Dr. Johnson's House review
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If you flick through a few London guidebooks then it won't be long before you find the phrase "If you're tired of London, you're tired of life". It's the go-to quote when you're writing about our city. Well, the guy who wrote that line used to live here -- at Dr. Johnson's House.
Samuel Johnson was the famous writer and wit who wrote the first dictionary. If you want to be pedantic about it then I don't think it was actually the first, but we English like to call it the first. (The other one was foreign, so it doesn't count.) That's pretty much everything that we remember Dr Johnson for: that opening quote plus the world's first (or second) dictionary. And this house. And the cat statue out the front. Anyone who knows more than that must have studied him at school.
The house looks pretty much the same as when he lived here in the 1750s. It's a townhouse from the 18th century, tucked away in a little courtyard behind Fleet Street. What you need to do is find his local pub -- Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which is still standing -- and then head down the side of that dark and dingy alley. The great man used to come down here himself (or stagger down here) and have a few beers before heading home. All of the best writers had a pub on their doorstep -- they did their best thinking when drunk. I wonder how much of his wit was written three sheets to the wind in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese? In my experience you either do your best work when you're drunk, or your worst. The trick comes in knowing which is which. Dr Johnson was lucky because he had James Boswell to filter out all his pearls of wisdom from his drunken banter.
I definitely recommend having a quick look inside the pub because you can sit where he sat, and bang your head on the same low oak beams. I have smacked my head against those oak beams a couple of times and trust me: it damn well hurts! Go inside and have a nose around, and you'll see what I mean.
The house itself looks quite interesting from the outside, but it's rather dry and quiet once you step through the front door. The problem is this: none of his original furniture has survived to the present day, and they've been far too rigid in what they've allowed inside. They've obviously tried to keep it historical, when there are very few historical objects inside it. There's very little from the Samuel Johnson era. They’d be better off turning it into an attraction instead: pipe some Georgian music through the speakers; have some waxwork models sitting in the seats, playing cards, gossiping, barracking, writing their letters...
They've placed a few cabinets of curiosities around the rooms with some old yellowing letters and old editions of books. They've got a copy of his big dictionary on show as well. Everything else is locked away inside a couple of cream-coloured bookcases, protected behind a forcefield of glass (to keep them away from dirty fingerprints).
Upstairs is a little museum of wartime photos, showing how the roof was wrecked during the Blitz.
And that's about it. If you're expecting to visit a Samuel Johnson museum then you're going to go home disappointed, because you're really here to see the house.
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