Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown

Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown

Dickens had a genuine and long-standing concern for the condition of the industrial working class, but when he came to write Hard Times, a novel that makes that subject its main concern, his imaginative powers failed him. His general view of society and the relations between social classes enfeebled the book’s plot and characterisation. That’s not to say that it doesn’t contain scenes of deliciously merciless satire, but it does strike me as being the weakest of the novels that I have encountered so far in this project to re-read, or read for the first time, all of Dickens’s works. Continue reading “Re-reading Dickens: Hard Times in Coketown”


Austerity Britain: the way we were

Austerity Britain: the way we were

I’ve embarked upon the history of my time.  David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain is the first in a planned history of post-war Britain that begins on VE Day in 1945 and will finally close in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher. I was born in 1948, so Kynaston’s remarkable project almost exactly mirrors the years of my birth, schooling, university student life, and entry into the workforce as a college teacher in the 1970s. Kynaston is a contemporary, born in 1951, the year in which this first volume ends.

Reading Austerity Britain is quite different to reading more conventional histories of a particular period.  Although Kynaston deals with the full range of topics you might expect from a social or political history, he is less concerned with the political manoeuvrings between or within parties than with trying to capture the feel of daily life as experienced by individuals of all social classes, drawing upon sources, many of which give voice to the anonymous majority who go unrecorded by the histories. Continue reading “Austerity Britain: the way we were”

My English Renaissance

My English Renaissance

Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein the Younger, c1535-7

Hans Holbein, drawing of  Sir Thomas Wyatt, c 1535-7

My English Renaissance came while doing my A-levels in the mid-1960s.  Never before, or since, have I been so inspired, so transported by the process of discovering new worlds.  The first person fortunate enough to go to grammar school (and later university) on either side of my family (one part urban, industrial working class; the other Derbyshire farm labourers, quarrymen and lead miners), I was taking English Literature and History, and for two years I was immersed in that period of enquiry, exploration and artistic flowering under the Tudors that culminated with Shakespeare: the English Renaissance.

I’m recalling those teenage years, having been watching A Very British Renaissance, the BBC 2 series presented by art historian Dr James Fox in which he presented a pretty decent overview of the English renaissance, dealing not just with art and architecture, science and music (in which the English achievement was arguably well outshone by developments south of the Alps), but with literature, too.  It was good to have a series that ranged across all of these fields, though there were some oddities, not least the way Fox repeatedly declaimed ‘I believe’ or ‘I think’ before arguing a point, as if he were putting forth some radically fresh perspective when the point wasn’t new at all.

He began, for example, with the assertion that:

The Renaissance is supposed to have passed us by. But the British did have a renaissance, and it was bold; it was beautiful; and it was brilliant.

This was odd, coming from someone so obviously learned, since historians were using the term ‘English Renaissance‘ when I was at school (and that was a long time ago).  And given that many choosing to watch his series might also have heard of  John Donne, or Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson – let alone William Shakespeare. Many will have wandered into an art gallery and been stunned by Holbein’s art.  Or have been enthralled by the music of Thomas Tallis or John Dowland.

Still, it was a worthwhile series in which Fox explored how Renaissance ideas came to these shores with the arrival of a handful of influential European artists bringing ideas from the continent in the early 16th century – from Pietro Torrigiano, fleeing Florence after breaking Michelangelo’s nose and then being commissioned by Henry VIII  to create the monument to Henry VII  in Westminster Abbey, to Hans Holbein who sketched and painted portraits of men and women at the court of Henry VIII.  From these first seeds sprang a Renaissance as rich and as significant as that of Italy and Northern Europe – collectively, painters, sculptors, poets, playwrights, composers, craftsmen and scientists developed revolutionary new ways of seeing the world.

Portrait of John Donne by an unknown English artist

What was it about this period that drew me so powerfully as a teenager?  I suppose it was the thrill of seeing elements of the modern world emerging combined with the pastoralism of some of the texts we were reading.  At that time still, where I lived the suburbs were only just beginning to edge their way into open countryside.  I had grown up in a semi-rural setting, and so when we studied The Winter’s Tale, and Perdita makes her ‘speech of flowers’ that begins ‘I would I had some flowers o’ the spring that might become your time of day’ and continues:

That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale prime-roses,
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bright Phœbus in his strength, a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one. O! these I lack
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend,
To strew him o’er and o’er!

Shakespeare’s words spoke of natural things that were already very familiar (and it was also the year of the summer of love and ‘wear some flowers in your hair’).

