from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Prince Phillip again.

Prince Phillip

June 15.  This is the same story told by David Maughan Brown on June 10, from the same perspective.

I too was a Deputy Vice Chancellor when the Royals came to my university.  I too ended up spending time with the Duke of Edinburgh (we both occupied, after all, the same rung in our organisations).

There was some flummery.  Ladies in Waiting really exist, and are indeed well-dressed women who stand around waiting to be useful.  One of them told me that the Queen was excited about the bus we had hired to transport her from one side of the campus to the other, because she had never in her life travelled on one.  Perhaps Ladies in Waiting have a hidden sense of humour.  I was gravely instructed in how to ask the Queen if she wanted to use the loo.  Unfortunately, I have now forgotten the exact form of words, but as she and I are now in perpetual lockdown, the occasion is unlikely to arise in the future.

After an opening ceremony, we divided our forces.  The Vice Chancellor, Janet Finch, took the Queen to see some new buildings, and I escorted Prince Philip to inspect a display of work by staff. He treated them as equals, interrogating the meaning of graphs, demanding to know the evidence for their conclusions.  Aggressive, but in the way that academics are to each other.

Then I walked him down to our main hall.  ‘Has the campus ever been planned?’ he asked me.  I told him that not initially, but a master-plan was developed in 1962.  ‘Are its results showing yet?’ he asked (this was now four decades later).  Fair question if you know the Keele campus.

We entered the hall, in which were gathered a hundred local dignitaries, standing around in groups of ten.  We had arrived before the Queen, but Philip suggested we tour the room without her.  I had a crib sheet and introduced him to each individual in turn.  ‘This is Mr. Blenkinsop of Allied Ball Bearings, this is Mr. Greatbach of the Greatbach Pottery …’. When we got to the end, the Queen appeared, and Philip said he would show her round, leaving the crib sheet with me.  He introduced the Queen to Mr. Blenkinsop and every subsequent person, without missing a name.  I was astonished at this feat of memory in a man who was by then well into his seventies.  ‘How did you do that?’ I asked him.  ‘Ties’ he said.  ‘I remember each tie and the name and activity attached to it.’

I think now, as I thought then, that this was a display of professional competence of a high order.  A little like that shown by nurses and doctors and social workers and teachers as they go about their business in the coronavirus crisis.  Quite unlike that displayed by our political leaders, the product of a democratic system which we thought was a better form of government than royalty.

And I say that as a life-long republican.

Dickens and Sundays, note 1.

The Guardian, as it happened, ran a piece by Peter Fiennes the day after mine, on Dickens and Little Dorrit and the lockdown.  It broadened out into a discussion of his way of life at the time, with the beginning of his public readings, a walking tour of the Lake District, his constant pacing of the London streets.  ‘Dickens of 1857’, it concludes, ‘would have had trouble enduring the lockdown.’

Dickens and Sundays, note 2

It was reported in the Times on Saturday Boris Johnson ‘is facing a cabinet backlash over plans to suspend Sunday trading laws after three ministers, including the chief whip, warned against it.’  Another of those three was the nanny-raised Jacob Rees-Mogg, in his capacity as Leader of the House of Commons.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Dickens and the San

June 12th

David Vincent’s very pertinent blog about Charles Dickens, with its vivid quotation from Little Dorrit describing Victorian lockdown in London, raises an interesting issue in the context of the current Black Lives Matter protests.  That relatively short quotation is enough to illustrate Dickens’ excellence as a descriptive writer whose extensive body of fiction fully justifies his reputation as one of England’s leading novelists.   In addition to being a powerful novelist, Dickens was a social reformer whose fiction is regarded as having assisted with bringing about positive social change during the nineteenth century.  But, unsurprisingly perhaps, there were other sides to him, as there were to the ‘philanthropists’ Cecil Rhodes and Edward Colston, not the least of which was, by all accounts, the way he behaved towards his family.

In the context of the Black Lives Matter protests, the mention of Rhodes and Colston in a blog reflecting on Dickens is not inadvertent.   Dickens visited the exhibition of ‘Bushmen’ in the Egyptian Hall in London in 1847, and wrote an article in Household Words in 1853 excoriating the notion of the Noble Savage.  In that article, he announces that he ‘abhors, detests, abominates and abjures’ the ‘horrid little’ leader of the San group on display ‘in his filth and his antipathy to water, and his straddled legs, and his odious eyes shaded by his brutal hand.’  But he goes further than merely expressing his abhorrence when he declares: ‘I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage…. I call a savage something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth… he is a savage – cruel, false, thievish, murderous; addicted more or less to grease, entrails and beastly customs….”  Dickens’s casual countenancing of the genocide which took place in parts of South Africa in the nineteenth century, which is implicit in the desirability of “civilizing” savages off the face of the earth, is made explicit later in the same essay: “All the noble savage’s wars with his fellow savages (and he takes no pleasure in anything else) are wars of extermination – which is the best thing I know of him, and the most comfortable to my mind when I look at him.’

While the language is as vivid, and the description of the San leader as powerful (in this instance as powerfully offensive), as it often is in his fiction, this is clearly not the Dickens of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.  In so far as Dickens appears to be advocating genocide, the extent of the explicit racism expressed here goes beyond that of Rhodes and probably, although I haven’t read any of his writings, of Colston.   Colston needed his slaves to be alive if they were going to bring any money in for him; and Rhodes needed black labourers to dig for his diamonds.  So should the Black Lives Matter movement be moving on to have statues of Dickens removed as well, and while they are about it, have his books removed from our library shelves and burned, once all the statues of Victorian slave owners and other overt racists have been removed?

