Bringing A Christmas Carol To The Screen: Part Two

‘Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.’ When I walk onto a stage and the lights come up as the sound effect bells toll I can launch into that memorable opening line with sheer confidence that I will be able to spend the next 90 minutes telling the story of A Christmas Carol in a professional and effective manner. For over 25 years I have lived with the book and pretty well know every nuance and mood within the text. It may be boastful, but I think I am quite an expert on performing A Christmas Carol.

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But recording it? Videoing it? That was a whole different field of expertise and a field that I had not yet entered – indeed I was struggling to even find the gate!

When the opportunity to film A Christmas Carol was presented to me it meant that I had to learn quickly and that is something that always excites and challenges me. Initially the plan was to film the show as it appears on the stage, which would be quite simple to do – probably the work of a single day. I was introduced to a talented young videographer, Emily Walder, who specialises in the filming of stage shows and she confirmed that the project would be a relatively simply one. A couple of cameras at most, a sound engineer, a couple of takes to capture a few close ups and different angles, and then patch it all together in the editing suite. Emily’s talent lays in editing and she has even been part of a project that won an Oscar, so I had absolute confidence in her to bring my show digitally to life.

My first job was to find locations and, as I mentioned in my previous post, I was originally looking for beautiful theatres. The architect Frank Matcham was renowned for his spectacular interiors and even though his work came after Dickens’ death, a number of his finest creations still exist and would suit my purpose exactly. I approached a few and received encouraging messages back; during the period of lockdown theatres were shut up, dark, locked, so the opportunity to breathe some life back into them, and receive a small income too, appealed to managers.

But then the project took a turn: initially it started by thinking about using different scenes within the theatre space – brick walls back stage could be suitably bleak and sparse, maybe a bar or box office space would be warm, plush and welcoming. Perhaps we could use exterior walls……and that is when the search for locations widened.

Encouraged by Liz to think further and further outside whatever box my mind was in, I started imaging fantastic backgrounds for the story. Although I know a lot of people didn’t approve of it but much of our inspiration came from the latest BBC2 adaptation staring Guy Pearce which was premiered in the UK last Christmas. There was plenty wrong with the production but the darkness and bleakness of many of the scenes appealed and I was keen to take that tone.

My first location idea was Highgate Cemetery in North London, where I have performed a couple of times. Not only does the site boast a wonderful array of gothic gravestones and monuments, but a little chapel would suit the interior scenes as well. The mood board started to overflow with pictures of dark, lichen-covered, higgledy-piggledy gravestones with slips of grass rising like fingers from the graves below, and my script became a confusion of angles and views which would challenge the viewers’ minds

But Highgate Cemetery wanted too much money

It was then that my thoughts came around to Rochester and the various venues that I described in my last blog post. With clear images of the scenes in my mind I started re writing the script again, complete with costume changes and lighting effects and sound effects and long tracking shots and tight close-ups. It was at this stage that I received a very polite, if somewhat nervous, email from Emily reminding me that when I’d contacted her I had asked her to attend a theatre and film a couple of run throughs of my show: The project seemed to have changed somewhat and she wanted me to understand that what I was asking for may not be possible with a crew of 2.

Emily is completely professional and of course her concerns were valid for when I looked back at the script I realised that I would need a crew of 700, with a budget in the millions and the end film may just be ready for Christmas 2021…..

We agreed to use my complicated script as an extension of the various mood boards that I had created and I began to pare things down until I had another, albeit simpler, version of the text.

Day 1

We met for the first time in the crypt at Rochester Cathedral. The lighting and the arches formed the perfect confusing background for Scrooge’s memories, but we instantly had to come to terms with modernity: Exit signs, fire alarms, electric outlets, stylish glass doors with carefully designed logos etched into them – all seemed to be in the back of every shot we wanted. However we soon managed to find the spaces we needed and began to work.

Without too much discussion we quickly fell into a routine which served us well throughout all of our shooting days: I would say which scene we were to film and suggest any ideas I may have had when working on the script (filming over shoulder, close up of face etc), and then I would actually run through the scene allowing Emily to walk around me searching for suitable shots and angles.

The first scene to be filmed was Scrooge waking up as The Ghost of Christmas Past visits him. I had made a decision not to actually physically portray the spirit (it is an impossible challenge anyway as Dickens describes it as an ever changing form:  ‘For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.’) My idea was for the ghost to be an indistinct presence represented by its voice coming from a different place each time it spoke. The echoes of the low stone vaulted ceiling only added to the mystery and eeriness of the scene.

I was delighted that Emily immediately bought into my vision and filmed the action from all sorts of obscure angles, whilst the sound engineer Jordan wielded the unwieldy sound boom as effectively as he could so as to counteract the natural echo.

We filmed all of the ‘past’ scenes in various settings around the Crypt: Scrooge on the road, at school, losing Belle and seeing her later in domestic bliss. The vergers and staff in the Cathedral couldn’t have been more welcoming to us and allowed us to film uninterrupted all morning.

Our next venue was the tiny, cramped 6 Poor Travellers’ House, which would become the Cratchit’s home – it seemed apt that the happy, close-knit family should be housed within the comforting walls of a charity alms house.

Once again our first job was to move as many indications of modern life as we could before finding suitable angles to film, which was in some ways easier in the cramped confines of the room than it had been in the cavernous crypt – here we just didn’t have much choice! In fact the space was so small that we decided to shoot some of the scenes through the tiny windows, which not only gave us an extra perspective but also a sense of Scrooge being apart from the action, and a slight feeling of voyeurism in the way that Alfred Hitchcock used so effectively over and over again,

At 5pm we had everything filmed that we had planned for the day, which was just as well for in a couple of days the curator of the 6 Poor Travellers’ House was due to leave the grey of Britain and head to Portugal for the winter months, meaning we would not be able to return until the Spring, which would be rather too late for our purposes.

Day 2

We re-grouped a week later to continue the filming. Due to the constraints of the various locations’ availability we were filming out of sequence, so it was a good thing that I have become so completely familiar with every scene of the story over the years, meaning that it was easy to pick up the various emotions as we went on.

Our first location was at St James Church in Cooling, out on the marshes, looking over the rivers Medway and Thames towards the county of Essex. It was 7.30 in the morning and a beautiful clear sunrise was bathing the scene in an amazing light so Emily and Jordan unpacked their equipment quickly in order that we could begin as soon as possible.

A tiny quiet village church in the midst of remote marshes: what could possibly interrupt us at that hour of the morning? The answer, everything. Nearby is Cooling Castle, now owned by a famous musician who obviously doesn’t like the marsh’s resident crows gathering on his roof for he, or one of the farmers nearby, had installed a bird scarer, which went off with a loud retort every twenty minutes or so, meaning we had to time our shoots carefully.

We were not only battling with the shotgun, but as the church is situated on an s-bend, a sort of chicane around the graveyard, we also had a series of cars dropping down gears as they approached it, and then accelerating away again on the other side. As time passed so a very large tip-up truck, whose traditional signwriting proclaimed it was the property of GORDON’S, rumbled and rattled past, only to return ten minutes later with a full load. Rattle. Bump. Grind of gears. Whining transmission. Surge of diesel engine. Rattle. Bump. After a few of these drive pasts the driver of Gordon’s truck would give us a cheery wave of apology each time he guided this monster along the little lane.

The supposed silent idyll was also punctuated by horns from far away ships and the odd executive jet screaming overhead!

We were joined on the second day by our very good friend Martin Smith who is a superb photographer and had offered to come along to take a few stills for publicity purposes. It was Martin who introduced me to Emily as they have worked together on various theatrical shoots on many occasions. As Emily, Jordan and I picked good locations for various shots, so Martin hovered in the background recording the scene.

Our first shots were filmed on a couple of pathways across the marshes, which eventually will form the opening and closing of the story. Charles Dickens loved to walk in this very countryside, so the idea of the narrator of the book striding across the fields as he talks seemed like a good way to begin. The light was beautiful, so were the clouds, although the strong wind made recording the sound a tricky proposition (not to mention bird-scarers. aeroplanes, cars and ‘Gordon’.)

Having captured the open countryside shots we then moved into the churchyard itself, where we spent a good couple of hours filming a number of scenes in different corners. The obvious ones: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with’ and Scrooge being shown the vision of his own death were filmed at various ancient stones, whilst we also recorded shorter patches of narration which may, or may not, be used at other points in the story.

The appearance of the terrible visions of Ignorance and Want was filmed against a gnarled old Yew tree in which the bark seemed to form into the grotesque faces of generations of starving children.

When we finished at St James’ we loaded all of the equipment into our cars and headed back into the heart of Rochester and to Eastgate House, our final location for the day.

Our first job was to reconnoitre the entire building and decide which rooms to use for the various scenes that would be filmed there: Scrooge’s office, Scrooge’s home and nephew Fred’s party. It took a while to come to a final decision but eventually we set up in a small oak panelled upstairs room, with my clerk’s desk next to an empty fireplace. The stool which would represent Bob Cratchit in the scene I placed in a little alcove with light streaming in, suggesting the ‘little cell, a sort of a tank’ which Dickens described in the original.

Having run through the scene a couple of times and tried various angles, during which Martin had got some fantastically dramatic photographs, we decided to go for a take.

I concentrated on the lines, Emily concentrated on getting the shot, Jordon kept the boom mic out of sight and Martin…well Martin slid down the wall! Suddenly we aware of a scraping of furniture on the floor and I suppose our first thought was that he had simply leaned against the cabinet which moved, but it was more serious than that. Martin had fainted and as we watched he slowly tumbled to the floor (ever the professional he somehow managed to fall in such away that he didn’t crush any of his expensive and heavy photographic equipment which was hanging from a harness strapped to his body.

There was a moment when time stopped – just a moment – and then Emily, Jordan and I rushed over to him, and made sure he was comfortable. In just a few seconds his eyes flickered open and he gradually became aware that the little room was at a different angle than the last time he saw it. We explained what had happened and slowly he began to remember feeling as if ‘everything was was swimming’. We took him downstairs and into the fresh air where we gave him a glass of water, but he was still not feeling 100% and we thought it may be best to call an ambulance, just so that he could be checked over.

The paramedics arrived in a few minutes and were fantastic (God bless the NHS!). They chatted, asked questions, tested blood pressure and heart rate, and came to the conclusion that the fainting was simply a result of a very early morning and not enough sustenance.

The team in green phoned their findings back to head office and while they waited for the official advice to come back down the line they asked us about our work and were terribly impressed by our various theatrical endeavours. One of the paramedics said, rather forlornly, that he wished he had an exciting job, to which we all chorused ‘What? Saving lives every day is a pretty amazing thing to do!’ The modest reply maybe didn’t install a huge amount of confidence in any of us but perhaps not in Martin the most: ‘Oh, actually I don’t save the lives of about 85% of the people I see!’ I think he meant that most cases he saw were mundane. I hope that is what he meant.

When Martin was given the all clear, our new friends packed up their equipment and bade us a cheery adieu with a parting reminder to ‘drink more water!’

Somehow it didn’t feel right to continue filming now and as we had got some amazing footage in the can (or megapixels on the chip), we took the decision that it had been a valuable and productive day and that we would re-group in a week’s time to finish up.

Martin and I found a dainty café where we had a restorative lunch of quiche and a little salad, and then went our separate ways.

Day 3

Another week on and Emily, Jordan and I were back at Eastgate House (Martin had decided it may be better not to make the trip this time), with a long day ahead of us, but what we did not have to do was spend lots of time trying to work out where to shoot.

We set the little office space up again and picked up with the scene we had been filming before. Spookily, eerily (and the house is about 400 years old so perhaps not surprisingly), at the very moment we reached the point in the scene where Martin had fainted the week before, so one of Emily’s lights failed. We all looked at each other, but chose to press on in spite of whatever spirit floated around us in that confined space…..

We finished all of the scenes in the office, then moved to another very sparse room on the top floor in which we filmed all of the scenes in Scrooge’s home, including leaning out of the window and shouting to the little boy on Christmas morning, much to the surprise of the residents of Rochester.

When we had finished the filming upstairs it was almost 1 pm, so learning the lessons from the week before we decided that it was time to eat and drink water.

In the afternoon we had one more location – a bright large room, where we re-created Nephew Fred’s party, and had plenty of space for the lascivious Topper to flirt with the niece’s sister. For the game of Blindman’s Buff I tied one of my cravats over my eyes and managed to complete the scene without bumping into anyone or anything.

With all of the scenes completed we tidied up all of the rooms we had used and returned them to the state they had been that morning, and then made our way outside to film a few exterior ‘linking’ shots that would be used to join some of the scenes together. The sun was beginning to go down and we had to work quickly against the rapidly fading light, but he golden glow was beautiful on the honey stone of the cathedral and even as we walked back to our cars Emily was filming a few extra scenes to have in reserve should they be needed.

And that was that. a wrap. No hugs or handshakes in our masked socially distancing world, just thanks and goodbyes.

Now it is time for Emily to work her Oscar-winning magic over the show as she stiches all of the scenes together in an order that Charles Dickens would recognise. The next time I write my 2020 version of A Christmas Carol will be ready to view.

Getting A Christmas Carol On to Film…At Last!

2020 has been an empty vessel for me. With the spread of the global pandemic and the resultant periods of lockdown and government-induced precautions the theatre sector has died a death and the opportunities to perform have been non-existent since March. I have walked, cycled and run; I have tried to make the most of the situation I have found myself in, and I have continued to contact possible venues in the hope that my very simple one man show will prove a concept that can suit these new days of restricted audience numbers and social distancing.