I don’t think there’s ever been a time in my life when poetry spoke so powerfully.  I was listening to Dylan and reading Wifred Owen and the other war poets out of school (they weren’t on the curriculum – yet; it was another war in Vietnam that had led me to them).  And of all the poets, it was John Donne that I loved the most.  I relished the intellectual puzzles presented by the conceits of metaphysical poetry, and was swept away by the forthright language and erotic imagery of Donne’s verses.  Looking at the portrait of him on the cover of my textbook, he seemed as cool and utterly modern as Dylan on the cover of albums like Highway 61 and Bringing it All Back Home that I was listening to at the time.

Donne's house

The ‘Summer House’ at Pyrford where Donne lived 1600-1604

One of Donne’s poems we studied back then was ‘The Good Morrow’.  In the last programme of his series, James Fox read  this love poem written at a time of the discovery of new lands that is suggestive of Donne poring over maps of the new world (‘O my America, my new-found-land…’):

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

He was filmed punting down the Wey Navigation in Surrey and arriving at a small brick tower known as the Summer House.  This tiny structure, fourteen feet square, may well be the ‘one little room’ in which the poem is set.

There were other poems by Donne that set a teenage heart pounding in 1966, not least these lines from ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’:

Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joys.

But my favourite of all Donne’s poems was (perhaps because of that ‘Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide/Late schoolboys’), and remains, ‘The Sun Rising‘ – ‘one of the most joyous love poems ever written’, according to Carol Rumens writing in the Guardian:

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late schoolboys and sour ‘prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the King will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shoulds’t thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th’Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me?
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, ‘All here in one bed lay.’

She’s all states, and all princes, I;
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here, to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.

Holbein drawing Henry Howard, aged 15

Hans Holbein, drawing of Henry Howard, aged 15

Our A-level History syllabus formed a perfect dovetail with the literature of the Tudor and early Stuart years – Shakespeare, Donne, Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, and even England’s first novel, Jack of Newbury –  as we explored (courtesy of Ben Elton’s uncle) the constitutional changes wrought by Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell. Changes that began the long, slow process that modified medieval, monarchical rule and marked the beginnings of modern, law-based government.

Back then I was familiar with one or two of Holbein’s Tudor portraits, notably those of Henry VIII and Cromwell, but it was only later that I got to know more of the superb drawings and paintings he made of men and women at the court of Henry VIII.  James Fox paid close attention to them in the second programme in his series.

One of the drawings made by Holbein that Fox lingered over was that of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, made when he was about 15 years old and exactly halfway through his life. He’s a character who will be familiar to readers of Hilary Mantel – after the king had had Anne Boleyn executed on charges of adultery and treason, and made paranoid by suggestions of Surrey’s involvement with Boleyn, Henry had him executed.

Another suspected Boleyn lover who escaped execution was Sir Thomas Wyatt.  Fox claimed him as the most impressive English poet of the early 16th century. Wyatt was an important courtier and diplomat throughout the 1530s, but the court of Henry VIII was a dangerous place and his poetry often reflects the power struggles, paranoia and uncertainties of the time.  Fox discussed his poem ‘They Flee From Me’, which may refer to any one of Wyatt’s affairs with high-born women of the court of Henry VIII, possibly with Anne Boleyn.

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”

It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Holbein’s exceptional portraits – more than just photographic representations, they seem to capture the sitter’s soul – reflect a moment, Fox argued, ‘when people stopped thinking of themselves as ‘types’ – courtiers, knights – and started thinking of themselves as individuals’.

Holbein portrait 1 Holbein portrait 2

Preparatory drawings for portraits by Hans Holbein

In these three programmes, James Fox ranged over many aspects of the English Renaissance with which I would not have been familiar as a schoolboy.  In the second episode, while exploring the Elizabethans’ love of secrecy, codes and complexity, he examined a painting that has become familiar in recent years since Rita hung a framed print of it in her study.  It’s a widescreen-format painting made around 1596 by unknown artist that literally tells the story of Sir Henry Unton, a diplomat during Elizabeth’s reign. After his death in 1596 while serving as ambassador to France, his widow commissioned an unknown artist to paint this unusual portrait of Unton and his life. In addition to showing the sitter as he appeared shortly before his death, the painting also uses a narrative, comic-strip style to show important events in his life, beginning with his birth and ending with his funeral procession.

Sir Henry Unton by an unknown artist

Fox’s case was that this painting is an example of how, at this time, the British preferred to ‘read’ paintings rather than look at them. An Elizabethan would have started at the bottom-right corner where Unton is depicted in red as a baby. Then, moving to the building just to the left, we see him as a student at Oxford University. Along the top right, the adult Unton travels through Europe as a diplomat.  Following his life journey round the main portrait, the viewer sees Unton on his deathbed, and then his funeral cortege. This isn’t just Unton’s portrait, said Fox: it’s his biography.

Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit circa 1620-5 by Sir Nathaniel Bacon 1585-1627

Nathaniel Bacon, Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit, c.1620-5

Another painting from this period which I noticed for the first time during a recent visit to Tate Britain is Nathaniel Bacon’s Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit. Bacon was a wealthy man whose hobbies, gardening and painting, were spectacularly combined here. It’s a painting that can be appreciated in several ways.  In one sense, it’s Bacon representing his success in growing fine specimens of fruit and vegetables that would have been unusual to contemporary viewers. In another it’s a metaphor for Britain’s global power: these marrows, squashes, pumpkins, cucumbers and runner beans originated in  the New World; and the grapes from the Far East.  Finally (or maybe primarily?), the painting is a lascivious celebration of the erotic: the abundance of ripe melons (one of them sliced provocatively) surround the cookmaid, echoing her voluptuous cleavage.

Nathanial Bacon, Landscape,

Nathaniel Bacon, Landscape

James Fox made a surprising claim for this painting by Bacon – that it is the earliest surviving landscape painted by a native artist in Britain, though indebted to Flemish and Italian styles.

Queens Palace 1 Queens Palace 2

The Queen’s House, Greenwich, designed by Inigo Jones

Fox drew his survey of the British Renaissance to a close with an architectural gem (one we had passed, but did not enter, during our recent visit to the Maritime Museum in Greenwich).  The Queen’s House, on the waterfront at Greenwich, was commissioned by Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, after the king sought to make amends to Anne for having sworn at her in public when she accidentally shot one of his favourite dogs while hunting in 1614.

The building was designed, inside and out, by architect Inigo Jones, and represents the first fully Classical building seen in England.  Fox explained how Jones, who had risen to fame as a designer of court entertainments, was appointed Surveyor of the King’s Works in 1617 to carry out the commission.  Jones had recently spent three years in Italy studying Roman and Renaissance architecture. This was his first important commission and his first application of the architectural principles he had studied while in Italy.  The highlights the building are the beautiful ‘tulip stairs’ (the first centrally unsupported spiral stair in Britain), and the fine marble floor of the ground floor Hall.

William Shakespeare, John Taylor

William Shakespeare by John Taylor, c 1600-10

John Taylor’s is is the only portrait of Shakespeare that has any claim to have been painted from life.  It was probably made sometime during the miraculous final decade of Shakespeare’s creative output that produced (inter alia) Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.  The last four of those named (along with the comedy of Henry IV Part One) were the plays on my curriculum, with The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest being the ones that most inspired me with their redemptive poetry, their ‘spirits to enforce, art to enchant’, their evocation of a society learning for the first time of brave new worlds.

And that was the point, of course.  Exploration and colonisation were key factors in the growing prosperity of English society during its Renaissance years.  The spirit of enquiry and exploration lead to the discovery of new lands – but also to encounters with previously unknown peoples.

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

Reflecting this, James Fox examined the work of John White, an English artist and member of one of the first English efforts to settle the New World. He was among those who sailed with Richard Grenville to North Carolina in 1585, acting as artist and mapmaker to the expedition. During his time at Roanoke Island he made a number of watercolour sketches of the surrounding landscape and the native Algonquin people.

John White, The Manner of Their Fishing

 John White, The Manner of Their Fishing, 1585

White had been commissioned to ‘draw to life’ the inhabitants of the New World and their surroundings. The resulting watercolours are significant as they represent the most informative illustrations of a Native American society of the Eastern seaboard.  They represent the sole surviving visual record of the native inhabitants of America whose lives and social arrangements were soon to be devastated.

John White, A Festive Dance,

John White, A Festive Dance, 1585

Re-reading Dickens: The Christmas Books

Re-reading Dickens: The Christmas Books

A Christmas Carol illustration by John Leech

‘A Christmas Carol’: illustration by John Leech

The conversation overheard in the changing rooms at Everton Park swimming pool this week spoke volumes about the continuing presence in the popular consciousness of Dickens’s best-known and most popular story.  Spoke, too, of  the renewed relevance of the message and social critique at the heart of A Christmas Carol, and of the anxieties that twist through lives hereabouts.

‘We’ve decided, our lot, this year, we’re not buying each other Christmas presents.’


‘Don’t get me wrong, we’ll celebrate – get the food and drink in.  But we decided that there’s no point in spending a lot when there’s nothing we really want; and none of us has much money to spare.’

‘I know what you mean.  I said to the wife – ‘How’s about if I go down to Matalan and get you one of those cardigans you’ve been wanting.  They’re one-third off this week, and wearing one of those, we can turn down the central heating and save on the gas’. She says, ‘Bah – humbug”

My re-reading Dickens project has reached an appropriately seasonal point with the Christmas Books.  During the 1840s, and beginning with A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote five books for the Christmas market, plus several more Christmas stories in the succeeding two decades. They have forever linked Dickens’s name with Christmas and contributed to the view of many readers that they contain the essence of Dickens: cheerful, benevolent and morally idealistic.

