Not So Brief A Life

In which the writer recalls a great theatrical performance and thinks on a new book.

Sadly a bad photo of the set for Brief Lives – a wonderfully grubby setting for Roy Dotrice’s tour-de-force.

My introduction to John Aubrey came through the legendary one-man show Brief Lives which took its title from Aubrey’s best known work of the same name.  The curtain was up when we took our seats at the Royal Alexandra and we saw a large dusty – verging on filthy – room crammed to its Tudor rafters with books, stuffed animals, and bric-a-brac of an exotic nature.  The furniture, including a large canopied and curtained bed, was decidedly Jacobean though we had been told in the programme notes that the time was circa 1694, well into the reign of William and Mary.  As the lights in the theatre dimmed there was the sound of a baby crying, followed by a pounding and a indistinct voice bellowing about the infant wails.  What had until then appeared to be a bundle of old clothes in a large arm chair moved and began to wheeze and cough and turned out to be the 70 year old John Aubrey as portrayed by Roy Dotrice.  For the next two and a half hours – except when he fell asleep for what became the twenty-five minute interval – we were entertained by the stories and reminiscences of a man who had lived through the reign of five monarchs and the Interregnum.  That and he had collect stories since childhood – his two grandfathers had served in the court of Elizabeth and told him stories and gossip from the days of Gloriana.  This eccentric old man took us behind the scenes and told us the secrets of names we knew from history and introduced us to some lesser lights who were no less entertaining.

I could only find one clip on YouTube though a DVD has been issued of the entire performance.  Aubrey remembers a story about one of those lesser lights.

Dotrice played the part for the first time in 1967 and was to perform in Brief Lives over 1800 times in the next forty years. It was a brilliant evening of theatre that was praised world wide.  The only criticism that could be levelled against Dotrice or writer-director Patrick Garland was that they accentuated the eccentricities of Aubrey in old age while ignoring the incredible accomplishments of the man in historical, archaeology, and scientific research at a time of turmoil, change and discovery in politics, the arts and science.

John Aubrey obviously at a younger age than that portrayed by Roy Dotrice in Brief Lives.

I was born about sun rising in my maternal grandfather’s bedchamber on 12 March 1626, St Gregory’s Day, very sickly, likely to die.  I was christened before Morning Prayer.  My father was nearly twenty-two years old, my mother only fifteen and a half. She has cried through the night and given birth to three more babies since, but they have all died.

Sir John Long of Draycot and J. Aubrey Hawking.  Drawing by Aubrey from a manuscript held in the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford.

So wrote a precocious Aubrey in a diary in 1634 but contrary to that gloomy outlook and though like all men he was “likely to die” his last letter was penned in 1697 as he headed to Oxford.  He did die of apoplexy on June 7th of that year and was buried in an unmarked grave at St Mary Magdalen in Oxford:  1697. John Aubrey, a stranger, was buryed Jun. 7th*.  Much of what occurred in the 71 years between has been captured in Aubrey’s own words by Ruth Scurr in the recently published John Aubrey, My Own Life.  In a move which is almost as audacious as Aubrey’s when he transformed biography writing in Brief Lives and The Life of Mr Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, Scurr uses Aubrey’s scattered and often fragmentary notes, letters, observations, drawings and the few works that he published to create an “autobiography” very much as Aubrey would have written it. It was viewed by many as a risky manoeuvre but the reviews are unanimous in lauding her work and I must say from what I have read so far they are justified in their praise.  A fascinating presentation of an even more fascinating man.

Matters of antiquity are like the light after sunset – clear at first – but by and by crepusculum – the twilight – comes – then total darkness.

I was put on to Scurr’s book early last week when a friend sent me a link to a post from the Paris Review wherein Lucas Adams illustrated some of his favourite passages from the book.  I began to search online and discovered the book was available at Amazon both in hardcover and as an app book however decided to see if my local bookseller had a copy. I was in luck they indeed had a copy on their shelf and I was able to dip into it that same day. (Just as a sidebar I am trying to use Amazon as infrequently as I can and give my custom to my local bookseller. It may cost a bit more but I believe it is worth it.)

Adams is a co-editor on the New York Review Comics as well as a regular contributor to Mental Floss. A left click on the illustration of one of my favourite passages (which concludes the book) will take you to his complete set of graphics.


Anno 1697



Men think that because everyone remembers a memorable event soon after it is done, it will never be forgotten; and so it ends up not being registered and cast into oblivion.

I have always done my best to rescue and preserve antiquities, which would otherwise have been utterly lost and forgotten, even thought it has been my strange fate never to enjoy one entire month, or six weeks, of leisure for contemplation.

I have rescued what I could of the past from the teeth of time.

Matters of antiquity are like the light after sunset – clear at first – but by and by crepusculum – the twilight – comes – then total darkness.

* The entry from the Register of St Mary Magdelan – a sad note when you think of the many years he had spent at Oxford and his many friends from his days there. He had outlived many of them and may well have been unknown to the Parish.

On this day in 1942: The first gold record is presented to Glenn Miller for “Chattanooga Choo Choo“.