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The Pepysian paradox

London is a driven city. The energy of the Thames’s tidal flow between the Temple and the Tower is metaphor: the same energy is on display every day in the thousands who turn up for work, freshly disgorged from rail stations and tubes, to pursue the main chance. Proud ambition drives London: in few other places would so many young men—boys commuting from their outer-suburban bedsits to earn a pittance flogging mobile phones or computers—wear such stentorian pinstripes and luminous shirts and strut, peacock-like, through the town, their gait out of kilter with their wealth and influence.

Perhaps there are more dynamic economies in the world; perhaps there are more creative and hard-working people and places, but give London its due: it is the home of brass. There is a confidence in the commerce of the city that has rarely been diminished since the great mercantile days of centuries past. Like the similarly Protestant and pragmatic Dutch, it would seem English traders took the religious contention over usury—the scourge of money-lending—and ran with the opportunities it presented, while Catholic France and Spain looked on in pious hesitation. The results still refract along the Thames.

Such qualities can be glimpsed by any visitor today, or they can be read in dramatic renderings by English writers; perhaps most conspicuously in Dickens, although there are modern equivalents. But it is rarer to find the demiurges of London’s city life documenting their own days. Perhaps this is one part of the explanation for the evergreen popularity of Samuel Pepys’s diaries. Evidently, the patron saint of London is Erconwald, the city’s seventh-century Saxon bishop. It might cause a stir in the Holy See, but an argument could be made for appointing Samuel Pepys to this position. For beyond all others, he renders for us the practicality, ambition, vanity, gaiety, wit, sure-footedness and strength of a Londoner in excelsis. And for those who make the choice to leaf through his many-volumed diaries, he has more qualities than this again, as a man moving across and through the lines of a fascinating society. That he could move from the mundane and bawdy to the thoughtful and intellectual and back again, every day, is a testament first to the man, but also to his time and his city.

Diaries can be a clearing house for thoughts and ambitions untried in real life; a solace to those feeling put upon by the world. The intimacy of the diary lends itself to self-assessment; it is a place to sound the depths of the writer. Once jotted out, these journals become a spyhole to the man: was he dogged with self-doubt? Did he feel himself short-changed? Was he someone else entirely? This is the fodder for many diary lovers. Readers of published diaries can truffle-hunt for that which astounds, or makes no sense when confronted with the outer diarist and their outwardly life. Such diaries are common enough; few people obtain a balance between potential and achievement. Not everybody can be born a Wallace Stevens—bestriding art and commerce, simultaneously the successful businessman and one of the great poets of his age. Diaries are oftentimes attractive because they reveal that imbalance between life imagined and lived. They show us people whose potentialities and ambitions are beyond the sum of their mundane parts. They keep us reading and thinking and, perhaps, they make us a little less dissatisfied with ourselves.

Samuel Pepys did not keep such a diary. From his mid-twenties, when he began to record his daily affairs and thoughts, he worked to make every post a winner and delighted in writing about his efforts. Every win, loss and near miss is recorded in a diary that doubles as a ledger. There are doubts, too, but they are mostly concerned with what providence might bestow, or how another might act in matters of importance for Pepys himself. There are few truly dark nights of the soul in the diaries of Samuel Pepys. Reading him is to see the blossoming of a figure whose work ethic, ambition, guile and intellect kept the public figure and the private man in a blessed equilibrium throughout his life; a thruster backing himself with hard work, a sharp eye, quick feet and a fear of the gutter. Pepys kept his great diary for a little under a decade; yet he lived longer still, and ascended the heights of his trade, as perhaps the most senior civil servant in the country. The brevity of the diaries might be our loss, but if we are to take away any positive, it must be this: that in his diaries we read a youthful man in full sail towards his ambitions, unfreighted by middle age, illness and ennui. They were golden years for Pepys, and the writing does them full justice.

The diaries are strikingly immediate and fresh. Pepys’s language is not archaic: perhaps his prose is a little more formal than we might expect today, but it sits on the pages with the smell of fresh paint. This achievement is the more remarkable when compared to the diary of Pepys’s near contemporary, John Evelyn. For all its importance and intelligence, Evelyn’s prose has a leaden feel, a sense of the voice thrown from a great distance; it is not there in Pepys. The other great link between Pepys and the modern reader is the donkey-stubborn geography of the city itself, which brings an immediate familiarity to his jottings. The lie of the land has changed little since his time. London’s shambling alleyways and yards refused to yield to the rebuilding plans laid after the great fire of 1666; this intransigence was largely, it would seem, on the grounds that since the many guilds and businesses already knew where to find each other, changing things would just compound the disruption that the fire had already caused.

