Tag Archives: charles dickens

Little Dorrit, Dickens and Debt

A fascinating post entitled, “Little Dorrit, Dickens and Debt”, which explores the connection between Charles Dickens and the long demolished Debtors Prison. The prison appears in several of Dickens writings, including “Little Dorrit”. To read the post please follow this link, https://memoirsofametrogirl.com/2020/02/25/marshalsea-prison-remains-borough-history/.

Was Squeers Misrepresented By Dickens In Nicholas Nickleby

In his novel, Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens portrays Wackford Squeers (the headmaster) as a sadist with no redeeming features. Squeers was based on the (actual) headmaster of a Yorkshire school named William Shaw who was prosecuted for child cruelty. However, according to a descendant of William Shaw he was, in fact a humane man who was liked by his students and by the community in which his school operated. Dickens therefore does Shaw a great injustice in his portrayal of him in Nicholas Nickleby.
To read the article please visit https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1316931/The-real-Squeers-was-no-Dickens-brute-claims-descendant.html

Victorian Classics Don’t Need TV To Sex Them Up – They’re Risqué Enough Already


Working With Guide Dogs

On Wednesday 2 December I gave a talk about my experience of working with guide dogs. Below are extracts from that presentation.

I remember being struck on reading Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol” by the reference to guide dogs. Speaking of Scrooge Dickens writes,
“Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then
would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm).
Researching the history of guide dogs, I have been unable to discover any record of guide dogs being trained in the United Kingdom until the 1930s, when the Guide Dogs For The Blind Association was established (the same charity that trains guide dogs today). However the reference to blind men’s dogs in “A Christmas Carol” indicates that dogs where being used by blind people in Victorian England. I can only surmise that visually impaired people trained the dogs themselves or training took place with the aid of family and friends.
The history of guide dogs does, however go back far beyond the 19th century. A roman sculpture exists of a blind man being lead by a dog, while a plaque from the middle ages shows a blind man being lead on a leash.
In the late 18th century the Paris hospital for the blind trained guide dogs.
It appears that the first (modern) and systematic attempt to train guide dogs took place in Germany. A German Doctor left his dog with a patient while he was called away to business elsewhere. On his return he was so impressed by the way in which the dog had been looking after his patient that he determined to train dogs as guides for the blind. The doctor’s work lead to the establishment of several guide dog schools in Germany and there is evidence of dogs being sent to the UK amongst other countries.
The work of Doctor Stalling inspired the founding of The Seeing Eye in the United States which trained dogs for the blind and (later) the establishment of The Guide Dogs For The Blind Association in the UK. (http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/aboutus/guide-dogs-organisation/history#.VmMIbL-yKSo).

I am now working with my fourth guide dog, a lovely brindle lab/retriever called Trigger. All of my companions have been male with the exception of my third dog, Drew, a lovely yellow lab/retriever who sadly died in March 2011 as a result of a heart attack.
Guide dogs are trained to walk in a straight line and to avoid obstacles. On reaching an obstacle they can not navigate the dog stops and it is then incumbent on the owner to assess the situation and (if in any doubt as to how to proceed) to ask for sighted assistance.
Guide dogs are taught to stop at kerbs and to only go into the road at the command of their owner. Guide dogs lack the capacity to know that vehicles pose a danger (there sitting at kerbs is, therefore purely down to their training). However guide dogs are taught not to go into the road when a vehicle is approaching. However owners are told not to rely on the dog taking evasive action as they have no understanding of road safety (I.E. it is a useful aspect of training but the responsibility for safety remains fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the owner). Having said that, Trigger has, on several occasions pulled me back when I have misjudged the situation and attempted to cross as vehicles approach.
In the UK guide and other assistance dogs are allowed by law to enter food and other premises which pet dogs are prohibited from entering. It is, in fact an offense for a provider of goods or services to refuse entry to a working guide dog. Despite the legislation discrimination does, unfortunately persist and I have myself experienced it on a number of occasions.
In conclusion, guide dogs enhance the independence of visually impaired people and on a much deeper level provide companionship. I and other guide dog owners have built up strong bonds with our dogs who are, to us much more than mere working animals.

Norwood’s Literary Heritage

I moved to the Norwood area (Upper Norwood to be exact) in 1997. Norwood possesses the advantage of being high above sea level which means the air is much fresher than certain other areas in the sprawling mass which constitutes greater London. The name Norwood derives from “The Great North Wood”, vestiges of which can still be glimpsed by residents and visitors alike.

Norwood has a fascinating history including a rich literary heritage. Charles Dickens was a frequent visitor and the Queen’s Hotel which stands some 10 minutes walk from my home has a plaque commemorating the French novelist, Zola’s residence, (Zola fled France at the time of the Dreyfus Affair. He advocated for Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer falsely accused of spying for a foreign power).

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sets one of the Sherlock Holmes adventures, “The Adventure Of The Norwood Builder” in the area, (http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/AdveNorw.shtml). In “The Norwood Builder” the former lover of the mother of a local solicitor fakes his own death and attempts to frame her son. However, in his usual brilliant manner Holmes proves the innocence of the son and the builder is apprehended.

There is a fascinating article on the history of Norwood here, (http://www.norwoodsociety.co.uk/articles/68-on-the-trail-of-norwood.html).

Enid Blyton Removed From School Library

I have happy memories of my grandfather reading Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five as I sat on his knee. As a child it never crossed my mind that Blyton’s books could be construed as being racist. Today however a number of reprints of the author’s works have been published with certain words and passages having been amended to avoid giving offence. Today’s Daily Mail has an article concerning a school who removed Blyton’s books from it’s shelves, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2519806/Enid-Blyton-Famous-Five-childrens-classics-axed-school-win-race-equality-award.html. If you read the entire article it becomes clear that most of the books which where deemed to be unacceptable have been replaced by versions with the language which some deem offensive, having been removed.

