Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Is a New Year’s resolution really the solution?

Every New Year, people flock to try out the latest fitness crazes and fads. Purchase lotions, potions and electronic contraptions in order to trim and slim, but feed their egos. I personally think the best way to get fit is to employ what I call the ‘Charles Dickens Method’; basically, go on massive walks for a good few hours. Allegedly the writer would take the air daily and spend his walking time reflecting and working on the structures of his novels.

charles dickens in his studyI always find it a tad ironic that people will drive to a gymnasium to maybe then hit the treadmill for twenty minutes. I have often thought that electricity in the gymnasium is in fact powered by the people pounding the machines, cycling and rowing, feeding a ginormous electrical generator to fuel the lights for the establishment.

Another favourable way to slice off the poundage is to dance like a maniac to disco tunes, like Olivia Newton John’s track, Physical.

Or perhaps, you could don some silver hot pants and boogie around a local roller disco, just like Sir Cliff Richard in the video, Wired for Sound. I advise readers of a nervous disposition to please refrain from viewing this music video nasty. Once seen, never ever forgotten. Please note this was released at the time when punk was storming the establishment!

If you are insistent on picking up a DVD with the latest celebrity, please – before you do I wholly recommend this classic, Zsa Zsa Gabor’s, ‘It’s Simple Darlings’:

No other fitness guru will attack the workout in the calm and tortoise-slow manner than this famous-for-being-famous star. She even has the assistance of two hunky henchman to help her into positions, in between innuendo-rich dialogue that would not be out-of-place in a Benny Hill Script.

You may not lose weight through the exercises but I can guarantee you will with laughter.

Remember, it’s simple darlings!

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All The Year Round

I have begun my latest reading project: to swim my way through the oceans of literature that Mr. Charles Dickens created during his lifetime.

charlie dickens in his syudyI purchased 13 Volumes from Kernaghan Books in Liverpool. I must confess, I started The Pickwick Papers a few weeks ago but struggled a little so decided to try David Copperfield. Instantaneously, the episodic nature had me hooked. I wanted to see how a reader of the day would experience Dickens’ work. So I visited the Liverpool John Moores Special Collections and Archive to take a peep at one of their latest acquisitions, a collection of All The Year Round. (A weekly journal conducted by Charles Dickens, with which is incorporated Household Words. Price 2D)

All the year roundBoldly emblazoned on the cover is a quote from William Shakespeare:

The story of our lives from year to year.

Shakespeare

The periodical has all types of feature for the reader of the day from marital advice:

The earth is full of couples who are made for each other, not only of couples whose destiny it is to love but of those whose destiny it is to hate. For every spider there is created a fly, for every cat a mouse, for every bird a worm, for every innocent bill holder a really innocent bill acceptor and for every picture dealer a picture buyer.

to advertisements for Dickens’ infamous reading performances.

Christmas Carol and Mrs Camp
MR CHARLES DICKENS READINGS
April 18th (1861)
Little Dombey and The Trial from Pickwick
at St. James Hall, Piccadilly

There is a great exposition of social issues of the day:

…sense of the joy and purity of life comes from the children as they dance and sing in the midst of the toiling crowd. But let the millions who toil in England pass before us in one great procession, and we shall find sad companies of eager, undergrown, unwholesome men walking with none but pale, none but pale and weak eyed women and with none but bruised and weary little children, stunted of growth, some even wearing spectacles, all silent as the grave.

CHILDREN OF WORK June 8th 1861.

The celebrated writer’s fiction proved to be an education tool too, a way of informing and instructing the masses. I particularly like the way we can see the development of what are now understood to be classics in the canon of literature:

In No 84 of ATYR to be published on December 1st will be commenced, GREAT EXPECTATIONS A new serial story, to be continued from week to week until completed in about eight months.

In a world where we have access to instantaneous information at our finger tips, it is hard to imagine waiting weekly for the next part of a story in print. The Dickensian reader would not read the tales in one sitting, they evolved over time and were delivered as episodes weekly. To think about in a modern context, take your favourite t.v. programme series, say BREAKING BAD, SHERLOCK (please add appropriate title), now put all of the scripts into one place. That is a hell of a lot of words, copious pages of syntax. The way I am attacking the reading of Charles D is not really how it was intended to be read.

The archive space here in Liverpool is really something special. A place to handle the creative past, to instantaneously transport back to previous literary and cultural times.