Re-reading A Christmas Carol was a joy, but I must admit that I found the others heavy going.  Though I found things to enjoy in the characters and political satire of the opening chapters of The Chimes, the others I read – Cricket on the Hearth and The Haunted Man – seemed dated, especially in their overwrought supernatural effects.

This was the first time I had read A Christmas Carol since childhood, but the story has remained fresh in my memory through various film and stage adaptations that I’ve seen – especially when our daughter was a child. Re-reading it now, I was struck by how much of its imagery and phrases have burrowed into popular consciousness.  Perhaps only Shakespeare and Dickens have done this.

Here’s a novel of which most people know the opening and closing words – from ‘Marley was dead: to begin with’ to ‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!’  To be ‘a scrooge’ has entered the language, while the exclamation ‘Bah! Humbug!’ and the characters of Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, Marley (‘dead as a doornail’) and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present Future remain vividly ever-present.

I am the Ghost of Christmas Present

‘I am the Ghost of Christmas Present’.  Illustration by John Leech from the first edition, 1843

In his Dickens biography, Peter Ackroyd writes of A Christmas Carol that ‘this powerful Christmas tale, which has achieved a kind of immortality, was born out of the very conditions of the time’. Here is a story of redemption in which the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the two allegorical children, Ignorance and Want, exclaiming as he points to Ignorance, ‘Most of all, beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased’.

Dickens’s interest in education as the key means of alleviating poverty illuminates his novels, journalism and public speeches.  In 1843, not long before he started to write A Christmas Carol, Dickens had made his first visit to one of the Ragged Schools then being established – charitable schools dedicated to providing religious instruction and a rudimentary education for destitute children. He visited the squalid ragged school in Saffron Hill, an area considered to be the worst in London – a place of filth and disease and every kind of vice.  Here were children steeped, in Dickens’s words, ‘in profound ignorance and perfect barbarism’. Dickens broadly supported the work of the ragged schools, though he disapproved of introducing religious doctrine at the expense of a practical education which would help the pupil become a self-sufficient member of society. He believed that the legions of ‘doomed childhood’ would, if they were not properly instructed and their wants alleviated, rise up one day and tear down the very edifice of 19th century civilisation.  As he wrote some time later, ‘side by side with Crime, Disease and Misery in England, Ignorance is always brooding, and it is always certain to be found.’

Within a few weeks of this visit, Dickens had started work on A Christmas Carol, in which, as Peter Ackroyd puts it, ‘the themes of selfishness, money, greed and the commercialised society which results from them are conveyed in condensed and fantastic form’.  In abbreviated form, he writes, the book blended Dickens’s central social concerns –  the effects of industrialism, the ragged schools and the children of the poor, and his own past:

All these things came together, and flowed towards the little book which now emerged … into the light of Dickens’s imagination. […] For in A Christmas Carol he returns to his childhood and relives it.  Not just in the sense that this Christmas story is strangely reminiscent of the tales and chapbooks which he had read as a child … but also in the more important sense that, for the first time in his published writings, the whole nature of Dickens’s childhood informs the little narrative.

Liverpool Mechanics Institution 1841

Liverpool Mechanics Institution in 1841

I’m going to deviate here to observe a local connection to Dickens’s concern for educational reform: in 1844, weeks  after A Christmas Carol had been published to great acclaim,becoming the most successful book of the season, on 26 February 1844, Dickens gave a lecture at a soiree at the Liverpool Mechanics Institution – another example of his commitment to the cause of human improvement and rational education.

Artist impression of the Soiree  - 26th February 1844

An artist’s impression of the Soiree addressed by Dickens on 26 February 1844

In his speech, Dickens spoke of how, in 1825, ‘certain misguided and turbulent persons proposed to erect in Liverpool an unpopular, dangerous, irreligious, and revolutionary establishment, called a Mechanics’ Institution’.  Its primary purpose was to provide educational opportunities, mainly through evening classes for working men. Lectures were also provided covering topics ranging from Arctic exploration to Shakespeare and philosophy. Now, he continued:

Here it stands triumphant, its enemies lived down, its former students attesting, in their various useful callings and pursuits, the sound, practical information it afforded them; its members numbering considerably more than 3,000, and setting in rapidly for 6000 at least; its library comprehending 1 1,000 volumes, and daily sending forth its hundreds of books into private homes…

One of the features that had particularly impressed him, he said was

That regulation which empowers fathers, being annual subscribers of one guinea, to introduce their sons who are minors; and masters, on payment of the astoundingly small sum of five shillings annually, in like manner their apprentices, is not the least valuable of its privileges and, certainly not the one least valuable to society.

Dickens plaque

The blue plaque that records Dickens’s readings at Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution

Dickens added that he derived great  pleasure from a proposal to establish of a girls’ school in connexion with the institution.

