Saturday 25 February 2012

Dickens and London, an Exhibition.

It is only appropriate that London should somewhere have an exhibition about Charles Dickens this year. It is the 200th anniversary of his birth after all. Where better than The Museum of London set above the road level in The Barbican. An area Dickens undoubtedly would have known well with Aldersgate next to it, the chapel, John Wesley preached at nearby, an area that was packed with coaching inns for the Georgian and Victorian traveller, St Paul’s Cathedral dominating the scene towards the south and close by too, the site of the great 18th century post office where letters were distributed around the whole country by a fleet of fast coaches drawn by swift teams of horses. There are few of these buildings still in existence and I think Dickens would probably have difficulty in recognising much of the area. A small street called, Little Britain, is nearby and although ,"little," by name and little in size, has rather a large part in Great Expectations as the Street where the lawyer, Jaggers office is situated. The Museum of London is in the heart of London and Dickens would have appreciated its location and significance. The museum explores, the living breathing organism, the monster that is London and from which Dickens drew characters and plot and added them to the life force of the great city. The Museum in it’s way is like Dickens in its aspirations, it has an insatiable eye on London and a thirst for knowledge of London.
The exhibition starts with a quote that shows London is Dickens's muse, it is his ,"magic lantern,"and portrays Dickens as what many see him as, London's very own, "special correspondent."

"... the great beating heart of London throbs in its Giant breast. Wealth and beggary, vice and virtue, guilt and innocence, repletion and the direst hunger, all treading on each other and crowding together, are gathered round it." Master Humphrey's Clock 1841
The exhibition is set out in a serpentine route that gently weaves its way round the exhibition like a river reminiscent of The Thames itself. It is divided into themes. “A City of the imagination,” “Amusements of the People,” “Home and Hearth,” “Dickens and the modern age,” and, “In life and death.”
The displays are wordy and explain on posters and panels in great detail every aspect of Dickens life in London. From this point of view the exhibition is an adult exhibition. This would put children off. There are plenty of photographs of Dickens, his family, friends and of London and the people of Victorian London. These I am sure are rare and precious items but some are rather small and you have to get close to have a good look, which is not always possible in a  popular exhibition like this. It is interesting to compare photographs of Dickens and some of the portraits of him. In the photographs he is grey and his face is lined, they are daguerreotypes and albumen prints. He looks human. In the paintings, especially the portrait commissioned by Forster, his best friend, he looks heroic, the great man of letters. He was 27 years old at the time of the portrair commissioned by Forster.
I think the exhibition is rather flat. Flat in the sense that everything is flat on walls, on information panels, paintings, photographs or in glass cases. There are not many substantial three-dimensional items. The exhibition is dotted with what the curators term, highlights. These are objects Dickens used or knew well. There are a plethora of manuscripts, Great Expectations, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield and there is Dicken’s annotated version of Oliver Twist with his handwritten stage directions for reading the murder scene of Nancy by Bill Sykes.
There are a few  evocative three-dimensional items such as the watchman’s box from Furnivals Inn, Holborn, where Dickens obtained rooms. Dickens must have passed that rather ordinary looking wooden construction many times and spoken to the watchman inside to say goodnight or perhaps make a comment about the weather. There is an iron door from Newgate Prison. That made me smile. The Museum of London seems to have an abundance of doors and items from Newgate Prison. There is  the entire, wooden clad interior of a prison cell from that establishment. It is carved with the names and graffiti of many bored and fearful inhabitants. The thought occurs to me that when Newgate Prison was demolished there were people then who thought,
“ I’ll keep that door, or that bit of wood panelling. They might come in useful.”
The most interesting and emotional piece I thought was Dickens writing desk and chair. I stood and stared at the desk for a while looking at every scratch and mark and wondering if Dickens made those marks or actually wore out the leather cover on the desk top himself.