LJMU archive is accessible to the general public by appointment 10-4 Monday to Friday. It houses a host of intriguing collections:

  • THE SITUATIONIST INTERNATIONAL
  • JOHN MCCREADY ARCHIVE
  • THE ARTHUR DOOLEY ARCHIVE

arthur dooley

  • THE LIDDELL HART COLLECTION OF COSTUME
  • INTERNATIONAL TIMES
  • THE BARRY MILES ARCHIVE
  • ENGLAND’S DREAMING: THE JON SAVAGE ARCHIVE

punk

  • CYBERNETICS, PUNK, FASHION, COUNTERCULTURE, THEATRE, ART, HISTORY.

In keeping with the technological times we live in, there are also a number of resources online. After all, If Charles Dickens were alive today he would be blogging, instructing people from his iPad, laptop or smartphone, for this is the way readership is now acquired. And imagine what Oscar Wilde could do with twitter!

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Digital Detox

Sunday morning and I am now 24 hours into my digital detox. No social media, no e-mail! I am not even allowed to turn on my iPad to type up my scraps of material from the week before.

I have a presentation to make in the University early next week. I know I need to sort the slides, visuals and notes. I aim to get through until Monday morning and map out my session on paper with sketches and rough drafts.

I did contemplate sticking a small microchip or a bar code to my arm, like a Nicorette patch, to help stave off my digital cravings.

digital detox

Stop the need to view a TED talk or play music through Spotify. I‘ve even got my old long player vinyl records, that I inherited from my parents, out of the loft. The scratching sounds of Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex, to help me with my electronic fast.

I had an action planned day, scheduled on Saturday with Sophie, my ten-year old niece. Drama class at eleven for her, giving me an hour to work on my new piece of writing PUPPET.

Lunch in Chinatown, followed by the new exhibition at The Bluecoat (ironically, focusing on how artists are questioning the impact of digital technology on humans), then to the Planetarium at the Museum for a show on the Winter Sky at night.

The works on display at The Bluecoat were extremely interesting.

The stand out piece for me had to be by Marilene Oliver. The artist has reconstructed her mother and father through stacked screen printed sections taken from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. The sculpture is like something out of a Sci-Fi movie. It has a strange, other worldly presence that is captivating and also quite unnerving.

Marilene_Oliver__Family_Portrait__Self-Portrait___Sophie__2002__02

By chance, whilst at The Bluecoat, we stumbled upon an open day for the printing studio, The Juniper Press. A newly formed letter-press studio equipped with traditional type and presses for the use of artists and designers. The room was brimming full of people, with lively demonstrations taking place. The space smelt of raw oil based ink and crisp sharp printed pages, metal prints hot off the press – literally.

Juniper_Press_Stamps_THUMB

Letter-press printing has been in existence for over 500 years. There is currently a revival of this lost art taking place, perhaps people yearn for something more practical. The printmakers told me that there is a real resurgence of interest and use in contemporary art and design.

My niece had the opportunity to work a Victorian Anvil Press and see exactly how the letters were composed and physically pressed on to the paper. A process that requires complete accuracy and attention to detail. With no room for too much error, as paper, print and resources were costly.

Now in these more austere times, we can learn a lot from this way of working, for it’s so easy to just press the mouse and print off a document, typos and all. The art of taking time and care to compose the structure of a piece of writing is something that can often be omitted. It is so easy to rattle off an e-mail and put it out there without having the time to think. I am an advocate of the ‘think before you click’ philosophy.

So for half an hour in the studio I was transported away from this modern life. I lost myself in the pleasures of print making. It was fantastic for my niece to see the mechanics of the process and understand the origins of the word font.

I must confess I am now a converted lover of letter-press printing. Leaving the studio, I purchased a book mark with a quote emblazoned on it from Benjamin Franklin,

Give me twenty-six SOLDIERS OF LEAD and I will conquer the world.

In a week that has seen the loss of the admirable activist, Tony Benn, a man of true values, this did bring a smile to my face.

tony benn

Back to my writing studio and the digital detox.

That night, in keeping with the Victorian theme, I started my next reading project. To get through the entirety of Charles Dickens’ back catalogue. I’ve recently purchased a superb collection from Kernaghan Books. As you can see, this may take me some time.

Dickens books

I encourage a weekly daily digital detox, it’s cleared out the electronic clutter in my mind.

Now to my inbox.

