Mr Fowler’s London Writing Talk Part 2

London, Reading & Writing

This is the conclusion of my little talk on London writing.

Let’s move on 250 years. At the start of ‘Bleak House’, Charles Dickens famously points out that there is so much mud in the streets that it would not be surprising to meet a forty-foot Megalosaurus ‘waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn-Hill’, and that even the snowflakes are covered in soot, ‘gone into mourning for the death of the sun’.

These are classic Dickensian moves. Surprising images, dinosaurs in Holborn, and short sharp visual shocks – snowflakes as pallbearers. It’s why he can sum up the lives of minor characters in succinct thumbnail sketches. And Dickens wanted to recreate the whole of London. Why?

Because Dickens was angry with London. He was angry that it corrupted the rich and abandoned the poor, that it was capricious and unfeeling. Dickens became London’s greatest writer despite the fact that his father was in jail and he had to work in a boot-blacking factory.

Writers always have a secret advantage. The best way to write about any place or group of people is to see it from outside. Colin Wilson was 24 and living on Hampstead Heath when he wrote ‘The Outsider’ in 1956 (even though it turned out he was doing it to avoid paying his wife). At exactly the same time Colin MacInnes was writing ‘Absolute Beginners’, taking as his subjects urban squalor, racial tension, sexuality, drugs, anarchy, and the new decadence. Oddly enough, Noel Coward was also 24 when he wrote ‘The Vortex’, about nymphomania and drug addiction. He became London’s bad boy, upsetting the old order by being interviewed in his dressing gown and smoking what people assumed to be opium when he actually just had a cigarette holder as an affectation.

So you’d think that 24 year-old writers would have even more to say now, wouldn’t you?

Except that writers are still outsiders, and for all the social media available they have trouble finding a voice. Or perhaps because of all the social media available they can’t make themselves heard.

I still feel like an outsider. I watch TV commercials and see housewives still discussing toilet cleaners. That world, there, with the 2.4 children and trips to Centerparcs is the alien outside world to me. It’s like watching Martians or Top Gear. It means I don’t often write within the suburban family dynamic, so I lose those readers who want to identify with their own family situations. Writing is no longer experimental. It’s now about inclusion, not exclusion, acceptance, not exception. 

Are we still original thinkers? I suspect that the peer pressure of social networks is flattening out our spikiness. Originality usually develops in isolation. You can’t be too strange when you’re telling everyone what you’re doing all the time. Perhaps it’s just a blip. After all, Facebook, that mirror of our vanities, is already middle-aged. How do we get originality back? How can we write about where we live in new ways?

London’s personality matches its weather. It’s perverse, wilful, confusing and unsettling, filled with atmospheres. It fights you back, dares you to try and have a good time. The city is perennially popular because, according to the Planning Officer of the City of London, it is here that young people come to have sex.

Perhaps that wasn’t what Dickens had in mind when he wrote about London, but there’s truth in it; the city has a side that’s rebellious and disreputable, so of course it appeals to the young, the very people who must kick-start new ideas into us all. London is also the home of the nefarious; from the bawds of 19th century Mayfair to the scandalous luncheon voucher sex parties of Cynthia Payne’s Streatham. London suits stories with an element of the macabre, the camp, the tragic or grotesque because it has characters. That was Dickens’ greatest secret; if you create indelible characters the rest falls into place. But if you have a location that can still boil together people from all walks of life, stir them up and let them interact, you have yourself a story to tell.

16 comments on “Mr Fowler’s London Writing Talk Part 2”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    Gee. I did come to London to have sex as a teenager. It was in a seedy hotel within sight of Paddington, and we saved up thirty quid for the overnight stay, and the lady downstairs, who owned the house, *knew* we weren’t eighteen.