Perhaps the biggest changes from the road map that Pepys walked come courtesy of the London blitz. The space between St Paul’s, St Bride’s on Fleet Street and the Tower of London triangulates the centre of Pepys’s life: it contained his house in Seething Lane, his place of birth and baptism, his parish church and his workplace in the Navy Office. In this same delta, large office blocks now jostle for every ounce of real estate on erstwhile bomb sites—some of the old laneways lie crushed anonymously beneath them, but many more survive as rear lanes to large city office blocks: dog tracks weaving around corporate giants.
Notwithstanding the changes, it remains fairly easy to follow Pepys’s wanderings from any given diary entry: he was meticulous in recording his perambulations. Perhaps the only significant barrier to the modern detective is the diarist’s countless river crossings, made almost daily in small, rowed ferries as the naval bureaucrat went to inspect progress in the shipyards, or to drink, hold court and chase skirts across the river. The Thames nowadays is a much quieter place than that; the ferries only run longitudinally between tourist hotspots such as Hampton Court and the Tower, but Pepys records for us in daily detail the bustling life of this deep and strongly tidal river, which was—all at once—London’s underground system, motorway, city wall, internet cable and sewer.

The intimacy of his world was helped by the size of his London. At the time it held perhaps less than half a million people—a little more intimate than the 7.5 million of today. Consequently, the great networks of royalty, commerce, politics, science and the arts were small, familiar and intertwined out of necessity. On this cosier scale, a man who could work hard, as well as read, write, talk and bargain with the best would command good odds on going up in the world. Pepys grabbed every opportunity with both hands and his diaries are a testament to the motilic energy and ambition of the man; in his little house in Seething Lane, Pepys must have lost much sleep turning over in his wary mind the people who might either threaten or increase his wealth and station. And he knew that success took guile; he met it in the form of the royalist naval captain Robert Holmes:

He seems to be very well acquainted with the King’s mind, and with all the several factions at Court, and spoke all with so much frankness, that I do take him to be my Lord’s good friend, and one able to do him great service, being a cunning fellow, and one (by his own confession to me) that can put on two several faces, and look at his enemies with as much love as his friends. But, good God! What an age is this, and what a world this is! That a man cannot live without playing the knave and dissimulation.

And as might be expected of a man who stepped over destitution on his way to daily business each day, Pepys was a true Micawber. The diaries groan under the weight of entries bemoaning costs, or rejoicing in windfalls:

My mind is now in a wonderful condition of quiet and content, more than ever in all my life, since my minding the business of my office, which I have done most constantly; and I find it to be the very effect of my late oaths against wine and plays, which, if God please, I will keep constant in, for now my business is a delight to me, and brings me great credit, and my purse encreases to.

And he was a boast, when it suited his purpose:

Home by water, and to the office all afternoon, which is a great content to me, to talk with persons of quality and to be in command, and I give it out among them that the estate left me is 200l. a year in land, besides moneys, because I would put esteem on myself.

But, as ever, one of the great risks to maintaining your fortune was the threat of rivals at work, men who might steal your thunder. In this context, Pepys emerges as one of the great haters, recording his blackest thoughts on those who might stand in his way; witness Pepys’s comments about Sir William Penn, for a time his senior at the Navy Office and a political rival to Pepys’s own patron, the Earl of Sandwich:

…we to supper again to Sir W. Pen. Whatever the matter is, he do much fawn upon me, and I perceive would not fall out with me, and mighty officious to my wife, but I shall never be deceived again by him, but do hate him and his traitorous tricks with all my heart.

Much of his general fame as diarist lies in his role as chronicler of great events, a man near the very apex of English society. As a youth he saw first-hand the beheading of a king and later witnessed the ascent of Cromwell’s parliament, the subsequent restoration of the monarchy and the great civic afflictions of the plague and fire of London, among other things. That he saw and documented these things—and did so with such clarity and wit—is to be cherished by the historian and the dilettante alike.