But despite all of that potential negativity 2020 has been a remarkable year for me for I have undertaken two projects entirely new to me, both out of any comfort zone that I have slipped into: I have written a book and I am making a video.

Ok, strictly speaking I had started the book last year but I have managed to complete the manuscript and it is in the hands of my publishers (oh, to be able to type those two words is an extraordinary thing!). throughout this year the proof-read manuscript has been returned for me to check, I have made a few changes and returned it ready for the process to begin again and at the moment I am waiting for the next stage to begin and the exciting thing is that I have no idea what that will be! It is all new to me.

The second project is more nerve-wracking for me as I am in charge of it and have no background in writing, directing or acting in videos, my experience lies within the great broad brushstrokes of theatre and the subtleties of film have past me by.

But 2020 is a year of change and it has been essential to embrace whatever prospect has presented itself. This, then, is the story of the video.

As many of you will already know a major feature of my performing year is taken up with an extensive tour to the United States. I have been travelling for over 25 years and many of the venues have become regular stops where amazingly loyal and enthusiastic audience members return over and over again to watch me perform A Christmas Carol. Very early in the year it became apparent to me that the 2020 tour would be impossible to organise. The future was extremely uncertain and infection (and death) rates were soaring in both Britain and America. The introduction of a 14 day quarantine period for anyone returning to the UK from overseas sealed my decision, for if I were to travel to the USA in December I would not be able to perform at home at all in the run up to Christmas: I took the decision to cancel the tour, and that, or so I thought, would be the end of it.

But I had not counted on the generosity of my venues and little by little word came back that some locations would love the opportunity to have a streamed performance which they could offer to their regular patrons. Over the years I have often been asked ‘who don’t you film your performance’ and my answers have always been evasive – ‘I wouldn’t know how to capture the connection between me and the audience’, ‘I don’t know how to get the right venue’, ‘The performance would have to be specially staged and directed to film each scene properly – that may destroy the pace of the show.’ The real reasons of course were more down to earth and basic: firstly, I have no experience in creating the script for, or actually directing the filming of a video, and secondly I have never had a budget to do the job.

When my American agent Bob Byers first approached me to float the idea of making a film it was because some of my regular venues, and one in particular – The Mid Continent Public Library service based near Kansas City – had offered to invest in a production of the show which could be distributed and shown to my regular and very loyal audiences. The budget was in place and that was one excuse that I’d lost!

Initially my plan was to find a suitably Victorian theatre and simply run the show a couple of times with a camera taking a few different shots which could be edited together to create a record of the performance, but as I began to research suitable venues Liz suggested that this was too good an opportunity to miss and we should look at creating something more impressive and memorable. I therefore broadened my location search: a gothic cemetery in London would be too expensive, as would some impressive stately homes that I have visited over the years.

In the end my choice came down to the opening shot I wanted to use: a bleak churchyard with the figure of the story’s narrator standing respectfully over a grave as the opening lines of the novel are heard. The inspiration for this image was the churchyard at Cooling in Kent, which in turn had inspired Charles Dickens to create one of his most memorable opening chapters, that of Great Expectations. Rather than looking for a church that looked like St James’ at Cooling it made rather more sense to use the original, and if I was going to be doing some of the filming near the city of Medway (made up of Rochester, Chatham and Strood as well as many other villages and small towns), it made sense to look for other locations within that conurbation.

I have worked closely with Medway Council over the years as their spectacular Dickens festival has been a regular part of my calendar, so I started to approach some old friends in the tourism and events departments and their desire to assist me and to open doors was very moving. Rochester is internationally seen as being to Charles Dickens what Stratford Upon Avon is to William Shakespeare, so the idea of featuring the old city as a character in its own right was appealing.

As well as the church in Cooling the venues I was looking at were Eastgate House, The Six Poor Travellers’ House and Rochester Cathedral, as well as a few exterior shots which would help to link one scene to another. Each of these buildings, remarkable in their own right, have appeared in Dickens’s works, so their presence in my film is a little nod to the complete canon of work and not just his ‘ghostly little book’.

To describe St James’ Church in Cooling I can do no better than to quote the opening chapter of Great Expectations:

I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister – Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, “Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,” I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine – who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle – I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.about:blank

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!

Today the Church still sits on remote marshland and the low leaden line of the river still slashes the green in half. Standing proudly against the grey sky there are no longer gibbets or prison hulks but cranes and derricks at the London Gateway shipping container port. On a cold misty morning it is easy to believe that the wretched convict is still lurking ready to terrify us.

In his description Charles mentions the five little stone lozenges nestled against the grave stone. Dickens would often exaggerate fact by increasing numbers, but in this case he couldn’t bring himself to record the true extent of a family’s tragedy: in reality there are thirteen little graves – a horrific reminder to the mortal danger of marsh fever.

Field paths near to the church were perfect to stride along, as Charles Dickens would have done, narrating the opening of the story until I stand before a grave and look straight down the camera lens to address the viewers directly for the first time….

I also used the churchyard as a base for short lines of narration throughout the story, as well as the setting for the appearance of Ignorance and Want and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (not to mention Scrooge’s own grave stone)

Eastgate House is a remarkable building dating back to the 16th century. Originally built for a Mayor of Rochester, the red-bricked house stands proudly at the end of the High Street, which in former times was part of the main route from the south coast to London and therefore a very important thoroughfare.

Charles Dickens featured the venerable pile in two of his books, in fact it bookended his career appearing in his first novel The Pickwick Papers and his final, unfinished story, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

For me the darkly panelled rooms with their tiny mullioned windows are perfect to represent both Scrooge’s office and also his home (the staircase particularly giving me plenty of scope for an eerie Hitchcockian sequence as Scrooge ascends to his rooms), whilst the newly renovated rooms with the Georgian-styled duck egg blue interiors offer a superbly cheerful setting for the Christmas celebrations of Scrooge’s nephew Fred, as well as the flirtatious Topper as he chases Scrooge’s niece’s sister about the room

The Six Poor Travellers’ House was built at around the same time as Eastgate and was funded by the estate of Richard Watts to be used as an alms house for travellers. The accommodation was spartan, boasting six bedrooms complete with fireplaces, and an area where the residents could eat and share their stories in comfort

In 1854 Charles Dickens wrote a short story about the house which he called ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’ (he was the seventh) which of course brought greater attention to the admirable work of the Watts’ charity.

The house today is open as a museum and provides a superb background for the scenes involving the Cratchit family in their simple yet cheerful home.

But the Six Poor Travellers’ House had a surprise in store for us: Liz, the current curator, mentioned that although not open to the public the house also boasted a ‘the house of correction’ in the basement which we were welcome to use if we wanted to: Old Joe and Mrs Dilber selling Scrooge’s bed curtains and clothes had found their home!

The use of Rochester Cathedral will perhaps prove to be the most controversial of my locations as it represents Scrooge’s mind, rather than specific scenes. When I was researching the various locations I saw a photograph of the Cathedral’s crypt and instantly saw in the low gothic arches a series of interconnecting neurological pathways. The scene is perfect for Scrooge’s past – the images don’t exist in the real world, they are jumbled, confused and forgotten. So within the Crypt Scrooge sees his school room, Fezziwig’s warehouse and the scene of Belle leaving him all represented by a single piece of furniture.

The entire project has been exciting, terrifying and exhilarating and, as with so many performers across the world, from the warm ashes of live theatre is rising a phoenix of hope

In my next blog post I will discuss the development of the script and how I have come to work with a brilliant videographer and editor to bring the story of A Christmas Carol to your screens this Christmas.

A Blog Post for Lockdown

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Back in March the country entered an uncertain period, as the global scourge that is Coronavirus made its silent presence known across our island.  We had been following the news from Wuhan Province for quite a while and I distinctly remember an expert confidently announce on the radio that the only risk was to those who had visited that particular region of China.  In the same week there were stories of The Diamond Princess cruise ship being held off shore like one of the prison hulks so memorably described in the opening chapters of Great Expectations.  The passengers and crew on board were gradually infecting each other until the reports of the first deaths made the news broadcasts.  For a while The Diamond Princess held the unfortunate honour of having the second largest infection rate in the world.  This was in February, a whole month before the British Prime Minister announced that severe restrictions would be placed on society.

Now, some four months later, the UK is gradually peeking out from behind its curtains as lockdown eases and some sense of normality returns to the country.  Celebrations are rife as hairdressers’ floors disappear under layers of clipped locks, and restaurants are once again able to deferentially ask their customers if ‘everything is alright?’ albeit from a sensible and apparently safe distance.  There are great debates as to the wisdom of letting the country loose when the virus is still at large, but that is not what this post is about:  I want to record some of my perceptions of life as it has been, good and bad, and preserve my memories of lockdown before they get lost in ‘the new normal’, which I fear will closely resemble the old one.

This is the story of a small household in Oxfordshire: me, Liz and our two primary school-aged daughters.

 

Early Thoughts

My first memory of lockdown is the state of our hands.  We are a pretty hygienic household anyway and we always wash our hands before and after meals, but government advice was to wash vigorously (whilst singing Happy Birthday twice through) at every opportunity so we all resolutely obeyed the edict and after just a week or so our hands were dried, cracked and ancient-looking.  Strangely as the weeks and months have passed our skin has returned to its natural state even thought the strident washing regime continues.

In the shops the shelves quickly emptied of certain goods (toilet roll and dried pasta being the most sought after commodities).  Panic buying became an art form and for a while the huge expanses of the supermarkets were almost empty of goods, as people stockpiled.  In our modest way we cleared out a little cupboard in our hallway, purchased some metal shelving and created a new larder to expand the amount of storage available to us.

The shops responded quickly to the panic and introduced strict limits on how much of any particular product could be purchased and little by little the shelves began to fill again.

Each day we followed the news briefings and listened in horror as the first deaths were announced.  Ever more restrictive guidelines were issued by the government and the  realisation dawned that for the next few months both Liz’s and my work would cease leading to a complete cessation of our incomes (both being self employed).  In this respect we were no different to millions of others throughout the country, and apart from the reality of the health tragedy that was quickly unfolding, the full horror of the economic disaster that was approaching became apparent as businesses shut their doors and events at local and national levels were cancelled.  However elsewhere many thousands of horse racing fans congregated at the Cheltenham race course for the annual festival.  Even as the country began to shut down so the little spa town on the edge of the Cotswolds became a breeding ground, Coronavirus spread silently through through the packed grandstands, around the parade ring, in the stables, through the car parks, and individuals carried it away ready to gradually unleash Covid 19 throughout a nervous nation.

 

Being Outside

In those early days of lockdown being outside was a strange experience for there was a sense that the very air we breathed was toxic, and yet the sky was blue, the clouds bright white and nature burgeoned all around.

The first perceptions of how life would be came upon us all gradually, the days took on a different rhythm and we all had to learn to be more tolerant and understanding with each other (not always successfully, it must be said).

We had been told to stay in our houses unless we had to shop, whilst periods of exercise were limited to one a day, and it was the wording of the latter precaution that gave so many people an essential escape clause, our family included.

Liz and I soon realised that being restricted to our small house for an indeterminate amount of time with two very active, confused and frustrated daughters was too horrific to even imagine, so we played the exercise card as often as we were able.  The need to get out into the open was increased as Liz was working from home, teaching piano via her laptop, meaning that the house needed to have an element of quiet and professionalism about it.

At first I would drive out into the countryside to find a walk and there were two reasons for this: firstly, the drive out and back added extra time to the journey, meaning that Liz could teach without interruption for longer, and secondly it gave me the opportunity to discover some new areas of our region to walk in.  Many of our itineraries featured different lengths of The Ridgeway path, an ancient trail traversing Oxfordshire atop a ridge of chalk hills.  The path runs for almost 90 miles and is recognised as one of the oldest, if not the oldest, roads in Britain.  The fact that The Ridgeway was  cut high above the surrounding country meant that ancient travellers could always be on the look out for those of nefarious intent  below them and that gives us our modern name for a road: the highway.

April and May saw a heatwave and day upon day of hot sunshine and warm weather made the countryside even more beautiful to be in, but there was more, for Mother Nature seemed to be revelling in the fact that the human race was being put on hold, that cars were not polluting the towns or planes the skies.  Foliage was abundant and bright, whilst the blossom bubbled and frothed vividly against the blue of the skies which were unmarked by the vapour trails of aircraft.  Birdsong seemed to be louder and wildlife seemed braver (on the television there were pictures of deer meandering through deserted town centres).  Satellite images backed up our own observations, showing much less pollution over China allowing nature to reclaim her planet for a while.

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Our days of exploring the wider countryside would soon end though, for the lockdown restrictions became ever tighter and it was decreed that exercise could only be taken from your own home and that driving to beauty spots would no longer be allowed.

So, we explored Abingdon and discovered some amazing walks on our very doorstep, the other great bonus of the restrictions being that we could cycle without fear of cars, vans or huge trucks threatening to crush us as they thundered past.  The roads were almost deserted and when in the past we might have to wait for a while to cross, now we could just stroll as if we were walking in a park.

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One walk to the pretty village of Sunningwell took us over a footbridge which crossed the usually busy A34 trunk road and we loved standing waiting for a lonely truck or car to flash by beneath us as we waved to the drivers, who usually waved back or flashed their lights and hooted their horns.

