Thinking allowed — 05 January 2016

It’s the time of the year when, for many, they start to put their thoughts and experiences down on paper, or nowadays digitally.

On 1st January 1660 a 27-year-old clerk by the name of Samuel Pepys picked up his quill and started what has become the defining account of living in 17th century London. The meticulous narrative of his life was maintained for nearly 10-years when, possible failing eyesight stopped his daily account.

By the end of his writing he had put an estimated one million words to paper chronicling the return of King Charles from exile and noting the Monarch’s King Charles spaniel defecated on the deck “Just like any commoner’s dog”; or his remaining in London during the plague years writing he suspected his new wig might have been made from the hair of a plague victim and sensibly declining to put it on his head; and during the Great Fire of London expressing his desire to save his parmesan cheese (he buried it in his garden) and noting how dead pigeons plopped down from their perches as if they had been shot.

His record of tumultuous times in London might have been a treasure trove for historians, for the rest of us it’s his pungent wit, gossipy nature and vivid accounts of his wild indiscretions that we want to read.

Written in a mixture of shorthand, English, Latin, French and Italian, the six 500-page notebooks record his amorous desires as he pursued an estimated 20 women during the 10-year period, having nulla puella negat as he euphemistically recorded not being refused with only three.

Samuel_PepysReading like the script of a Carry on Film with characters as whimsical as Mrs Bagwell whose carpenter husband pushed her into Pepys’ arms in the hope of getting work in the naval dockyards or delectable Deborah a new live-in lady’s companion he was caught inflagranti by his wife one afternoon. After banishing 17-year-old Debbo his wife came at him with “a pair of red-hot pincers”, one can speculate which part of Pepys’ anatomy they were destined.

Although written over 350 years ago much of the more salacious gossip we, today, wish to read, much of it is subject to copyright having only been transcribed during the 1970s by Robert Latham and William Mathews.

The original task of translating the huge body of work was given to a poor clergyman the Rev. Mynors Bright, MA who struggled for seven years unearthing its secrets as some of the text is written in Tachygraphy (Greek for ‘speedy writing’) a form of shorthand devised by Thomas Shelton in 1626.

Reverend Bright’s employer Lord Braybrooke who published an abridged version of the Diary in 1825 had failed to tell the hapless translator a copy of Shelton’s could be found on a shelf close to where the Dairy volumes were kept.

On receiving the translation Lord Braybrooke considered parts of it too obscene to publish, which has meant Pepys’ amorous exploits have only become available in the last 40-years. Many of the entries conclude with the words
“. . . and so to bed”, something he wished to do with every eligible female with which he came into contact.

The definitive account of Samuel Pepys is The Unequalled Self by Clare Tomalin, while the BBC has produced for Radio 4 an audio version performed by Kris Marshall and National Maritime Museum is staging Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire & Revolution. Until 28th March 2016.

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