Over the last few days I have twice reacquainted myself with a character who features in every one of Charles Dickens major novels: The city of London.
He may have been born in Portsmouth and grown up in Kent, but it was in the great metropolis that Dickens discovered a life that would excite and torment him throughout his life.
In London was John Dickens imprisoned for debt and in London did his eleven-year-old son work in the squalor of Warren’s Blacking Factory.
In London did the members of the Pickwick Club meet and from London did they set off on their adventures.
On the banks of the River Thames did Fagin conduct his criminal gang and on London Bridge did Nancy meet Mr Brownlow, effectively writing her own death warrant.
Into the fashionable neighbourhood of Doughty Street did the successful young author move, and there did his seventeen-year-old sister in law, Mary Hogarth, die in his arms.
Nicholas Nickleby met Mr Squeers at Snow Hill, and eventually returned from Yorkshire to seek safety in the home of his friend Newman Noggs in Golden Square.
The Old Curiosity Shop is in London, and Barnaby Rudge tells the story of the Gordon Riots of 1780 which ran through the capital’s streets.
I could go on, but be assured London is a constant companion to the avid Dickens reader.
Strangely enough I spend very little time in London, so it was a curious quirk of circumstance that two events settled themselves into my diary on successive days. You wait for years and then two come along at once…..
The first event took place at Mary Ward House in Tavistock Place just a stone’s throw from the site of Dickens’ own home in Tavistock Square. I had been booked by the LUPC to perform during the closing cocktail party at their one-day conference. For those of you who do not know, the LUPC is The London Universities Purchasing Consortium and the organisation was running the conference in association with the SUPC (Southern Universities Purchasing Consortium).
To be honest I am not sure what all the delegates were doing during the day, but I know that Mary Ward House, which has multiple rooms, was filled with exhibitors and vendors hawking their wares.
I had been asked to provide three ten-minute performances, each to include a little biographical detail about Charles Dickens followed by a reading. A small stage had been set up in The Dickens Library and as I addressed the audience I was looked over by a rather stern marble bust of the great man. I must confess to having fears that the bust would suddenly move, topple to the floor and smash into a million pieces if ‘The Inimitable’ didn’t approve of my efforts.
At 5.30 Andy Davies, the head of LUPC and the man who had first dreamed of having Dickens represented at the reception, took the stage to introduce me. A large crowd was gathered and were most receptive as I briefly explained how Dickens had moved from being a parliamentary reporter (‘travelling during elections or, God forbid, referendum campaigns….’), to anonymous contributor to The Monthly Magazine, and on to become the creator of The Pickwick Papers. The reading I chose to wrap up the first session was from the scene early in the Pickwick Papers when the four members of the club are joined on their coach ride to Rochester by Mr Jingle:
‘Heads, heads — take care of your heads!’ cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway, which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard. ‘Terrible place — dangerous work — other day — five children — mother — tall lady, eating sandwiches — forgot the arch — crash — knock — children look round — mother’s head off — sandwich in her hand — no mouth to put it in — head of a family off — shocking, shocking!
The performance was well received and came in bang on the ten-minute mark, which I was relieved by.
My second slot was not for another thirty minutes, so I sat downstairs in an empty room as exhibitors cleared their stands and boxes away. Almost imperceptibly they were replaced by clones of themselves setting up the next day’s conference – different displays, different products, but same routine. Life in a London conference venue must be akin to riding a conveyor belt.
My second performance dealt with Dicken’s social conscience and the work that he did to highlight the horrors of the poverty gap. I wanted to make the point that he was so successful in his efforts to bring people’s attention to the situation on the streets because he did not just lecture and badger. Dickens was able to engage his readers with great plots and wonderful characters before laying reality bare before them.
To illustrate these two sides of Charles’ work I chose two passages from Nicholas Nickleby as he arrives at Dotheboys Hall kept by Mr Wackford Squeers:
But the pupils — the young noblemen! How the last faint traces of hope, the remotest glimmering of any good to be derived from his efforts in this den, faded from the mind of Nicholas as he looked in dismay around!
Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot. There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining.
With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can fester in swollen hearts, eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!
This is the first class in English spelling and philosophy, Nickleby,’ said Squeers, beckoning Nicholas to stand beside him. ‘We’ll get up a Latin one, and hand that over to you. Now, then, where’s the first boy?’
‘Please, sir, he’s cleaning the back-parlour window,’ said the temporary head of the philosophical class.
