Despatch from Dickens’ London

Here’s David doing his thing, reporting back from Dickens’ London.


London calling. David here.

I thought we’d do a bit of Dickens for this podcast. Dickens and London. And, yes, fair warning, while we’re at it, I’m going to do a bit of lit crit here. That’s my academic background muscling in on the act. I’m in this country because of Dickens. Did a PhD on Dickens at University College London. Did that stint of summer school university lecturing for 33 years – speaks to how much it was in my blood, that regimen. I’d switched out – my career was being a television news editor and there I was high tailing it for the classroom during my summer hols. Hand on heart, I identified with Chaucer’s Clerk in the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales. The passage opens; A CLERK there was of Oxenford also…

And it closes; And gladly wolde he learne, and gladly teche.

Anyway, that’s by the by. And bygone. Not entirely bygone in my guiding, though. But no worries, when I’m guiding I don’t go into anything like the sort of detail that I can indulge in here. 

But, yes, Dickens. As always, lots of Dickens coming up this time of the year. We’ve obviously got that Charles Dickens’ London Christmas Day walk. And we’ll be doing several Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol & Seasonal Traditions walks in the run up to and actually past Christmas Day. And I’ve got the great Simon seriously considering doing his out of town trip to the Dickens Christmas Festival down in Rochester. That would be on the first Saturday in December.

So I thought, why not, let’s do some Dickens on the London Calling podcast. Dickens and London. Dickens and his London.  

In one of the pieces in The Uncommercial Traveller – a series of semi-autobiographical sketches he wrote in the 1860s – Dickens recalls his inauspicious London baptism. It’s his earliest memory of the city, the moment he made its acquaintance. He says, since those were “the days when there were no railroads in the land, I left it [his boyhood home in Kent] in a stage-coach. Through all the years that have since passed, have I ever lost the smell of the damp straw in which I was packed – like game – and forwarded, carriage paid, to the Cross Keys, Wood Street, Cheapside, London? There were no other inside passengers, and I consumed my sandwiches in solitude and dreariness, and it rained hard all the way, and I thought life sloppier than I had expected to find it.”

In The Uncommercial Traveller Charles Dickens recalls his inauspicious London baptism. It’s his earliest memory of the city, the moment he made its acquaintance. He says, since those were ‘the days when there were no railroads in the land, I left it [his boyhood home in Kent] in a stage-coach. Through all the years that have since passed, have I ever lost the smell of the damp straw in which I was packed – like game – and forwarded, carriage paid, to the Cross Keys, Wood-street, Cheapside, London? There were no other inside passengers, and I consumed my sandwiches in solitude and dreariness, and it rained hard all the way, and I thought life sloppier than I had expected to find it.’”

The Cross Keys, Wood-street. The very inn where Pip touches down when he comes to London for the first time in Great Expectations. The resonances here are many and they’re very ripe indeed. The line ‘packed like game’, for example. It hearkens back to that horrible Christmas dinner in Great Expectations, where the revolting – and revoltingly well-fed – Uncle Pumblechook (Dickens is brilliant at names – Pumblechook sounds like a mouthful of mashed potatoes and gravy and crackling and sowbelly) informs Pip that if he were a ‘squealer’, a young pig, he wouldn’t have been ‘enjoying himself with his elders and betters’.

You would have been disposed of for so many shillings according to the market price of the article, and Dunstable the butcher would have come up to you as you lay in your straw [hear the echo?], and he would have whipped you under his left arm, and with his right he would have tucked up his frock to get a penknife from out of his waistcoat-pocket, and he would have shed your blood and had your life.’

…a shameful place, asmear with filth and fat and foam and blood…which seemed to stick to me.

It’s certainly stuck to me, that passage. 

Let’s get a bit closer. If we dare. Steady as she goes. You might have to blindfold yourself and put a clothespin on your nose. 

First impressions are hugely important in literature. Just as in life. 

There are no buffers with first impressions, edges haven’t been worn smooth with usage and familiarity and experience and previous encounters. Everything’s raw, vivid, immediate. That first time your reactions are instinctive. Instinctive based on your sensory intake – sights, sounds, smells, etc, Oh, sure, you may have had expectations – so much for those expectations. First impressions are an acid bath for expectations. 

So, yes, let’s briefly take a closer look at Pip’s first encounter with London. It’s quite a ride – for Pip, and for us, the reader.

