Being schooled in Rochester you’d be forgiven for thinking that the works of Charles Dickens might’ve provided my educational backdrop: a literary mountain, always there to explore and admire. An unconquerable body of work looming over all the Math school boys like Oliver’s Mr Bumble “You WANT MORE?”.
Well yes I do want more actually, he is, after all, perhaps the greatest author we have ever produced.
Looking back we actually spent very little time on Dickens, which is both baffling and disappointing given how much time we wasted on such literary turds as “I am the cheese” – anyone remember that gem? But as we approach Dickens‘ bicentennial it is with regret that we cannot deny it’s relevance for today’s society. The gulf between rich and poor, the abuses of the young in social care, the startling proximity of poverty and the poor house are all still with us. The homeless and the hopeless still walk the cobbled streets of the 21st Century. But surely these things should be the ghosts of Christmas past, it should be inconceivable that they exist in the same era as space travel? The same era as 24 hour news coverage? The same era as vajazzle? Apparently we’ve never had it so good, the standard of living has soared hasn’t it? Well yes and no. The chain-rattling truth is that both realities persist, living side by side – The best of times and the worst of times. We just forget – no really we do, we forget all the time – distracted by the telly probably. The poor house may have been substituted for people who use WONGA or are crippled by a poor education and a House of Fraser store card but the honeyed traps of the loan shark remain. The modern equivalent doesn’t break your thumbs – they break your dignity, something far slower to heal. Compound interest is making the rich richer and the poor poorer, working it’s black magic of polarity.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
Dickens wrote an unsentimental portrait of the hardships of the poor, giving them humanity without turning them into figures of fun (if you’re now thinking of the OLIVER! musical then just give some thought to how many homeless orphans you’ve ever seen singing show tunes in the real world). He hauled such atrocities as “the new poor law” into the parlours of the middle classes; forcing people to face the appalling reality of the work houses of Victorian London which were meant to be social welfare but were basically prisons for the destitute. A benefits trap in other words.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
Having been through the system himself (after his father’s imprisonment for unpaid debts) he knew first-hand how self-respect and hope were forgotten luxuries for those within. So in a way Dickens was a protester, calling attention to the plight of the poor the best way he knew how.
You get my point. Dickens didn’t pretend to know the answers to the social malaise affecting his country, but that doesn’t mean his contribution to the subsequent improvements should be cheapened. Just as those on the steps of St Paul’s and camping in Wall St don’t have the answers it is enough that they bring serious issues into the public eye, it is for others to provide improvements under the scrutiny these protesters have created.
I like to read “A Christmas Carol” at this time of year to remind myself of Scrooge. A banker who was shown the error of his ways by looking at the past, the present and the future. Nearly two centuries seperate us from Dickensian London and yet we have not travelled as far as we should have.
Nevertheless, hope, it seems, is as durable as ever – for I keep great expectations for the future.