These days were the happiest of lockdown, with nature thriving and everyone being forced into a slower, more relaxed pace of life.  We all had to learn a new way of living.

 

Neighbourhood Strolls and Art

Many of our local walks took us through residential streets that we had never really noticed before interconnected by hidden footpaths, or ‘twittens’ as we used to call them back in Kent when I was growing up.  As we walked we loved admiring carefully tended gardens and the ever-increasing amount of children’s window art.  I don’t quite know how it started or who first suggested it, but children across the country began to create rainbows to display in their windows as a symbol of hope.  Some rainbows were simply printed and then coloured with pen or pencil, others were painted, yet more were a spectacular result of mixed-media projects.  Some were large, others small, and a few had positive and uplifting message carefully written alongside.  All of this meant that a neighbourhood stroll became a a trip to a gallery in which we could discuss and compare the artwork.  In our own living room window the girls’ efforts were proudly displayed and the sheer pride and joy we felt when a young mother pushing a buggy stopped one day to tell us how much the pictures cheered her up and how she always admired our front garden can hardly be described.

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The warmth of the feeling was so great that we started to do the same to others, praising gardens and art as we passed by and we relished the beams that resulted.

At Easter we decorated foam egg-shaped cut outs and hung them from the large and gnarled Rosemary bush that overhangs our front wall, and when the country celebrated the anniversary of Victory in Europe Day in May we made our own red, white and blue bunting which we hung proudly over the front of the house.

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Other families did the same so that previously drab, anonymous estates became bright, fun and vibrant places to be. Through this shared artwork communities grew closer – another great positive consequence of the Coronavirus.

At home our artistic endeavours went further than creating displays for passers-by, as our craft box allowed us to create a series of pictures and models inspired by our good friends Martin and Nikki with whom we shared a weekly Zoom call in an attempt to broaden our attempts at the girls’ home schooling .  Each week either Nikki or Martin would suggest a theme for the following session and we would all be required to come up with some work to show them – our eldest, who is eight years old, loved to do lots of reading and research and then present her findings, whilst all of us took to felt-tipped pens, coloured pencils and paints to create large murals on long rolls of paper.  One week we did an under-sea vista and on another we went into outer space (I was particularly proud of my Saturn V rocket made out of loo rolls, with sheets of red and orange tissue paper issuing from the ‘engine’ as the mighty beast ‘cleared the tower’).  We explored the world of Kings and Queens, fairy tales as well as Walt Disney (again, ridiculous amounts of pride for my painted representation of Scrooge McDuck).  On the day appointed for our presentations we would gather in front of my laptop in great excitement and Nikki and Martin would watch, comment on our efforts and present their own offerings.  For a little while each week what was happening in the big bad world was forgotten and became irrelevant.

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A New Etiquette

Being forced to stay within the limits of our own towns to take our exercise meant that naturally there were more people walking on the pavements which created its own issues.  By now we were being told that to prevent the spread of the virus we should all keep 2 meters apart from anyone outside our own household group, and so the phrase ‘social distancing’ entered our language and dominated it (as had ‘self isolation’ and ‘underlying health issues’ a few weeks earlier).  As we walked we would keep a careful watch for others coming towards us and made sure that we were able to position ourselves so that we could pass with the requisite gap between us.  It was interesting to observe how society coped with this and how different people reacted.  We as a family tried to be positive and friendly, greeting everyone we met with a smile and a ‘good morning!’   If someone had paused to let us pass or gone out of their way to give us a clear way we thanked them, and being British we often exchanged pleasantries about the weather.  But not all responded the same way, for some people walked with their eyes down and viewed all around them with suspicion, barely willing or able to converse, on the whole this was not born or rudeness, but of fear.  Whilst our daily walks were an essential part of our mental and physical wellbeing, to others being in the open obviously felt an unnatural risk to be endured and ended as soon as possible.  Very soon we learned to identify the sort of person who was approaching and could modify our own behaviour accordingly.

There was a third category too, next to the friendly and fearful, and that was those who insisted that regulation and order be maintained at all costs.  I recall riding my bike along a pathway which was clearly marked with two lanes, one for cycles and one for pedestrians.  It was a sunny day and quite a few people were out enjoying their exercise. Being a responsible and good citizen I was riding on the cycle side of the path but noticed ahead of me a lady stopping to smell some beautiful blossom on a tree which overhung my way, so I steered to pass by on the other side so as not to prevent her enjoying a moment which obviously meant a great deal to her.  Now I was in the pedestrian lane and striding towards me were two more ladies, with water bottles in hand obviously out on a fitness walk, rather than an amble.  What to do?  I pulled as far into the side of the path as I could and stopped, leaving plenty of room so that they could pass by.  Rather than thanking me, one of the ladies scowled ‘actually this lane is for pedestrians, THAT lane is for bicycles!’ and on they strode muttering to one another.  Yes, technically they were correct, I was not in the proper lane, but the level of anger seemed disproportionate, especially as I’d only been trying to let a lady smell some blossom without being disturbed!

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Keeping Fit and Healthy

As I touched on earlier, the need to be in the great outdoors was born not only of physical wellbeing but of the importance of good mental health too.  Being cooped up  inside a house for hours, days, weeks on end  could and most like would result in depression and anger.  Certainly during the long school days when Liz was teaching she noticed that her mental health was suffering as a result of being confined for long periods.

As restrictions were gradually eased and exercise away from your own neighbourhood was permitted once more so our countryside walks once more became a major part of our weekly routine and the girls (only 8 and 5, remember), amazed me by happily striding out on 6 mile hikes through the Oxfordshire countryside.  I would pack a picnic full of treats into a rucksack and we would find a cool woodland glade somewhere to spread out our rug and relax before pushing on to the end.  The huge expanses of scenery seemed to cosset and care for us as it welcomed us in.  I know that we are extremely lucky to live in a part of the country where such expeditions are possible and I cannot imagine being stuck for four months in a tower block or estate with little or no access to outdoor space.

However it was not just those beautiful walks that kept me fit, for during lockdown I actually took up running.  Running and I haven’t been happy bedfellows over the years,  I have tried to take on an effective fitness regime a few times but always without success.  As long ago as thirty five years ago my good school friend Chris tried to encourage me to join him in his then new hobby of running, but after a couple of aborted attempts I left him to it.  Chris went on to run a number of London Marathons and still runs most days in his adopted homeland of New Zealand.

The fact is that I do not find running a pleasurable experience, I get no inherent joy from the action of pounding on a road, getting breathless and hot knowing that there is no relief from the sheer torture and monotony.

In March I started running again purely as a way of  giving our 8 – year old some sort of routine in the mornings, at a time when she would usually be getting ready for a school day.  We had noticed she became easily distracted and frustrated and as one of her best friends liked to run we thought that we would suggest it.  She liked the idea and so we were committed.  On my last half-hearted attempt at running a few years ago I had downloaded the ‘Couch to 5K’ app onto my phone so we thought that we would start from the very beginning and strictly follow that programme for as long as we could.  The Couch to 5K system starts with very short simple runs – 1 minute running with 1.5 minutes of walking between: we could just about manage that!  After a week we moved to level two which increased the length of the run to 2 minutes, but also allowed us an extra 30 seconds of ‘rest’.  Again, we achieved that.  Week three saw us remaining at 2 minutes but the walk was shortened.  Week four was when we began to struggle: 2 and a half minutes of running within only thirty seconds to recover saw me panting and wheezing and my daughter starting to complain of stiches, sore ankles and blisters.

After a few mornings it became apparent that she had reached the end of her running journey and I was on my own once more.  This time, however,  I was determined not to give up and set myself the challenge of continuing for as long as I could, even if I didn’t reach my 5k goal, which seemed unlikely considering that would mean running for around 40 minutes without a break and I was currently struggling with 2 and a half!

But on I went.  I have always been an early riser so I decided to run as soon as I woke, at around 5.15 and this is when I started to actually, dare I say it,  enjoy myself.  The air at that hour is cool and the streets and pathways deserted.  I still struggled at times, but over a period of weeks I began to move onto more advanced levels until something extraordinary happened: I decided to run through my rest periods.

I assume there are learned articles and studies about fitness and the body which cover this phenomenon but my uneducated and uninformed mind came to a conclusion: it seemed to me as if there were a moment when the excess body fat and weight burned off and the newfound muscle tone and stamina took over, like a tipping set of scales.

And from finding it difficult to run for three minutes I was suddenly running for twenty, then twenty five, then twenty eight minutes at a time.  I have definitely lost weight, I have definitely become fitter as a result and I feel a great deal of pride for pushing on and continuing with something that isn’t completely natural to me.

On the morning of 18th July, 2020, I ran for 34 minutes and for the very first time achieved my 5K goal!

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5k for the first time!

 

 

New Friends

Joe Wicks

Confined to our house we, like most of the country, searched for new virtual friends to help us pass the time and they presented themselves to us via different forums.  Firstly we joined in with the national TV phenomenon that was Joe Wicks’ ‘PE With Joe’.  For those of you who don’t know, Joe had built an incredibly strong fitness brand based on workout programmes released on his YouTube channel, but as lockdown confined entire families to their front rooms so he began to run a 20 minute workout each morning for everyone to join in with.  The exercises were simple and Wicks’ energetic and engaging repartee engaged the whole family as we looked for which ornaments had changed place in his rather stylish and expensive living room.  We all togged up in our ‘fitness gear’ after breakfast and followed Joe for a few weeks, which was a really fun and valuable bonding time, but our youngest struggled with focus and attention after a while and we quietly bade farewell to Joe.

 

Nick Cope

The girls’ school were superb at sending all sorts of resources to parents so that all of the children had plenty to occupy them – this wasn’t necessarily a pre-planned curriculum of lessons to be strictly adhered to, but a series of suggested activities.  Our 5 year old is in the Reception class and one of the links that her teacher sent was to a singer called Nick Cope who was broadcasting regular mini concerts from his front room.  Cope used to be the lead singer of a band called The Candyskins who had success at the beginning of the Britpop era of the early 1990s.  These days Nick has made a brilliant career of writing and singing a series of gentle and witty songs for children and had actually visited the school to perform for the younger year groups.  Soon we were all becoming familiar with his  repertoire and downloaded his albums to play in the car on longer journeys (each time a new song came on our daughter would shout out ‘he did this one at school, its my FAVOURITE!’  In which case it must have been a VERY long concert!)

One particular favourite number was ‘A Round of Applause for the Dinosaurs’ part of the refrain of which goes: ‘Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus and T-Rex, not forgetting Diplodocus with his long neck!’ and on one of our neighbourhood walks we would pass a house where models of those particular species were displayed on an upstairs windowsill: fellow fans we guessed, and we would walk down the street singing the song out loud!

 

Jimmy Carr and Richard Osman

On a more adult level for Liz and me the passing of the early days of lockdown were marked by a daily quiz hosted by comedian Jimmy Carr, which he called ‘The Little Tiny Quiz of the Lockdown’  The format was simple, ten trivia questions, answers broadcast a short while later.  No prizes, no competition, just a little mental stimulation after the children were in bed which became an almost essential marking of the passing of another day.  The quizes ran for about 5 or 6 weeks until presumably Jimmy Carr ran out of trivia, but during those early days they a real feature of our days.

The quiz theme was then taken up by TV producer and host of the ‘Pointless’ TV series Richard Osman, who as a way of promoting his first novel ‘The Thursday Murder Club’ wrote a weekly newsletter (published appropriately on a Thursday) to his very many fans which included a quiz.  Each week all of the answers began with the same letter of the alphabet and at the time of writing we have reached the letter R.  As with Carr’s daily quiz the arrival of ‘Osman night’ marked the passing of another week and gave a sense of routine and stability to a fluid and uncertain reality.

 

Moving Out Of Lockdown

Although Coronavirus is still present in our society and a vaccine has yet to be officially distributed, the more stringent lockdown regulations have now been lifted and a sense of normality is returning to our towns and cities.  Shops are opening, although the wearing of facemasks (which we have done since the start anyway) is now mandatory.  Hair salons are doing a roaring trade, as are pubs and restaurants with careful policies in place.

As far as we are concerned there is really no change in that ‘normality’ coincided with the start of the school holidays meaning that we would all have been at home anyway.  Our days will still be filled with walks, cycle rides and art projects, but hopefully we can actually meet up with friends for picnics etc, as well as visiting playparks.

The roads are busier now and we have to wait for much longer periods to cross.  Cycling is more stressful too, but we still get out on our bikes when we can.  Standing on the footbridge over the A34 the traffic thunders along and drivers are in too much of a rush to notice a family waving to them.

Slowly ‘normal’ life is returning and some of those precious moments are being lost.

In writing these words I do not set out to pretend that our life through the last four months has been perfect and wonderful: it definitely has not been and there have been plenty of days when we have all become increasingly impatient and angry with each other leading to tantrums on all sides which probably have made our neighbours wince.

In writing this blog post I simply wanted to preserve some of those little  memories that may otherwise get swept away in the course of time.

 

 

The Ridgeway

The Ridgeway

 

Richard Osman

https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/315815/the-thursday-murder-club/9780241425442.html

 

Nick Cope

https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/315815/the-thursday-murder-club/9780241425442.html

 

Jimmy Carr

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Seven Dials

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The Seven Dials Sketch was published in September 1835 in Bells Life in London and is the first of the ‘Scenes and Characters’ series, in which Dickens presents little snapshots of London life.