This is a new and striking chapter in the history of these institutions; it does equal credit to the gallantry and policy of this, and disposes one to say of it with a slight parody on the words of Burns, that

It’s ‘prentice han’ it tried on man,
And then it taught the lasses, O.

That those who are our best teachers, and whose lessons are oftenest heeded in after life, should be well taught  themselves, is a proposition few reasonable men will gainsay.

That girl’s school was opened in 1844 under the name Liverpool Institute High School for Girls. It was housed in Blackburne House, a merchant’s mansion across the street from the Institution which now offered evening classes, lectures, a library and a boys’ school – the future Liverpool Institute for Boys grammar school whose pupils would include Paul McCartney and George Harrison (later, too, an Art College would be established on the site, and its most famous student would be one John Lennon; today the building houses LIPA – Liverpool Institute for performing Arts).  As for the girls’ school: it was one of the first in Britain which was open to the public and established exclusively for the education of girls.  For the past 25 years Blackburne House has pioneered training courses for women, in non traditional areas of work such as Information Technology and senior management.

Liverpool Institute

The building that has served as the Mechanics’ Institution, Liverpool Institute, the School of Art and now LIPA

Before the publication of A Christmas Carol, Dickens had taken control of every aspect of the book’s appearance.  The result was a handsome volume, bound in red cloth, with a gilt design on the cover.  Inside were  four full-colour etchings, with another four black and white woodcuts.  The book was an immense success.  Dickens was just 31 years old: this youthful portrait was made when he was in Liverpool for the Mechanics’ Institution address.

Dickens portrait for Mechanics Institution 1844Dickens portrait for Mechanics Institution 1844 text

Dickens’s portrait, made for Liverpool Mechanics’ Institution in 1844

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol during October and November 1843, at the same time as he was writing Martin Chuzzlewit.  In the novella Dickens compresses and crystallizes the theme he was exploring in the longer novel – the social ramifications of selfishness. As Jane Smiley observes in her study of Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge completes the  moral journey in one night which takes the old and young Martin Chuzzlewit many years and several thousand miles of journeying.

These were troubled times for Dickens – his wife was pregnant with a fifth child, Chuzzlewit was not proving a success, and he was beset with family obligations and money worries.  Little srprise, then, that A Christmas Carol is preoccupied, as Ackroyd succinctly expresses it, with money:

Miserliness as a vice.  Generosity as virtue.  How people obtain money.  How people exert power over others because of money.  How money can be an aspect of cruelty.  How money can destroy a family.  How the want of money is oppressive.  How the greed for it is a form of unworthiness, a form of human alienation.

The Christmas Books have certain features in common: seasonal settings, supernatural agents and spiritual conversions, along with an intimacy of tone and colloquial style, as if the storyteller is sitting beside you. But reading the Christmas books together, it is clear just how precise, understated and non-melodramatic is Dickens’s writing in A Christmas Carol compared to the others. Because the tone of the writing and the gestures of the characters are understated, the supernatural elements of the story – the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future – flow convincingly from the narrative and succeed in conveying the tale’s essential ideas, whereas in The Chimes the chiming church bells and their goblins seem awkwardly unbelievable: there simply to drive home Dickens’s satirical attack on the utilitarian view that poor people – with their joyless, wasted lives and propensity to do evil – are simply a burden on the rich and would be better off dead.

A Christmas Carol had just as strong a political message: with its attack on those who spurned the poor and the unemployed it takes its place alongside other pieces of radical literature of the period – notably Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt‘ and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Cry of the Children‘.

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread –
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”


“Oh, Men, with Sisters dear!
Oh, men, with Mothers and Wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!
Stitch – stitch – stitch,
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A Shroud as well as a Shirt.

(Reading that again in 2013 pulls one up sharp. They don’t sing the song of the shirt in this country any more; now the song is sung far away, only occasionally drifting into earshot.)

Go out, children, from the mine and from the city –
Sing out, children, as the little thrushes do –
Pluck you handfuls of the meadow-cowslips pretty
Laugh aloud, to feel your fingers let them through!
But they answer, ” Are your cowslips of the meadows
Like our weeds anear the mine?
Leave us quiet in the dark of the coal-shadows,
From your pleasures fair and fine!
“For oh,” say the children, “we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap –
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep.
Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping –
We fall upon our faces, trying to go;
And, underneath our heavy eyelids drooping,
The reddest flower would look as pale as snow.
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring,
Through the coal-dark, underground –
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem was written in the same year that Dickens came to Liverpool to address the Mechanics’ Institution, at a time when government investigations had exposed the exploitation of children employed in coal mines and factories. Like Dickens in A Christmas Carol, she directed her attack towards those who denied the facts, or were unmoved. Two years earlier,  in June 1842, Dickens had fired off a fiery letter to the Morning Chronicle supporting Lord Ashley’s Bill to bar women and girls from working in the mines.