  2. Liz Thompson says:

    Not sure about peer pressure flattening out our spikiness! I get trolled on Twitter with venom when I support trans rights. Makes me more aggressive about it, argumentative, difficult. My friends would probably say I’ve been like that all my life, but I suffer fools far less gladly than when I was originally accused of it at school, 50 odd years ago. And I have no problem confronting people (“fools”) face to face either. Being pacifist doesn’t mean I’ll let anyone walk over me, however educated, prominent, wealthy or socially advantaged they may be. But I don’t hit them. That would break my own principles.
    Principles. Now there’s an under used word nowadays.

  3. Richard says:

    Center Parcs could make a good plot location. We’ve only been a couple of times, when our son was little, and there were offers on, but the sense of unreality has stayed with me.
    We had no idea what the rules were when we arrived, but they turned out to be a middle class version of the weird behaviour you get at holiday camps just before the bingo starts.
    On arrival at Center Parcs it turns out you get a tiny window of time when you’re allowed to park your car near the chalet and unload. Then they’re banished to the car parks. Cue a repressed fury version of Mad Max as all the Volvos try and get into the same small lay-by, so that the mountains of bikes and leisure equipment can be ferried in. I just sat and watched, it was brilliant. The sheer volume of anger and misery was astounding, and all based on the belief that everyone else was doing it wrong/being inconsiderate, despite the fact they were all doing the same thing. The rest of the weekend was a bit of an anticlimax after that. I still think a film that explores repression, murder, addiction, anything , could easily be set there.

  4. Brooke says:

    “…Dickens wanted to recreate the whole of London. Why?Because Dickens was angry with London…
    How did he want to recreate London?
    From what I can read of Dickens, I would not want to live in any city subject to Dicken’s principles. Women would not be able to participate in business and political life–he strongly opposed female suffrage and if his treatment of his wife and daughters is evidence, thought women should be economically and psychologically totally dependent upon men. Your TV housewives would be his ideal. Dickens despised collective social action to redress inequity or gain civil rights. He was afraid of the future and craved what he saw as the stability of the past. HIs answer to social challenges is the Christmas turkey. Dickens is an example of using nostaligic images of working people in service of the status quo—-an example populist leaders are adapted for our times.

  5. admin says:

    Dickens was certainly no friend of the Chartists but in his journalism and novels he attacked specific target; Poor Law legislation in Oliver Twist, brutal Yorkshire schools in Nicholas Nickleby, the rule bound law courts [Pickwick Papers and Bleak House], government bureaucracy, lethargy and nepotism in Little Dorrit & extremist utilitarianism in Hard Times. It’s hard to trace any direct consequences on reformist legislation, but he spent a decade funding philanthropic enterprises to help the poor, and brought lasting awareness to their plight.

  6. Brooke says:

    Dickens is all about attack–not answers.. His attack on the Poor Law legislation is an excellent example of meme journalism that appeals to emotions but if examined closely doesn’t hold up. Dickens was critizied by his peers for his distortions and refusal to acknowledge that systemic issues might need systemic approaches. He preferred personal philanthropy–made him more important. As you note, Dickens can sling language as few can. Thus we’re left with his images, not bothering to examine actual circumstances. Not I think a way we should proceed in these times.

  7. snowy says:

    [Bit long and ramble-y, but you’ll get the drift.]

    The trouble with forming judgements about people from previous centuries, is that they are people of their time and they existed in that time. They knew nothing else, in the same way that a fish doesn’t know it’s wet.

    Female economic engagement in the period was more complicated than the plots of contemporary melodramas would have you believe.

    The laws around married property didn’t affect most people, because the majority didn’t have any. Most couples who married had only a few sets of clothes, whatever small savings they had managed to put by and odd bits and pieces donated by their families. Echoes from this period would be carried on for decades, women were encouraged to build up a ‘bottom drawer’ full of things to be taken to a future home. And the whole traditions around wedding presents, including things like cutlery, crockery, pots and pans, and linen are hangovers from the need to furnish a house.

    Women could have property, in their own right, except when they got married. This has a very long history, if you follow the trail: Civil Law – Common Law – Church Law it goes back to a verse in the Bible: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh”.

