The Superannuated Nicholas


In the month of May, in the year 1825, Charles Lamb contributed another of the delightful essays he composed under the pseudonym of Elia to The London Magazine. Lamb had begun the series in August 1820, and in January 1823, 27 of his contributions - including such masterpieces as Christ's Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago, Mrs Battle's Opinions on Whist, The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple, and The Two Races of Men - were published in book form (not unlike a similar volume extracted from this column that was published a few years ago).


Charles Lamb is one of the small but perfect jewels of English literature: playfully learned, splendidly eccentric, a lover of puns - good, bad but never indifferent, and a thoroughly decent, courageous man, who devoted his life to looking after his mentally unbalanced sister, thus denying himself the possibility of marriage and family.


Lamb's working life was spent working as a clerk, first in the South Sea House, and then, after 1792, for the remainder of his working life, as a clerk in the Accountant's Office of the East India House.


For a person of Lamb's exceptional literary sensitivity, the year-in, year-out drudgery of a clerk's duties took an enormous toll. In his wonderful letters he lamented the number of unwritten poems, plays and books his soul-destroying, tediously repetitive work prevented him from writing.


His irrepressible sense of humour, which often bordered on and occasionally toppled over into the absurd, saved his sanity. Replying once to someone who called at his place of work and, in the course of conversation, asked how many volumes his collected works ran to, Lamb pointed proudly to the dozen or so hefty volumes on the shelf above his desk, observing "I have probably written twice as much as Milton, though not in such elevated style, of course."


Finally, in 1825, Lamb was able to negotiate what today we would call early retirement, and he celebrated his release in his Elia contribution for May entitled The Superannuated Man.


Those of us who regard Garavans, the venerable hostelry on William Street, as inextricably linked to the person of its longest-serving barman, Nicholas Killoury, will already be aware that the aforesaid parfait knight of the bottle has entered that state of felicity known as semi-retirement.


The delicate process of partial disengagement began the year before last, and since then Nicholas has become the proud carrier of a bus pass entitling him to travel, without a shilling in his pocket if he so wishes, the length and breadth of this fair island with impunity. Nicholas has become, in the title of Lamb's essay, a 'Superannuated man'.


Here is how Lamb described his release from toil:


"If peradventure, Reader, it has been thy lot to waste the golden years of thy life - thy shining youth - in the irksome confinement of an office; to have thy prison days prolonged through middle age down to decrepitude and silver hairs, without hope of release or respite; to have lived to forget that there are such things as holidays, or to remember them but as the prerogatives of childhood; then, and then only, will you be able to appreciate my deliverance."


"It is", the genial Lamb goes on to say, "six and thirty years since I took my seat at the desk of Mincing-lane. Melancholy was the transition at fourteen from the abundant play-time, and the frequently-intervening vacations of school-days, to the eight, nine, and sometimes ten hours' a-day attendance at a counting-house. But time partially reconciles us to anything. I gradually became content - doggedly contented, as wild animals in cages."


But then arrived the day when, after a chat with his employers, he was offered the chance to retire early, and that, furthermore, "I should accept from the house, which I had served so well, a pension for life to the amount of two-thirds of my accustomed salary - a magnificent offer!"


Lamb goes on to relate the strange effect his first few days of freedom had upon him: "For the first day or two I felt stunned, overwhelmed. I could only apprehend my felicity; I was too confused to taste it sincerely...I was in the condition of a prisoner in the old Bastille, suddenly let loose after a forty years' confinement...It was like passing out of Time into Eternity - for it is a sort of Eternity for a man to have his Time all to himself."


Behold Nicholas now, these days. Free to wander, like an uncaged bird, where he will. Furthermore, Lamb's case and his are different in important respects. The kindly and considerate Johnny Rea could never in a million years be considered a harsh taskmaster, a kind of Simon Legree, out to torment his posse of servitors.


Indeed, Nicholas has not altogether severed his connections with Garavans - how could he, being the very spirit of the place? He now makes what I shall call 'guest appearances', arranged to suit his new circumstances. Not only does this enable Nicholas to maintain the extensive friendships he has made over the years, it also provides a unique opportunity for members of the younger generation to view Nicholas at his work. Instead of consulting old photographs or dusty volumes, think of the educational and cultural value of being able to observe a master engaged in his craft.


Nicholas, who loves Lamb as much as I do, asked if I would conclude this little celebration with the words of that other Superannuated Man, since they describe perfectly the emotions connected with this particular species of liberation:


"I have indeed lived nominally fifty years, but deduct out of them the hours which I have lived to other people, and not to myself, and you will find me still a young fellow. For that is the only true Time, which a man can properly call his own, that which he has all to himself...I have done all that I came into this world to do. I have worked task work, and have

the rest of the day to myself."


God bless you, Nicholas, and may your own time be a long time.