GUEST BLOG: London through the eyes of Dickens
28th March 2012 - Aoife Mannix
This April, Cityread London, funded by Arts Council England, aims to get the whole of London reading Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens through a series of events and activities. On Monday 2nd April, Alex Werner, curator of the Musuem of London's new Dickens and London exhibition, will be leading the discussion of the book at this month's Dickens Book Club, held in the Gallery at Foyles Charing Cross Road.
Here Cityread blogger Aoife Mannix looks back at Alex Werner's talk at the beginning of March on London as Dickens saw it and explains why his depiction of the city remains so vivid and memorable.
Dickens always maintained that he didn't want monuments or memorials. He considered them a waste of money. He'd much rather be remembered for his work. So perhaps he would be gratified to know that two hundred years after his birth, his books form the window display of Foyles on Charing Cross Road. Just inside the door, another display offers three shelves of books about Dickens as well as classic editions of the books themselves.
Would Dickens have been surprised to discover that so much has been written about his life? Would he have been amused to find his work on sale alongside one eyed Olympic mascot aliens, birthday cards, travel guides and writers' tool kits? Given how much he loved reading aloud to his public, I suspect he would have enjoyed Alex Werner's talk in the Foyles' gallery space. It's lucky I've arrived early as the orange seats fill up quickly. The event is free but we've been advised to book. The woman beside me murmurs, 'I knew the world and his wife would want to come to this.' On my other side, a man in full leather motorcycle gear shifts his helmet to make more room. Dickens seems to be as popular now as he was back in the 1850s when he started giving his own hugely successful public readings of his work.
Alex Werner is the co-author of Dickens's Victorian London, which has been published by the Museum of London to mark their exhibition 'Dickens and London'. As Werner explains, as well as the book and the exhibition, there is also an iphone app 'Dickens' Dark London.' This allows users to follow the actual map of London streets as they would have existed back in the 1860s when Dickens roamed at all hours of the night. Dickens famously loved to walk. He claimed it was essential not just for finding inspiration but for his mental health. He liked to wander through the darker, seedier parts of the city. He explored the back alleys, the slums, the workhouses and the prisons. He was particularly fascinated by the Thames. He recreated London in his books with such extraordinary vividness because he regularly walked fourteen miles a night through its streets.
As Werner shows the audience examples of the over two hundred archive photographs in his book, he reads passages from Dickens' work. The photos give a fascinating insight into the places Dickens wrote about. They offer a glimpse into a city that is not some Victorian nostalgic postcard but a dirty, heaving metropolis that is constantly reinventing itself. For instance in Dombey and Son, Dickens described the impact of the arrival of the railways. 'The power that forced itself upon its iron way - its own - defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.'
Werner gives us the city through Dickens' eyes, perhaps most amusingly as a boy of twelve ordering the best ale in the public house and endearing himself to the landlord's wife with his imaginative answers to her questions. We sense that Dickens never lost that mixture of energy and curiosity for London that he first felt as a boy. As I step out from Foyles into the darkness of Charing Cross Road, a small woman blocks my path to ask me 'Could you please spare some change?' It's a sad reminder that it's not only Dickens' words that have survived but also the social problems he wrote so passionately about.
Aoife Mannix is the author of a novel, Heritage of Secrets, and four collections of poetry, The Trick of Foreign Words, The Elephant in the Corner, Growing Up an Alien and Turn the Clocks Upside Down. A regular on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live and on the festival scene, she was recently writer-in-residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company. She has also toured countries as diverse as China, Nigeria and Norway on behalf of the British Council.
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