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A dolly for Christmas

Settle down for Christmas Eve as John Maguire follows the Victorian tradition of a creepy tale…

Light the candle, perhaps cradle a mug of fiendishly delicious hot chocolate, or a generous measure of an Islay Malt throw a log on the fire, baton down the hatches and settle into your reading chair.

Pick up a ghost tale this Xmas eve,  just like Dickens, just like M.R James, perhaps pick up: Dolly by Susan Hill.

Dolly-by-Susan-Hill

With this story, the writer comes along and totally blows all other ghost story writers to hell and back, with her simple scare fest of a tale. The simplicity of the story is what makes the story. There is no need for superfluous character backlogs or divisions, her tale, does exactly what it should do, tells the tale.

Set in the damp and desolate landscape of the English fens. An unforgettable summer at Iygot house sees Edward Caley and his brat of a cousin share experiences that have a deep effect on them.

Every piece of syntax is necessary, every detail, reference, in order to lead the reader on a quest, to try to solve the ghoulish puzzle. Her writing is a rarity in that you can be reading and completely immersed without realisation.

Hill allows the reader to dive in to her words, swim calmly and before they realise almost drown, frantically come up for air and realise it is not real, it is in fact just a story.

John Betjeman boldly proclaimed, ‘M.R James is the greatest master of the ghost story, Henry James, Sheridan Le Fanu and H. Russell Wakefield are equal seconds.’ I would like to suggest that Susan Hill indeed needs to be put into this pantheon of terror.

susan hill

Her recipe for a chilling ghost story,

Start very quietly and go: one, two, three, jump. Or start with a jump and make it jumpier. But with a long story, it must have rises and falls. The Turn of the Screw describes it perfectly: you keep, turning and, just before the end, let go a bit so your audience relaxes and maybe have a description of scenery….for a false sense of security.

There is a word for this kind of artistry and it’s not one that can get thrown around too easily, in this case though it is true and the word is genius.
You must convey that you’re on the side of the innocent. Fighting malevolence…….the eternal battle between light and dark.

ghosts

So this yule time perhaps give the family a gift they will never forget, after all everybody loves a dolly.

victorian xmas

Sweet dreams.

 

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A Hallowe’en Tale: The Signalman by Charles Dickens

Vintage spooks from chilling tales, brought to you this All Hallows’ Eve by John Maguire

Halloa! Below there,

So begins Charles Dickens’ short tale of the supernatural, The Signalman.

A ghost story of quality should be simple and use language to create atmosphere, tension and generally – to coin a cliché – raise the hairs on the back of one’s neck. Dickens delivers with a chilling compact example of a classic ghost story; a shocking account of one man’s haunting amidst rails and tram noises.

The tale first appeared in the Christmas edition of the magazine All Year Round, in 1866. It is believed that the master wordsmith used personal experience from his direct involvement in the Staplehurst Rail Crash of 1865. After surviving the tragedy, he nursed other victims, some of whom passed away whilst he was with them. Dickens suffered what would now be known as post-traumatic stress syndrome, losing his voice for two weeks.

staplehurst

From that day onwards he sought other means of transport when travelling. In a letter to an old school friend Thomas Mitton, he conveyed his feelings.

I am a little shaken, not by the beating and dragging of the carriage in which I was, But by the hard work afterwards in getting out the dying and the dead which was most horrible.

The celebrated author even risked his life after the derailment to clamber back into the carriage to retrieve his working manuscript of Our Mutual Friend. Some say he never got over this tragedy and five years after the crash, he died on the anniversary of the day it had occurred, 9th June 1870.

The location of a railway line for a ghost story is quite unsettling. Places that are usually bustling and busy when completely still and empty can convey an unnameable terror; think of an open plan office after hours, a desolate 24 hour supermarket with its lonely aisles, or a completely empty swimming pool. Dickens cleverly taps into the public collected subconscious, the unnerving attitude to the transitional times of industrialisation. (Rail travel was relatively new in Victorian England). He also very cleverly preys on one of humankind’s universal traits, that of curiosity.

the signal man

The story unfolds through the eyes of the narrator and the Signalman is never given a name, which creates a cold distance from the onset. He had fixed eyes and a saturnine face. The reader shares with the narrator’s bewilderment at the strange behaviour of the signalman.

The monstrous thought came into my mind….that this was a spirit not a man. I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind.

The troubled signalman keeps staring at a bell that only he can hear ring, this everyday object is used as a menacing instrument to scare.

