, are exquisite.

For all this walking and riding and digging, John Aubrey trod softly on the earth and this is what is caught in these feather-light sentences. “Life,” as Virginia Woolf put it, “is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” It is precisely Woolf’s sense of a life that is captured in this moving and delicate book. 

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
Show Hide image

Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496