    And once that becomes the ruling principle, common sense leaves the stage shaking its head. This produces all sorts of legal problems, If two people are ‘one-flesh’ under law, one can’t sue the other, because you can’t sue yourself. [The law that widows couldn’t marry their brother-in-law or widowers marry their wife’s sister came from the same text].

    If you had money or property there were ways to work-around the problem, husbands couldn’t touch a dowry, conditions could be placed in the wedding contract, [think pre-nup.] to ensure a wife had an income of her own, etc. If the relationship went a bit sour a wife could always boil up a flypaper and stick it in her husbands cocoa, [Mary Ann Cotton did it, a lot, Jack the Ripper was lower league compared to Mary]. Once a woman became a widow all her property reverted back to her.

    One upside to this peculiar legal situation was before the 1870 Act, a woman could not be sued for debt. And so could buy as many massive hats, button boots and frilly bloomers as she wanted and the only person going to jail was the husband.

    Women could and did run successful businesses, providing they could escape being serially pregnant/nursing a child until they either died of complications or their womb fell out. They just don’t feature much in the history books because it was a century dominated by heavy industries, but they were there throughout, Shopkeepers, Publicans, Farmers, Dame schools, Laundresses, Secretarial services, Authors, Publishers, Seamstresses, Milliners, Dressmakers etc.

    [The big campaigner around this was Caroline Norton, Dickens used her court case in the Pickwick Papers, and they exchanged letters, I expect he didn’t escape a serious ear-bending on woman’s rights.]

  8. Brooke says:

    @snowy: and if Mr. Dickens had his way, female life would have remained thus.

  9. Liz Thompson says:

    Snowy, that’s a good summing up of the situation at the time. The struggle for equality took a long time, but so did the struggle to end slavery (still not won in some places), and to gain the vote for all men regardless of property or income.
    Fortunately, Dickens had opponents to the idea that private charity or tinkering at the edges would resolve either the women “problem” or the class struggle. Neither were really resolved of course, then or now. Although there have always been outliers in social and economic reform (Paine, Wollstonecraft, Owen, plus the more obvious candidates), utopia doesn’t, and can’t, exist. Whatever we achieved, things will change, history, expectations, ideologies, technology etc. So most of us will inevitably be behind the game regardless of our intentions or writing abilities.
    Seems a bit hard to point the finger at Dickens specifically, even though his only work I have ever been able to tolerate is Christmas Carol, and I suspect that’s due to childhood over exposure to the damn thing.

  10. snowy says:

    There is a school of thought that big issues are discussed only once in every generation, small concessions are gained, enough to dampen the demand for reform, [by a calculated fracturing of the coalition of those calling for reforms], and then the steam goes out of the debate for another 30 years. Dickens was a 20 year old hack journalist and writer of melodramas when the 1832 Reform Act explicitly disenfranchised women.

    If you don’t think that much of Charlie, his grand-daughter will have you rolling up your sleeves and reaching for the ‘common sense stick’, Mary Angela Dickens was a big noise in the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. [Don’t read the aims of this particular organisation, it’ll make you very cross].

  11. snowy says:

    Sorry Liz, our posts crossed, if we can judge people at all it is in their reaction to the calls for reform, ie. did Dicken’s views change as he grew older, wiser and gained a better understanding?

  12. Liz Thompson says:

    Snowy, I have come across the anti women’s suffrage stuff! I long since gave up being cross, direct action is more satisfying! I know that Dickens work is highly regarded, I think I have an inbuilt prejudice against the Victorians. I loathe Wordsworth too. Over exposure at school did that, though when the entire class were required to write a sonnet, I churned out half a dozen for my friends. Rhyming, I usually call the skill ‘verse’, is something I can do.
    Have you read Terry Pratchett’s book Dodger? Think you ‘d enjoy it.