Seven Dials is almost a literary recreation of the famous William Hogarth prints Beer Street and Gin Lane, and presents a vivid picture of the force of character among the poor.  This is not a campaigning piece, it is an observation.  We even get a glimpse of Boz himself in the form of ‘The shabby-genteel man…’  who is ‘…an object of some mystery, but as he leads a life of seclusion, and never was known to buy anything beyond an occasional pen, except half-pints of coffee, penny loaves, and ha’porths of ink, his fellow-lodgers very naturally suppose him to be an author; and rumours are current in the Dials, that he writes poems for Mr. Warren.’  Mr Warren had owned the factory that made shoe blacking, where a 12 year old Charles Dickens had miserably worked

 

Seven Dials

We have always been of opinion that if Tom King and the Frenchman had not immortalised Seven Dials, Seven Dials would have immortalised itself. Seven Dials! the region of song and poetry—first effusions, and last dying speeches: hallowed by the names of Catnach and of Pitts—names that will entwine themselves with costermongers, and barrel-organs, when penny magazines shall have superseded penny yards of song, and capital punishment be unknown!

 

 
Look at the construction of the place. The Gordian knot was all very well in its way: so was the maze of Hampton Court: so is the maze at the Beulah Spa: so were the ties of stiff white neckcloths, when the difficulty of getting one on, was only to be equalled by the apparent impossibility of ever getting it off again. But what involutions can compare with those of Seven Dials? Where is there such another maze of streets, courts, lanes, and alleys? Where such a pure mixture of Englishmen and Irishmen, as in this complicated part of London? We boldly aver that we doubt the veracity of the legend to which we have adverted. We can suppose a man rash enough to inquire at random—at a house with lodgers too—for a Mr. Thompson, with all but the certainty before his eyes, of finding at least two or three Thompsons in any house of moderate dimensions; but a Frenchman—a Frenchman in Seven Dials! Pooh! He was an Irishman. Tom King’s education had been neglected in his infancy, and as he couldn’t understand half the man said, he took it for granted he was talking French.

 

 
The stranger who finds himself in ‘The Dials’ for the first time, and stands Belzoni-like, at the entrance of seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity and attention awake for no inconsiderable time. From the irregular square into which he has plunged, the streets and courts dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops, and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined; and lounging at every corner, as if they came there to take a few gasps of such fresh air as has found its way so far, but is too much exhausted already, to be enabled to force itself into the narrow alleys around, are groups of people, whose appearance and dwellings would fill any mind but a regular Londoner’s with astonishment.

 

 
On one side, a little crowd has collected round a couple of ladies, who having imbibed the contents of various ‘three-outs’ of gin and bitters in the course of the morning, have at length differed on some point of domestic arrangement, and are on the eve of settling the quarrel satisfactorily, by an appeal to blows, greatly to the interest of other ladies who live in the same house, and tenements adjoining, and who are all partisans on one side or other.

 

 
‘Vy don’t you pitch into her, Sarah?’ exclaims one half-dressed matron, by way of encouragement. ‘Vy don’t you? if my ’usband had treated her with a drain last night, unbeknown to me, I’d tear her precious eyes out—a wixen!’

 

 
‘What’s the matter, ma’am?’ inquires another old woman, who has just bustled up to the spot.

 

 
‘Matter!’ replies the first speaker, talking at the obnoxious combatant, ‘matter! Here’s poor dear Mrs. Sulliwin, as has five blessed children of her own, can’t go out a charing for one arternoon, but what hussies must be a comin’, and ’ticing avay her oun’ ’usband, as she’s been married to twelve year come next Easter Monday, for I see the certificate ven I vas a drinkin’ a cup o’ tea vith her, only the werry last blessed Ven’sday as ever was sent. I ’appen’d to say promiscuously, “Mrs. Sulliwin,” says I—’

 

 
‘What do you mean by hussies?’ interrupts a champion of the other party, who has evinced a strong inclination throughout to get up a branch fight on her own account (‘Hooroar,’ ejaculates a pot-boy in parenthesis, ‘put the kye-bosk on her, Mary!’), ‘What do you mean by hussies?’ reiterates the champion.

 

 
‘Niver mind,’ replies the opposition expressively, ‘niver mind; you go home, and, ven you’re quite sober, mend your stockings.’

 

 
This somewhat personal allusion, not only to the lady’s habits of intemperance, but also to the state of her wardrobe, rouses her utmost ire, and she accordingly complies with the urgent request of the bystanders to ‘pitch in,’ with considerable alacrity. The scuffle became general, and terminates, in minor play-bill phraseology, with ‘arrival of the policemen, interior of the station-house, and impressive dénouement.’

 

 
In addition to the numerous groups who are idling about the gin-shops and squabbling in the centre of the road, every post in the open space has its occupant, who leans against it for hours, with listless perseverance. It is odd enough that one class of men in London appear to have no enjoyment beyond leaning against posts. We never saw a regular bricklayer’s labourer take any other recreation, fighting excepted. Pass through St. Giles’s in the evening of a week-day, there they are in their fustian dresses, spotted with brick-dust and whitewash, leaning against posts. Walk through Seven Dials on Sunday morning: there they are again, drab or light corduroy trousers, Blucher boots, blue coats, and great yellow waistcoats, leaning against posts. The idea of a man dressing himself in his best clothes, to lean against a post all day!

 

 
The peculiar character of these streets, and the close resemblance each one bears to its neighbour, by no means tends to decrease the bewilderment in which the unexperienced wayfarer through ‘the Dials’ finds himself involved. He traverses streets of dirty, straggling houses, with now and then an unexpected court composed of buildings as ill-proportioned and deformed as the half-naked children that wallow in the kennels. Here and there, a little dark chandler’s shop, with a cracked bell hung up behind the door to announce the entrance of a customer, or betray the presence of some young gentleman in whom a passion for shop tills has developed itself at an early age: others, as if for support, against some handsome lofty building, which usurps the place of a low dingy public-house; long rows of broken and patched windows expose plants that may have flourished when ‘the Dials’ were built, in vessels as dirty as ‘the Dials’ themselves; and shops for the purchase of rags, bones, old iron, and kitchen-stuff, vie in cleanliness with the bird-fanciers and rabbit-dealers, which one might fancy so many arks, but for the irresistible conviction that no bird in its proper senses, who was permitted to leave one of them, would ever come back again. Brokers’ shops, which would seem to have been established by humane individuals, as refuges for destitute bugs, interspersed with announcements of day-schools, penny theatres, petition-writers, mangles, and music for balls or routs, complete the ‘still life’ of the subject; and dirty men, filthy women, squalid children, fluttering shuttlecocks, noisy battledores, reeking pipes, bad fruit, more than doubtful oysters, attenuated cats, depressed dogs, and anatomical fowls, are its cheerful accompaniments.

 

 
If the external appearance of the houses, or a glance at their inhabitants, present but few attractions, a closer acquaintance with either is little calculated to alter one’s first impression. Every room has its separate tenant, and every tenant is, by the same mysterious dispensation which causes a country curate to ‘increase and multiply’ most marvellously, generally the head of a numerous family.

 

 
The man in the shop, perhaps, is in the baked ‘jemmy’ line, or the fire-wood and hearth-stone line, or any other line which requires a floating capital of eighteen-pence or thereabouts: and he and his family live in the shop, and the small back parlour behind it. Then there is an Irish labourer and his family in the back kitchen, and a jobbing man—carpet-beater and so forth—with his family in the front one. In the front one-pair, there’s another man with another wife and family, and in the back one-pair, there’s ‘a young ’oman as takes in tambour-work, and dresses quite genteel,’ who talks a good deal about ‘my friend,’ and can’t ‘a-bear anything low.’ The second floor front, and the rest of the lodgers, are just a second edition of the people below, except a shabby-genteel man in the back attic, who has his half-pint of coffee every morning from the coffee-shop next door but one, which boasts a little front den called a coffee-room, with a fireplace, over which is an inscription, politely requesting that, ‘to prevent mistakes,’ customers will ‘please to pay on delivery.’ The shabby-genteel man is an object of some mystery, but as he leads a life of seclusion, and never was known to buy anything beyond an occasional pen, except half-pints of coffee, penny loaves, and ha’porths of ink, his fellow-lodgers very naturally suppose him to be an author; and rumours are current in the Dials, that he writes poems for Mr. Warren.

 

 
Now anybody who passed through the Dials on a hot summer’s evening, and saw the different women of the house gossiping on the steps, would be apt to think that all was harmony among them, and that a more primitive set of people than the native Diallers could not be imagined. Alas! the man in the shop ill-treats his family; the carpet-beater extends his professional pursuits to his wife; the one-pair front has an undying feud with the two-pair front, in consequence of the two-pair front persisting in dancing over his (the one-pair front’s) head, when he and his family have retired for the night; the two-pair back will interfere with the front kitchen’s children; the Irishman comes home drunk every other night, and attacks everybody; and the one-pair back screams at everything. Animosities spring up between floor and floor; the very cellar asserts his equality. Mrs. A. ‘smacks’ Mrs. B.’s child for ‘making faces.’ Mrs. B. forthwith throws cold water over Mrs. A.’s child for ‘calling names.’ The husbands are embroiled—the quarrel becomes general—an assault is the consequence, and a police-officer the result.

Bringing Dickens to the Stage. Part Two: Dickens’ performing career

The original of this post is part of the of the BMI Lockdown Life initiative, in collaboration with the Birmingham & Midland Institute. Join the conversation on Twitter with #BMILockdownLife.  The post can be seen in its original form at

https://blog.bham.ac.uk/clic-dickens/2020/06/24/bringing-dickens-to-the-stage-part-two/

 

This is the second post of the mini-series “Bringing Dickens to the Stage”, in which actor Gerald Dickens (@DickensShows on Twitter) recounts his personal connection with the works of his great great grandfather, Charles Dickens. The post is brought to you as part of the BMI Lockdown Life initiative, in collaboration with the Birmingham & Midland Institute. Join the conversation on Twitter with #BMILockdownLife.

 
In my previous blog post I explained how I discovered the delights of performing the works of my great great grandfather Charles Dickens, when I was asked to recreate one of his most famous performances as a fundraiser in 1993. This post gives a brief account of Dickens’ performing career.

 
Dickens – An actor writing his own scripts
I knew little about the theatrical career of Charles Dickens, but my father had recommended that I read various biographies and it soon became apparent to me that rather than being an author who read from his own works, Dickens was more of an actor who wrote his own scripts. The love of theatre was apparent from his earliest years and in The Uncommercial Traveller he wrote a remembrance of his childhood town (actually Chatham in Kent but rather unkindly fictionalised as ‘Dullborough’) he recalled his early memories of visiting the theatre, remembering how: “Richard the Third, in a very uncomfortable cloak, had first appeared to me there, and had made my heart leap with terror by backing up against the stage-box in which I was posted, while struggling for life against the virtuous Richmond. It was within those walls that I had learnt as from a page of English history, how that wicked King slept in war-time on a sofa much too short for him, and how fearfully his conscience troubled his boots […] Many wondrous secrets of Nature had I come to the knowledge of in that sanctuary: of which not the least terrific were, that the witches in Macbeth bore an awful resemblance to the Thanes and other proper inhabitants of Scotland; and that the good King Duncan couldn’t rest in his grave, but was constantly coming out of it and calling himself somebody else.” (The Uncommercial Traveller, Chapter XII)

 
As a young man living in London, Charles would continue to indulge his passion for the stage and even took lessons from a professional actor, presumably with the intention of exploring the possibility of making it his career; to that end he even managed to secure an audition at The Covent Garden Theatre, but never made the appointment due to his health. The fact that he never tried again suggests that the reality of a life on the stage did not tally with his desire for a comfortable, even slightly foppish, lifestyle. Dickens was finding success as a journalist which would of course lead to his writing career and wealth way beyond that which he could have achieved by treading the boards of the provincial theatres. The financial aspect is an important one – Dickens wasn’t greedy for money, but his entire outlook was shaped by the memory of his father’s imprisonment for debt and his own humiliating days as a twelve year old slaving in Warren’s Blacking factory to bring a few pennies into the family. Making money was not so much a beacon of success to Charles Dickens, but a signal of triumphing over failure.

 
From his earliest works theatre featured strongly. In Sketches by Boz, he wrote of ‘Private Theatres’ and in his first novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, one of the first characters we meet is the itinerant, and wholly untrustworthy, actor Mr Jingle.

 
It was in his third novel, however, that Dickens really brought the stage to his literature. In Nicholas Nickleby our hero accompanied his ever-trusting companion Smike, set out to walk from London to Portsmouth in the hope that they may find employment onboard a ship. During their journey they find themselves at a roadside inn where they meet Mr Vincent Crummles and his theatrical troupe. The scenes that follow are among the funniest in Dickens’ work and the love of his subject clearly shines through.

 

crummles

Figure 1: “Nicholas was prepared for something odd, but not for something quite so odd as the sight he encountered. At the upper end of the room, were a couple of boys, one of them very tall and the other very short, both dressed as sailors–or at least as theatrical sailors, with belts, buckles, pigtails, and pistols complete” Nicholas Nickleby, Chapter 22 (illustration by Phiz, image scanned by Philip V. Allingham for the Victorian Web)

 
Dickens, the celebrity, taking to the stage.