Here’s that first encounter. It’s the opening of Chapter 20. It’s an all-changed, all-changed utterly moment in Pip’s life, that first encounter with London. The impact is almost biblical, a fall from innocence and grace – to a place that’s almost Dantesque: grotesque, overwhelming, dark, threatening, confusing, deeply disturbing, and, yes, frightening.

Here’s how chapter 20 begins. 

The journey from our town to the metropolis was a journey of about five hours. It was a little past midday when the four-horse stage-coach by which I was a passenger, got into the ravel of traffic frayed out about the Cross Keys, Wood Street, Cheapside, London.

We Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was treasonable to doubt our having and our being the best of everything: otherwise, while I was scared by the immensity of London, I think I might have had some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty.

It’s an extraordinary opposition, isn’t it: the immensity of London and its being ugly, crooked, narrow and dirty. It’s confining. Almost like a dungeon. 

A coach takes Pip from the Cross Keys to Jaggers’ office in Little Britain. Nothing grand about the coach. It’s like a straw yard, Pip says. And a rag shop.

And notice the verb Dickens has recourse to in this passage. You’ve heard it before. Pip says, “he packed me up in his coach and hemmed me in with a folding and jingling barrier of steps.”

Packed me up. Same verb as he used in that autobiographical Uncommercial traveller passage: “I was packed, like game, and forwarded, carriage paid, to the Cross Keys…”

They’re a one-two punch the verbs Dickens uses in that Great Expectations passage: packed and hemmed in. Again, confinement, imprisonment, those notes are the radioactive core of this piece of throw-away description. 

It’s grotesque, that coach. Nothing inviting about it. Even unto what Pip calls the “harrow beneath it” to dissuade as Dickens puts it, “amateur footmen from yielding to the temptation.” In other words, “artful dodgers”, shall we say, who duck in underneath the coach to cling to the undercarriage and get a free ride.

Its Hobbesiean, the London Dickens depicts here in Great Expectation. A war of All against all. And everything in it is expressive of that. 

And everybody in it. 

Which is by way of saying, as long as we’re in that coach with Pip, let’s meet the coachman. Talk about sensory overload. Unpleasant sensory overload. The coachman’s overcoat – pip tells us – is greasy. Grease, viscosity, foam, fat, filth sticking to you, getting into you – that’s Dickens’s London. You don’t just look out at it, it gets onto you, into you, all over you, clings to you. 

And Pip says that greasy overcoat has as many capes to it as the coachman was years old. Layer after layer of filthy, greasy coverings – it’s as if he’s encased in London. 

And then we find out about the coachman’s lair – his box. Pips says it was – I’m quoting – “decorated with an old weather-stained pea-green hammercloth moth-eaten into rags.”

“Old, weather-stained, pea-green, moth-eaten into rags” – that could be the London that coach is trundling through. 

A place of filth. And stench. And dread. And death. 

And then they’re there, in Little Britain. At Jaggers’ office. And talk about violence and horror. It’s even there in that serrated name: Jaggers. Something jagged. Something ripped open. Or more probably in this instance, somebody who RIPS open.

But let’s tour Jagger’s office. Tour it with Dickens. He’s our guide. 

“Mr. Jaggers’s room was lighted by a skylight only, and was a most dismal place; the skylight, eccentrically pitched like a broken head, and the distorted adjoining houses looking as if they had twisted themselves to peep down at me through it. There were not so many papers about, as I should have expected to see; and there were some odd objects about, that I should not have expected to see,—such as an old rusty pistol, a sword in a scabbard, several strange-looking boxes and packages, and two dreadful casts on a shelf, of faces peculiarly swollen, and twitchy about the nose. Mr Jaggers’s own high-backed chair was of deadly black horsehair, with rows of brass nails round it, like a coffin; and I fancied I could see how he leaned back in it, and bit his forefinger at the clients. The room was but small, and the clients seemed to have had a habit of backing up against the wall; the wall, especially opposite to Mr Jaggers’s chair, being greasy with shoulders. I recalled, too, that the one-eyed gentleman had shuffled forth against the wall when I was the innocent cause of his being turned out.”

A broken head, a rusty pistol, a sword in a scabbard, a high-backed chair like a coffin. People backed up against a wall. The wall greasy with shoulders. A one-eyed man. Houses twisted and contorted, peering and leering at Pip.

