Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Streets Ahead – Dickens & London

Streets Ahead is the occasional column from London Walks' Pen David Tucker Today's instalment has a Dickens flavour…

Dickens 200: Dickens and London

By David Tucker

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.’

From the Cross Keys Pip goes by hackney coach to Little Britain, where Mr. Jaggers, the mysterious lawyer - the spider at the centre of the plot web of the novel - has his offices. Little Britain. Right by Smithfield – London’s cattle market. London’s killing-fields. Its avatar of abattoirs. Pip says, ‘it was a shameful place… asmear with filth and fat and foam and blood… which seemed to stick to me.’

“Smithfields is where we go on my Shakespeare's and Dickens' Old City London 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. He wrote the novel 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.

Shakespeare's and Dickens' Old City goes every Sunday at 2.00p.m.

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