‘So he is, to be sure,’ rejoined Squeers. ‘We go upon the practical mode of teaching, Nickleby; the regular education system. C-l-e-a-n, clean, verb active, to make bright, to scour. W-i-n, win, d-e-r, der, winder, a casement. When the boy knows this out of book, he goes and does it.
My final performance, which was to a slightly smaller audience as many of the guests were drifting away to their homes, dealt with Charles Dickens’ love of performing. I talked about the theatricals he mounted using the elite of London society (Wilkie Collins, William Makepeace Thackeray, Augustus Egg, Mark Lemmon, Clarkson Stanfield and many others) to fill all of the roles. He had one of the rooms in Tavistock Place converted into a small theatre and performed there (just a few hundred yards from the room in which I was now standing).
Later he would take to the stage alone and perform highly dramatic readings from his own work. To illustrate the reading tours I decided to perform the climax of Sikes and Nancy: The Murder. It was a slight risk as everyone had enjoyed the humour inherent to the first two readings, but I wanted to give them a sense of the drama and horror of the show that had Victorian ladies fainting (indeed Dickens would judge the success of the performance by the number of faintees carried out of the hall ‘quite stiff’).
The Murder, performed beneath the austere wood panelling and the severe marble-gaze of its originator, had the desired effect and there was a gasp as Bill Sikes’ dog was sent ‘…tumbling into the ditch before striking his head against a stone, and dashing out his brains.’ A pause, a collective deep breath and then prolonged applause.
It is an amazing thing that wherever I travel and whoever I perform for, the works of Dickens still hold such magic for the listener and it was a great pleasure to meet and talk to so many people in the University Purchasing industry about a man who is universally admired 146 years after his death.
On the following day Liz and I were to attend a reception in The House of Lords, the upper chamber of British government. Neither of us had ever been inside the Houses of Parliament before, so this was to be a rare treat for us.
The FTCT is a charity that I had not heard of before the invitation fell onto our doormat, but a little research – and I am indebted to Cindy at The Charles Dickens Museum in London for filling me in – revealed an amazing group of people.
‘The Fashion & Textile Children’s Trust gives financial support to families who work or recently worked in the UK fashion and textile industry. Grants start at £250 and can provide practical help during a tough financial spot.’ So says the home page at www.ftct.org.uk
Back in 1853 a group of merchants from the thriving cotton industry started a fund to provide financial support for their workers and at a fundraising dinner in 1857 Charles Dickens lent his support and spoke with his usual eloquence:
‘….Ladies and Gentlemen, this little labour of love of mine is now done. I most heartily wish that I could charm you now not to see me, not to think of me, not to hear me – I most heartily wish that I could make you see in my stead the multitude of innocent and bereaved children who are looking towards these schools, and entreating with uplifted hands to be let in. A very famous advocate once said, in speaking of his fears of failure when he first had to speak in court, being very poor, that he felt his children tugging at his skirts, and that recovered him. Will you think of the number of little children who are tugging at my skirts, when I ask you, in their names, on their behalf, and in their little persons, and in no strength of my own, to encourage and assist this work?’
For those who know their Dickens, the image of poor children tugging at skirts is one that Charles laid before his readers in the persons of Ignorance and Want in A Christmas Carol.
Nowadays the FTCT can boast the patronage of the Queen and indeed we had seen representatives of the charity waving their flags during the TV coverage of the great celebratory street party in The Mall the previous weekend.
So Liz and I left Oxford and drove the ten miles to Didcot rail station as the heavens opened and lightning slashed through the dark thunder clouds.
The traffic was heavy and slow, but we had included plenty of spare time into our schedule, so there was no need to worry. Once at Didcot I had to feed coins into the pay and display machine in the car park, and as I stepped out of the car my foot sloshed into a deep puddle; the heavy rain ensured that I became soaked from above and below simultaneously.
Into the ticket office just as our train departed, but there would be another one along shortly, and we had included plenty of time into our schedule. We sat in the waiting room, gently drying out and smelling a bit musty.
An announcement echoed around the damp platforms giving us the tidings that the train had been delayed by ten minutes, which didn’t really matter, for we had plenty of time.
When the train eventually arrived it was packed, but Liz and I managed to find seats and settled in for the 45-minute ride into Paddington station. Unfortunately, the train had a technical fault and had only one motor propelling it, hence the delay. The clock was ticking on, but we still had a little time in hand.