Racism is ugly and it is right and proper that children are taught that all ethnic groups possess equal worth and everyone, irrespective of their origin should be treated with respect. Having said that, would it not be possible for teachers, parents etc to explain the historical context in which Blyton was writing to youngsters, explaining that words and phrases which where once deemed acceptable are now (rightly) not so deemed. Blyton as with Kipling was a product of her time. Even great authors such as Dickens used language which we now view as unacceptable, for example his reference to “the jew” in Oliver Twist. I love Dickens, Kipling and Blyton, however to say this does not imply that I or any other reader shares their views on race or any other issue. We need, as I said above to judge authors in accordance with the historical context in which they wrote. Obviously it is easier for adults to make such judgements but, with sensitive and appropriate explanation it ought to be possible for children to continue to enjoy The Famous Five.

A Man Of Compassion

It really is a disgrace that in 21st century Britain people are still homeless on the streets. Believe me the conditions portrayed by Dickens are still very much with us. You don’t need me to tell you that hunger and poverty still stalk the land. Just take a stroll under the arches by Embankment and Charing cross stations and you will be confronted by the people society forgot, sleeping in cardboard boxes. There are two parallel cities in London, that inhabited by you and I with our comfortable homes and then there is cardboard city. It breaks my heart to see men and women of all ages huddled in doorways under filthy blankets. Some don’t even own a single blanket, its tragic to see them with nothing to keep themselves warm other than fellow denisons of the streets. On occasions I’ve seen two or three of the poor sods huddled together so as to extract animal warmth from their fellow man. Oh my country, oh my country I weep to see what you have become, a land in which the weak die on the cold streets while the heedless majority parties on this sinking ship.

I do what I can to help. It isn’t much, a flask of hot coffee here, a few sandwitches and most important of all a kind word. What most of the homeless want more than anything else is a sympathetic ear, someone to listen without passing judgement. I’m a good listener, always have been and I think that is why I’ve built up such close relationships with so many of the people sleeping rough.

Its tragic listening to the street people speak about their lives. Take, for example young Janet who ran away from Manchester to London at the age of 14 to get away from her father who’s idea of fatherly love was to sexually abuse her on an almost daily basis. Then there was Mark a successful trader in the city but, come the recession he lost everything and ended up residing in cardboard city.

It is difficult gaining the trust of the homeless. People who have suffered many knocks in life find it hard to fully trust another human being. However I have managed to gain the absolute trust of many a homeless man and woman. Once the relationship is solid I’ll invite them back to my home. Of course they jump at the chance. Who wouldn’t embrace the prospect of a square meal and a clean bed to sleep in.

A little something in their drink and once they are asleep my friend removes a kidney or, sometimes a lung. We are humane men so the men and women are stiched up properly afterwards and given a few hundred quid for their trouble. I’m a charitable man, it’s a crying shame that there are so many men and women sleeping on the streets and we have the cheek to call ourselves a civilised society.

Launch of New Ebook Service

The founder of the book shop Waterstones, Tim Waterstone, is launching a new service, Read Petite which will allow subscribers to read serialised novels and short stories on their mobiles and other mobile devices. Healthy competition in the world of ebooks can only be a good thing and it will be interesting to see how Read Petite competes with big players such as Amazon and Apple. For more on the story please visit http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2307354/Dickens-goes-digital-Waterstones-founder-revives-serialised-novels-e-book-store-Read-Petite.html

Poetry Makes Nothing Happen

In his poem, In Memory of W B yeats, the poet, W H Auden wrote

“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.”


Auden is one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, I do, however take issue with his view that poetry (and writing more generally) makes nothing happen.

In Oliver Twist Dickens portrayed the English poor law in all it’s brutality. He laid bare the cruelty of the workhouse and the corruption of those who, like the fictional Mr Bumble the Beadle grew fat by abusing the system. Oliver Twist is unremitting in it’s highlighting of the abuses perpetrated by Bumble and his ilk, however Dickens humour also helps to ensure that the novel remains widely read to this day. Who can forget his description of little Oliver daring to ask for more gruel in the workhouse? Dickens was not responsible for bringing about the abolition of the workhouse, however Oliver Twist undoubtedly stirred the conscience of Victorian England, indeed the novel continues to move our conscience in the early years of the 21st century.

To take another example, George Orwell’s terrifying portrayal of totalitarianism in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a world in which much of the population of Oceania is constantly observed by the telescreen, influenced and continues to influence those who oppose totalitarianism. Although a man of the left Orwell has been cited by people of both left and right in defence of pluralism. Auden’s view that “poetry makes nothing happen” was not shared by the regimes who banned Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and his much shorter novel Animal Farm. The former Soviet Union and other authoritarian states believed that writing can make things happen, why else would they have prohibited the works of Orwell and other critics of authoritarianism?

Doubtless the greater prosperity enjoyed by democratic societies had a profound impact on the populations of Communist societies. Despite the attempted jamming of western media pictures of life outside the Communist bloc did penetrate behind the iron curtain. The inhabitants of Czechoslavakia, Poland and other states which came under Soviet influence wanted consumer goods, however the intellectuals among the populace desired freedom and the writings of Orwell, Kafka and others kindled in them this desire for democracy.

In conclusion it can be said that Auden is right in the sense that writing in and of itself makes nothing happen. However the influence of authors such as Dickens and Orwell should not be underestimated. When combined with political and economic forces words can (and are) powerful tools  for good or ill.