My bedtime routine includes writing a diary, followed by a nightly dip into Mr Pepys’s - I’m currently up to July 1665,with the Plague building to a crescendo.
I’ve a few things in common with Samuel, I find. I hope, for instance, that I might be distantly related to his clerk, Mr Thomas Hayter, whose character, the Companion informs me “seems to declare itself in his neat and regular handwriting”. I lived for some years in both Islington and Hackney, Pepys’s favourite summer jaunt , and may have cycled past some of his childhood haunts in Kingsland and Newington. We were both born under the sign of Pisces, love London, art, music, reading, and derive great pleasure from the execution of an administrative task well done! Were he alive today, I think Samuel would have been tickled to know that George Frederick Handel, another devoted Londoner, was born on his 52nd birthday. I hope he would also relish, as I do, the sea-stories of Patrick O’Brian featuring Captain Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin.
One of my birthday treats this year was a visit to the National Maritime Museum to see their exhibition: Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution. I love the NMM in its beautiful setting, with the Royal Observatory above on the hill. It never fails to touch me when I walk past the model of the Rawalpindi on the way in, and remember the fate of those who died in her in World War 2, including a man from the town where I live.
I was a little bemused initially by the half-light in the exhibition rooms (emulating 17th century light levels ?), but it was great to see the many artefacts and portraits on display, including the John Hayls portrait of Pepys. I loved the large slipware plate which commemorated the Boscobel oak in which Charles II hid after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651 (am I mistaken in recalling that the tomb of his companion on that day, Richard Penderel, was located in St Giles’ Churchyard off London’s Denmark Street? Last time I went there I found the lettering so eroded, it could no longer be read).
The engraving of a man being prepared for the surgical removal of a kidney stone was twingingly graphic, the medical instruments displayed even more so! The stark digital presentation of the numbers who died during the time of Plague showed how shocking the mounting death levels must have been, peaking, in August and September 1665, in over 7,000 per week in London alone. I was prompted, on my return home, to download the Kindle version of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year for further reading!
Pepys’ diary, together with documenting the great dramas of life, recording historic events and encounters with the great and the good, also brings home the truth that people from earlier centuries shared similar concerns with our own: worries about job prospects, upsetting the boss, financial insecurity, family squabbles, aging parents, marital tiffs, overspending, aches and pains, and (for we churchgoers) the occasional boring sermon, etc! There was a reproduction in the exhibition of a large group portrait showing a visit to Christ’s Hospital of the King and courtiers, with Pepys (a Governor of the School) perusing a map. It included some charming detail depicting schoolchildren doing the things children do - and being ticked off in the same way they presumably have been since time immemorial!
Pepys dearly loved having family and friends over for a meal and a good time, and the day after our visit we enjoyed a jolly get-together. We were very merry, in true Pepys fashion, and, amazingly in this smartphone age, we realised, once everyone had gone, that no-one had taken the now almost obligatory photo for Facebook, so only fond memories and my diary must stand as a record of the occasion. I feel glad for that too!
The exhibition has left me determined to take a trip some time to Magdalene College, Cambridge to see Pepys’s library, and another to the Historic Dockyard at Chatham. In the meantime, for those of you who might like to see the Exhibition at Greenwich, it closes at the end of this week on 28 March - so hurry if you want to catch it!