Dickens sees through the fog

The other night I attended Dickens: a writers’ contemporary, a symposium in which a panel of writers discussed the relevance of Dickens to their own work. Each writer chose a favourite passage from Dickens and then spoke about its significance for them.  Screenwriter and novelist Frank Cottrell-Boyce chose the opening of Bleak House, with its invocation of fog at the heart of the establishment.  Cottrell-Boyce, who worked with Danny Boyle on the Olympics opening ceremony this summer, explained how the passage had inspired an initial idea for the ceremony, subsequently discarded, in which darkness and fog would be dispersed by shafts of light.

He chose the passage not only for the brilliance of the writing – its repetitions like an incantation or spell, and its cinematic quality before cinema was invented – but because it exemplifies the way in which great literature, in Auden’s words, can enable the reader to ‘break out of the prison of the present’.  Listening to the opening of Bleak House, it might be our times, the fog veiling the machinations of the establishment pierced by the revelations of the Hillsborough tribunal, the Leveson inquiry or the tax-dodging manouevres of big corporations.

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.

On such an afternoon, if ever, the Lord High Chancellor ought to be sitting here—as here he is—with a foggy glory round his head, softly fenced in with crimson cloth and curtains, addressed by a large advocate with great whiskers, a little voice, and an interminable brief, and outwardly directing his contemplation to the lantern in the roof, where he can see nothing but fog. On such an afternoon some score of members of the High Court of Chancery bar ought to be—as here they are—mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players might. On such an afternoon the various solicitors in the cause, some two or three of whom have inherited it from their fathers, who made a fortune by it, ought to be—as are they not?—ranged in a line, in a long matted well (but you might look in vain for truth at the bottom of it) between the registrar’s red table and the silk gowns, with bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to masters, masters’ reports, mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them. Well may the court be dim, with wasting candles here and there; well may the fog hang heavy in it, as if it would never get out; well may the stained-glass windows lose their colour and admit no light of day into the place; well may the uninitiated from the streets, who peep in through the glass panes in the door, be deterred from entrance by its owlish aspect and by the drawl, languidly echoing to the roof from the padded dais where the Lord High Chancellor looks into the lantern that has no light in it and where the attendant wigs are all stuck in a fog-bank! This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart, that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!”

Listening to these voices in the last 24 hours, could there be more Victorian contrast?

We must be fair to the person who leaves home every morning to go out to work and sees their neighbour still asleep, living a life on benefits.
– George Osborne, Autumn Statement, 5 December

They don’t care about people like me. I feel that they’re persecuting people like me to be perfectly honest. The actual reality of the situation is that people on benefits are living hand to mouth.
– Nicola Marshall, working single parent on Working Tax Credit interviewed on The World at One, 6 December

The sense of a wealthy establishment existing in a bubble remote from the lives of most people was reinforced by yesterday’s brilliant Guardian front page with the photo (top) of Cameron, Osborne and Alexander guffawing after the Chancellor had ensured that the poor bear the brunt of his budget measures – beneath the headline, ‘At least someone’s laughing…’

Dickens: a writers’ contemporary was held in the Small Concert Room of St George’s Hall in Liverpool – where Dickens gave public readings on five separate occasions in the 1860s.  The event – a celebration of Dickens in the last month of his bicentenary year – was presented by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain in association with The Reader Organisation of Liverpool. With Frank Cottrell-Boyce on the panel were playwright David Edgar, who in the 1980s wrote The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, the 8 hour adaptation of Dickens’ novel, scriptwriter Gwyneth Hughes who adapted – and completed – The Mystery of Edwin Drood for TV and and local novelist Deborah Morgan.

See also

Danny Boyle’s Isles of Wonder: Paradise Lost?

I enjoyed Danny Boyle’s ‘Isles of Wonder’ Olympic opening ceremony, pleasantly surprised to see a vision of Britain as a social democratic, caring, inclusive and tolerant place, the result of struggles by trade unions, suffragettes, CND protestors and those who campaigned for a welfare state smuggled in under the noses of corporate sponsors and a right-wing government bent on destroying much of what was being celebrated in the extravaganza.

And there lies the rub: as Polly Toynbee writes in today’s Guardian, this presentation of Britain’s social history obscures the truth of what has happened in the last 30 years from the vision portrayed by Danny Boyle and writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce:

Boyle gave us a tear-jerkingly optimistic sense of the inevitability of progress. Here was social history as taught to my generation and Danny Boyle’s, where we learned how – from Factory Act to Tolpuddle martyrs, from Chartists and Reform Act to the Butler Education Act – power was gradually wrenched from a small elite. See how the Voldemort tendency is still trounced by the people’s enduring affection for the collective good of the NHS and the BBC.

That’s the romantic history, the struggle retold in most of literature and art, where ragged-trousered heroes are pitted against villainous landed aristos and satanic mill owners. (Blake’s song is so strangely purloined by Tories who plainly never listen to the words or understand the spirit behind them.)

However deep the Tory blue in his blood, David Cameron knew our modern island story has become social democratic, more Windrush than empire, not hideously monocultural or culturally prim. That’s why before the election he pretended to support the Danny Boyle Britain with those beguiling but bogus cameos staged on Arctic snow sledge or in grim estates, promising to abolish poverty and embrace equality. Even so, despite all that cleansing, the smell of his Conservatism was still too pungent to give him victory against a Labour party on its knees. And by now voters are thoroughly undeceived.

Here’s the catch to the Boyle vision. Since the days of those confident history textbooks charting milestones of social advance, so much has gone into reverse. Imagining ourselves social democratic doesn’t easily make us so, when economic forces are stronger than the power of mere votes. Our postwar founding myth as social democrats is in danger of becoming as unreal as the prewar empire-building story. We can no longer count on the march of progress.