  13. snowy says:

    I’ve never quite been able to work out quite what the WASL was up to, at face value it looked like a lot of posh/rich/powerful women who liked their bread buttered just as it was – thank you very much. But was it really a subtle Trojan horse, to get the vote in stages, working up from the bottom?

    [It could be argued that getting in at the local level, reforms/improvements to women’s daily lives could/would have happened more quickly by cutting out the need to wait for a bunch of public school pillocks to wake up, sober up and get round to sorting things out.]

    I find Dicken’s books to be a bit dull, two dimensional characters, with aptronymic names pushed around the stage by an author on a moral crusade. But they were written as popular entertainment for a particular audience, and he did seem to have a talent for judging what would sell. [It’s all a bit Eastenders in a frock coat to me.]

    Victorians were a complex lot, [and it would be hard to find a group more ‘up themselves’ before the invention of Twitter], but the transition from ‘Merrie England’ to the Modern was never going to be easy, painless or without mistakes. Most of what we were taught about the period at school, is not exactly true or completely accurate.

    History books never give a real picture of what it was really like to live through the period, for that you would need to read local newspapers. I did, [for my sins] and knowledge makes walking about much more interesting. A stroll to the park will take in: the scene of a bit of local direct-action, [that required the county militia to quell it], the chapel where a point of religious debate turned into a massive punch-up, the venue for Abolition meetings, a hotbed of Suffragism and a flying dog.

  14. Jan says:

    I can’t claim to have much knowledge of Dickens’ work. However frequenting Holborn for a year or three (1997-2000 to be exact) you had to pick up a bit about him. Was like a Charles Dickens theme park was Holborn.

    His dad wasn’t so clever with money and the family ended up in some sort of debtors prison for a time and the family seemed to have been involved a good few moonlight flits to stay in front of their debts. They got about. He was angry man was Dickens and that’s probably what Brookes picked up on. Him having the arse with a lot of stuff.

    Snowy has said it best here. People are of their time and think the thoughts embedded in their era. We might see them through a different set of glasses now and not be approving of their views or beliefs but what do we really know of what forms their views, lives and prejudices?
    How would we really have been ourselves been back then? How can we know?

    I know he had a young mistress later in his life and that he had depression and used to walk bloody miles and miles to stay in front of his darkness. Maybe Dickens was so distrustful of the political system + he genuinely thought philanthropy was the best way to proceed. Not out of self aggrandizement but because he never trusts an organised systemic approach. You tend not trust a system if you think it’s kicked you and yours in the teeth.

    I think hes interesting cos he’s writing serials mainly he’s writing books in a new way using new developments in technology. He wrote some pretty powerful scenes, painted vivid pictures in his words which oddly enough (or perhaps not so oddly considering ) was a real gift for later filmakers.

    I read some of his great granddaughters stuff (Monica Dickens )which was on an English Lit C.S.E. reading list way back in early 1970s – might as well have been the 1870s so much having changed since then. She was quite comical was Monica pursuing a career in local journalism which she described in a way that made at least me laugh. Not unlike her great grandad Chaz himself. Give the old lad a break.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    It depends on where and when you read Dickens how you feel about him. My Mother and I became locked on Tale of Two Cities. I am constantly surprised by the number of things she and I shared since I remember my teens as a time when we did not get on and later years when she criticised my decisions. We did enjoy TofTC, though and it’s about time for me to read it again I think. I know there are a number of characters I will want to smack up alongside the head but I can get past it.

  16. Ian Luck says:

    The first Dickens story I actually read, was ‘The Signalman’. Starting there, I must admit disappointment in his work thereafter. Apart from Krook’s spontaneous combustion in ‘Bleak House’, I found little that I really liked, and would want to read again. Add to that, his stories have been adapted for film and TV ad nauseum, and apart from David Lean’s luminous ‘Great Expectations’ (1946), which is a thing of beauty, then it might not hurt if Charles Dickens was quietly forgotten, at least for a few years, and discovered anew. He’s just too familiar. Sorry, Charles.

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