And then, just outside of London the train stopped. The intercom crackled and the guard (called train managers these days) informed us that an empty train had derailed in front of us and pulled down the overhead electric cables (that must have been quite an impressive de-rail!), bringing all traffic into Paddington to a halt. For now we had to sit and wait, and we didn’t have THAT much time built in to our schedule!
Eventually the Train Manager came back onto the microphone with the glad tidings that we could edge our way into Paddington on a different line and so the opportunity to attend the FTCT function became viable again.
We rushed to the taxi rank and found a long long queue of people waiting for cabs, but the system at Paddington is impressive and soon we were grandly telling our driver that we wished to go to The House of Lords please.
The reception had started at 6.30 and by this time we were an hour late, but we were determined to make it somehow.
Our invitation told us that we had to use Black Rod’s Entrance which would be locked at 7.45. Our taxi driver did his best, using his knowledge to take us through a warren of small back streets unknown to us, before bursting out into the shadow of the Palace of Westminster. We inelegantly ran, asking armed police officers where we needed to go, until we arrived at Black Rod’s Entrance and discovered it to be locked. A wave of deflation and disappointment filled us both as we stared at the heavy wooden door. A helpful police officer told us that ‘the gate gets locked at 7.45, you can’t get in’.
Just as we were wondering what to do, the gun-toting bobby obviously took pity on us and added: ‘You can probably get in the main door, up there’ and pointed towards the far end of the palace. The race was back on.
We made our way past Cromwell Green and after a security search discovered ourselves in the magnificent Westminster Hall which was originally built in 1097. We were told to walk through the hall and ask at the information point at the far end where to go. We didn’t hurry, we ambled, taking in the magnificent architecture that towered above us.
The next guard told us to take a certain corridor and someone would direct us at the far end.
Book cases with dusty tomes and solid wooden doors into committee rooms lined the way as we strolled through the corridors of power apparently alone (although I’m sure that we being carefully monitored by hidden security cameras: perhaps the heads on the stone statues slowly turned as we walked past).
Our destination was the Cholmondeley room (for American readers this is pronounced ‘chumley’, don’t ask why, I have no idea – it just is)
At last, having had the most extraordinary unguided tour of Parliament, we found ourselves in the heart of the FTCT reception. Although we had missed the speeches and some guests were already leaving, the party was still in full swing and soon we were shaking hands and being photographed.
I was able to chat to one of the trustees whose role it is to decide how to distribute the various grants and she told me some desperately moving stories of families in deep financial hardship. In one case a young boy was suffering from cancer and the charity helped to pay for treatment. Sadly he would ultimately succumb to the disease, but the FTCT’s association with is family was not finished and they were able to offer £250 to buy the boy’s sister a bicycle, which went a tiny way to ease the pain of her loss.
And that is the remarkable thing about the FTCT: it is not one of the big ‘we-need-as-much-money-as-we-can-get-for-life-changing-research’ charities, it is a charity that touches and changes people’s lives at the most basic level.
Charles Dickens would certainly be proud of the work being carried out so many years on. We chatted, we listened, we networked. Hopefully I can be closely associated with the FTCT in the future and assist them in their efforts to raise their profile, as well as helping to raise funds.
The Cholmondeley Room was hot and during a lull in the conversation Liz and I took our drinks to the terrace and stood gazing at the mighty River Thames which flows (in a more youthful manner), through our home town of Abingdon.
At 9pm an announcement was made that we had to vacate the room and everyone collected their coats and made their way outside. As we passed through the gate we glanced up at the Victoria Tower (the one that doesn’t have Big Ben inside it) and noticed that the Union Flag was flying at half-mast in honour of the MP Jo Cox, who had been shockingly murdered in her constituency earlier in the day.
Liz and I quickly flagged down a taxi and returned to Paddington Station where we found….all trains were cancelled thanks to the earlier derailment. We took a tube to Marble Arch and brought two tickets on the bus back to Oxford (of course our car was still in its puddle at Didcot, meaning we would have to book yet another taxi from the bus stop in Oxford to home, and collect the car – possibly with a parking ticket attached – on the following morning.)
As the bus made its way through west London we noticed a glow on the horizon, and saw the arch of Wembley Stadium lit up in rainbow colours as a show of respect to the victims of the Orlando shooting. Along with the sombre flag hanging from its pole on the roof of Parliament, the rainbow arch was a vivid reminder of sheer hatred and horror across the globe, and yet we had spent the evening with genuine, caring, generous people who only want the best for the society that they live in, and it is that spirit which will always win through in the end.
Despite the occasional evidence to the contrary, the world is inherently a good place.