It’s the stuff of nightmares. The inanimate is animated, brought to life. It’s a bestiary of feelings and fears and misgivings and dreads. 

This is a world that’s many times worse than picking up a stone and seeing what’s crawling around underneath it. It’s having that stone picked up and realising that you’re not looking at what’s crawling around underneath it, you’re there with those things. Underneath that stone is where you are. 

It\s a shop of horrors, Jaggers’ office. And for my money what takes the prize are those two plaster casts. faces swollen and twitchy about the nose. They’re mementoes. Casts of the faces of executed criminals, clients Jaggers unsuccessfully defended. They’re deader than the dead and yet they’re alive, writhing, leering, twitching, pulling faces at Pip.

The chair like a coffin, those swollen, twitchy about the nose faces above it – it’s more than Pip can bear. He has to get out of there. He tells the clerk he’d like a turn in the air. 

There should be an inscription over Jaggers’ door – an inscription that reads: Abandon hope all ye who enter here. 

But it should be a two-way inscription. Because there’s no escaping it.

You go out the door, leave that office – Pip goes for his turn in the air – and what does he encounter?

I came into Smithfield; and the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me. So, I rubbed it off with all possible speed by turning into a street where I saw the great black dome of Saint Paul’s bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison.

And let’s not forget he’s acting on the clerk’s advice. This is where the clerk has told him to go: to a place all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam [that] seemed to stick to me.

Pip flees. He tries to rub it off with all possible speed. He turns into a street where he sees St Paul’s and Newgate prison. 

Notice the aggression in the language. Those two great totemic London structures accost Pip, threaten him, bear down on him. The great black dome of St. Paul’s bulges at him. It’s like a pustule, threatening to rupture. A bulging pustule behind that grim place, Newgate prison. 

And there Pip gets the tour guide from hell, who gives him a quick preview of hell. The hell called London.

Here’s the passage.

“…he was so good as to take me into a yard and show me where the gallows was kept, and also where people were publicly whipped, and then he showed me the Debtors’ Door, out of which culprits came to be hanged; heightening the interest of that dreadful portal by giving me to understand that “four on ’em” would come out at that door the day after to-morrow at eight in the morning, to be killed in a row. This was horrible, and gave me a sickening idea of London; the more so as the Lord Chief Justice’s proprietor wore (from his hat down to his boots and up again to his pocket-handkerchief inclusive) mildewed clothes which had evidently not belonged to him originally, and which I took it into my head he had bought cheap of the executioner. Under these circumstances I thought myself well rid of him for a shilling.”

And for a final stroke of genius, that name of the area: Little Britain. What Dickens is suggesting, at a stroke, is that this London neighbourhood is a microcosm of the whole country. Here in Little Britain you have the whole country, Great Britain, in miniature. 

It’s pure genius. That’s what we’re in the company of here. There’s no other English novelist who can bestow riches like this, who can operate at this level. 

Anyway, Smithfield is where we go on my Shakespeare and Dickens’s Old City Walk. We go there to find that London, as much of it as we can. Find it – and reconstruct it. And then read it – both in the city and in the literature. 

It’s classic Dickens, when you think about it. That’s what he’s all about. Again and again. “Reading” the city. A youngster – an outsider – trying to make sense of a huge and bewildering and deeply disturbing place.

And let’s close by tethering the fiction to some hard fact. Dickens wrote Great Expectations in 1861. You think London was an easy place to figure out in 1861? How does this grab you?

In 1861 London had 37 King Streets, 27 Queen Streets, 22 Princess Streets, 17 Duke Streets, 35 Charles Streets, 29 John Streets, 15 James Streets, 21 George Streets, 24 New Streets, 16 York Streets, 14 Cross Streets, 16 Union Streets and 10 Gloucester Streets.

The immensity of London. Its depths and heights and everything in between. Its complexity. It’s beyond comprehension. To use a phrase from A Christmas Carol, the very air is filled with phantoms, past and present. In Keats’ phrase, it dost tease us out of thought. 

All we know for sure is it has a hold on us. 

We might well ask of London, as Scrooge asks of the ghost of Marley in A Christmas Carol, ‘how now, who are you? What do you want with me?’

And on that note, God rest ye merry gentlemen. And ladies. Londoners all of you, whichever shores, Crusoe-like, you have washed up on.

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