A Merry Evening in September
I confess that none of this story is my own. It’s one I found in a job lot of books I bought from Greenwich Auctions a short while ago. I’d only bought the lot for a single book, the rest were very definitely makeweights, destined for a life on the shelves of theme pubs. I just thought I’d leaf through them before popping them in the charity shop box. Leaves in the Wind, by Alpha of the Plough, was saved mainly because of a scribbled pencil note inside the fly:
Clive Gardiner, Head of Goldsmith’s College was Betty Swanwick’s lover (war-time.)
I defy anyone not to be intrigued by a line like that.
When I eventually got around to reading the book it turned out to be a series of essays by Alfred George Gardiner under the name of Alpha of the Plough, which originally appeared in the Star. In many ways he reminds me of other early-mid 20th Century columnists like H V Moreton or Stephen Graham, whimsical in nature, personal, yet deftly proefssional, though his subject matter is wider. Clive Gardiner, the illustrator, was his son, and best known for some famous London Transport poster designs; he was also principal at Goldsmiths College. Betty Swanwick, also an incredible artist, was Gardiner’s protege at Goldsmiths and the rather wonderfully beatnik-sounding relationship between principal and student saw them remain “close to his untimely death in 1960″.
But that’s not what I’m talking about today.
Today, I’m lifting my favourite story from Leaves in the Wind because it’s the 10th September and it was on the 10th September, 1665, that Alpha of the Plough reminds us that Samuel Pepys had the merriest evening of his life – in Greenwich, of course, with none other than the reputedly ‘dour’ John Evelyn. It’s just an incident in a much longer essay called On Happy Faces in the Strand – but it tickled me.
We have to set the scene a bit here. One of the reasons why, in 1665, Sam Pepys liked coming to Greenwich so much was because London was suffering the worst of the plague, and although Greenwich wasn’t immune (he particularly hated going through Westcombe for fear of the plague, beggars and mad dogs) it was a hell of a lot better than the City itself.
Everything in 1665 seemed pretty rum. Not only was the plague rattling at Pepys’s windows, but his father was dying and the Dutch threatening to invade at any moment. But then he got a spot of good news – a success at sea, and Pepys decided to take a jolly down the river to Greenwich with his mates Lord Brounker, Sir John Minnes, Sir W. Doyley - and John Evelyn.
Alpha of the Plough quotes Pepys in full, and he’s right to – only Pepys can be Pepys:
The receipt of this news did put us all into such an extasy of joy that it inspired into Sir J Minnes and Mr Evelyn such a spirit of mirth that in all my life I never met so merry a two hours as our company this night.
Among other humours, Mr Evelyn’s repeating of some verse made up of nothing but the various acceptations of ‘may’ and ‘can’, and doing it so aptly upon occasion of something of that nature and so fast, did make us all die almost with laughing, and did so stop the mouth of Sir J. Minnes in the middle of all his mirth that I never saw any man so out-done in all my life; and Sir J. Minne’s mirth to see himself out-done was the crown of all our mirth.
Now, I own a copy of John Evelyn’s diary and I have to read it in very small doses indeed. It’s frankly hard work. While Pepy’s diary would probably be my Desert Island Book, poor old J.E is so bloomin’ earnest. He’s managed to get himself quite a reputation for being worthy but a bit straight-laced. And yet here he is, the life and soul of the party.
Alpha of the Plough checked Evelyn’s own diary for the same night (see, I told you this story’s totally lifted) – he doesn’t even mention the incident (hangover, perhaps? ), though two days beforehand he writes
Came home, there perishing neere 10,000 poor creatures weekly; however I went all along the City and suburbs from Kent Streete to St James, a dismal passage, and dangerous to see so many coffins expos’d in the streetes, now thin of people; the shops shut up and all in mourneful silence, as not knowing whose turn it might be next.”
Now – that’s the John Evelyn I know. Yet – a teeny bit of good news and he’s cracking jokes and giving Sam Pepys the merriest evening of his life. And, as Alpha of the Plough points out, Pepys was a good judge of merry evenings…
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