These are the very pieces of furniture that appear in the painting by Robert William Buss called Dickens Dream. It was painted after he died and portrays Dickens sitting at the desk and in the chair, in a bay window of Gads Hill Place. He appears to be sleeping in the picture, dreaming about all the characters he has created floating around the room and around his head. The actual painting is to one side of this exhibit but directly behind is an enormous version of the painting covering a whole wall, which is very subtly animated. At first you might not think it is animated but  you begin to notice that each scene is taking it’s turn to move. The illustrated characters perform the scene they are frozen in in the original painting.  It is doing for us what we do as readers. As readers we remember what has lead up to a scene and predict what might happen next. I must admit, although this is done well, I have a grouse against museums and exhibitions doing too much for us. Computers and software programmes can do for us what our minds should do. Technology is  useful in a museum context but if it takes away from or ignores the original historical object, picture or document, then it is damaging the interaction a museum really needs to create.

Technology is however used creatively and beneficially at one point in the exhibition. There is a screen room at the end with seats for you to sit on. A wall is used for a film presentation. A story by Dickens from Sketches by Boz is read out as a film of modern day London is shown, people walking, traffic, buildings and so on. The article by Dickens is about him walking through London. The camera takes us on a walk through London as Dickens once did. It is a film portraying in a modern way what Dickens was saying in words. I think this works because the film is a piece of art in itself. The viewer can have a creative response to the film and to the piece of writing.

At the part of the exhibition that deals with Dickens and the modern age it is important to put yourself in the shoes of Dickens or at least a Victorian of the period. Technological innovation was of course, steam ships, the railway and the Penny Post. Those were at the cutting edge of the Industrial Revolution. So old and ancient to us now,but, yes, this was new to Dickens and the people of his time and as exciting as laptops, i-phones and renewable energies are to us now. Just as we embrace our laptops and smart phones, Dickens embraced these new technologies whole heartedly. He travelled to America on a steam ship. However, after that bone shaking and uncomfortable experience he returned by sailing ship. New technology does take a while to settle in.
The exhibition has been well attended and on the day that Marilyn and I went there were plenty of people going around it. For a person who doesn’t know much about Charles Dickens, if they follow the exhibition diligently they will come out with a very good sense of who and what he was. Sometimes it is more about Victorian London than Dickens, which is not a bad thing, because that gives us a context. Dickens would have approved.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Charles Dickens 200years!!!!!!!!!!!!


The tunnel under the road from Gads Hill Place. Dickens had it dug from his front garden to a plot of land on the other side of the road where he had his Swiss Cottage erected.
The old town hall in Rochester High Street where Joe Gargery indentured Pip.
The front bedroom at 13 Mile End Road Landsport, Portsmouth where Charles Dickens was born.
The Lyceum Theatre in Wellington Street very close to the offices both of Household Words and All the Year Round. Dickens had many of his novels dramatised to put on the stage, particuarly at the Adelphi and also here at the Lyceum. Dickens also gave readings of favourite scenes such as the death of Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop. He worked hard  helping with the productions.
This is the couch that Dickens was laid on in Gads Hill Place after he collapsed on the floor. It was on this couch Dickens died.
The Bull Inn in Rochester High Street where Mr Pickwick and his companions stayed. Dickens often would stay here himself and get accommodation for visiting friends. He lived at Gads Hill just across the River Medway and up the hill from this spot but he also liked to inhabit and get a feal for his environment which he used in his novels. He wanted to feel what his characters might feel.
The bed in Doughty Street in which Mary Hogarth died. She was a younger sister of Catherine Dickens. Dickens was distraught at her death and couldn't be pulled off her dead body lying here.
Rochester High Street. Dickens and many of his characters walked along this street.
Rochester Cathedral, the backdrop to the dark and gloomy tale of Edwin Drood, Dickens last novel and unfinished piece.
The Swiss Cottage, now in the garden of an old house in Rochester High Street. This is where Dickens wrote towards the end of his life and was working on Edwin Drood the morning of his death.