As the young anonymous author Boz morphed into Charles Dickens the celebrity, so he was able to surround himself with likeminded folk and take to the stage more seriously. Dickens and others in his circle formed an organisation called The Guild of Literature and Art which was ostensibly created to assist the families of artists who were left in poverty. The group, made up of notable names from the fields of literature, theatre and the visual arts would stage great theatrical events in order to raise money; of course, besides its philanthropic ideals, it was also a splendid excuse for Dickens to become an actor manager and indulge his passion.

 
Over the years the troupe performed plays such as Ben Johnson’s Every Man and his Humour, and Elizabeth Inchbald’s farce Animal Magnetism, whilst Edward Bulwer-Lytton, another founder member of the Guild, wrote Not So Bad As We Seem which was performed in his ancestral home Knebworth House. What all these productions had in common was the name of Charles Dickens at the head of the cast list. He was supported by such luminaries as fellow author Wilkie Collins, the artist Augustus Egg and Mark Lemon, the editor of Punch magazine.

 
In 1856 Dickens suggested to Collins that they collaborate on a brand-new play which would be performed in Charles’ own home in Tavistock Square the following January and which was called The Frozen Deep.

 
Charles Dickens threw himself into the project with huge verve. He began to convert his home into a theatre which would hold around 93 guests, at least ten of whom “will neither hear nor see!” His letters during the weeks prior to the performances were a flurry of preparation. He spoke of a great lighting effect that would open the show:
“I should very much like you only to see a Sunset – far better than anything that has ever been done at the Diorama or any such place. There is a Rehearsal to night (no one here but the company), and this Sunset, which begins the play, will be visible at a quarter before 8: lasting ten minutes.” (letter to Mrs Brown, 2 January 1857).

 
Scenery had to be completed and he had enlisted a great artist to work on the backdrops: Clarkson Stanfield, a Royal Academician, was creating a splendid arctic vista for the final act, but Dickens wrote to him as if he were a stage hand at one of the London theatres, “My Dear Stanny…I forgot that there are all those Icicles to be made. Could you manage to come tomorrow afternoon – direct that operation before dinner – take your mutton with us – and then take the Rehearsal? Do if you can.” (1 January 1857). The entire cast, which included members of his own family, were rigorously rehearsed to a strict timetable until the day of the first performance arrived.

 

The performance was the talk of the town and The Illustrated London News reported that Dickens’ role of Richard Wardour “required the consummate acting of a well-practised performer. Too much praise cannot be bestowed on the artistic interpretation that it received from him. It was a fervid, powerful and distinct individuality, thoroughly made out in all its details.” His talents as an actor were not in doubt. But he was restless and wanted more, in fact he wanted much more: he wanted all of the applause – not a share of it. Charles Dickens was about to embark on his new career, that of a professional reader.

 

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Figure 2: Dickens giving the last reading of his Works. (Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0))
As was natural for a man of Dickens’ standing, he had been called upon to read from his own works by various charitable organisations and these performances had been well received by all who witnessed them and soon he realised that there was quite a lucrative opportunity in performing for his own benefit. From the very start Charles went to great lengths to not only read a passage from a book but to use his theatrical experiences to create a carefully produced script. Scenes were cut back to their basics, devoid of description, because the performer could create a face, an atmosphere, a scene purely by changing his expression, stance and demeanour.

 
As for his physical surroundings Dickens created a set which was simple and carefully considered. The reading desk, covered in maroon fabric and trimmed with gold braid, was slender so that it didn’t mask too much of the performer’s body. Rather than being a tall lectern, the desk was quite short but there was a small box which sat on the top for the reader to rest his hand on, meaning that when he referred to the book his face was not in shadow. To one side of the desk there was a little shelf which held a carafe of water and a handkerchief. The desk wasn’t purely a physical necessity but became a prop in its own right; for example during Fezziwig’s party in A Christmas Carol, Dickens would drum his long fingers on the table thereby creating a puppetry representation of the old man dancing to Sir Roger de Coverley.

 
A skilled and talented performer
At first the public filled the halls out of a sense of curiosity, to see the great Dickens who had enriched their lives with his stories. In those early days Charles could probably just have read a list of characters and the audience would have gone home happy, but the fact that he was such a skilled and talented performer created a unique art form and the shows became the hottest ticket in town.

 
Charles, or ‘The Inimitable’ as he called himself, never took his eye off the ball and went to great lengths to make the readings perfect: he created a gas lighting rig that bathed him in bright light so that no facial expression was lost, and to complement that he erected a huge maroon-coloured screen behind him so that his pale features stood out clearly. The screen was not made of curtain but of a solid material meaning that it also acted as a sounding-board, a necessity in auditoria that sometimes held up to 3,000 people.

 
A true theatrical man, Dickens left nothing to chance in bringing his works to the stage.
In my next post I will look at the gestation of one of his notorious performances: Sikes and Nancy.

The Ladies’ Societies

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The fourteenth of Charles Dickens’ sketches was published in The Evening Chronicle in July 1835.  The Ladies’ Societies is a further chapter in the ‘Our Parish’ series and once again features the character of Mr Bung (who featured in both  ‘The Election for Beadle’ and ‘The Brokers’ Man’), thereby maintaining the sense of continuity and community.  ‘The Ladies’ Societies’ uses the battles for influence and power between well-meaning charitable organisations for comic effect and it is another theme that he would develop and re-use in his later novels, particularly when he created the character of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House.

 

The Ladies’ Societies

Our Parish is very prolific in ladies’ charitable institutions. In winter, when wet feet are common, and colds not scarce, we have the ladies’ soup distribution society, the ladies’ coal distribution society, and the ladies’ blanket distribution society; in summer, when stone fruits flourish and stomach aches prevail, we have the ladies’ dispensary, and the ladies’ sick visitation committee; and all the year round we have the ladies’ child’s examination society, the ladies’ bible and prayer-book circulation society, and the ladies’ childbed-linen monthly loan society. The two latter are decidedly the most important; whether they are productive of more benefit than the rest, it is not for us to say, but we can take upon ourselves to affirm, with the utmost solemnity, that they create a greater stir and more bustle, than all the others put together.

 
We should be disposed to affirm, on the first blush of the matter, that the bible and prayer-book society is not so popular as the childbed-linen society; the bible and prayer-book society has, however, considerably increased in importance within the last year or two, having derived some adventitious aid from the factious opposition of the child’s examination society; which factious opposition originated in manner following:—When the young curate was popular, and all the unmarried ladies in the parish took a serious turn, the charity children all at once became objects of peculiar and especial interest. The three Miss Browns (enthusiastic admirers of the curate) taught, and exercised, and examined, and re-examined the unfortunate children, until the boys grew pale, and the girls consumptive with study and fatigue. The three Miss Browns stood it out very well, because they relieved each other; but the children, having no relief at all, exhibited decided symptoms of weariness and care. The unthinking part of the parishioners laughed at all this, but the more reflective portion of the inhabitants abstained from expressing any opinion on the subject until that of the curate had been clearly ascertained.

 
The opportunity was not long wanting. The curate preached a charity sermon on behalf of the charity school, and in the charity sermon aforesaid, expatiated in glowing terms on the praiseworthy and indefatigable exertions of certain estimable individuals. Sobs were heard to issue from the three Miss Browns’ pew; the pew-opener of the division was seen to hurry down the centre aisle to the vestry door, and to return immediately, bearing a glass of water in her hand. A low moaning ensued; two more pew-openers rushed to the spot, and the three Miss Browns, each supported by a pew-opener, were led out of the church, and led in again after the lapse of five minutes with white pocket-handkerchiefs to their eyes, as if they had been attending a funeral in the churchyard adjoining. If any doubt had for a moment existed, as to whom the allusion was intended to apply, it was at once removed. The wish to enlighten the charity children became universal, and the three Miss Browns were unanimously besought to divide the school into classes, and to assign each class to the superintendence of two young ladies.

 
A little learning is a dangerous thing, but a little patronage is more so; the three Miss Browns appointed all the old maids, and carefully excluded the young ones. Maiden aunts triumphed, mammas were reduced to the lowest depths of despair, and there is no telling in what act of violence the general indignation against the three Miss Browns might have vented itself, had not a perfectly providential occurrence changed the tide of public feeling. Mrs. Johnson Parker, the mother of seven extremely fine girls—all unmarried—hastily reported to several other mammas of several other unmarried families, that five old men, six old women, and children innumerable, in the free seats near her pew, were in the habit of coming to church every Sunday, without either bible or prayer-book. Was this to be borne in a civilised country? Could such things be tolerated in a Christian land? Never! A ladies’ bible and prayer-book distribution society was instantly formed: president, Mrs. Johnson Parker; treasurers, auditors, and secretary, the Misses Johnson Parker: subscriptions were entered into, books were bought, all the free-seat people provided therewith, and when the first lesson was given out, on the first Sunday succeeding these events, there was such a dropping of books, and rustling of leaves, that it was morally impossible to hear one word of the service for five minutes afterwards.

 
The three Miss Browns, and their party, saw the approaching danger, and endeavoured to avert it by ridicule and sarcasm. Neither the old men nor the old women could read their books, now they had got them, said the three Miss Browns. Never mind; they could learn, replied Mrs. Johnson Parker. The children couldn’t read either, suggested the three Miss Browns. No matter; they could be taught, retorted Mrs. Johnson Parker. A balance of parties took place. The Miss Browns publicly examined—popular feeling inclined to the child’s examination society. The Miss Johnson Parkers publicly distributed—a reaction took place in favour of the prayer-book distribution. A feather would have turned the scale, and a feather did turn it. A missionary returned from the West Indies; he was to be presented to the Dissenters’ Missionary Society on his marriage with a wealthy widow. Overtures were made to the Dissenters by the Johnson Parkers. Their object was the same, and why not have a joint meeting of the two societies? The proposition was accepted. The meeting was duly heralded by public announcement, and the room was crowded to suffocation. The Missionary appeared on the platform; he was hailed with enthusiasm. He repeated a dialogue he had heard between two negroes, behind a hedge, on the subject of distribution societies; the approbation was tumultuous. He gave an imitation of the two negroes in broken English; the roof was rent with applause. From that period we date (with one trifling exception) a daily increase in the popularity of the distribution society, and an increase of popularity, which the feeble and impotent opposition of the examination party, has only tended to augment.

 
Now, the great points about the childbed-linen monthly loan society are, that it is less dependent on the fluctuations of public opinion than either the distribution or the child’s examination; and that, come what may, there is never any lack of objects on which to exercise its benevolence. Our parish is a very populous one, and, if anything, contributes, we should be disposed to say, rather more than its due share to the aggregate amount of births in the metropolis and its environs. The consequence is, that the monthly loan society flourishes, and invests its members with a most enviable amount of bustling patronage. The society (whose only notion of dividing time, would appear to be its allotment into months) holds monthly tea-drinkings, at which the monthly report is received, a secretary elected for the month ensuing, and such of the monthly boxes as may not happen to be out on loan for the month, carefully examined.

 
We were never present at one of these meetings, from all of which it is scarcely necessary to say, gentlemen are carefully excluded; but Mr. Bung has been called before the board once or twice, and we have his authority for stating, that its proceedings are conducted with great order and regularity: not more than four members being allowed to speak at one time on any pretence whatever. The regular committee is composed exclusively of married ladies, but a vast number of young unmarried ladies of from eighteen to twenty-five years of age, respectively, are admitted as honorary members, partly because they are very useful in replenishing the boxes, and visiting the confined; partly because it is highly desirable that they should be initiated, at an early period, into the more serious and matronly duties of after-life; and partly, because prudent mammas have not unfrequently been known to turn this circumstance to wonderfully good account in matrimonial speculations.

 
In addition to the loan of the monthly boxes (which are always painted blue, with the name of the society in large white letters on the lid), the society dispense occasional grants of beef-tea, and a composition of warm beer, spice, eggs, and sugar, commonly known by the name of ‘candle,’ to its patients. And here again the services of the honorary members are called into requisition, and most cheerfully conceded. Deputations of twos or threes are sent out to visit the patients, and on these occasions there is such a tasting of candle and beef-tea, such a stirring about of little messes in tiny saucepans on the hob, such a dressing and undressing of infants, such a tying, and folding, and pinning; such a nursing and warming of little legs and feet before the fire, such a delightful confusion of talking and cooking, bustle, importance, and officiousness, as never can be enjoyed in its full extent but on similar occasions.

 
In rivalry of these two institutions, and as a last expiring effort to acquire parochial popularity, the child’s examination people determined, the other day, on having a grand public examination of the pupils; and the large school-room of the national seminary was, by and with the consent of the parish authorities, devoted to the purpose. Invitation circulars were forwarded to all the principal parishioners, including, of course, the heads of the other two societies, for whose especial behoof and edification the display was intended; and a large audience was confidently anticipated on the occasion. The floor was carefully scrubbed the day before, under the immediate superintendence of the three Miss Browns; forms were placed across the room for the accommodation of the visitors, specimens in writing were carefully selected, and as carefully patched and touched up, until they astonished the children who had written them, rather more than the company who read them; sums in compound addition were rehearsed and re-rehearsed until all the children had the totals by heart; and the preparations altogether were on the most labourious and most comprehensive scale. The morning arrived: the children were yellow-soaped and flannelled, and towelled, till their faces shone again; every pupil’s hair was carefully combed into his or her eyes, as the case might be; the girls were adorned with snow-white tippets, and caps bound round the head by a single purple ribbon: the necks of the elder boys were fixed into collars of startling dimensions.
The doors were thrown open, and the Misses Brown and Co. were discovered in plain white muslin dresses, and caps of the same—the child’s examination uniform. The room filled: the greetings of the company were loud and cordial. The distributionists trembled, for their popularity was at stake. The eldest boy fell forward, and delivered a propitiatory address from behind his collar. It was from the pen of Mr. Henry Brown; the applause was universal, and the Johnson Parkers were aghast. The examination proceeded with success, and terminated in triumph. The child’s examination society gained a momentary victory, and the Johnson Parkers retreated in despair.