The obvious answer is a resounding “no”.   That, of course, is what anyone would expect from a retired English professor.  But isn’t that a bit hypocritical, coming from someone who has been a strong advocate for the removal of the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town, and has expressed regret the Colston’s statue wasn’t removed in response to earlier petitions?  Why not statues of Dickens as well?  The argument that Dickens has enriched our cultural life immeasurably, and that his fiction was promoting progressive social causes won’t wash.  As philanthropists, Rhodes with his scholarships and other donations, and Colston with the money he gave to schools in Bristol will unquestionably have brought social benefit, in spite of the sources of their wealth.  The tired argument that Dickens, like Colston and Rhodes, were ‘men of their time’ isn’t any more convincing.  There were plenty of mid-Victorians who didn’t think that genocide was a good idea.

Leaving aside the obvious argument that burning books isn’t a good idea in principle, there seem to me to be three main arguments for distinguishing between Dickens on the one hand and Rhodes and Colston on the other.  First, Dickens’ abhorrent views about ‘noble savages’ didn’t inform his fiction in any significant way, unlike, for example, the way Wilbur Smith’s racist ideology has informed his best-selling novels and influenced for the worse hundreds of thousands of readers’ racial attitudes in the process.  Second, leading on from that, Dickens’ racial views have not led to thousands of deaths.   The genocidal Afrikaaner settlers who murdered all the San in the Orange Free State were not inspired to do so by having read Dickens’ articles in Household Words.  Third, anybody looking at a statue of Dickens will recognise it as a tribute to an unquestionably important novelist whose major legacy is his body of fiction, not anything he wrote in Household Words.  In fact, perhaps regrettably, the chances of anybody, including any possible San visitors to U.K., knowing anything about his views on the San are vanishingly small, so it is highly unlikely that his statue, unlike those of Rhodes and Colston, is going to be hurtful or offensive to  anyone.   

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: London. Gloomy, close and stale

Little Dorrit (first edition image in public domain) ‘Damocles’

June 12. The most famous literary description of lockdown is to be found at the beginning of chapter 3 of Dickens’ Little Dorrit.  Arthur Clennam, a middle-aged businessman, has returned to London from Marseilles to close down his late father’s estate.  He is gazing out of the window of a coffee shop, summoning the courage to visit his old family home:

“It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close, and stale.  Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance, sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brick and mortar echoes hideous.  Melancholy streets, in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look out of windows, in dire despondency.  In every thoroughfare, up almost every alley, and down almost every turning, some doleful bell was throbbing, jerking, tolling, as if the Plague were in the city and the dead-carts were going round.  Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibility furnish relief to an overworked people.  No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no rare plants or flowers, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world – all taboo with that enlightened strictness, that the ugly South Sea gods in the British Museum might have supposed themselves at home again.  Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets.  Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets.  Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up.  Nothing for the spent toiler to do but to compare the monotony of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it – or the worst, according to the probabilities.” Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857; Penguin 1967), pp. 67-8.

It should be noted that this was the perspective of a particular section of British society.  That symbol of a more secular sabbath, the Sunday newspaper, had recently been invented – Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper in 1842, the News of the World in 1843, Reynolds’ News in 1850.  At the time that Dickens was writing, Henry Mayhew, whose surveys of food and flowers we have cited in earlier Friday diaries, was walking the London streets collecting material on the vivid, noisy world of the costermongers, which continued the week round.

Nonetheless it was a vivid account of the experience of the evangelical middle class of the time.  As with the current lockdown, it was an essentially man-made event.  In this case it replicated the response to a pandemic without the medical justification.  And whilst the full observance of a day of church services and Bible reading was confined to a religious sect, their influence on the political process was such that they were able to impose their restrictions on the rest of society.  What most annoyed Dickens was their success in closing the widening range of improving entertainments which had opened in the capital and elsewhere during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.  Working a six-day week for the most part, Sunday was the only time that the bulk of the London workforce could take their families to visit attractions which were both entertaining and instructive.  They both deserved and would benefit morally from the opening of the British Museum and other venues.

In normal times, museums and galleries are now open on Sundays as are a host of more profane entertainments.  But we continue to experience the Sabbatarian legacy, with larger shops closed before 10 and after 4 in order that we might attend a church service.  As we begin to explore a return to a post-pandemic world, Sunday opening has become one of the many issues that were described in yesterday’s diary, where Government proposals are provoking argument rather than consent.  In order to boost the retail sector which has been so badly hit, a Minister has suggested that the Sunday trading laws be suspended for a year.  The British Chambers of Commerce is in favour of the change, but Labour argues that it would favour supermarkets over the smaller shopkeepers, as does the chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores.  USDAW, the shopworkers’ trade union, protests that “the last thing the retail industry needs is longer trading hours, there is no economic case for this and it will put extra pressure on the retail workers who have worked so hard throughout this crisis.”  Then there associated disputes about whether any relaxation of social contact should be allowed, and if so, what distance should be kept between people.

We need a Dickens fully to describe the times we are living through.  And we need a basis for agreeing change, without setting interest against interest, class against class.