Number 13 Mile End Road, Portsmouth where Dickens was born.
Restoration House in Rochester which was the house Dickens used for the home of Miss Haversham and Estelle.
The post box in the garden wall of Gads Hill Place. The age of it fits with the time Dickens lived at Gads Hill Place. Dickens himself could have posted letters through it's aperture.
Gads Hill Place just outside of Rochester where Dickens lived towards the end of his life and where he died.
The sitting room at Doughty Street.

Looking out from the interior of Dickens Coffee House in Wellington Street.

This is called Dickens Coffee House. It was where Dickens had the offices for All The Year Round. It is situated in Wellington Street about a 100 yards from the Lyceum Theatre.

Charles Dickens was born on Friday 7th February 1812 in the front bedroom of a modest, lower middle class house at 13, Mile End Road, Landport, Portsmouth on the south coast of England. His father worked in the Royal Naval pay office situated in the naval dockyard. The house still exists. It is a miracle it does because Portsmouth, a major Royal Naval base was bombed extensively during the the second world war and much of the centre of the city and the docks was destroyed. Dickens’s birthplace and the terrace of Georgian houses it is part of, survived. The road is a pretty little Georgian enclave within Portsmouth surrounded by a modern 1960’s housing estate and backed by the main road into and out of Portsmouth. The family remained in Portsmouth for the first few months of Charles’s life before moving temporarily to Bloomsbury in London and then moving on to a house in Chatham in Kent.

The house in Chatham was number 2, Ordnance Terrace. He spent most of his early childhood in the Chatham and Rochester area.

Charles’s father was called John Dickens and his mother was Elizabeth. He had an older sister, Fanny, who attended the Royal College of Music in London and was a talented musician. Throughout Charles’s life he was affected by his fathers profligacy and inability to manage his own money.

Rochester was to have a deep and lasting effect on Charles’s imagination. And indeed it was to Gads Hill on the old London Road,just outside of Rochester, up the hill on the opposite side of the Medway Estuary, that Charles Dickens returned in later life to live.

London and the people he observed and knew became part of his imaginative world and he drew on many elements of the people he met to create his own literary characters. His characters became real to him and he referred to them as close friends and he cared for them emotionally as friends long after they were published in his novels.

From Chatham John Dickens moved the family in 1822 to Camden Town in London. At first John Dickens obtained a job in Somerset House on The Strand. But he was a spendthrift and lived beyond his financial means. He ended up becoming bankrupt and was incarcerated in the Marshalsea debtors prison that used to be situated just off Borough High Street, a short walk across London Bridge on the Southwark side. A mere few hundred yards from London Bridge on the left is a narrow alleyway with a high brick wall on the right. This is the only remaining part of The Marshalsea. On the other side of the wall is a park that was land on which the prison stood. Very close to this spot is Lant Street where Dicken’s lived in lodgings while his father was incarcerated. Charles at this time was employed by a relation of his mother's at the blacking factory next to Hungerford Steps. The site of the blacking factory is underneath Charing Cross Station.  Hungerford Steps down to The Thames no longer exist. The Embankment, which narrowed The Thames here, covers the site.

These experiences hurt Dicken’s deeply. They can be interpreted as giving him the driving force to succeed. He was naturally intelligent and desperate to succeed and experiences like these could only drive him harder throughout his life. A bitter quotation reveals the depth of his anguish and pain,

"I had no advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no assistance, no support, of any kind, from anyone, that I can call to mind, as I hope to go to heaven!"

Dickens developed his talents quickly. He got a job at the law firm Ellis and Blackmore and quickly learned Gurneys system of shorthand. This enabled him to become a freelance reporter and through the influence of a distant relative, Thomas Charlton,he reported the proceedings at Doctors Commons. He reported the legal proceedings there for almost four years. It was while working here that he met his first love, Maria Beadnell, in 1830. This relationship was doomed because Maria’s family thought Dickens was below their status. He later married Catherine Hogarth, on the 2nd April 1836.  They had ten children. His wife Catherine seemed forever pregnant. 