There is a celebrated TV adaptation of the piece by Andrew Davies, first broadcast in 1976. This seminal work stands alongside the 1968 adaptation of M.R James’ Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad, both outstanding examples of the less is more school of horror. (The latter was re-made in 2010 with distinguished actor John Hurt playing the protagonist).

Charles Dickens and M.R James recognise that ghost stories work at their best when the reader is taken on a journey, questions and has to fill in the blanks with their imagination. It is not necessarily what is said, but what is not, the unknown that gives that all important shiver factor. You know a story has worked when you quicken the speed when passing an open door to a darkened room in your familiar home, you awake and rapidly seek the light switch and when bedroom objects take on a monstrous guise, a simple coat and hat stand can appear as a hooded shadowy figure.

So this Hallowe’en, read by candlelight either alone or out loud to friends and family, a simple ghost story. This will indeed, I promise be more of a fearful experience than sitting down to watch SAW 14 or another similar gore fest.

Good night and sleep tight!

the signal man 2

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Father of Liverpool culture’s voice continues to resonate in the Pool of Life

Another of our guest posts by John Maguire, whose biography of William Roscoe is due for publication in 2014

Liverpool John Moores University continues to champion the spirit of the esteemed father of Liverpool Culture, William Roscoe, via the 2013 Roscoe Lecture Series. These free lectures will recommence after the summer with the Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson OBE discussing the challenges and opportunities facing Mayors and their cities, to be held in October at the Philharmonic Hall.

The esteemed talks have seen some of the country’s leading commentators join the people of Liverpool in discussing the issues that really matter to them. Speakers as diverse as writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, cosmologist Professor Martin Rees, the campaigner Esther Rantzen and his Holiness the Dalai Lama. To encourage an exchange of ideas, question and stimulate debate, to generate a deeper understanding in a time of increasing diversity and social change.

The lectures are named after the father of Liverpool Culture: William Roscoe. A man who helped transform 19th century society by campaigning against the evils of slavery. He had the guts to stand up and rail against the slave trade that had made the fortunes of many of his peers. Roscoe made a massive contribution to the Liverpool tapestry, he created the Liverpool Botanic Garden, formed the Liverpool Royal Institution and the Athenaeum Library.

William_Roscoe

The highlight of this season’s free lectures had to be the 107th Lecture, where Claire Tomalin was welcomed to muse on her latest literary offering, Charles Dickens: A Life.

Ms Tomalin passionately enthused on Dickens and illustrated many comparisons between Roscoe and the Great Victorian Novelist. The work of both illustrates a transformative manifesto for social change. Dickens’ father was constantly in and out of debt and the trauma and humiliation scarred his very being and indeed fired his furnace of ambition. Leaving school at fifteen he worked as an office boy in a law firm and took up shorthand, this skill led him to legal reporting and he could draft detailed reports which developed his reputation with the newspapers. The contacts he made in this industry would eventually lead to his sketches being published and creating such an impressive body of work.

Roscoe too left school at an early age, having learned all that his schoolmaster could teach. With a passion for education he began to read the classics. Alongside his work as a lawyer, he made acquaintance with the language and literature of Italy, which was to dominate his life. An aficionado of art, examples from his collection can be found in the Walker Art Gallery. His obsession led to writing a history of Lorenzo de Medici in 1796. Quite co-incidentally Claire Tomalin owns a first edition of this book!

The discussion touched on all the facets of Dickens’ character, including his love affair with the ‘Pool of Life’, which began when he sailed from the Mersey for the first time in 1842 for America. He wrote from the Adelphi to his sister on the ‘warmth and reception’ the Liverpool people had given him.

He had a lust for life and his pre-talk rider would often be a pint of sherry and a pint of Champagne. The ‘inimitable’ Bos would walk every day, writing typically till around 2pm and then perambulating around the Metropolis, stoking the fire of his creativity, orchestrating his plots and narratives. He famously declared in later life, when seized by gout, that he would explode if he could not work. His sheer mental and physical energy is illustrated in the fact that, alongside writing his novels and running a magazine, he would also steam through at least one hundred letters of correspondence a year.

Dickens’ regard for those on the edges of society went beyond mere research for his novels; he would often visit prisons and was genuinely interested in real people, far from the kind of staged concern adopted by many modern-day z-list celebrities and Hollywood royalty.

