Friday, April 08, 2005

Boswell's English Day

Reading Boswell's London Journal 1762-1763 [Pottle, ed. McGraw-Hill (Toronto: 1950)] I came across this interesting passage:

WEDNESDAY 15 DECEMBER. The enemies of the people of England who would have them considered in the worst light represent them as selfish, beef-eaters, and cruel. In this view I resolved today to be a true-born Old Englishman. I went into the City to Dolly's Steak-house in Paternoster Row and swallowed my dinner by myself to fulfill the charge of selfishness; I had a large fat beef-steak to fulfil the charge of beef-eating; and I went at five o'clock to the Royal Cockpit in St. James's Park and saw cock-fighting for about five hours to fulfill the charge of cruelty.

A beefsteak-house is a most excellent place to dine at. Youc ome in there to a warm, comfortable, large room, where a number of people are sitting at a table. You take whatever place you find empty; call for what you like, which you get well and cleverly dressed. You may either chat or not as you like. Nobody minds you, and you pay very reasonably....

I then went to the Cockpit, which is a circular room in the middle of which the cocks fight. It is seated round with rows gradually rising. The pit and the seats are all covered with mat. The cocks, nicely cut and dressed and armed with silver heels, are set down and fight with amazing bitterness and resolution. Some of them were quickly dispatched. One pair fought three quarters of an hour. The uproar and noise of betting is prodigious. A great deal of money made a very quick circulation from hand to hand. There was a number of professed gamblers there. An old cunning dog whose face I had seen at Newmarket sat by me a while. I told him I knew nothing of the matter. "Sir," said he, "you have as good a chance as anybody."... I was shocked to see the distraction and anxiety of the betters. I was sorry for the poor cocks. I looked round to see if any of the spectators pitied them when mangled and torn in a most cruel manner, but I could not observe the smallest relenting sign in any countenance. I was therefore not ill pleased to see them endure mental torment. Thus did I complete my true English day, and came home pretty much fatigued and pretty much confounded at the strange turn of this people.


You can find a post on cockfighting at Early Modern Notes. (In fact, looking over the post, Sharon mentioned precisely this passage in Boswell.) It's interesting that Boswell, a Scot, considers cockfighting to be a purely English thing. One wonders if this is just due to the circles in which Boswell lived in Scotland, or if Boswell is right that it has to do with the 'strange turn' of the English. Scotland didn't outlaw cockfighting until 1895; one wonders if this is because the Scots were just slower to act, or if, as Boswell's passage suggests, it only became an issue for them much later than it did for the English, perhaps as an English import. It brings up all sorts of interesting questions.

If Boswell were to have an English Day now, what would he do? An American Day now? (I'm inclined to think the criticisms in the modern American case would be: selfishness, gluttony, and sloth. Boswell could have quite a vacation on those faults!)

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