In 1833 Dickens published his first story, “A Dinner At Poplar Walk”, in," The Monthly Magazine."A collection of articles and stories he wrote at this time became, in 1836, "Sketches by Boz." But it was the sensational reception of his first novel The Pickwick Papers, published 1836, that set him on the road to fame.

The Pickwick Papers, at face value, was a similar format to other series of stories written by other writers, where a club of gentlemen go on adventures together. However, Charles Dickens was able to take his version to far greater heights than anybody else had achieved. The characters and situations in Pickwick Papers are the template for all British humour then and since. All modern stand up comedians who use situation comedy have a debt to pay to Dickens. All life is there in the Pickwick Papers. Pickwick and his friends have been described as gods bestriding England. Indeed when I have read The Pickwick Papers the characterisation and the situations pull me in, I become immersed, the situations are so real, so funny, pregnant with pathos and it describes the dark depths of the human condition, all tumbled together.

The Pickwick Papers are a fine example of how Dickens uses his own life experiences. The happy group fist visit Rochester on their travels. They stay at The Bull Inn which can visited today on the right hand side of Rochester High Street as you enter the city across the bridge over The Medway. The geography and main buildings of the city are described in detail in this tale.

Rochester appears in many novels after this. Great Expectations begins in a village far out on the marshes of The Medway Estuary outside of Rochester. Phillip Pirrip visits Miss Haversham at Satis House just off the High Street in Rochester at the far end from The Bull Inn. The building he used is actually called ,"Restoration House,"  the building called Satis House is next to Rochester Castle just behind The Bull Inn. Dickens transposed the name. The town hall, where Joe Gargery payed for the indentures of Pip as his apprentice, is opposite the Bull Inn. Rochester Cathedral, hard by the castle, is the backdrop and scene of Edwin Drood,the very novel Dickens was working on, in his Swiss Chalet across the road from Gads Hill Place on the morning of his death.

He was  greatly interested in prostitutes from a social and welfare point of view. There are however, hints of more than just a care for their welfare. He makes licentious reference to them in letters to a close friend Maclise, who was a bachelor, suggesting they visit some he knows in Broadstairs. On the other hand he set up a charitable organisation to help prostitutes with the financial help of Angela Burdett Couts, heiress to the Couts banking fortune. Urania Cottage was situated in Lime Grove and used to help fallen women change their life styles. Dickens interviewed them personally and took a close interest in their reform. he set up a scheme that enabled ex prostitutes to start a new life on the other side of the world in Australia.

 His philanthropy and desire to help the poor is no less evident in the portrayal of the many aspects of society good and bad, in his novels. Dickens was horrified by the plight of the poor and the criminal classes and this cannot be taken away from him.

In London, Dickens and his family lived at many addresses. When first married Catherine and he had lodgings in Furnivals Inn just off High Holborn. 48 Doughty Street, not far from High Holborn on the other side of Greys Inn, was a mid career home. It is now the home to the Dickens Museum. Number 1 Devonshire Drive, a much more salubrious place,  in Marylebone, next to Regents Park was rented and when the lease ran out he moved to Tavistock House nearby in Marylebone. His relations with his wife were deteriorating. Catherine Dickens became eventually a burden to Dickens and he moved out leaving Tavistock House to his wife and extensive family. He sought company in younger and more attractive women. 

He had a passion for his own wife’s younger sister, Georgina, as he had had for her sister Mary years before. Georgina, became a permanent part of his household and to the shock of the Hogarth family moved with him when he decided to return to Rochester and buy Gads Hill Place. In many ways this was the culmination of his search for the ideal house. In his youth, when living in Chatham close by Rochester, Charles and his father had walked past Gads Hill Place and his father had told him that if he worked hard he too could aspire to owning such a house. Dickens did work hard, very hard, probably too hard and he did aspire and bought the house his father talked of. In later life his mistress was the actress Ellen Ternan.

