A few weeks ago I had a brief, even by tweeting standards, exchange with a writer who’d tabled the view that were Charles Dickens alive and creating today, his output would not be the soaps and sitcoms some, I guess, had supposed, but would consistently and toweringly, remain in the form of the novel.
I questioned whether Dickens’s boundary-breaking in his lifetime, with periodicals, ‘travelogues’ and serialisations, weren’t suggestions that his hypothetical being among us today might see him be similarly innovative. The writer replied maybe, but that his point was to do with drama never being Dickens’s strongest suit – that the plays he produced do not go well before him.
I think I understood, and left it there. Corrie was on.
But the exchange nagged. What would he be today?
I am no Dickens academic, scholar, or student, even. And I certainly don’t know about those plays. Horror, I don’t really know much about the novels. Because I haven’t read too many of the buggers.
Yet I do still consider myself a Dickens fan. And a big one at that.
Because I love his comedies and tragedies of the universally mundane.
Dickens’s novels strive to take you somewhere, into a world, whilst with general themes, that are of this earth, are nonetheless otherly-created worlds. With characters you’re going to be with for some considerable time, and yet will never brush against. His short stories, essays and ‘travel writing’ (I’m a little nervous of un-‘rabbiting’ those words, as the genre rather now conjures up two floors in Waterstones), they bring this world forward in a stunning economy of ‘happens’ – of such well-observed and lightly delivered pissed-off-ness, resignation and anthropormorphism, that to shake the book with those pages held open would cause the stand-up routine to drop into your jiggling lap.
Which is not to say I haven’t the stomach or the wit for the longer pull. It’s just with Dickens, even once we’ve made it again to America, to France, to Switzerland or Italy, I don’t want him, or need him, to take me any further than the shops, or the boozer, the chop house or the station.
The first short story Dickens ever saw published, back when he was still Boz, was ‘A Dinner at Poplar Walk’, in print in 1833, and later named ‘Mr Minns and his Cousin’ if you’re scouting for it. As an introductory work it’s a simple comic joy, but it stands for me also as the deliciously telling description of what I was about to adore about the writer. A blueprint for his comedy of containment.
In closed-book summary, it’s the tale of a proudly misanthropic grump made to haul his bachelor bones to his lardy cousin’s gaff across London – on Sunday transport – to dine with the family who’ve sniffed his cash. The meal and the company are awful; they’re everything he hates. Augustus Minns eventually gets to leave, but forgets his brolly, goes to get it, misses the last coach and finally gets home piss-wet-through and pissed off, at three in the morning. At which point he writes a new will excluding the buggers at Poplar Walk.
What I love about this story is the tightening circular sore. Bloke likes solitude – gets dragged into company – hates it – loses brolly – misses coach – gets home late – craves solitude more. And throughout, Dickens is getting us to root for the mardy bum – because that’s how life can be, and that’s what Dickens knows.
As I locate the thing now, this is the opening description of the person we end up on the side of: “He was not unamiable, but he could at any time have viewed the execution of a dog, or the assassination of an infant, with the liveliest satisfaction. Their habits were at variance with his love of order; and his love of order was as powerful as his love of life.”
But, good old life, there are always bigger arses.
So that kicked me off. And I’ll mention that I was late to Dickens (excluding a university trudge through Oliver Twist, from which I had to read aloud a passage in the company of a girl I really liked, and so dry and tensed had my throat become at the prospect, the first words of Dickens I ever spoke aloud were delivered in whale song), and when arrived I did so very intuitively; waking one Sunday morning in 2006 and announcing: ‘I’m going to read Dickens’; and within a month I was hooked on him kicking off.
Dickens kicking off on bad customer service is exquisitely great comedy; his timeless peeve a flag to that power in the universally mundane. I don’t know if he invented weary sarcasm as the victim’s only succour, but we’re a century and a half on, and it’s still our rubbish weapon when not getting served in the pub:
“The training of the young ladies behind the counter… has been from their infancy directed to the assumption of a defiant dramatic show that I am not expected.” (Refreshments for Travellers, 1860)
“ – you ask a Boy… next time you stop in a hurry at Mugby, for anything to drink; you take particular notice that he’ll try to seem not to hear you, that he’ll appear in absent manner to survey the Line through a transparent medium composed of your head and body, and that he won’t serve you as long as you can possibly bear it. That’s Me.” (Main Line. The Boy at Mugby, 1866)
These having-a-pops are lovely, light bites; but Dickens turns the screw, too, and foretells (however inimitable), the awkward dooms of Alan Bennett’s day-trippers in pursuit of a reasonable lunch – in one short piece in which a London hotel waiter brutalises an out-of-town couple with delays and conditions and cold food and crass extra charges: just as the sniffing bastard tortures me now with his and his story’s title’s absolute refusal to be located (up until the moment I click on ‘publish’. I did warn I’m not an academic, right? Anyone recognise the blinkin’ story?).