While there may not be child labour in Britain today, similar attitudes towards the unemployed and working poor were on show the other day in the Commons debate on food banks:

Times are tough and we all have to pay back the £1.5 trillion of personal debt, which spiralled under Labour. We are all trying to live within our means, change the gear, and ensure we are paying back all the debt that we saw under Labour.
– Esther McVey, Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

There was laughter from the government benches, and Ian Duncan Smith and his colleagues walked out of the debate.  Some attitudes remain unchanged from those castigated by Dickens a century and a half ago.

A Christmas Carol first edition illustration by John Leech

Jacob Marley’s ghost appears to Scrooge in John Leech’s illustration for the first edition of A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol displays in concise form what has been called ‘the enigmatic mixture of radicalism and conservatism’ in Dickens.  Scrooge may be a rich man, but Dickens is concerned with his moral failings, rather than his class position.  When Scrooge is visited by Jacob Marley’s ghost, Scrooge reminds him that he was a good businessman. Marley responds that his business ought to have been mankind, and that the choices that he made did not make him happy. Dickens suggests that the origins of our attitudes to others lie in childhood experiences, and that the possibility of change must come from within the individual:

I wear the chain I forged in life….I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.

So, for Dickens – in both his personal life and his novels – the solution to social division and injustice lies in philanthropy, rather than political movements or government.  At the novella’s conclusion Scrooge is redeemed through charity and benevolence; the solution lies within the individual, rather than in collective action:

“A merry Christmas, Bob,” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year. I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob. Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

Trotty Veck

Trotty Veck: illustration by John Leech for the 1844 edition of ‘The Chimes’

I was enjoying The Chimes, up to the point where the bells and goblins enter the story.  Like A Christmas Carol, the story concerns the conversion of the protagonist by a supernatural agency.  Trotty Veck is a good-hearted ticket porter (wearing badges, or tickets, they were licensed by the city of London to carry goods, documents and messages) who waits for custom, day in day out, beneath the bells that ring out every quarter-hour from the steeple of a church.

The opening chapters (or ‘chimes’) provide a vivid character portrait of Trotty Veck, as well as presenting a sharply topical political satire directed against heartless magistrates, smug politicians and bone-headed political economists of the Utilitarian variety.  It’s entertaining stuff, but lost me at the point where Trotty ascends the bell-tower to be confronted with his moral failings.  It was not just the mechanical nature of the bells as a device, but also a sense of puzzlement as to why it was Trotty being confronted with his failings – rather than the blinkered and uncaring figures of authority Dickens satirises in the opening pages.

The explanation for this lies in the extreme topicality of the story.  Trotty is convinced that poor people are naturally wicked, influenced by a newspaper article about a young woman who tried to drown herself and her child. Dickens’s readers would have immediately understood this to be a reference to Mary Furley, a destitute young woman sentenced to death in 1844 for infanticide after her desperation not to return to the workhouse led to a failed suicide attempt in which her illegitimate child drowned. The case provoked great public debate in the months before Dickens wrote The Chimes, and he was one of several prominent figures who condemned the sentence, which was eventually commuted to transportation.

Who turns his back upon the fallen and disfigured of his kind; abandons them as vile; and does not trace and track with pitying eyes the unfenced precipice by which they fell from good—grasping in their fall some tufts and shreds of that lost soil, and clinging to them still when bruised and dying in the gulf below; does wrong to Heaven and man, to time and to eternity. And you have done that wrong!

For Dickens the Malthusians and the Utilitarians were ‘the maggots of the time’, eating the heart out of the present.  In The Chimes he pillories those who believe – in the words of the political economist and friend of Alderman Cute – that ‘the poor have no earthly reason to be born’.  Here’s Filer:

‘A man may live to be as old as Methuselah,’ said Mr. Filer, ‘and may labour all his life for the benefit of such people as those; and may heap up facts on figures, facts on figures, facts on figures, mountains high and dry; and he can no more hope to persuade ’em that they have no right or business to be married, than he can hope to persuade ’em that they have no earthly right or business to be born.  And that we know they haven’t.  We reduced it to a mathematical certainty long ago!’