Dickens lead a very active and frenetic life. He was a great traveller travelling on holidays with his family throughout Europe. Apart from the publication of his novels and stories other important events of his life included the tour he undertook of America in 1842. In some ways this was a disaster. He went hoping to find a much better land and existence than Britain offered which he didn't find but he also went with an agenda. Publishers in America were publishing pirate copies of his novels from which he made no money. He went with the aim of getting copyright and publishing laws changed but only achieved upsetting many people and himself. The American public adored him though. and he remained popular there. He went on a second trip to America later in 1858 and was welcomed with important dinners and great speeches. 

Then there was the terrible Staplehurst rail crash in which Dickens was a passenger. He witnessed terrible scenes and worked with great energy to save people.This left a lasting mark on his health and wellbeing.

Dickens often undertook two and even three jobs at once, writing a novel, dramatising one his stories for the theatre, being a magazine owner and publisher and performing readings of the most popular scenes from his novels to adoring crowds. The death scene of Little Nell from the Old Curiosity Shop was his most dramatic and personally exhausting performance. His energies were prodigious. His magazines, Household Words and later All the Year Round were situated in offices in Wellington Street close by The Lyric Theatre and Covent Garden.

Opposite Gads Hill Place, just outside of Rochester, was The Falstaff Inn. Dickens was pleased with the fact that Shakespeare used this very spot on Gads Hill in his play, Henry IV. Nowadays Gads Hill Place is a private school. It is not open to the public. My friend, Clive, and I spent some time in Rochester searching out the places connected with Dickens. We stood in the road outside of Gads Hill Place. There is an old Victorian post box set in the roadside garden wall at the front of the house and we contemplated the thought that  Charles Dickens himself posted letters into it. Across the road in a small park with shrubs and trees is the gated entrance to a tunnel that passes under the road  to the front garden of Gads Hill Place . Dickens had the tunnel dug specially. On the land he erected ,"The Swiss Cottage," a friend had sent him from Switzerland. It was on the first floor of this cottage that Dickens wrote in later life and was where he was writing and working on Edwin Drood the day he died. The cottage has now been moved into the city of Rochester and can be found in the garden of an ancient house, a museum, in the High Street.
Charles Dickens died at the age of 58 on 9th June 1870.
Today is the 200 th anniversary of Charles Dickens's birth in that small front bedroom in Portsmouth.

Sunday 5 February 2012


We woke up this morning in South London to snow. I always go for a run and as it was early this morning,8am and nobody else was about, I thought it would be an opportunity to take my pocket camera with me.
Here is Canon Hill, a few roads from where I live, overlooking Canon Hill Common. Canon Hill got it's name, reputedly, because it was land owned by the canons of Merton Abbey in the Middle Ages.

Canon Hill pond.

The road leading up Canon Hill.

Later in the day we decided to walk on Wimbledon Common. There are some good slopes there for sledging down.

A snowman on The Common.

Winter trees on The Common this morning.

People having fun in the snow.

Some houses on the edge of Wimbledon Common. In a recent newspaper survey, the houses that abut the common are the second most expensive residences in England . Belgravia, in the heart of London next to Buckingham Palace, is the most expensive place to live with properties averaging £3.75 million. The average for Wimbledon Common is £3.65 million. The houses in the picture are the cheaper end of the scale.
A view looking across the common. This part of the common is a golf course, The Royal Wimbledon Golf Course, when it is not covered in snow.

Abi and myself making our way back up hill after sliding down.

That's me going for it!!!!!!!!!!!!

A snow dragon on the common. A real feet of work.

Abi and Marilyn after an exciting slide down hill.

Yes, that's me falling off the sledge at the end of a slide.