Dr Johnson once lamented that ‘no man leaves his eloquence behind him’. And yet, thanks to his friends, hundreds of the Great Cham’s forceful one-liners survive. We know what he said about cucumbers (good for nothing), Scotland (not worth invading), France (worse than Scotland, apart from the weather), happiness (most likely to be found in a pub), and patriotism (last refuge of a scoundrel). But early memoirists were just as keen to preserve the oddities of Johnson in private: his greed, benevolence, and terror of death; his laziness and hardened tea-drinking; his burnt wig, his three-legged chair – and his flatulence. This last ailment makes several irruptions into David Nokes’s readable and imaginative new biography. ‘My nights are flatulent, and unquiet’, writes Johnson in 1772; three years later, he is frankly complaining to the same correspondent that ‘I cannot get free of this vexatious flatulence’ – indeed, ‘I am almost convulsed’.
Nokes adopts as the epigraph to his book Johnson’s advice in Rambler no 60 that ‘the business of the biographer is often to pass slightly over those performances and incidents which produce vulgar greatness … and display the minute details of daily life’. As Johnson well knew, the