How Much Has London Changed? – discovering the streets Dickens roamed
February 17, 2012
‘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