Better Off Dead: Articles

This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, was published in the programme for the world premiere of Better Off Dead at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2018.

A Swift And Unexpected Death

Fake news is a term we’ve all become overly familiar with during the past year.

It even has a small place in Alan Ayckbourn’s new play,
Better Off Dead, when a particularly crass piece of journalism has an unexpected result.

But this is not Alan Ayckbourn’s response to the unhinged Tweets of American presidents or the social media influencing elections. It’s a nod to the fact fake news is far from a new occurrence.

One of the many seeds which inspired
Better Off Dead was Alan’s recollection of his youth, when he studied the novelist Jonathan Swift - author of Gulliver’s Travels - at school.

“I was reminded of a story - perhaps apocryphal - that, way back when, Jonathan Swift wrote an obituary of a man he didn’t like. of course, then technology was so slow but Swift had such a loud voice many people heard him. He wrote this glowing obituary and said, if others come and claim to be him, do not read it. Meanwhile, this chap kept saying ‘I’m alive’ to which the world responded, ‘Oh no, you’re not.’ Swift wrote him out of the world.”

It’s a wonderful story, but it’s not apocryphal, and perhaps in its actual telling is far better than the story Alan remembers. For in a world seemingly dominated by fake news, where we question what is real or not, it transpires that in the 18th century Jonathan Swift did indeed attempt to write someone out of the world.

The incident takes place during the early 18th century and centres around Swift - writer and cleric who became the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin - and John Partridge (born as John Hewson), a cobbler in Covent Garden, later self-styled physician to Kings and Queens - despite apparently having never visited the court - and astrologer.

The point of contention between the pair were almanacs. Since the 16th century these had been exceptionally popular. Produced annually, they contained calendars of significant dates and events, phases of the moon, tide tables, weather predictions, astrology charts, medical advice and the like.

They were also known - and no doubt popular - for their prognostications in which through horoscopes and astrology, they foretold events which would occur during the coming year.

In 1680, Partridge published his first almanac, the
Merlinus Liberatus, which quickly became a perennial best-seller with a circulation of more than 20,000 copies. This particular almanac was known for its anti-Church rhetoric and Partridge’s political leanings; he was against the King, James II.

There is some dispute about why Swift chose to attack Partridge in particular, but there is little doubt that Swift despised attacks on the Church and had little time for those who professed to be able to foretell the future. With the success of his almanacs, Partridge was an obvious target.

In 1708, Swift wrote and published his own almanac,
Predictions For The Year 1708 under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff. Few realising, this was a satirical piece for it quickly gained notoriety not least for its prediction of John Partridge’s death.

“My first prediction is but a trifle, yet I will mention it, to show how ignorant those Scottish pretenders to astrology are in their own concerns. It relates to Partridge the almanac maker; I have consulted the stars of his nativity by my own rules, and find that he will infallibly die upon the 29th of March next, about eleven at night, of a raging fever; therefore I advise him to consider of it, and settle his affairs in time.”

In response, Partridge declared Bickerstaff was nothing but a fraud and not a legitimate practitioner of astrology: "His whole Design was nothing but deceit, The End of March will plainly show the Cheat.”

Come the 29th of March and Partridge, unsurprisingly, was still very much alive and well. Or at least he thought he was.

Imagine his astonishment when, apparently on 1 April, he read of his own death in another pamphlet
The Accomplishment of the First of Mr Bickerstaff’s Predictions being an account of the death of Mr Partridge, the almanack-maker upon the 29th instant.

The piece, purported to be written by a employee ‘of the Revenue’ - but again by Swift -described how he had been at Partridge’s death-bed, who had confessed to himself being the fraud and using his almanac to make money from the gullible in order to care for his family.

“He reply’d, I am a poor ignorant fellow, bred to a mean trade, yet I have sense enough to know that all pretences of foretelling by astrology are deceits, for this manifest reason, because the wise and the learned, who can only know whether there be any truth in this science, do all agree unanimously to laugh at and despite it; and none but the poor ignorant vulgar give it any credit, and that only the word of such silly wretches as I and my fellows, who can hardly write or read.”

The man from the Revenue promptly left prior to Partridge’s death, but informed the reader that he was told Partridge died soon after at five past seven; himself berating Bickerstaff for wrongly predicting the death by four hours!

During the same year, Swift - under his own name - also wrote
An Elegy On The Supposed Death of Mr Partridge, the Almanac Maker.

Here, five feet deep, lies on his back
A cobbler, starmonger, and quack,
Who to the stars in pure good will
Does to his best look upward still:
Weep, all you customers that use
His pills, his almanacks, or shoes.
And you that did your fortunes seek,
Step to his grave but once a week.

Partridge apparently did not respond to these slanders himself, despite the fact they were widely believed and had been published in Europe; there is even a story that he was woken by the sexton calling at the house to see if there were any requests for his funeral sermon!

However, others did spring to his defence and a response was published under Partridge’s name co-authored by the dramatist William Congreve.

“I thank my better stars, I am alive to confront this false and audacious predictors and the make him red the hours ever affronted a man of science and resentment.”

In 1709, Partridge hoped to expose the sham by the publication of the new edition of the
Merlinus Liberatus, in which he proclaimed he was obviously alive and that he had exposed the sham prophecies of Bickerstaff.

Alas, this was not to be the case. For Swift had not yet to deliver the coup de grace. He published
A Vindication Of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq, arguing that Partridge could not possibly be alive since no living man would ever claim credit for the rubbish which appeared in the almanac!

“At every line they [the almanac’s reader] would lift up their eyes, and cry out, betwixt rage and laughter, ‘They were sure no man alive would ever writ such damn’d stuff as this. Neither did I ever hear that opinion disputed.”

He also harshly suggested that if anyone saw Partridge in the street and was assailed by pleas he was not actually dead, that they were merely seeing an “uninformed carcase” and this alone did not discredit the fact he had died; Partridge having somehow magically resurrected himself post-mortem.

“Like the general who was forced to kill his enemies twice over, whom a necromancer had raised to life. If Mr. Partridge has practised the same experiment upon himself, and be again alive, long may he continue so; that does not in the least contradict my veracity.”

Although the literary wound was not fatal for Partridge, it did affect his reputation and he was apparently the source of much humour in his final years with many readers apparently believing Bickerstaff’s prediction had come true.

Whether Swift truly had the effect on Partridge and the prophetic arts in general he intended is debatable. Whilst it’s frequently assumed that Swift destroyed Partridge’s career, the
Merlinus Liberatus continued to be published from 1711.

Upon his ‘second’ and actual death in 1715, it transpired Partridge had continued to be successful leaving more than £2,000 in his will. However, his longevity in public memory is indisputably the result of Swift’s pronouncements rather than his own achievements.

Which just goes to show that 'fake news’ has a long and (dis)honourable history. Which leads us back to the present and
Better Off Dead, where a writer makes a shocking discovery about himself.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.