The welfare state, painstakingly built over many decades, is shrivelling. The civil service, with its long memory and high-calibre intake, is being dismantled, its functions contracted out to the KPMGs and PwCs who drive the marketising of everything. Locally and nationally those who know how to manage public services are branded useless bureaucrats and parasitic pen-pushers.

Michael Gove is turning back the clock to O-levels and grammar schools. His back-to-the future is sheep-and-goats elitism: fewer into university, a diminishing proportion of 16-year-olds in full-time education, free Bibles yet fewer eligible for free school meals, no education maintenance allowance and no need for teachers to be trained. Adults have lost their second chance at education, unable to afford high charges for courses; for first chances, nearly 300 Sure Starts are closed, many of the rest drained of professional staff. Libraries and swimming pools close, the post office is to be sold off shortly, canals and waterways have been already.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, the writer behind ‘Isles of Wonder’, wrote a piece for The Observer on Sunday in which he explained that a major inspiration for the event was Humphrey Jennings’ Pandaemonium.  He wrote:

We shared the things we loved about Britain – the Industrial Revolution, the digital revolution, the NHS, pop music, children’s literature, genius engineers. I bought Danny a copy of Humphrey Jennings’s astonishing book Pandemonium for Christmas and soon everyone seemed to have it. The show’s opening section ended up named ‘Pandemonium’.

That first section, ‘Pandaemonium’, showed the march of industrial society over the green and pleasant land, and the changes in society that the process unwittingly led to – women’s suffrage, Jarrow marchers, the Empire Windrush, the Beatles. In the second section, villains of children’s literature, pitted against the forces of collective good, represented by the NHS and hosts of Mary Poppinses, defeated the forces of Mammon.

This is straight out of Humphrey Jennings’ Pandaemonium, a book I once possessed, but when I went to the bookshelf to look it up for this post, couldn’t find.  Why does this always happen?  I bought it for less than a fiver when it was finally published posthumously in the 1980s as a Picador paperback.  Now copies are selling on Amazon and Abebooks for upwards of 60 quid. Damn! Maybe, with all the attention it’s getting now, someone will re-publish this tremendous book in which Jennings collected extracts (that, as a film maker, he called ‘images’) from poets, diarists, scientists, industrialists, politicians, novelists and social commentators which documented the enormous changes wrought in British society by the industrial revolution.  Jennings explained the vision behind the book in his introduction (there is no commentary linking the extracts in the main body of the book) as follows:

Pandaemonium is the Palace of All the Devils. Its building began c.1660. It will never be finished – it has to be transformed into Jerusalem. The building of Pandaemonium is the real history of Britain for the last three hundred years.

Jennings began with Milton’s description (written c.1660) of the building of Pandaemonium, an image that no doubt inspired Boyle’s Glastonbury Tor, which burst forth fire as the tree at its top was uprooted, ushering in the industrial revolution:

There stood a Hill not far whose grisly top
Belch’d fire and rowling smoak; the rest entire
Shon with a glossie scurff, undoubted sign
That in his womb was hid metallic Ore,
The work of Sulphur. Thither wing’d with speed
A numerous Brigad hastens. As when bands
Of Pioners with Spade and Pickaxe arm’d
Forerun the Royal Camp, to trench a Field,
Or cast a Rampart. Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erectd Spirit that fell
From heav’n, for eve’n his looks and thoughts
Were always downwards bent, admiring ore
The riches of Heav’ns pavements, trod’n Gold …

John Martin, Pandemonium 1825

For Jennings, Pandaemonium was a prophetic symbol of industrialisation, and so he chose it as the title and the starting point of his project to chronicle ‘the imaginative history of the Industrial Revolution’.  He did this by compiling some 370 texts dating from the 1660’s to the 1880’s – the testimony of a host of witnesses, including scientists, artists, industrialists, and workers. Collectively, these snapshots provide a composite picture of how contemporaries experienced the triumph of the machine, and how industrialisation transformed the circumstances and inner lives of British people across two centuries.

Philip de Loutherbourg: Coalbrookdale by Night, 1801

No commentary: Jennings idea was to allow readers to perceive the patterns of history themselves by cross-referencing ‘images’. So, for example, we could follow Milton’s image of Satanic power by tracing other instances, such as John Evelyn in the 17th century complaining that the smoke overhanging London made it look like ‘the Suburbs of Hell’ or an 18th-century Cornish parson chancing on an experiment with a primitive locomotive one night and deciding that the beast was nothing less than ‘the Evil One’.  A romantic craving for a lost pre-industrial innocence pervades Jenning’s selection, and though he does convey the heroic promise of industrialism, through his choice of images he emphasises the devastation and dehumanisation wrought by the Industrial Revolution.

Jennings book is comparable to another superb work that adopts the same approach: Eduardo Galeano’s brilliant trilogy, Memory of Fire.  Like Jennings, Galeano wove together vignettes from history, journalism, myth and poetry to tell the story of the conquest of the Americas, and specifically of Latin America, though unlike Jennings, Galeano tells the story in his own words:

I’m trying to create a synthesis of all different ways of expressing life and reality…I tried to find a way of recounting history so that the reader would feel that it was happening right now, just around the corner—this immediacy, this intensity, which is the beauty and the reality of history.

Humphrey Jennings is best known as a documentary film maker, recognised perhaps as Britain’s best – a poet among filmmakers – with films such as Listen to Britain (1942), Fires Were Started (1943) and Diary for Timothy (1945) regarded as taking social realism to new artistic heights. In these films, Jennings documented the relevance of the British experience of war to history, art, society and culture.