Monday, October 12, 2015

Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers (1836-37)

Pickwick in the barrow, by Phiz

Charles Dickens (Una Pope-Hennessy, 1945)

Forster, Johnson, Kaplan... the Lives of Dickens aren’t inspiring, and this is surely something to do with the man himself. No-one who read a biography of Dickens without knowing his books (impossible supposition) would suspect him of having written anything worthwhile. He emerges as frivolous, dandyish, conventional, an energetic businessman; on the whole, unamiable. His friends are not astounding (just think of Scott’s...) - he scarcely reads, is a philistine in art, drifts rather helplessly through married life and divorce, takes his notions from Carlyle of all people, is driven by motives it is hard to understand, constantly takes on too much, muddles through, lets people down. His unastounding friends patronize him even when they are overwhelmed by him, and we see their point of view. If Scott tends to underrate his own significance, he at least sees his art in recognizable terms. Dickens airily alludes to himself as “the Inimitable”, and that seems to be that. The features of his work that he openly discusses are trivia - he hopes to have “a great effect” with little Paul, or The Chimes... That’s something like the way you suppose Desmond Wheatley or Frederick Forsyth would put it.

Presumably all this is an essential aspect of (one can hardly call it an insight into) the unusual kind of greatness we encounter in Bleak House, Little Dorrit... in all his novels to some extent, for even the worst of them (let’s say, Tale of Two Cities) has a uniqueness, a fire about it that becomes apparent when we try to place it in the same universe as other books. Dickens, more than any other writer, permitted his imagination to cut loose from his own conscious life and opinions. Who else could do so? No-one who was not so naïve, so unintrospective, so ill-educated, so insensitive, so buoyed up by early success that he never had time to anxiously plan for.

And perhaps this peculiar situation does give some clue to why, though his greatness exceeds any other English novelist, it is not entirely happy. What I mean is that, although Little Dorrit is our greatest novel and Bleak House the most stupendous imaginative creation that is a novel, we always assert Dickens’ claim with a dissatisfied sense of paradox - his failures and limitations are peculiarly gross, he doesn’t happily supersede his competitors in every way (thus we have come to think of Shakespeare), or even in most ways. Just in a few ways, but in those, beyond argument.

And still, in those few are infinities. In all that line of big books our chief sense is of prodigal wealth - of how little we are wearied by repetition or perfunctory narrative. When, as occasionally in Hardy or Kipling or Conrad, we catch someone trying out a Dickensian sentence, we are embarrassed by their lack of confidence - into this sea of creation they will never plunge. I thought how unlike Mr Pickwick is to his author - and then I realized that all Dickens’ characters are quite unlike the Dickens of the biography - he seems never to have met himself. I suppose he never kept a journal - I can’t imagine its voice.
[*I since learnt that he tried keeping one for about a week, but couldn't get excited about it. On the other hand he was a very enthusiastic letter-writer.]

I think I have read all his novels at least twice - most of them three times, and some four or more. Even so, when I touch one of them, or pass the “Collected” in a corridor of Marston House, I’m impressed with a sense of the powerful energies contained within. They certainly are not “inexhaustible”, and I doubtless absorbed the essential image on first or second reading, but I know I’ll go back sometimes. London is spoiled for me because I still see it as Dickens’ London with flyovers - which means, I suppose, that I don’t see it very accurately - or perhaps “London” is a bagatelle, a will o’ the wisp, a Boojum (I have forgotten the word I want) that only exists in literature; there’s nothing but this kerbstone, this pigeon, this bus-lane... my sense that This is London - all the connotations and the “atmosphere” - are created by art alone - mostly by Dickens.

[This was written in 2001. I decided a long time ago not to chase around my Brief History trying to keep it all in line with what I currently believe; the variety is more entertaining. In this case what changed my idea of Dickens’ life and friends was the brief and powerful “In Memoriam : W. M. Thackeray” (Cornhill, Feb 1864). Here was witness to sides of Dickens not often seen. “We had our differences of opinion. I thought that he too much feigned a want of earnestness, and that he made a pretence of undervaluing his art, which was not good for the art that he held in trust. But, when we fell upon these topics, it was never very gravely, and I have a lively image of him in my mind, twisting both his hands in his hair, and stamping about, laughing, to make an end of the discussion.” Though Dickens’ poetic was certainly enigmatic, I now think he maintained the enigma because he grasped that it went beyond what could then be verbalized.]

Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers (1836-37)

It was 1985. After nearly six months as an IT trainee I joined the support team for the Accounting section of the Property Services Agency. This was at Ashdown House, in Hastings. (The building still stands, but appears to be unoccupied, like Tollgate House in central Bristol where I spent the rest of my civil service career – the sight of both buildings now filling me with the same sense of awe and ugliness, not unmixed with a certain joy.*) I was to witness the PSA’s obsolescence, decline and fall. In my first months, it was part of the Department of the Environment; it even had a venerable and meaningful history as the former Ministry of Works. (And, to my delight, a historical connexion with Chaucer.) The present didn’t seem half so meaningful. Only the old name gives any idea of what it was all for, which was basically to maintain government property: army barracks, ancient monuments, safe houses, Whitehall, mute office blocks in provincial towns, great parks, palaces, remote radio masts... But privatisation, the scaling down of the forces, and a fashion for senseless administrative fiddling (apparently designed to disrupt operations) soon did for all that. At least, that’s how it seemed to the staff.