Alderman Cute and his friends

Alderman Cute and his friends: illustration by John Leech, 1844 edition

And his friend, Alderman Cute:

‘You see, my friend,’ pursued the Alderman, ‘there’s a great deal of nonsense talked about Want—“hard up,” you know; that’s the phrase, isn’t it? ha! ha! ha!—and I intend to Put it Down.  There’s a certain amount of cant in vogue about Starvation, and I mean to Put it Down.  That’s all!  Lord bless you,’ said the Alderman, turning to his friends again, ‘you may Put Down anything among this sort of people, if you only know the way to set about it.’ […]

Then there’s Sir Joseph Bowley, wealthy Member of Parliament and self-proclaimed ‘friend of the poor’:

‘Your only business, my good fellow,’ pursued Sir Joseph, looking abstractedly at Toby; ‘your only business in life is with me.  You needn’t trouble yourself to think about anything.  I will think for you; I know what is good for you; I am your perpetual parent.  Such is the dispensation of an all-wise Providence!  Now, the design of your creation is—not that you should swill, and guzzle, and associate your enjoyments, brutally, with food; Toby thought remorsefully of the tripe; ‘but that you should feel the Dignity of Labour.  Go forth erect into the cheerful morning air, and—and stop there.  Live hard and temperately, be respectful, exercise your self-denial, bring up your family on next to nothing, pay your rent as regularly as the clock strikes, be punctual in your dealings (I set you a good example; you will find Mr. Fish, my confidential secretary, with a cash-box before him at all times); and you may trust to me to be your Friend and Father.’

In the story, Trotty encounters Will Fern, a poor countryman; Dickens gives Fern this little speech:

‘Now, gentlemen,’ said Will Fern, holding out his hands, and flushing for an instant in his haggard face, ‘see how your laws are made to trap and hunt us when we’re brought to this.  I tries to live elsewhere.  And I’m a vagabond.  To jail with him!  I comes back here.  I goes a-nutting in your woods, and breaks—who don’t?—a limber branch or two.  To jail with him!  One of your keepers sees me in the broad day, near my own patch of garden, with a gun.  To jail with him!  I has a nat’ral angry word with that man, when I’m free again.  To jail with him!  I cuts a stick.  To jail with him!  I eats a rotten apple or a turnip.  To jail with him!  It’s twenty mile away; and coming back I begs a trifle on the road.  To jail with him!  At last, the constable, the keeper—anybody—finds me anywhere, a-doing anything.  To jail with him, for he’s a vagrant, and a jail-bird known; and jail’s the only home he’s got.’

The Alderman nodded sagaciously, as who should say, ‘A very good home too!’

Alderman Cute’s response is a reminder of the brilliant passage from A Christmas Carol in which two collectors of charitable contributions for the relief of the poor call at Scrooge’s door:

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.  Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?”  demanded Scrooge.  “Are they still in operation?”

“They are.  Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?”  said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh!  I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge.  “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth.  We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.  What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge.  “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer.  I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.  I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.

These days, with Christmas seemingly hollowed-out of all meaning bar rampant consumerism, it’s easy to be tempted, like Scrooge, into asserting that ‘Christmas is a poor excuse every 25th of December to pick a man’s pockets’.  However, as Scrooge’s good-hearted nephew observes:

There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say … Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round-apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that-as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Amen to that!

See also

‘You can go beyond’

Good news seems so hard to come by, and sometimes you fear to believe in it when you read it.  Let me begin by recalling the opening of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch, the winner of the 1998 Guardian First Book Award that bore testimony to the Rwandan genocide:

In the province of Kibungo, in eastern Rwanda, in the swamp-and pastureland near the Tanzanian border, there’s a rocky hill called Nyarubuye with a church where many Tutsis were slaughtered in mid-April of 1994. A year after the killing I went to Nyarubuye with two Canadian military officers. We flew in a United Nations helicopter, travelling low over the hills in the morning mists, with the banana trees like green starbursts dense over the slopes. The uncut grass blew back as we dropped into the centre of the parish schoolyard. A lone soldier materialized with his Kalashnikov, and shook our hands with stiff, shy formality. The Canadians presented the paperwork for our visit, and I stepped up into the open doorway of a classroom.

At least fifty mostly decomposed cadavers covered the floor, wadded in clothing, their belongings strewn about and smashed. Macheted skulls had rolled here and there. The dead looked like pictures of the dead. They did not smell. They did not buzz with flies. They had been killed thirteen months earlier, and they hadn’t been moved. Skin stuck here and there over the bones, many of which lay scattered away from the bodies, dismembered by the killers, or by scavengers-birds, dogs, bugs.

The more complete figures looked a lot like people, which they were once. A woman in a cloth wrap printed with flowers lay near the door. Her fleshless hip bones were high and her legs slightly spread, and a child’s skeleton extended between them. Her torso was hollowed out. Her ribs and spinal column poked through the rotting cloth. Her head was tipped back and her mouth was open: a strange image-half agony, half repose.

I had never been among the dead before. What to do? Look? Yes. I wanted to see them, I suppose; I had come to see them – the dead had been left unburied at Nyarubuye for memorial purposes – and there they were, so intimately exposed. I didn’t need to see them. I already knew, and believed, what bad happened in Rwanda. Yet looking at the buildings and the bodies, and hearing the silence of the place, with the grand Italianate basilica standing there deserted, and beds of exquisite, decadent, death-fertilized flowers blooming over the corpses, it was still strangely unimaginable. I mean one still had to imagine it.

