Should We Feel Guilty? reading Dickens biography by Claire Tomalin
February 22, 2012
Kilburn High Road is a grey frozen wash. The sky spits ice that is about to become snow. I’ve nearly reached Kilburn tube station when I see her. A woman who uses two wooden sticks to draw herself to a half standing position. Her back is stooped. She is struggling to open some kind of box. I look closer and I see it is in fact a plastic tub. The kind you might buy ice cream in. She pulls the lid off and holds the carton in front of her. Only then do I realise she is starting to beg. It is too cold to think of sitting on the pavement. How long can she possibly hope to stand there? Should I give her money? Should I ask her where she’s sleeping tonight? I do neither. I’m in a hurry.
On the tube, I begin to read Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens A Life. It begins with a description of Dickens helping to save a poor servant girl who is accused of murdering her new born baby. Not only does he persuade his fellow jurors to show mercy, he has food sent to the prison where she is incarcerated. He does this at a time when he’s extremely busy and has financial pressures of his own. He takes a personal interest in someone that his society considers to be amongst the lowest of the low.
Dickens not only wrote about the poor. He defended their rights and helped support them all his life. As a young journalist, he reported on the failed attempts to amend the Poor Law. This law saw whole families thrown out of their homes and into large institutional workhouses. Here men and women were strictly separated, including husbands from their wives, and they were forced to wear special clothing. In other words, they were treated like criminals guilty of the crime of being poor. Tomalin points out that for most of the middle class MPs of the time this made perfectly good sense.
This morning on the radio I listened to a banker defending his right to a salary of over a million pounds a year. He believes he works very long hours, that hard work and excellence should be rewarded. He says he is not a robot and he’s hurt by criticism of what society has decided it should pay him. Is it his fault there is still such a division between rich and poor? How much responsibility should we take for the society we live in? Would Dickens have considered the woman on crutches begging with her ice cream box in the snow a reproach to us all?
How Much Has London Changed? – discovering the streets Dickens roamed
February 17, 2012
St Giles Rookery, courtesy of Camden Archives
‘I had my sixtieth birthday right there,’ the woman beside me informs me.
We’re looking at a drawing of the Polygon where Dickens lived in 1827. The picture is part of the Streets of Dickens exhibition at Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre.
‘There’s a wonderful old club. Down in the basement is where all the Irish rail workers in the fifties used to drink,’ the woman explains. ‘Amazing to think Mary Shelley once lived there too.’
For a moment I imagine Frankenstein and Fagin and my own grandfather knocking back a few pints together. I’d bet they’d have some stories to share. This is not perhaps as fanciful as it sounds. For in London the past and the present are constantly rubbing shoulders. Who knows what the ghosts talk about?
I’m ushered upstairs to a room above the archives. It’s packed with people who’ve come to spend their lunchtime listening to historian Jeff Page’s talk on Dickens’s connection with the local area. Extra chairs are pulled out and everyone shifts around to make sure the person behind can see the projector slides properly.
Page begins by reading an extract from Gone Astray, an autobiographical piece Dickens wrote about getting lost in London as a young boy. He’d been taken to see Northumberland House and become so distracted by the famous lion hanging over the gateway that he got left behind.
Page asks the audience if they can identify the shadow falling across Northumberland House on the slide? It turns out to be Nelson’s Column. The whole building, and indeed the whole area of tiny back alleys, with such curious names as Porridge Island, was cleared to make way for Trafalgar Square.
Yet as Page projects his impressive collection of photographs, drawings, watercolours, and sketches, it as if that other past London were still hiding in the shadows just waiting to be illuminated. The names of infamous long vanished pubs still have a lovely ring to them. Names like ‘The Haunch of Venison’ where if you bought a pint, you got a woman and a bed thrown in for no extra cost.
Page asks the audience if they can identify where a particular view of the Thames is now? ‘Just down by Charing Cross,’ the man beside me murmurs. Street names receive appreciative nods of recognition. This is a crowd that still intimately knows the London Dickens wrote so much about. Perhaps not so surprising when he lived just round the corner at 48 Doughty Street and only a few minutes. walk from Little Saffron Hill where Oliver Twist joined Fagin’s Den.
As I head back out into the freezing cold sunshine of early February, I make my own brisk way down towards Charing Cross. I think about how Dickens used to cross the river to visit his family in Marshallsea Prison. I stop bythe church of St Martin in the Fields, which dates back to the twelfth century. There are poster boards outside showing an exhibition of photographs and creative writing by homeless people.
A rough sleeper called Tom has written ‘In so many ways we’re lucky these days. Walking down by the Thames you see the dirty old river going by and it reminds me of Dickens and the terrible life people lived back then. They literally had nothing. It makes me melancholic for the tragedies they had to suffer but also upbeat because there is so much more hope these days.’
Would Dickens have admired the optimism of this? Would he be depressed to know there are still poor and destitute people without shelter in the heart of London?
Streets of Dickens exhibition runs at Camden Archives and Local Studies Centre until December 21 2012
Are We Born Famous? – wishing Charles Dickens a very happy birthday
February 8, 2012
‘Tea? I make coffee,’ the veiled woman behind the counter informs me. She waves at the cappuccino machine. I’m in a nearly empty cafe in New Cross in south London. Does she mean they don’t do tea?
‘Okay, I’ll have a latte.’
She stares at me. For a second I feel like Oliver Twist foolishly asking for more gruel. Then she shrugs, whips a teabag into a mug and adds steaming milk.
I’m too polite to say I meant coffee instead of tea. Instead I retreat to discover that tea latte doesn’t taste half bad. I sip and read of a young man hiding with his family in a bathroom in Beirut while bombs fall all around them. Somehow amidst the exploding glass and the tragic death of a neighbour, he creates a portrait of his Lebanese father that is endearing and eccentric and larger than life. A proper Dickensian character who lives in a small apartment surrounded by towers of books. His son is not yet a famous writer. He is one of my creative writing students. I wonder if he knows how talented he is? For we tend to forget that writers are not born famous. Charles Dickens may have become something of an institution since his birth two hundred years ago. Yet his mother doesn’t seem to have sensed her second child was going to be one of the most famous writers that have ever lived. She claimed she went out dancing the night before Charles was born in a little house on the outskirts of Portsmouth on February 7th, 1812.
One of eight, Dickens was put to work in a blacking warehouse near what is now Charing Cross station. He was twelve years old. His father had experienced his own credit crunch and was in prison for debts. Did he guess that his son was not destined to spend the rest of his life sticking labels on jars of shoe polish? That this child labourer would grow up to write A Tale of Two Cities, one of the top ten best selling books of all time?
I finish my tea latte and my student’s tale of life in Beirut. The cafe has become crowded with men speaking Arabic. I wonder what they are talking about? I wonder if any of them have been to Beirut? I live in a city of so many languages that I don’t speak. A city where so many young people face an uncertain future. Yet reading this not yet known writer’s manuscript, I feel great confidence and hope. Do any of us know where our own story ends?