But Pepys was perhaps not driven by any great altruism in chronicling such events; every entry in the diary has the writer himself as its alpha and omega. Just as in modern London, Pepys, a man making his way, struggled daily to stay on top of the fickle wheel of fortune. It was eminently better to be the cheetah than the gazelle. But in all of this, we find him not entirely wizened by his jousts with the city: there is ever room in his diaries for the thoughtful aside. Pepys made music with his friends on the lute. He had professional singing lessons for some time, in the mornings before he went to work. He mixed with great men of science. He took a leading role in the fledgling Royal Academy.

The diaries show us just what a melting pot of great grace and thought this apparently hard, dirty trading town was in the 17th century. Yet amidst the highbrow, Pepys’s diary is also written with an Augustinian honesty: he pursues women throughout the years of the diary; he records the intimate details of successful and not-so-successful bouts in a sort of Esperanto, made of remembered Latin, French and other odds and sods, to provide an extra encryption lest prying eyes read the diary. He records his feasts on oysters, mutton and venison pasties … and then tells us how much he vomited that night.

Pepys was to write with eloquence about the effects of the bubonic plague on London, a city that, in the steamy summer of 1665, became ever more quiet as people died and the living fled. He documents the death tolls for us as he hears of them. These entries are sobering; they place today’s public fascination with terror bombings thoroughly in the shade for the sheer ruthlessness of suffering. In June 1665, as the plague took hold, he encounters it directly, as the infected begin to be boarded up alive in their own houses:

I did, in Drury-Lane, see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there, which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw.

One cannot help but wonder if the scrawl on the door was that of the battener, seeking some absolution for his grim task. Yet Pepys remains in London for months after this, sending his family off to the country, but he himself working assiduously at his career with the Navy Office well into the worst months of the plague. The parish records of the time tell us that it was killing more than 7000 people a week in the summer of 1665. In the end, it may have claimed over a quarter of all Londoners. Pepys saw it happen and lost friends and colleagues to the pestilence. That he stayed and wrote about it in such a thoughtful way is to his credit. The diarist’s humanity, mixed no doubt with considerable fear, makes itself felt through this period:

This disease making us more cruel to one another than if we were dogs.

In these passages Pepys rises above being a scribbling civil servant. In the same way, he documents the great fire of London, from its beginnings to raging inferno: London engulfed in flames must have made for an apocalyptic sight. Yet within a few hours of the fires reaching their peak, the diarist takes a boat upriver to Westminster to buy a flashy new coat—his others had become sooty from the fire and, after all, there were standards to be maintained. It is quite an image to conjure with: the disabled city fretting in black smoke under a red sky, while amidst the chaos, a boat heads up the Thames ferrying a man occupied with what sort of braid should adorn his new suit.

This is the heart of the Pepysian paradox and it might tell us a little about the city itself: London in 1666 was a premier trading capital. It worked hard for what it scrounged from the muddy Thames and the ships that plied it; its inhabitants, whatever their wealth or status, lived in or at least close by to squalor and sorrow. Men knew that fortune was fickle; they saw the results of failure and misfortune all about them; all the more reason to enjoy good luck and work diligently, lest one allow oneself to be dragged anywhere near the gutter. Pepys was such a man. It has been said that there was a hard knot somewhere in Pepys’s heart. But if there was, it surely was a common ailment in Restoration London.

The several volumes of Pepys’s great diary are a fascinating journey. In very recent times, they have been serialised on the internet (www.pepysdiary.com). This laudable development allows all sorts of people to enjoy the unfolding drama of his life by logging on to read each new day’s entry. Readers can also post questions and answers about the etymology of curious words and phrases, or help dust nearly 350 years of obscurity off distant names and places. It is a fascinating project, and it helps to bring Pepys a new relevance.

With luck, this endeavour—along with illuminating and engaging recent scholarship such as Claire Tomalin’s Pepys: The Unequalled Self—will convert more people to this patron saint of London, whose concerns and schemes for self-advancement are far more warm and engaging than the cold stratagems of Machiavelli, whose unwavering quest for liquidity is more human and haphazard than Mr Micawber’s, and whose life was filled with more living than seems a fair allotment for any single man.

Pepys was human. Happily, he probably won’t ever be picked up by management theorists as touchstone for some thin business tome because they would find his diaries too complex, too exhausting, too boring and far too extraordinary. Pepys lived. He lives still.

Luke Fraser works in Canberra as a management consultant. He spent several years as a director in the Department of Defence and worked briefly for the last Howard government ministry as chief of staff to the then minister for employment services and defence personnel.



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