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In My Good Books

Roger North's "Notes of Me"

James Fenton
copyright © 2005

Originally published in The Guardian
5 November 2005

The most famous English diaries were completely unknown in their day. Pepys went undeciphered, Evelyn unprinted, and Boswell's journals and the greater part of Haydon's diaries unknown. So it is not surprising that there should be plenty more to read in the way of "life-writing" - that is, biography, autobiography, journals, letters and the like. Roger North (1653-1734) became known for his biographies of family members (referred to as North's Lives of the Norths), but his autobiography was not properly edited and published until 2000, under his excellent title, Notes of Me.

The writers of the Restoration period tended towards an encyclopaedic cast of mind. They adored philosophy, by which they meant logic, mathematics, physics and mechanics as well as what we would expect to find in the philosophy section today. If they played music, they could not help speculating on the theory of music. If they went out in a boat, they saw the whole contraption as a demonstration of mechanical principles.

North went to school in Thetford, where he learnt to swim in the Little Ouse: "There was a navigable river in the town, which above the bridge branched into many brooks, and scattered streams. This made us all expert boat men, swimmers and fishers. We have used to pass whole days naked; and once going down to a sandy place to swim, a frolic carried us to Brand where, after example, I got drunk, and in the return must needs go swim again, but at first step fell over all into the water, being not in a condition to stand. The cold of the water made us all instantly sober…"

Is North the first writer to describe yachting as a pastime? His yacht, which he kept on the Thames, "was small, but had a cabin and a bedroom a-thirt-ships, aft the mast, and a large locker at the helm; the cook-room, with a cabin for a servant, was forward on, with a small chimney at the very prow. Her ordinary sail, was a boom mainsail, stay foresail, and gib." This vessel he would equip with "cold meats in tin cases, bottles of beer, ale, and for the seamen brandy." He was not normally speaking a glutton or indeed a drinker, but yachting gave him an excellent appetite. "And at midnight in the air, the eating cold meat, and bread; and drinking small beer, was a regale beyond imagination, I can say I scarce ever knew the pleasure of eating till then."

He considered sailing one of his "mathematical entertainments." He took his yacht as far as Harwich, which people considered foolhardy (it shipped water in a storm). He observed nature, solving the problem of what happened to the flying ants - he called them aunts - at the end of the season. He had seen them at Edgehill in Warwickshire: "It was there that at the latter end of summer the aunts in the valley begin to come out with wings, and are very busy climbing up the grass, and at the summits of the spires divert themselves with practising their wings; and at length, by one unanimous consent they rise, and go upwards towards the high country, in such infinite numbers, as take the form of a cloud, and darken the sun." In the Thames Estuary he saw the surface of the water covered with them, "so it is plain that they flew with a westerly wind, till they perished in the sea."

North was a lawyer, and he saw the fire of 1679 which attacked the Inner and Middle Temple in London, destroying Elias Ashmole's library and his collection of around 9,000 coins and medals (his gold coins and his most valuable manuscripts escaped, being at his house in Lambeth). He was a mathematician, and his collection of instruments is preserved at Jesus College, Cambridge. He was an amateur musician who took the trouble to record in one chapter the way he learnt music, and what his strengths and weaknesses were. He has an excellent passage on the art of constructing a musical programme, which he compares to the planning of a firework display and the construction of a comedy - that is, it must be properly coordinated and lead to a climax.

He was executor to Sir Peter Lely, who had accumulated an extraordinary collection of prints and drawings. North describes the preparation for the auction of this material, how he stamps every page with Lely's initials and organises everything in lots. Perhaps this too is the first detailed account of an important auction. There is also rich material on the development of the foetus and prenatal influences. And admirable book, excellently edited by Peter Millard and published in 2000 by the University of Toronto Press.

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North, Roger. Notes of Me, edited by Peter Millard. University of Toronto Press, 2000.


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