250 years ago today a living legend walked into a small bookshop near Covent Garden. That legend was (Dr.) Samuel Johnson - lexicographer, author, literary critic, wit, etc. In the shop was a young Scotsman, who had for a long time hoped to meet the great Johnson. That young man was James Boswell, the 22 year old son af a Scottish judge, who had reluctantly allowed the young son to go to London for half a year, in the vain hope that he would get the big city and wild dreams of a career in the guards out of his system.
The rest, as they say, is history. The young Scotsman felt rebuffed by the older critic, but was subsequently assured that Johnson had taken quite a liking to him - and that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that lasted until the death of Johnson in 1784. Boswell was often the butt of Johnson’s jokes, but also inspired Johnson to make the very best conversation and everlasting bon mots, many of which were written down by Boswell in his extensive journal, and published in 1791 as part of the monumental biography The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., which has preserved the names of them both for posterity, and which has also magnified Johnson’s reputation to extremes.
The 250th anniversary of the chance meeting in Thomas Davies’ bookshop is commemorated today by a symposium entitled “Telling Lives: James Boswell and the Art of Life Writing” at the Maughan Library, organized by Dr. Johnson’s House and the King’s College, London. But this is only the beginning of a cluster of events in the next few days. Tomorrow will see the opening of the Boswell Book Festival at Boswell’s ancestral home in Auchinleck, Ayrshire, and on Sunday - on the 218th anniversary of Boswell’s death in London - a special memorial service will be held in his honour at the churchyard in Auchinleck.