 
A secret council of the distributionists was held that night, with Mrs. Johnson Parker in the chair, to consider of the best means of recovering the ground they had lost in the favour of the parish. What could be done? Another meeting! Alas! who was to attend it? The Missionary would not do twice; and the slaves were emancipated. A bold step must be taken. The parish must be astonished in some way or other; but no one was able to suggest what the step should be. At length, a very old lady was heard to mumble, in indistinct tones, ‘Exeter Hall.’ A sudden light broke in upon the meeting. It was unanimously resolved, that a deputation of old ladies should wait upon a celebrated orator, imploring his assistance, and the favour of a speech; and the deputation should also wait on two or three other imbecile old women, not resident in the parish, and entreat their attendance. The application was successful, the meeting was held; the orator (an Irishman) came. He talked of green isles—other shores—vast Atlantic—bosom of the deep—Christian charity—blood and extermination—mercy in hearts—arms in hands—altars and homes—household gods. He wiped his eyes, he blew his nose, and he quoted Latin. The effect was tremendous—the Latin was a decided hit. Nobody knew exactly what it was about, but everybody knew it must be affecting, because even the orator was overcome. The popularity of the distribution society among the ladies of our parish is unprecedented; and the child’s examination is going fast to decay.

The Broker’s Man

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The thirteenth sketch, and the third of the ‘Our Parish’ followed on from the events of ‘The Election for Beadle’ thereby giving the readership a sense of continuity.  The subject matter was close to Dickens’ heart as it dealt with the topic of debt (the broker’s man of the title undertook the job of remaining in a home until a debt was repaid, or re-possession of goods could be carried out).  Despite the terrible memories of his own childhood the piece begins lightly, but by the end of what is a short sketch the tone has turned to utter tragedy.

It was a subject to which Dickens would return often.

 

The Broker’s Man was first published in The Evening Chronicle on July 28th, 1835

 

The Broker’s Man

The excitement of the late election has subsided, and our parish being once again restored to a state of comparative tranquillity, we are enabled to devote our attention to those parishioners who take little share in our party contests or in the turmoil and bustle of public life. And we feel sincere pleasure in acknowledging here, that in collecting materials for this task we have been greatly assisted by Mr. Bung himself, who has imposed on us a debt of obligation which we fear we can never repay. The life of this gentleman has been one of a very chequered description: he has undergone transitions—not from grave to gay, for he never was grave—not from lively to severe, for severity forms no part of his disposition; his fluctuations have been between poverty in the extreme, and poverty modified, or, to use his own emphatic language, ‘between nothing to eat and just half enough.’ He is not, as he forcibly remarks, ‘one of those fortunate men who, if they were to dive under one side of a barge stark-naked, would come up on the other with a new suit of clothes on, and a ticket for soup in the waistcoat-pocket:’ neither is he one of those, whose spirit has been broken beyond redemption by misfortune and want. He is just one of the careless, good-for-nothing, happy fellows, who float, cork-like, on the surface, for the world to play at hockey with: knocked here, and there, and everywhere: now to the right, then to the left, again up in the air, and anon to the bottom, but always reappearing and bounding with the stream buoyantly and merrily along. Some few months before he was prevailed upon to stand a contested election for the office of beadle, necessity attached him to the service of a broker; and on the opportunities he here acquired of ascertaining the condition of most of the poorer inhabitants of the parish, his patron, the captain, first grounded his claims to public support. Chance threw the man in our way a short time since. We were, in the first instance, attracted by his prepossessing impudence at the election; we were not surprised, on further acquaintance, to find him a shrewd, knowing fellow, with no inconsiderable power of observation; and, after conversing with him a little, were somewhat struck (as we dare say our readers have frequently been in other cases) with the power some men seem to have, not only of sympathising with, but to all appearance of understanding feelings to which they themselves are entire strangers. We had been expressing to the new functionary our surprise that he should ever have served in the capacity to which we have just adverted, when we gradually led him into one or two professional anecdotes. As we are induced to think, on reflection, that they will tell better in nearly his own words, than with any attempted embellishments of ours, we will at once entitle them.

 
MR BUNG’S NARRATIVE.

 
‘It’s very true, as you say, sir,’ Mr. Bung commenced, ‘that a broker’s man’s is not a life to be envied; and in course you know as well as I do, though you don’t say it, that people hate and scout ’em because they’re the ministers of wretchedness, like, to poor people. But what could I do, sir? The thing was no worse because I did it, instead of somebody else; and if putting me in possession of a house would put me in possession of three and sixpence a day, and levying a distress on another man’s goods would relieve my distress and that of my family, it can’t be expected but what I’d take the job and go through with it. I never liked it, God knows; I always looked out for something else, and the moment I got other work to do, I left it. If there is anything wrong in being the agent in such matters—not the principal, mind you—I’m sure the business, to a beginner like I was, at all events, carries its own punishment along with it. I wished again and again that the people would only blow me up, or pitch into me—that I wouldn’t have minded, it’s all in my way; but it’s the being shut up by yourself in one room for five days, without so much as an old newspaper to look at, or anything to see out o’ the winder but the roofs and chimneys at the back of the house, or anything to listen to, but the ticking, perhaps, of an old Dutch clock, the sobbing of the missis, now and then, the low talking of friends in the next room, who speak in whispers, lest “the man” should overhear them, or perhaps the occasional opening of the door, as a child peeps in to look at you, and then runs half-frightened away—it’s all this, that makes you feel sneaking somehow, and ashamed of yourself; and then, if it’s wintertime, they just give you fire enough to make you think you’d like more, and bring in your grub as if they wished it ’ud choke you—as I dare say they do, for the matter of that, most heartily. If they’re very civil, they make you up a bed in the room at night, and if they don’t, your master sends one in for you; but there you are, without being washed or shaved all the time, shunned by everybody, and spoken to by no one, unless some one comes in at dinner-time, and asks you whether you want any more, in a tone as much to say, “I hope you don’t,” or, in the evening, to inquire whether you wouldn’t rather have a candle, after you’ve been sitting in the dark half the night. When I was left in this way, I used to sit, think, think, thinking, till I felt as lonesome as a kitten in a wash-house copper with the lid on; but I believe the old brokers’ men who are regularly trained to it, never think at all. I have heard some on ’em say, indeed, that they don’t know how!

 
‘I put in a good many distresses in my time (continued Mr. Bung), and in course I wasn’t long in finding, that some people are not as much to be pitied as others are, and that people with good incomes who get into difficulties, which they keep patching up day after day and week after week, get so used to these sort of things in time, that at last they come scarcely to feel them at all. I remember the very first place I was put in possession of, was a gentleman’s house in this parish here, that everybody would suppose couldn’t help having money if he tried. I went with old Fixem, my old master, ’bout half arter eight in the morning; rang the area-bell; servant in livery opened the door: “Governor at home?”—“Yes, he is,” says the man; “but he’s breakfasting just now.” “Never mind,” says Fixem, “just you tell him there’s a gentleman here, as wants to speak to him partickler.” So the servant he opens his eyes, and stares about him all ways—looking for the gentleman, as it struck me, for I don’t think anybody but a man as was stone-blind would mistake Fixem for one; and as for me, I was as seedy as a cheap cowcumber. Hows’ever, he turns round, and goes to the breakfast-parlour, which was a little snug sort of room at the end of the passage, and Fixem (as we always did in that profession), without waiting to be announced, walks in arter him, and before the servant could get out, “Please, sir, here’s a man as wants to speak to you,” looks in at the door as familiar and pleasant as may be. “Who the devil are you, and how dare you walk into a gentleman’s house without leave?” says the master, as fierce as a bull in fits. “My name,” says Fixem, winking to the master to send the servant away, and putting the warrant into his hands folded up like a note, “My name’s Smith,” says he, “and I called from Johnson’s about that business of Thompson’s.”—“Oh,” says the other, quite down on him directly, “How is Thompson?” says he; “Pray sit down, Mr. Smith: John, leave the room.” Out went the servant; and the gentleman and Fixem looked at one another till they couldn’t look any longer, and then they varied the amusements by looking at me, who had been standing on the mat all this time. “Hundred and fifty pounds, I see,” said the gentleman at last. “Hundred and fifty pound,” said Fixem, “besides cost of levy, sheriff’s poundage, and all other incidental expenses.”—“Um,” says the gentleman, “I shan’t be able to settle this before to-morrow afternoon.”—“Very sorry; but I shall be obliged to leave my man here till then,” replies Fixem, pretending to look very miserable over it. “That’s very unfort’nate,” says the gentleman, “for I have got a large party here to-night, and I’m ruined if those fellows of mine get an inkling of the matter—just step here, Mr. Smith,” says he, after a short pause. So Fixem walks with him up to the window, and after a good deal of whispering, and a little chinking of suverins, and looking at me, he comes back and says, “Bung, you’re a handy fellow, and very honest I know. This gentleman wants an assistant to clean the plate and wait at table to-day, and if you’re not particularly engaged,” says old Fixem, grinning like mad, and shoving a couple of suverins into my hand, “he’ll be very glad to avail himself of your services.” Well, I laughed: and the gentleman laughed, and we all laughed; and I went home and cleaned myself, leaving Fixem there, and when I went back, Fixem went away, and I polished up the plate, and waited at table, and gammoned the servants, and nobody had the least idea I was in possession, though it very nearly came out after all; for one of the last gentlemen who remained, came down-stairs into the hall where I was sitting pretty late at night, and putting half-a-crown into my hand, says, “Here, my man,” says he, “run and get me a coach, will you?” I thought it was a do, to get me out of the house, and was just going to say so, sulkily enough, when the gentleman (who was up to everything) came running down-stairs, as if he was in great anxiety. “Bung,” says he, pretending to be in a consuming passion. “Sir,” says I. “Why the devil an’t you looking after that plate?”—“I was just going to send him for a coach for me,” says the other gentleman. “And I was just a-going to say,” says I—“Anybody else, my dear fellow,” interrupts the master of the house, pushing me down the passage to get out of the way—“anybody else; but I have put this man in possession of all the plate and valuables, and I cannot allow him on any consideration whatever, to leave the house. Bung, you scoundrel, go and count those forks in the breakfast-parlour instantly.” You may be sure I went laughing pretty hearty when I found it was all right. The money was paid next day, with the addition of something else for myself, and that was the best job that I (and I suspect old Fixem too) ever got in that line.

 
‘But this is the bright side of the picture, sir, after all,’ resumed Mr. Bung, laying aside the knowing look and flash air, with which he had repeated the previous anecdote—‘and I’m sorry to say, it’s the side one sees very, very seldom, in comparison with the dark one. The civility which money will purchase, is rarely extended to those who have none; and there’s a consolation even in being able to patch up one difficulty, to make way for another, to which very poor people are strangers. I was once put into a house down George’s-yard—that little dirty court at the back of the gas-works; and I never shall forget the misery of them people, dear me! It was a distress for half a year’s rent—two pound ten, I think. There was only two rooms in the house, and as there was no passage, the lodgers up-stairs always went through the room of the people of the house, as they passed in and out; and every time they did so—which, on the average, was about four times every quarter of an hour—they blowed up quite frightful: for their things had been seized too, and included in the inventory. There was a little piece of enclosed dust in front of the house, with a cinder-path leading up to the door, and an open rain-water butt on one side. A dirty striped curtain, on a very slack string, hung in the window, and a little triangular bit of broken looking-glass rested on the sill inside. I suppose it was meant for the people’s use, but their appearance was so wretched, and so miserable, that I’m certain they never could have plucked up courage to look themselves in the face a second time, if they survived the fright of doing so once. There was two or three chairs, that might have been worth, in their best days, from eightpence to a shilling a-piece; a small deal table, an old corner cupboard with nothing in it, and one of those bedsteads which turn up half way, and leave the bottom legs sticking out for you to knock your head against, or hang your hat upon; no bed, no bedding. There was an old sack, by way of rug, before the fireplace, and four or five children were grovelling about, among the sand on the floor. The execution was only put in, to get ’em out of the house, for there was nothing to take to pay the expenses; and here I stopped for three days, though that was a mere form too: for, in course, I knew, and we all knew, they could never pay the money. In one of the chairs, by the side of the place where the fire ought to have been, was an old ’ooman—the ugliest and dirtiest I ever see—who sat rocking herself backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, without once stopping, except for an instant now and then, to clasp together the withered hands which, with these exceptions, she kept constantly rubbing upon her knees, just raising and depressing her fingers convulsively, in time to the rocking of the chair. On the other side sat the mother with an infant in her arms, which cried till it cried itself to sleep, and when it ’woke, cried till it cried itself off again. The old ’ooman’s voice I never heard: she seemed completely stupefied; and as to the mother’s, it would have been better if she had been so too, for misery had changed her to a devil. If you had heard how she cursed the little naked children as was rolling on the floor, and seen how savagely she struck the infant when it cried with hunger, you’d have shuddered as much as I did. There they remained all the time: the children ate a morsel of bread once or twice, and I gave ’em best part of the dinners my missis brought me, but the woman ate nothing; they never even laid on the bedstead, nor was the room swept or cleaned all the time. The neighbours were all too poor themselves to take any notice of ’em, but from what I could make out from the abuse of the woman up-stairs, it seemed the husband had been transported a few weeks before. When the time was up, the landlord and old Fixem too, got rather frightened about the family, and so they made a stir about it, and had ’em taken to the workhouse. They sent the sick couch for the old ’ooman, and Simmons took the children away at night. The old ’ooman went into the infirmary, and very soon died. The children are all in the house to this day, and very comfortable they are in comparison. As to the mother, there was no taming her at all. She had been a quiet, hard-working woman, I believe, but her misery had actually drove her wild; so after she had been sent to the house of correction half-a-dozen times, for throwing inkstands at the overseers, blaspheming the churchwardens, and smashing everybody as come near her, she burst a blood-vessel one mornin’, and died too; and a happy release it was, both for herself and the old paupers, male and female, which she used to tip over in all directions, as if they were so many skittles, and she the ball.

