The boys and I celebrated the first anniversary of our arrival in Washington with a good roll down a hill. We selected a grassy slope in the downtown park, free of trees and rocks, though planted here and there with dog shit. The technique is the same I employed as a boy – lie parallel to the top of the hill, arms against your sides, and give yourself a little push. If the slope is steep enough, gravity does the rest. The idea is to roll fast and far enough to get giddily dizzy but not vomit. Hill rolling was my first experiment in the “systematic derangement of the senses” advocated by Rimbaud – cheaper than beer or hashish, no proof of age required. My only unpleasant experience was once rolling over a patch of white clover and having a honey bee sting me on the shoulder.
There’s solid literary precedent for our hill rolling. In 1764, at the age of 54, Samuel Johnson accepted an invitation from the writer Bennet Langton to visit his family home in Lincolnshire. Langton, with Johnson, was among the founding members of The Club, the London dining and social organization whose other members included Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith and Joshua Reynolds. In his biography of Johnson, W. Jackson Bate sets the scene:
“For whatever reason, Langton never told it to Boswell, though he passed on so much other information to him. Perhaps he simply thought Boswell would not have understood it. But he always remembered it, and as an elderly man told the story to a friend of his son when they were out walking and came to the top of a very steep hill. Back in 1764 Johnson and the Langtons had also walked to the top of this hill, and Johnson, delighted by its steepness, said he wanted to `take a roll down.’ They tried to stop him. But he said he `had not had a roll for a long time,’ and taking out of his pockets his keys, a pencil, a purse, and other objects, lay down parallel at the edge of the hill, and rolled down its full length, `turning himself over and over till he came to the bottom.’”
Those who unimaginatively pigeonhole Johnson as a Tory stick-in-the-mud have no sense of the whole man. He contained multitudes. Among writers, who might have joined Johnson and taken “a roll down?” George Eliot? T.S Eliot? Marcel Proust? Hardly. But Charles Lamb might have had a go, and Thoreau, certainly. In the sentence preceding the passage above, Bate writes:
“Time and again, when he was with others, he could climb out of the prison house of self that he so loathed, and emerged with an exuberance and a childlike love of fun for which, said Mrs. Thrale, she never saw an equal.”
ADDENDUM: My brother makes this useful suggestion.