Friday, February 13, 2015


A Village Shopkeeper

John Brown (1810-1882), Horae Subsecivae. Second Series (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1884), pp. 16-18 (on his uncle, Robert Johnston, of Biggar, Lanarkshire):
A shopkeeper in that remote little town, he not only intermeddled fearlessly with all knowledge, but mastered more than many practised and University men do in their own lines. Mathematics, astronomy, and especially what may be called selenology, or the doctrine of the moon, and the higher geometry and physics; Hebrew, Sanscrit, Greek, and Latin, to the veriest rigours of prosody and metre; Spanish and Italian, German, French, and any odd language that came in his way; all these he knew more or less thoroughly, and acquired them in the most leisurely, easy, cool sort of a way, as if he grazed and browsed perpetually in the field of letters, rather than made formal meals, or gathered for any ulterior purpose, his fruits, his roots, and his nuts—he especially liked mental nuts—much less bought them from any one.

With all this, his knowledge of human, and especially of Biggar human nature, the ins and outs of its little secret ongoings, the entire gossip of the place, was like a woman's; moreover, every personage great or small, heroic or comic, in Homer—whose poems he made it a matter of conscience to read once every four years—Plautus, Suetonius, Plutarch, Tacitus, and Lucian, down through Boccaccio and Don Quixote, which he knew by heart and from the living Spanish, to Joseph Andrews, the Spectator, Goldsmith and Swift, Miss Austen, Miss Edgeworth, and Miss Ferrier, Gait and Sir Walter—he was as familiar with as with David Crockat the nailer, or the parish minister, the town-drummer, the mole-catcher, or the poaching weaver, who had the night before leistered a prime kipper at Radian Mill, by the flare of a tarry wisp, or brought home his surreptitious grey hen or maukin from the wilds of Dunsyre or the dreary Lang Whang.

This singular man came to the manse every Friday evening for many years, and he and my father discussed everything and everybody;—beginning with tough, strong head work—a bout at wrestling, be it Caesar's Bridge, the Epistles of Phalaris, the import of μέν and δέ, the Catholic question, or the great roots of Christian faith; ending with the latest joke in the town or the West Raw, the last effusion by Affleck, tailor and poet, the last blunder of Aesop the apothecary, and the last repartee of the village fool, with the week's Edinburgh and Glasgow news by their respective carriers; the whole little life, sad and humorous—who had been born, and who was dying or dead, married or about to be, for the past eight days.

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