As the 201st birthday (today) of old marvellous scribble-pants Charles ‘The Inimitable’ Dickens flails into view, I find myself hard into my 201st biography of his Bozness, being Claire Tomalin’s thumper, Charles Dickens, A Life, and imagined I might, for larks, mark the whole business with a hit parade of biographical chestnuts. (Let’s see how much web-traffic that last bit generates.)
See, much as a child will watch over and over a single episode of a TV show and never tire – not of the action or story per se, but of the growing sense of sense-making and order that repetition brings, I do likewise love to strike off the familiar features that reassuringly waltz one again and again through the at-first apparent busy chaos that was the life of Charles John Huffam Dickens.
And I do so here through the borrowed consciousness of my B., who has over the years gifted me with around 200 of the 201 (at the very least) biographies, and whose osmotic knowledge, maybe through a ‘what?’ as I snicker in bed, or a practised good guess as I groan at the same part again, is full enough to list with yawning confidence certain facts of the Dickster’s doings.
1. Like B. herself, he had something lifey to do with Portsmouth.
2. He spent a short time when young in a crappy job sticking labels on jars in a shoe-blacking factory – occasionally we change this to a jam factory, for yucks – about which he never shut up (admittedly in an internal moaning kind of way), even though we’ve all had to do shit jobs as kids*. And the episode as reported by biographers has the effect of reminding one of the bread delivery man in Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies, who explained and excused every nervous or cack-handed thing in his adult life by saying ‘I fell off a diving board in Guernsey’ (one of the greatest comedy garnishes of modern times). Tremendous stuff, really, but I’m still holding out for the biographer who’ll note of this label-sticking era: ‘suck it up and move on, Charlie’. I know, by the way, it was as much to do with the feckless father and the Fanny business.
3. In his writings, a gentleman’s trousers were sometimes referred to as ‘unmentionables’.
4. He was also known as Boz.
5. He (Boz) was a proper one carrying on about his sister-in-law; still all too creepy today.
6. His illustrator, Robert Seymour, shot himself – which is a terrible thing, as he was, excuse me, dead good and no good dead.
7. He walked a lot during the nighttime, often with male companions (so sorry, but when I read my scrawly hand-written 3am notes, I wasn’t certain it said ‘walked’) – and most likely got up to some manner of monkey business on his perambulating thereabouts.
8. He booted out or boarded up his wife and some of their children in the main – but we’ve all had those moments.
9. He helped set up a home for women and girls of unfortunate fortune; the building being somewhere around where the BBC is, or was, out Shepherd’s Bush way.
10. He took up with a young actress named Nelly (good limerick material), who wasn’t exactly a looker by our standards, but in fairness his own hair-do was a state by then.
11. I’ve started so I’ll finish… He died (spoiler alert) too young, whilst writing Edwin Drood, and had duelling frogs on his desk.
And that, readers, is a biographical birthday romp as relatable through the understanding of my darling B. – who doesn’t give two hoots about old Boz, other than that the repeated reading of his private business keeps her snickering husband calmly carrying on.
Happy Birthday, Scribble-Pants.
*and not that I’ve ever made a big deal of mine.
© Steve Mitchell, Fisher Lane, 2013