The fed-up couple head home un-fed, untalking of what’s happened. Dickens knows the comedy of being at the mercy of service, but knows too life’s little concentrated lies; that you go home and you cry and you want to die.
But Dickens knows what the funny is. Where great material lies. In his 1842 American Notes, he is given an audience in Washington with the President, on the subject of whom Dickens devotes two short sentences. Describing the pigs in the streets of New York, he runs to seventeen. An adorable stat that tells of a comically willful obtuseness; certain, pig-headed, if you will, as to where audience interest lies. And it’s an awareness of constancies, too: across the years the city-pigs remain the comic draw, a great routine; the President still merits just a ‘meh’.
But this brief and shockingly ill-prepared post of mine (ill-preparedness in my knowing of this date for ages as a Dickens Fellowship member yet not having pieces ready – oh, and the plans for a commemorative beer – and the musical, ‘Boz!’*…) was only always going to be a means for mentioning the one – the story that’s as circular and home-bound as the trouble of Mr Minns, yet which transports the reader across a clutch of countries, not with an air-balloon’s loftiness, but with a Google Streetmap’s view of ‘happenings’ then macro-lensed into a focus of thrillingly gorgeous banality. It’s a story which in the twisting of time might have been inspired by Auden’s lines in Musée des Beaux Arts, in which, he knows, the old masters knew that events, no matter what, occur whilst life continues – Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree – inspired not for the occurrence of events, but for the sense of actuality that wherever you are, there are elsewhere dogs, going on with doggy lives.
The story is Travelling Abroad, first published 1860. In it, a Dickens of sorts gets into a carriage, and it appears he’s embarked on a tour (spoiler alert – he ain’t), which takes him to the boat and off to Europe – not before encountering a boyhood Dickens, who does, as he did, rather go on about his grand designs on Gad’s Hill – where in Paris he hangs around a morgue ogling stiffs, goes to a boxing match, and then makes for Switzerland. And it’s on his way there, at Strasbourg, where he watches from a window, and relates, in the most dazzling episode of writing, “an idle trifle of a vaudeville… played for me at the opposite house.”
Through the rain, across the street, fearful of being seen, but not, ‘Dickens’ watches the bizarre carryings-on of four characters in a kind of life-scaled Punch and Judy show: a big-titted housekeeper (he mentions them a few times), a Jewish trader called Straudenheim, his mate, and a puny soldier. The trader and his mate are amusing themselves by leaning out of a window and trying to dribble spit down the housekeeper’s balcon (if you get me) as she’s leaning out below. Meanwhile, Nurse Gladys Emmanuel is evidently flirting with the little soldier across the road, which is a royal piss-off for the dribblers, who promptly dash across the street and give ‘the warrior’ exactly five kickings apiece and leg it back to the house, while up at the window she jiggles her tits in a giggling fit.
Yet by far the most extraordinary, and extraordinarily described, action concerns the little soldier’s comeback. Dickens even sets it up as such, knowing surely, this hyper-real surrealist reportage is gold: “But, the chief effect of the drama was the remarkable vengeance taken by the little warrior.”
And he goes on to describe, with such delicious, mad precision, a gesture the soldier makes towards Straudenheim’s house: “ – bringing his two forefingers close to the top of his nose, rubbed them over one another, cross-wise, in derision, defiance, and contempt of Straudenheim.” He then leaves, but comes back and gives the same gesture. Then he goes and comes again, twice more. Then he comes back with two more soldiers and they all do it. Then, at dusk, they all come back with a ‘huge bearded Sapper’ and all four of them do the gesture. And, finally they all go off, arm in arm, singing.
After a jaunt through Switzerland to gawp at some goîtres, the story ends with the narrator ‘Dickens’ in the carriage still in its showroom, having travelled nowhere but for “half a minute” of “hints of travelling remembrance.”
And that story, Travelling Abroad – with that ending and the lunatic magnificence of his audacious concentration on some silly business, the doggy lives, on a Strasbourg street – this concentration of life… that’s why I bloody love Dickens.
So, if he were alive and creating today? Well, it’s a daft question. He is.
Happy Birthday, Boz.
* Well, the song titles are written: Boz! The Musical – a work in progress http://thetotalsurprisemachine.blogspot.com/2010/03/boz.html
© Copyright, Steve Mitchell and Fisher Lane, 2012