 
‘Now this was bad enough,’ resumed Mr. Bung, taking a half-step towards the door, as if to intimate that he had nearly concluded. ‘This was bad enough, but there was a sort of quiet misery—if you understand what I mean by that, sir—about a lady at one house I was put into, as touched me a good deal more. It doesn’t matter where it was exactly: indeed, I’d rather not say, but it was the same sort o’ job. I went with Fixem in the usual way—there was a year’s rent in arrear; a very small servant-girl opened the door, and three or four fine-looking little children was in the front parlour we were shown into, which was very clean, but very scantily furnished, much like the children themselves. “Bung,” says Fixem to me, in a low voice, when we were left alone for a minute, “I know something about this here family, and my opinion is, it’s no go.” “Do you think they can’t settle?” says I, quite anxiously; for I liked the looks of them children. Fixem shook his head, and was just about to reply, when the door opened, and in come a lady, as white as ever I see any one in my days, except about the eyes, which were red with crying. She walked in, as firm as I could have done; shut the door carefully after her, and sat herself down with a face as composed as if it was made of stone. “What is the matter, gentlemen?” says she, in a surprisin’ steady voice. “Is this an execution?” “It is, mum,” says Fixem. The lady looked at him as steady as ever: she didn’t seem to have understood him. “It is, mum,” says Fixem again; “this is my warrant of distress, mum,” says he, handing it over as polite as if it was a newspaper which had been bespoke arter the next gentleman.

 
‘The lady’s lip trembled as she took the printed paper. She cast her eye over it, and old Fixem began to explain the form, but saw she wasn’t reading it, plain enough, poor thing. “Oh, my God!” says she, suddenly a-bursting out crying, letting the warrant fall, and hiding her face in her hands. “Oh, my God! what will become of us!” The noise she made, brought in a young lady of about nineteen or twenty, who, I suppose, had been a-listening at the door, and who had got a little boy in her arms: she sat him down in the lady’s lap, without speaking, and she hugged the poor little fellow to her bosom, and cried over him, till even old Fixem put on his blue spectacles to hide the two tears, that was a-trickling down, one on each side of his dirty face. “Now, dear ma,” says the young lady, “you know how much you have borne. For all our sakes—for pa’s sake,” says she, “don’t give way to this!”—“No, no, I won’t!” says the lady, gathering herself up, hastily, and drying her eyes; “I am very foolish, but I’m better now—much better.” And then she roused herself up, went with us into every room while we took the inventory, opened all the drawers of her own accord, sorted the children’s little clothes to make the work easier; and, except doing everything in a strange sort of hurry, seemed as calm and composed as if nothing had happened. When we came down-stairs again, she hesitated a minute or two, and at last says, “Gentlemen,” says she, “I am afraid I have done wrong, and perhaps it may bring you into trouble. I secreted just now,” she says, “the only trinket I have left in the world—here it is.” So she lays down on the table a little miniature mounted in gold. “It’s a miniature,” she says, “of my poor dear father! I little thought once, that I should ever thank God for depriving me of the original, but I do, and have done for years back, most fervently. Take it away, sir,” she says, “it’s a face that never turned from me in sickness and distress, and I can hardly bear to turn from it now, when, God knows, I suffer both in no ordinary degree.” I couldn’t say nothing, but I raised my head from the inventory which I was filling up, and looked at Fixem; the old fellow nodded to me significantly, so I ran my pen through the “Mini” I had just written, and left the miniature on the table.

 
‘Well, sir, to make short of a long story, I was left in possession, and in possession I remained; and though I was an ignorant man, and the master of the house a clever one, I saw what he never did, but what he would give worlds now (if he had ’em) to have seen in time. I saw, sir, that his wife was wasting away, beneath cares of which she never complained, and griefs she never told. I saw that she was dying before his eyes; I knew that one exertion from him might have saved her, but he never made it. I don’t blame him: I don’t think he could rouse himself. She had so long anticipated all his wishes, and acted for him, that he was a lost man when left to himself. I used to think when I caught sight of her, in the clothes she used to wear, which looked shabby even upon her, and would have been scarcely decent on any one else, that if I was a gentleman it would wring my very heart to see the woman that was a smart and merry girl when I courted her, so altered through her love for me. Bitter cold and damp weather it was, yet, though her dress was thin, and her shoes none of the best, during the whole three days, from morning to night, she was out of doors running about to try and raise the money. The money was raised and the execution was paid out. The whole family crowded into the room where I was, when the money arrived. The father was quite happy as the inconvenience was removed—I dare say he didn’t know how; the children looked merry and cheerful again; the eldest girl was bustling about, making preparations for the first comfortable meal they had had since the distress was put in; and the mother looked pleased to see them all so. But if ever I saw death in a woman’s face, I saw it in hers that night.

 
‘I was right, sir,’ continued Mr. Bung, hurriedly passing his coat-sleeve over his face; ‘the family grew more prosperous, and good fortune arrived. But it was too late. Those children are motherless now, and their father would give up all he has since gained—house, home, goods, money: all that he has, or ever can have, to restore the wife he has lost.’

Introducing Sir Sidney McSprocket

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Those of you who follow my blog posts know that I perform one man theatre shows based on the life and works of my great great grandfather, Charles Dickens.  It is a respectable calling and to have a script writer who was one of the greatest novelists the planet has ever seen is quite a privilege.  It is fair to say that Charles Dickens guided my professional life for more than 25 years, but there is another individual who recently has occasionally tweaked the tiller and navigated me down a slightly different stream.  The gentleman in question is titled (Dickens never was) and is a man of astounding eccentricity, not to mention great imagination.  I never know when he will holler, but for ten years or so I have answered his call on numerous occasions.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to introduce you to Sir Sidney McSprocket.

untitled

 

Let me explain.  Many years ago I was recording a series of audiobooks featuring unabridged works of Dickens. I was working with a major independent radio company based in London and the idea was to record the complete works in order but unfortunately the corporate suits cut budgets and decided that audio books had no place in the station’s output.  It seemed as if the plan had foundered, leaving me, and more importantly, a talented group of producers without work.  But from the ashes rose the phoenix of Create Productions, the brainchild of Suzy Jamison and John Hirst.  Initially the company took studios in London’s famous Denmark Street, the heart of the capital’s music scene. On recording days I would enter a saxophone shop and then make my way up four flights of stairs (the rickety caged lift took an age to arrive and in one of those quirks of fate it was always at the top of the building when I arrived, and the bottom when I was ready to leave), before arriving somewhat breathless into the stylishly decorated Create offices.

Working with a succession of young producers I would sit in a tiny studio and steadily read Dickens aloud from 10 until 4. Together we recorded The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, as well as A Christmas Carol and some of the other short stories.  It was intense work, but great fun and gave me a much deeper knowledge and respect for Charles’ output.

At one recording session one of the producers asked if I wouldn’t mind passing my eye over a script for a new radio show which Create had been engaged to produce on behalf of their client, Fun Kids, a national radio station for children and their families available on DAB digital radio and http://www.funkidslive.com.  Fun Kids were launching a show to promote science and technology.  The brief was that children should be entertained and inspired so the ‘host’ of the programme needed to be fun, engaging and a little bit bonkers, and this is when Sir Sidney McSprocket was born.

Sidney is a Scottish Laird, living somewhere in the Highlands.  He is an inventor of only limited success, for most of his inventions either explode or leave unpleasant smells in their wake, but you can never criticize him for his enthusiasm and quest for advancement.  During each episode the listener finds him working on some outlandish invention, before talking about a real-life product, inventor or engineer.  Inevitably he is having his favourite snack, a toasted teacake, for he often feels ‘something rumbly in my tumbly!’

For the initial recording (which I now suppose was an audition) I adopted a Scottish accent never before heard on these isles – it was sort of like a sing-song Mrs Doubtfire, without the veracity of Robin Williams’ performance.  As his voice soared to high peaks of enthusiasm dogs across the nation must have been howling, wondering what this strange call was.

The wonderful thing was, a year or so later I was invited back to record another series, and another and now I am the official voice of Sir Sidney McSprocket.

During these long months of lockdown I have not worked, with all forms of theatre and public entertainment being impossible under the strict distancing measures that are currently in force.  It has been a hard time, and professionally speaking it has felt as if my reason for being has been removed.  Of course there is a personal positive flip side to that, being that I have been able to spend so much more time with Liz and our children, enjoying the peace and pace of the countryside, listening to birdsong, watching the trees turn from bare to green and the crops in the fields grow.  Together we have discovered beautiful scenery on our doorstep.  However as the months have come and gone so have various dates when I should have been on stage performing, and each one has hurt a little bit more.

It was with delight, then, that I opened an email a few weeks ago from Create Productions asking me if there was any way I could record a new series of Sidney McSprocket programmes for Fun Kids.  I send a couple recordings made on my phone and laptop, but they were not of suitable quality, so Charlotte, the producer, arranged for a professional microphone to be delivered to the house.  I tested the acoustic of various rooms in the house until we discovered that the bedroom, with the blind pulled down, offered the best sound quality:  Sir Sidney was ready to ride again.

Charlotte sent me ten scripts, and each one began ‘Och! Hello!  Sir Sidney McSprocket here!’ (lots of exclamation marks).  The theme throughout this season was linking inventors who exhibited in The Great Exhibition in 1851 with their 21st Century counterparts, making the point to children that inventions were not only something that happened in the olden days, but a constant occurrence and that anyone with an idea and imagination can possibly change the world and be a truly GREAT Briton.

I tackled each script with as much energy as I could muster, whilst ensuring that the story of each invention was told.  From 1851 I had such delights as the J Harrison steam loom, the Stereoscope invented by Charles Wheatstone and GM Gilbert’s eccentric Pilot Kite, which was a horseless carriage tugged by a 5 metre kite through the streets of London (quite how Gilbert planned to get around the problem of numerous vehicles making turns at road junctions without all become tangled up was not explained in the script!).  Each Victorian inventor was paired with a modern day one and featured in the scripts were James Dyson, (of Ball-Barrow, Dyson bagless vacuum and Airblade handrier fame), Jonathan Ive, the designer behind the stylish look of Apple products and Lucy Hughes who has created MarinaTex a plastic substitute made out of the waste products from fish production, which biodegrades within 6 weeks, thereby protecting the ocean environment.

I don’t know about the children who will be listening to the programmes, but I was becoming more and more inspired!

But then I came to two modern inventors who brought both Sidney and Gerald to a crashing halt: Oluwaseyi Sosanya and Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh.  This collections of letters looked less like pronounceable names and more like an eyesight test at a high street optician and the thought of attempting them in my McSprocket accent was terrifying.

Taking Sosanya first, I searched the internet and eventually found a YouTube clip that featured his name, allowing me to write down a phonetic pronunciation of his name, which actually proved easier than I had anticipated.  For the record Oluwaseyi has developed a method of weaving in three dimensions, as well as a computer programme that allows the user to build the model in virtual reality.

Jane proved to be more difficult prospect, however.  The scriptwriters from Fun Kids had helpfully provided their own phonetic translation, but I wasn’t convinced, they suggested that Jane Niggle Quintish would suffice, but I wanted to delve deeper.  As the YouTube route had proved so successful with  Oluwaseyi Sosanya I returned to that platform and sure enough discovered a documentary about Jane and her Sugru company.  The piece was narrated by an Irish reporter which meant I would get not only the correct pronunciation but the inflection as well although unfortunately he glided through the name with a silky speed which meant that I couldn’t distinguish any specific syllables, beyond realising that ‘Niggle Quintish’ wasn’t going to work.

My next idea was to send message to my sister Nicky who lives in Ireland. It ran: ‘Panic! Help needed from Ireland!! I am doing some voiceovers for a children’s science radio programme and have to talk about a young Irish inventor: Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh. – HOW DO I PRONOUNCE!!!!!?????’  Subtle, adult and to the point, I am sure you will agree.

Although Nicky is not an Irish speaker her daughter-in-law Una certainly is (and a teacher, to boot), so my request was swiftly forwarded to her and returned, with a full explanation as to how the Irish language works, which was fascinating in its own right.  Not only did Una provide the phonetics but also recorded a beautifully modulated, and slow, voice memo.  Oh, families are a wonderful thing.

