One of the people I met at the Oxford tercentennial for Johnson was Henrik Bering, a thoroughly excellent drinking partner and dinner companion in addition to being an expert in, among other things, urban warfare. Not your ordinary conference attendee! He recently wrote up the conference for the Weekly Standard, and it’s a thoroughly fun piece:

While Johnsonians may differ on matters of emphasis regarding their man, certain things bind them together: A deep distaste for the Romantics and everything they represent, which became plain during a visit to one of the other colleges Johnson had strong connections to, University College: When passing Edward Onslow Ford’s exceedingly decadent fin de siècle sculpture that shows the drowned
poet Shelley artfully arranged on a slab of Cremona marble, one delegate was heard scornfully muttering about Shelley’s “remarkably flaccid member.” Perhaps a bit uncharitable, given the fact that the man had just drowned, but indicative of the robust spirit governing the proceedings.

Not all the time was spent listening to papers. A series of events were planned along with the seminars: A Mozart string concerto was performed in Johnson’s honor in the Pembroke college chapel, somewhat ironic when considering Johnson’s profound lack of interest in music. Once when inattentive during a concert, a friend pointed out the technical difficulty involved. Johnson replied: “Difficult, do you call it, Sir? I wish it were impossible.”

A visit to the college wine cellars was also a must, considering the fact that Johnson was capable of downing great amounts of claret, when not confining himself to lemonade: “No sir, claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero (smiling) must drink brandy.” When some delegates showed up the next morning somewhat worse for wear, others were quick to recall Johnson’s rebuke to Boswell: “Sir, you are without any skills in inebriation.”

One thing is certain, these people don’t frighten easily. When the fire alarm went off three times during the gala dinner in the great hall of Pembroke, nobody paid it the slightest attention.

I didn’t even hear the fire alarm, but then again, that gala dinner was pretty liberal in its use of the Pembroke cellars. No one can accuse Johnsonians of being without skills in inebriation.

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