Indeed, the sheer opulence of the Liverpool architecture left Claire Tomalin ‘stunned’. However for a biographer writing about an author famed for his research and attention to detail – Dickens trained at Bridewell to be a special constable just so he could wander around the Liverpool docks later at night – it is almost bizarre that it was Tomalin’s first visit to the Hall, scene of Dickens’ legendary penny readings. Still, the theme of the evening, how Dickens turned himself by his own efforts into good order, delivered by a lady who clearly understood her subject and spoke about the man with passion was enough to brighten up a dull wet Wednesday evening

The Roscoe lecture series continue in forging the very fabric of this city’s greatness. As the man himself cited,

everything connected with intellect is permanent.

Thankfully the lecture series continues to be a permanent feature in the university.

All lectures are free but entrance is by ticket only. To reserve your tickets for next season, please contact LJMU’s Conference and Event Services team on 0151 231 3668 or email RoscoeLectures@ljmu.ac.uk

Picture by Rod Crosby at Wikimedia

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An accidental tourist

I’m leaving because the weather is too good.  I hate London when it’s not raining

-Groucho Marx

This morning, after a most enjoyable Full English (exquisite black pudding, sorry veggies), I left the Aged Relatives at the station and wondered what to do with the rest of a beautifully sunny Sunday on which I had no further plans for the day.  Deciding upon a big long walk was the easy option.  A quick look at Google Maps on the phone and I was off as quickly as my hungover legs could carry me.

It wasn’t long before I stumbled across blogging gold, in the form of probably the most inappropriately named block of flats in the universe (click on the thumbnail for more detail):

House

Aesthete and purveyor of fine wit, Noel Coward, numbers among his many triumphs a note-perfect performance in The Italian Job as the patriotic gang boss Mr. Bridger.  Aesthete and purveyor of fine drawings, Aubrey Beardsley, created beautifully erotic illustrations for a number of  the most notorious publications of the Art Nouveau period, including Oscar Wilde’s Salome. That noise you can hear as you gaze at the signs affixed to these particular examples of concrete brutalism is the sound of two meticulous men spinning like turbines in their respective graves.  At least, I think that and I like brutalist architecture.

Wandering on I came across this scene:

River

… containing plenty for me to muse upon, the odd but strangely mesmirising MI6 building – star of nearly as many Bond films as Judi Dench – it appears to be the kind of Art Deco palace a 30s Hollywood mogul would have had built, but is really an 80s pastiche.  It is just possible to see the exposed remains of the huge mudflats which Charles Dickens would have known before the Embankment was built to reclaim some of the riverside.  That provided extra space for the new-build flats seen in the background, with the cranes suggesting yet more are being added, because London has next to no yuppie flats, of course.

There were parts of this walk which were very familiar, both from pictures and previous wanderings, but next up was a part of town which was a beautiful surprise even for a cynical and embittered Londoner like myself.  Victoria Tower Gardens has it all: plenty of space for reclining on the lawn, river views and fresh air, as well as interesting sculptures and statues to break up the sense of monotony that a town-dweller can feel on looking at a wide expanse of grass.  First up was an elaborate bit of Gothic masonry – which on closer inspection turned out to be the Buxton Memorial Fountain – built to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade.  One of the original castings of Rodin’s sculpture of The Burghers of Calais is also located in the park, having been bought for us by the British Government.  See, they don’t always spend our money on tat!

This stroll through the park brought me somewhere I hadn’t visited since a distant school trip, or walked to since the ill-fated 2003 Iraq War protest march: my Nation’s Parliament.  Naturally no troughing MPs in view, as it was a Sunday and they are also on recess for a little while longer.  Perhaps taking inspiration from this statue of Richard I, who spent less than six months of his ten-year reign in England?

Richard

And then we come to my favourite view of London, the dome of St Paul’s as seen from the South Bank:

View

Here it is looking picture-postcard perfect, glinting in the sunshine as if impersonating Wren’s source of inspiration, St Peter’s in Rome.  There are more stunning images here, including another of my favourites (if you scroll down a bit): the dome enveloped in cloud and lit up by searchlights during the blitz of 1941.

By now the urge to sleep off my breakfast was winning out over any desire for further wanderings, so it was time to hop onto the bus for home.  Things learnt were many and it was heart-warming to act like a new arrival to this city I have called home for most of the last decade.  All for the price of two bus fares and a bottle of water.  Sometimes the best holidays are those spent on familiar territory.

So now off to snooze while agreeing with that other cheerleader for the old metropolis, Samuel Johnson:

By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show

All photographs taken by Julia

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