Pets and prizes. Sugar, Johnson and Hodge

Johnson reading closely. Portrait by Joshua Reynolds.
“Wealth cannot confer greatness, for nothing can make that great which the decree of nature has ordained to be little.” Samuel Johnson.

This week’s Apprentice opened with the candidates being summoned to Dr Johnson’s house to look at the memorial to his cat, Hodge, outside. This was the set-up for Lord Sugar to give them a pet-bothering task: “People will stop at nothing to pamper their pets, and the pet market is worth a massive 4.6 billion pounds per year. Now I want you to get a piece of that action…”

What Sugar didn’t say was that Hodge wasn’t Johnson favourite cat, only his most famous, probably because of this passage from Boswell’s Life:

Nor would it be just, under this head, to omit the fondness which he showed for animals which he had taken under his protection. I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, ‘but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’

Cats also make me uneasy, I don’t much like them, but I like Johnson for this. I also admire his shrewdness. If there’s one quality that characterises his intelligence, it’s his careful observation of human nature. Not as it is represented in a philosophy or ideology of some kind, but as it is seen every day.

Johnson fetched Hodge’s slightly extravagant food because he thought his servants might dislike the cat if they had to get it. If that seems trivial or far fetched, then think of this: in Paris in the 1730s a group of printing-shop apprentices slaughtered all the neighbourhood cats, at least in part because they resented the way that the cats were better treated—and in particular better fed—than them.

They slept in a filthy, freezing room, rose before dawn, ran errands all day while dodging insults from the journeymen and abuse from the master, and received nothing but slops to eat. They found the food especially galling […] A passion for cats seemed to have swept through the printing trade, at least at the level of the masters, or bourgeois as the workers called them. One bourgeois kept twenty-five cats. He had their portraits painted and fed them on roast fowl.

Or, as Lord Sugar might say, “People will stop at nothing to pamper their pets and some people wish they were treated half as well, they want to get a piece of that action.”

Johnson may have been kind to his animals, but he would stop at something to pamper them. He was also good to people, and not because as pets they were some kind of extension of his ego or image:

At tea-time the subject turned upon the domestic economy of Dr Johnson’s own household. Mrs Thrale has often acquainted me that his house is quite filled and overrun with strange creatures whom he admits for mere charity, and because nobody else will admit them,—for his charity is unbounded,—or, rather, bounded only by his circumstances.

Although some people admired his charity, they were also amused or disapproving, not least because many of the recipients didn’t seem especially likeable or ‘deserving’ on the face of it: old blind Mrs Williams was querulous, jealous, ill-tempered and sometimes vicious; Levet, a former ship’s surgeon, was often drunk—he was a “brutal fellow”, said Johnson, “but I have a good regard for him, for his brutality is in his manners, not his mind”. Johnson wasn’t virtue signalling and he didn’t use his charity to be high-handed or proprietorial, as so many do, because they like minding other people’s business as much as helping them.

The Hodge statue outside Johnson's house. Credit: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).
The Hodge statue outside Johnson’s house. Credit: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Johnson never despised or disregarded money or ambition, he wasn’t an anti-capitalist, and he wasn’t some kind of jolly Father Christmas figure, a Cheeryble brother before his time. He had been poor from boyhood on, had left university early because he couldn’t afford to stay (while there he “was poor, even to raggedness; and his appearance excited a mirth and a pity which were equally intolerable to his haughty spirit”) and had at times as a young man wandered the streets of London all night because he had neither money, nor food nor lodgings. It marked him.

The effect of the privations and sufferings which he endured at this time was discernible to the last in his temper and his deportment. His manners had never been courtly. They now became almost savage. Being frequently under the necessity of wearing shabby coats and dirty shirts, he became a confirmed sloven. Being often very hungry when he sat down to his meals, he contracted a habit of eating with ravenous greediness. Even to the end of his life, and even at the tables of the great, the sight of food affected him as it affects wild beasts and birds of prey. His taste in cookery, formed in subterranean ordinaries and à la mode beef shops, was far from delicate. Whenever he was so fortunate as to have near him a hare that had been kept too long, or a meat pie made with rancid butter, he gorged himself with such violence that his veins swelled and the moisture broke out on his forehead. The affronts which his poverty emboldened stupid and low-minded men to offer to him would have broken a mean spirit into sycophancy, but made him rude even to ferocity. Unhappily the insolence which, while it was defensive, was pardonable, and in some sense respectable, accompanied him into societies where he was treated with courtesy and kindness.

It’s hard to think of a more powerful contrast with the carefully coiffeured, elaborately toiletted, over-groomed and slick imbeciles on the Apprentice.

What would Johnson’s CV say, if written in the boastful Apprentice spirit? He was the author of the first great dictionary of the English language. The only contemporary equivalent was the French Dictionnaire which, as Johnson was fond of observing, took forty scholars fifty-five years to complete. He created his in eight years with the assistance of half a dozen copyists, chosen for their “need” (i.e. poverty) rather than their ability. Johnson’s dictionary is not a dry work of scholarship or safely consensual: every definition resonates with his idiosyncratic and often fallible intelligence. It would be hard to overstate the magnitude or brilliance of his achievement. Then he was also a poet, scholar, novelist (he wrote Rasselas in a week to pay for his mother’s funeral), essayist and public figure.

In doing this, it wasn’t only a poverty that Johnson overcame.

In the child the physical, intellectual and moral peculiarities which afterwards distinguished the man were plainly discernible: great muscular strength accompanied by much awkwardness and many infirmities; great quickness of parts, with a morbid propensity to sloth and procrastination; a kind and generous heart, with a gloomy and irritable temper. He had inherited from his ancestors a scrofulous taint […] The boy’s features, which were originally noble and not irregular, were distorted by his malady. His cheeks were deeply scarred. He lost for a time the sight of one eye; and he saw but very imperfectly with the other. But the force of his mind overcame every impediment.

I enjoy the Apprentice, it’s a notable satire on contemporary business and our wider ethos, it makes Lord Sugar look absurd and it has a cheerful heartlessness to it. Here’s a premise, some money and a production crew: go away and make yourselves look stupid and underhand. I also enjoyed the strange, almost uneasy irony of Sugar standing outside Johnson’s house and using his cat’s statue to say “People will stop at nothing to pamper their pets, and the pet market is worth a massive 4.6 billion pounds per year. Now I want you to get a piece of that action…” to that mob. And it reminded me of why I revere Dr Johnson—and that not all ambition is trivial, self-regarding or ignoble.

Paul Fishman (Bristol, November 2015)

Read my 2014 Apprentice piece, ‘Sore shoulders in the boardroom: The Apprentice’.


James Boswell 1791 Life of Johnson (available in an abridged version online, but much better in the various print editions—I have the Oxford University Press World’s Classics edition)

Fanny Burney 1778 Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay (vol 1) (available free online here)

Robert Darnton 1984 The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (Harmondsworth: Penguin; now only available in another edition, this essay available via History Today here) It’s a quite a long, complex and fascinating piece, though upsetting for cat lovers. It wasn’t just about rebelling against ill treatment.

Encyclopaedia Britannica 1910 Samuel Johnson Encyclopaedia Britannica (vol XV) 11th ed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, this entry available online here)

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