The Great Obscure

Here’s another piece from the wonderful John O’London’s Unposted Letters:

“Everybody is a somebody, and probably there are few of us who have not wished to go up to a stranger and say to him: “Sir, I perceive that we belong to te same planet; will yu tell me what you think about it, and-ahem!- the story of your life?” Nearly 2,000 years have passed since horace, writign to his patron Maecenas, made a parable of the rich and idle Philip who had returned to Rome from the wars with time on his hads. On a sultry day, when eh was feeling bored, he saw a man lollignin the shade of a barber’s shop, paring his nails and seeming happy i his indolence. Somethig in this fellow’s appearance caught the patrician’s attention, and, turning to his slave, who was walking behind him, he said, abruptly :-

Run and inquire of yonder fellow straight,

His name, friend,s country, patron and estate.

The slave obeys, and after assailing the stranger with these quesions, overtakes his master and reports:

“Menas is his name

Of moderate foretune, but of honest fame;

Apublic crier, who a thousand ways

Bustles to get, and then enjoys his ease.

A boon companion ‘mongst equals known,

And the small house he lives in is his own.”

A Roman “man in the street” typical of he decent nobodies of all ages! To Horace alone he owes the inclusion of his name inthe great roll of the Obscure.

All revelations of the lives lived by unknown or forgotten people are interesting, and when, by luck, a Nobody has written his autobiography I am apt to prefer it to the best-written story of a famous man: a Fleet Street silversmith, named Joseph Brasbridge, amused himself in his retirement at Herne Hill by writing the story of his life under the title, “The Fruits of Experience.” His book gives a picture of Fleet Street life and characters in the Johnsonian period which is not to be obtained anywhere. One feels oneself part of the big, healthy, undistinguished, but wholly interesting London crowd when one reads: ” For several years I was a member of the Highflyer Club, held at the Turf Coffee House.” And if his character-sketches of the frequenters are wholly inferior to Hazlitt’s Southampton Tavern portraits, still I can read with great satisfaction about Mr Colburn of the Treasurey, “whose every look insipired cheerfulness and good humour”; Bob Tetherington, “as merry a felllow as ever sat in a chair”; Mr Owen, the confectioner insufficiently described as “a gentlemen of considerable accomplishment and talent”; Mr Richard Rambsbottom, “the eminent brewer and distiller, who had more of the suaviter in modo than any man I have met with”; and Mr Darwin, churchwarden of St Mildred’s, who was so thick with Mr Figgins, the wax-chandler of Poultry, that Mr Brasbridge nicknamed them “Liver and Gizzard” by which names they were forever pleasantly kow at the Queen’s Arms in St Paul’s churchyard. All these nobodies were somebodies.

When we say, “It takes alll sorts to make a world,” it is usually to excuse eccentricity, but very cenrtainly, the world could not exist without those “sorts” which are its nobodies. In every age they have been the overwhelming majority, and although Shakespeare has been accused of neglecting to dignify the average man, he was deeply conscious of his existance and of the necessity to use him as a foil to rank and renown. Not for nothing did he introduce carpeters and cobblers into “Julius Caesar,” or give us in “King John” that curously haunting picture of the spread of wild rumours of invasion:-

“I saw a smith stand with his hammer thus,

The whilst the iron dis on his anvil cool,

With open muth swallowing a tailor’s news.”

Shakespeare knew, what the writer of “Ecclesiasticus” knew, that the nobodies “maintain the state of the world” by their unchronicled worth.

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