Those dead Rwandans will be with me forever, I expect. That was why I had felt compelled to come to Nyarubuye: to be stuck with them – not with their experience, but with the experience of looking at them. They had been killed there, and they were dead there. What else could you really see at first?

Now today I read in The Observer that Rwanda has a plan to prevent a return to the genocide of 1994 by connecting its children to the outside world with their own laptops. The gizmo in question is an object 10 inches square, green, white and rubberised, inscribed with the logo of an X and a filled-in O:

The Rwandan government intends to provide 100,000 Rwandan children between the ages of nine and 12 with one of these gadgets, and has a vision not only of the transformation of an impoverished agrarian society into one of the most advanced in Africa, but also of technology as a tool that will help exorcise the country’s lingering ghosts. The genocide that took place in this country in 1994 deprived many of these children of uncles, aunts, grandparents. During 100 days of killing, 800,000 minority ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in service of so-called ‘Hutu Power’, documented so chillingly in Gourevitch’s book.

The XO machines are supplied by One Laptop Per Child (1.4 million have already been delivered to children in 35 countries including Haiti, Afghanistan, Brazil and Uruguay). The organisation’s mission statement is to create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children via a rugged low-cost, low-power laptop. Rwanda, with its shortages of electricity and lower internet connectivity are driving One Laptop Per Child to develop even cheaper and tougher machines with ever lower power consumption. The next generation of computers will be usable even where there is no mains power at all. At the heart of their programme is the idea of ‘joyful, playful and innovatory’ learning.

The Rwandan government wants to encourage rapid economic development by educating these children to be computer-literate. But there is also a notion that these laptops might help to vaccinate a society still in painful recovery from its genocidal past by opening up the rest of the world to a new generation. David Cavallo, the project director for One Laptop Per Child, talks about Jean Piaget, the educational psychologist who believed education to be ‘capable of saving our societies from possible collapse’. It is an ex-student of Piaget’s, Seymour Papert, mathematician and education and technology theorist, who is the inspiration for the XO. Papert was a political refugee from apartheid South Africa who fled to England and finally America where he became one of the founders of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Papert has long argued that children in all societies can master computing and, by doing so, transform how they learn throughout their lives, inside and outside the classroom and, consequently alter societies. He is a longstanding enemy of what he sees as the tyranny of formal education systems which he believes equip children only to master set syllabuses. Papert believes that computers can enable children to learn how to learn for themselves through playful problem-solving and that this will lead to their becoming better-rounded human beings.

Peter Beaumont, the author of the Observer feature, tells of being driven by Samuel Dusengiyumva, a 28-year-old consultant with One Laptop Per Child, to the genocide memorial in Nyamata, the church where 10,000 Rwandans were blasted with grenades then hacked to death in April 1994 – the place where Philip Gourevitch opens his book. Dusengiyumva tells Beaumont what schooling was like before the genocide and after, and how lack of education contributed to mass murder. He is a firm believer in what the XO can do, in particular its promise for opening up a society that was once lethally closed:

You know the problem with having a poor education is that you are not given the faculties to cross-check information, not given access to information. Our society, before the genocide, was not open. Now I can go on the internet. I can check what I am being told. I can make my own analysis.  I remember a text that I learned at school. It said you go to school to learn how to learn. If you can enable people in society… with computers… you release the human potential. You can go beyond.

An ordinary place: the church at Nyamata turned into a memorial, left mostly untouched after the massacre in April 1994.
And central Kigali behind

Philip Gourevitch concludes his account of the genocide with this:

I cannot count the times, since I first began visiting Rwanda three years ago, that I’ve been asked, ‘Is there any hope for that place?” If there is hope for Rwanda [it comes] with [this] story. On April 30, 1997 – almost a year ago as I write – Rwandan television showed footage of a man who confessed to having been among a party of genocidaires who had killed seventeen schoolgirls and a sixty-two-year-old Belgian nun at a boarding school in Gisenyi two nights earlier. It was the second such attack on a school in a month; the first time, sixteen students were killed and twenty injured in Kibuye. The prisoner on television explained that the massacre was part of a Hutu Power ‘liberation’ campaign. …During their attack on the school in Gisenyi, as in the earlier attack on the school in Kibuye, the students, teenage girls who had been roused from their sleep, were ordered to separate themselves – Hutus from Tutsis. But the students had refused. At both schools, the girls said they were simply Rwandans, so they were beaten and shot indiscriminately.

Rwandans have no need – no room in their corpse-crowded imaginations – for more martyrs. None of us does. But mightn’t we all take some courage from the example of those brave Hutu girls who could have chosen to live, but chose instead to call themselves Rwandans?