I printed out the name and placed it on the wall behind my laptop so when the time came I could easily read it.

crib sheet

 

I started the script and as the first use of Jane’s name approached, I glanced at my crib sheet: would I get the pronunciation right?  Could I do it in Sidney’s accent?  YES! was the answer to both questions, I sailed through JANE KNEE GULL-QUAAN TIGH only to find the next line completely impossible to deliver: ‘From Ireland, Jane is the inventor of Sugru – an innovative mouldable glue’  Innovative modular glue?  Impossible to say, and my pride took a severe fall as I attempted take after take

Finally I got the entire series recorded and sent it back to Charlotte at Create.  What a fun couple of days I had inhabiting my old friend the mad professor, and I hope that he is waiting for me with more mad experiments.

But for the time being, As Sir Sidney McSprocket himself says at the end of these episodes: ‘Tatty bye for now!’

 

 

For those interested in listening to some previous episodes of Inspiring Engineering here are the links:

Inspiring Engineering

Everyday Items

How’s It Made with Sidney McSprocket!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Election For Beadle

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The twelfth Sketch and the second to be published in The Evening Chronicle is one of my favourites.  I have performed ‘The Election for Beadle’ on many occasions and often post it online at election time.  It is a brilliant observation of petty jealousies, long-held rivalries and political malpractice.  Charles Dickens was of course working as a parliamentary reporter at this time, so his knowledge of politics was great, and this scene would be expanded and developed in The Pickwick Papers when the members of the club traveled to the East Anglian town of Eatanswill.

 

The Election For Beadle

 

A great event has recently occurred in our parish. A contest of paramount interest has just terminated; a parochial convulsion has taken place. It has been succeeded by a glorious triumph, which the country—or at least the parish—it is all the same—will long remember. We have had an election; an election for beadle. The supporters of the old beadle system have been defeated in their stronghold, and the advocates of the great new beadle principles have achieved a proud victory.

 
Our parish, which, like all other parishes, is a little world of its own, has long been divided into two parties, whose contentions, slumbering for a while, have never failed to burst forth with unabated vigour, on any occasion on which they could by possibility be renewed. Watching-rates, lighting-rates, paving-rates, sewer’s-rates, church-rates, poor’s-rates—all sorts of rates, have been in their turns the subjects of a grand struggle; and as to questions of patronage, the asperity and determination with which they have been contested is scarcely credible.

 
The leader of the official party—the steady advocate of the churchwardens, and the unflinching supporter of the overseers—is an old gentleman who lives in our row. He owns some half a dozen houses in it, and always walks on the opposite side of the way, so that he may be able to take in a view of the whole of his property at once. He is a tall, thin, bony man, with an interrogative nose, and little restless perking eyes, which appear to have been given him for the sole purpose of peeping into other people’s affairs with. He is deeply impressed with the importance of our parish business, and prides himself, not a little, on his style of addressing the parishioners in vestry assembled. His views are rather confined than extensive; his principles more narrow than liberal. He has been heard to declaim very loudly in favour of the liberty of the press, and advocates the repeal of the stamp duty on newspapers, because the daily journals who now have a monopoly of the public, never give verbatim reports of vestry meetings. He would not appear egotistical for the world, but at the same time he must say, that there are speeches—that celebrated speech of his own, on the emoluments of the sexton, and the duties of the office, for instance—which might be communicated to the public, greatly to their improvement and advantage.

 
His great opponent in public life is Captain Purday, the old naval officer on half-pay, to whom we have already introduced our readers. The captain being a determined opponent of the constituted authorities, whoever they may chance to be, and our other friend being their steady supporter, with an equal disregard of their individual merits, it will readily be supposed, that occasions for their coming into direct collision are neither few nor far between. They divided the vestry fourteen times on a motion for heating the church with warm water instead of coals: and made speeches about liberty and expenditure, and prodigality and hot water, which threw the whole parish into a state of excitement. Then the captain, when he was on the visiting committee, and his opponent overseer, brought forward certain distinct and specific charges relative to the management of the workhouse, boldly expressed his total want of confidence in the existing authorities, and moved for ‘a copy of the recipe by which the paupers’ soup was prepared, together with any documents relating thereto.’ This the overseer steadily resisted; he fortified himself by precedent, appealed to the established usage, and declined to produce the papers, on the ground of the injury that would be done to the public service, if documents of a strictly private nature, passing between the master of the workhouse and the cook, were to be thus dragged to light on the motion of any individual member of the vestry. The motion was lost by a majority of two; and then the captain, who never allows himself to be defeated, moved for a committee of inquiry into the whole subject. The affair grew serious: the question was discussed at meeting after meeting, and vestry after vestry; speeches were made, attacks repudiated, personal defiances exchanged, explanations received, and the greatest excitement prevailed, until at last, just as the question was going to be finally decided, the vestry found that somehow or other, they had become entangled in a point of form, from which it was impossible to escape with propriety. So, the motion was dropped, and everybody looked extremely important, and seemed quite satisfied with the meritorious nature of the whole proceeding.

 
This was the state of affairs in our parish a week or two since, when Simmons, the beadle, suddenly died. The lamented deceased had over-exerted himself, a day or two previously, in conveying an aged female, highly intoxicated, to the strong room of the work-house. The excitement thus occasioned, added to a severe cold, which this indefatigable officer had caught in his capacity of director of the parish engine, by inadvertently playing over himself instead of a fire, proved too much for a constitution already enfeebled by age; and the intelligence was conveyed to the Board one evening that Simmons had died, and left his respects.

 
The breath was scarcely out of the body of the deceased functionary, when the field was filled with competitors for the vacant office, each of whom rested his claims to public support, entirely on the number and extent of his family, as if the office of beadle were originally instituted as an encouragement for the propagation of the human species. ‘Bung for Beadle. Five small children!’—‘Hopkins for Beadle. Seven small children!!’—‘Timkins for Beadle. Nine small children!!!’ Such were the placards in large black letters on a white ground, which were plentifully pasted on the walls, and posted in the windows of the principal shops. Timkins’s success was considered certain: several mothers of families half promised their votes, and the nine small children would have run over the course, but for the production of another placard, announcing the appearance of a still more meritorious candidate. ‘Spruggins for Beadle. Ten small children (two of them twins), and a wife!!!’ There was no resisting this; ten small children would have been almost irresistible in themselves, without the twins, but the touching parenthesis about that interesting production of nature, and the still more touching allusion to Mrs. Spruggins, must ensure success. Spruggins was the favourite at once, and the appearance of his lady, as she went about to solicit votes (which encouraged confident hopes of a still further addition to the house of Spruggins at no remote period), increased the general prepossession in his favour. The other candidates, Bung alone excepted, resigned in despair. The day of election was fixed; and the canvass proceeded with briskness and perseverance on both sides.

 
The members of the vestry could not be supposed to escape the contagious excitement inseparable from the occasion. The majority of the lady inhabitants of the parish declared at once for Spruggins; and the quondam overseer took the same side, on the ground that men with large families always had been elected to the office, and that although he must admit, that, in other respects, Spruggins was the least qualified candidate of the two, still it was an old practice, and he saw no reason why an old practice should be departed from. This was enough for the captain. He immediately sided with Bung, canvassed for him personally in all directions, wrote squibs on Spruggins, and got his butcher to skewer them up on conspicuous joints in his shop-front; frightened his neighbour, the old lady, into a palpitation of the heart, by his awful denunciations of Spruggins’s party; and bounced in and out, and up and down, and backwards and forwards, until all the sober inhabitants of the parish thought it inevitable that he must die of a brain fever, long before the election began.

 
The day of election arrived. It was no longer an individual struggle, but a party contest between the ins and outs. The question was, whether the withering influence of the overseers, the domination of the churchwardens, and the blighting despotism of the vestry-clerk, should be allowed to render the election of beadle a form—a nullity: whether they should impose a vestry-elected beadle on the parish, to do their bidding and forward their views, or whether the parishioners, fearlessly asserting their undoubted rights, should elect an independent beadle of their own.

 
The nomination was fixed to take place in the vestry, but so great was the throng of anxious spectators, that it was found necessary to adjourn to the church, where the ceremony commenced with due solemnity. The appearance of the churchwardens and overseers, and the ex-churchwardens and ex-overseers, with Spruggins in the rear, excited general attention. Spruggins was a little thin man, in rusty black, with a long pale face, and a countenance expressive of care and fatigue, which might either be attributed to the extent of his family or the anxiety of his feelings. His opponent appeared in a cast-off coat of the captain’s—a blue coat with bright buttons; white trousers, and that description of shoes familiarly known by the appellation of ‘high-lows.’ There was a serenity in the open countenance of Bung—a kind of moral dignity in his confident air—an ‘I wish you may get it’ sort of expression in his eye—which infused animation into his supporters, and evidently dispirited his opponents.

 
The ex-churchwarden rose to propose Thomas Spruggins for beadle. He had known him long. He had had his eye upon him closely for years; he had watched him with twofold vigilance for months. (A parishioner here suggested that this might be termed ‘taking a double sight,’ but the observation was drowned in loud cries of ‘Order!’) He would repeat that he had had his eye upon him for years, and this he would say, that a more well-conducted, a more well-behaved, a more sober, a more quiet man, with a more well-regulated mind, he had never met with. A man with a larger family he had never known (cheers). The parish required a man who could be depended on (‘Hear!’ from the Spruggins side, answered by ironical cheers from the Bung party). Such a man he now proposed (‘No,’ ‘Yes’). He would not allude to individuals (the ex-churchwarden continued, in the celebrated negative style adopted by great speakers). He would not advert to a gentleman who had once held a high rank in the service of his majesty; he would not say, that that gentleman was no gentleman; he would not assert, that that man was no man; he would not say, that he was a turbulent parishioner; he would not say, that he had grossly misbehaved himself, not only on this, but on all former occasions; he would not say, that he was one of those discontented and treasonable spirits, who carried confusion and disorder wherever they went; he would not say, that he harboured in his heart envy, and hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness. No! He wished to have everything comfortable and pleasant, and therefore, he would say—nothing about him (cheers).

 
The captain replied in a similar parliamentary style. He would not say, he was astonished at the speech they had just heard; he would not say, he was disgusted (cheers). He would not retort the epithets which had been hurled against him (renewed cheering); he would not allude to men once in office, but now happily out of it, who had mismanaged the workhouse, ground the paupers, diluted the beer, slack-baked the bread, boned the meat, heightened the work, and lowered the soup (tremendous cheers). He would not ask what such men deserved (a voice, ‘Nothing a-day, and find themselves!’). He would not say, that one burst of general indignation should drive them from the parish they polluted with their presence (‘Give it him!’). He would not allude to the unfortunate man who had been proposed—he would not say, as the vestry’s tool, but as Beadle. He would not advert to that individual’s family; he would not say, that nine children, twins, and a wife, were very bad examples for pauper imitation (loud cheers). He would not advert in detail to the qualifications of Bung. The man stood before him, and he would not say in his presence, what he might be disposed to say of him, if he were absent. (Here Mr. Bung telegraphed to a friend near him, under cover of his hat, by contracting his left eye, and applying his right thumb to the tip of his nose). It had been objected to Bung that he had only five children (‘Hear, hear!’ from the opposition). Well; he had yet to learn that the legislature had affixed any precise amount of infantine qualification to the office of beadle; but taking it for granted that an extensive family were a great requisite, he entreated them to look to facts, and compare data, about which there could be no mistake. Bung was 35 years of age. Spruggins—of whom he wished to speak with all possible respect—was 50. Was it not more than possible—was it not very probable—that by the time Bung attained the latter age, he might see around him a family, even exceeding in number and extent, that to which Spruggins at present laid claim (deafening cheers and waving of handkerchiefs)? The captain concluded, amidst loud applause, by calling upon the parishioners to sound the tocsin, rush to the poll, free themselves from dictation, or be slaves for ever.

 
On the following day the polling began, and we never have had such a bustle in our parish since we got up our famous anti-slavery petition, which was such an important one, that the House of Commons ordered it to be printed, on the motion of the member for the district. The captain engaged two hackney-coaches and a cab for Bung’s people—the cab for the drunken voters, and the two coaches for the old ladies, the greater portion of whom, owing to the captain’s impetuosity, were driven up to the poll and home again, before they recovered from their flurry sufficiently to know, with any degree of clearness, what they had been doing. The opposite party wholly neglected these precautions, and the consequence was, that a great many ladies who were walking leisurely up to the church—for it was a very hot day—to vote for Spruggins, were artfully decoyed into the coaches, and voted for Bung. The captain’s arguments, too, had produced considerable effect: the attempted influence of the vestry produced a greater. A threat of exclusive dealing was clearly established against the vestry-clerk—a case of heartless and profligate atrocity. It appeared that the delinquent had been in the habit of purchasing six penn’orth of muffins, weekly, from an old woman who rents a small house in the parish, and resides among the original settlers; on her last weekly visit, a message was conveyed to her through the medium of the cook, couched in mysterious terms, but indicating with sufficient clearness, that the vestry-clerk’s appetite for muffins, in future, depended entirely on her vote on the beadleship. This was sufficient: the stream had been turning previously, and the impulse thus administered directed its final course. The Bung party ordered one shilling’s-worth of muffins weekly for the remainder of the old woman’s natural life; the parishioners were loud in their exclamations; and the fate of Spruggins was sealed.

 
It was in vain that the twins were exhibited in dresses of the same pattern, and night-caps, to match, at the church door: the boy in Mrs. Spruggins’s right arm, and the girl in her left—even Mrs. Spruggins herself failed to be an object of sympathy any longer. The majority attained by Bung on the gross poll was four hundred and twenty-eight, and the cause of the parishioners triumphed.