'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." — James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson.
Thus did Johnson attempt to dissuade Boswell, his friend and future biographer, from moving to Scotland. A country boy turned urban savant, Johnson loved the action and passion of the great city. London remains a great world capital, a work of art in itself, an expensive, aspirational city which few of us can afford to visit, let alone reside in.
We're pretty much stuck in place, condemned to boring lives in our provincial little city... or are we?
London in 1740 was an explosive, quarrelsome, pestilential and poor city, a place where newborn babies were abandoned on the street and 60 percent of citizens lived in poverty. Streets and sidewalks were open sewers, the air further fouled by billows of black coal soot.
With 640,000 inhabitants, it was about the size of Colorado Springs — and in many ways strikingly similar. The introduction to the "Proceedings of the Old Bailey," the digitized record of London's criminal court, describes the city.
"Perhaps more than any other period or place, London between 1715 and 1760 is associated with the creation of many of the characteristics of a "modern" culture," the editors note. "The coffee houses of the late 17th century had, by 1715, matured into a network of venues for open political debate. The newspapers which flourished ... had, by the same time, become an unstoppable stream of daily, bi-weekly, weekly and monthly publications to suit every pocket and political inclination."
Ours is also a powerful, dynamic city, a fascinating work in progress to which we all contribute. We have what Dr. Johnson loved — coffeehouses, newspapers, books, opportunity and intellectual ferment. We also have clear skies, underground sewers, clean drinking water, justice tempered with mercy and a largely prosperous citizenry.
Cities are works of art, built landscapes created and peopled by participants in a vast, incoherent and delightful project. Dr. Johnson well understood this, reveling in London's temptations and opportunities.
Born in 1709, Johnson died in 1784. I've outlived him by a few months, so to honor the great man I took a walk through downtown, imagining 18th century London.
Starting at the Indy offices, I crossed Nevada at Vermijo and walked past the Pioneers Museum. The morning fog had lifted, and the pleasing juxtaposition of the 1902 courthouse the 1995 south tower of the Plaza of the Rockies and the Antlers Hotel a couple of blocks to the west caught my eye as I headed up Tejon to a favorite coffee shop.
Fortune smiled — five of my geezer homies were holding court at their favorite table. In Johnson's day they would have been considered well-off, unemployed idlers — today, they're retired Republicans. We talked politics, as always. I compared Republicans to my irascible Chesapeake Bay retriever, a great watchdog who irritates the neighborhood with his barking.
"Why don't you give your neighbors a break, leave the dog inside and hire a Republican to guard the house?" asked Geezer Paul.
"Because I can't afford one," I replied.
Back to the lively street, where a pretty girl was walking a dachshund on an exceptionally long leash. Eighteenth-century Londoners loved their dogs too, as Lucy Inglis points out in Georgian London: Into the Streets. Between 1700 and 1800, central London newspapers ran almost 500 ads for lost dogs.
Then down Pikes Peak past Josh & John's, the Peak Theater, La Baguette, Springs Orleans and the Mining Exchange Hotel. Just one block, just one tiny daub on the vast canvas of our city, but what a grand piece of collaborative art! W.S. Stratton, Perry Sanders, Kimball Bayles, John Krakauer, Chuck Murphy and my Dad all contributed to the block as have scores of others since the 1870s. It delighted me as a child in the 1940s and delights me still — I'm not tired of our city, of its grand and not so grand architecture or of my fellow citizens.
Dr. Johnson would approve, I think, although he might have drawn the line at the Modbo's merry cabarets: "I'll come no more behind your scenes, David," Johnson told his famous actor friend David Garrett, "for the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities."
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