Staff morale was treated with perfunctory contempt. Occasionally we were summoned into the canteen to hear a man in a suit say things like this:

“What that means effectively is that... Essentially the winners in those environments are those prepared to get out and compete and to take the knocks from trying to get your views across... In terms of the timescale it’s been altered by the announcement ... The number-one goal is to keep PSA services as a single entity... That will be announced, probably in the next couple of days... looking to... (raises palm in self-deprecation) That’s an awful jargon word... We can expect personnel functions to come down the line, away from the old centralized personnel function... an early-versus-later privatization... pie-in-the-sky... Clearly, in going into that wider marketplace we need to go where our strengths lie... the head-in-the-sand view... play to your strengths... Germany Region where we have to deal with the German Construction Association, or the German equivalent of that... aggressive... input once-and-once-only... In terms of handling that, what we’re looking to do is avoid any compulsory redundancy... You take Croydon and London, it tends to be a non-issue... We will have an arms-length relationship with them... If you look at... you tend to... Essentially what you’re looking at... What I see it as being is an issue that you tackle ‘as and when’. You won’t get... funny-money discussions... the real world doesn’t work like that... The simple answer is I don’t know but I have asked the question and I’m waiting for an answer on that... I’m taking the view that I’m looking to manage this problem... Effectively there’s nothing that’s not being looked at.”

It couldn’t have been clearer. A skip full of buff folders and find another job fast.

There were other voices. Sometimes, as if they weren’t used to it, they appeared in cards on the noticeboard. “Never knew I had so many friends... I have a passion for crystal-cut glassware...” “For Sale. Beautiful ivory wedding-dress, long sleeves, plus train, worn for a few hours.” “Just a small note (♪) to thank you for your kind wishes, and truly hope that things work out for you... I expect to be popping back to Hastings occassionally (that doesn’t look as though its spelt right, still never mind) so don’t be surprised if you see me around, especially at Christmas!”

Meanwhile IT management made its own efforts at communication:


You may know the feeling – you just leave the office to make a cup of coffee and when you get back your desk has broken out with a severe case of PC fever. Wherever you turn Personal Computers seem to be mushrooming and multiplying. It is no surprise perhaps, when you realise that there are currently in excess of 120,000 terminals and PCs in the Civil Service.

A support officer notes:

These users are sometimes nervous of new IT invading their offices, but they quickly tame the whirring beast and use it with some sophistication, pushing the software to its limits.

But I’m looking ahead. Let’s go back to 1985. I was so new that the only thing I didn’t understand was the long, gentle, bearded faces of my calm colleagues. I never would.

In our team Gerry was the acknowledged expert on the labyrinthine suites of COBOL programs that ran in batch overnight. Files of code filled shelves all along one side of the long office. There were no screens; the terminals we used resembled typewriters, our entries and the computer’s responses being printed out on rolls of paper that were stored for several months like medieval scrolls. Testing of programs was a slow business. To run a program we had to embed it in a test job, with all the physical devices and files specifically assigned, and make up a punched card, which was submitted later that evening in the distant and cavernous computer hall. This initiated the test run. Down there in the computer hall, shifts of operators readied tape drives, ran off prints, and so on.  

Though Irish by ancestry, and a republican, Gerry was English in accent and in all his tastes. He was a sweet-tempered and interesting man. His face had the “worn” impression that always intrigued me about people who had been in the same place for quite a long time - I was still young enough to regard seven years as an almost millennial stint. (At the other end of the long office sat our HEO, the diminutive Peter West, another paternal and awesome figure. He was blind, and operated various complex braille and speaking devices which enabled him to “see” the computer system with a clarity that none of us could match.) I think now that perhaps I was never fully accepted into this team, but at the time I loved working with Peter and Gerry. It was with them that I first heard the sort of civil-service speech, so evocative of the fifties and still so influenced by the second world war, that I now realize was on the verge of extinction.  By this I don’t mean Whitehall and public school, I am talking about junior civil servants.  For example, administrative and procedural information was for some reason always distributed (typed and cyclostyled) on yellow paper - presumably because this was the only way to make it stand out, the typeface being an invariable Courier. These handouts were always referred to as “yellow perils”. Sometimes, when we were in a meeting, the room would seem a bit dark and someone would flick a light on, invariably saying: “Let’s have a little light on the matter.” (This same ageing generation can now be discovered belonging to the Caravan Club and taking out its “Mayday” breakdown cover.)

Gerry and I had literary conversations. Sometimes they were about Bulldog Drummond (I could not contribute much to this, except from analogy with John Buchan). Otherwise they were about Dickens, and principally if not exclusively the Pickwick Papers, whose opening chapters Gerry admired - I think he considered the cricket match to be Dickens’ highest achievement. When, after writing about the biography, I took up Pickwick as the only Dickens novel currently on my bookshelf, I glanced at Chapter 12 and fell in with it; I recognized that it satisfied a need (now much less pressing than in the past) for “light” reading - a need formerly met by Buchan and Wodehouse. No other Dickens novel does this, and I began to understand Gerry’s opinion.

Incidentally I also saw how seminal the book had been for Wodehouse. In Chapter 12 we have the “conversation misconstrued as a proposal of marriage”; in Chapter 13 plying the electors with drink, laudanum and green parasols; later, the necessity of kissing a baby (“’Wouldn’t it have as good an effect if the proposer or seconder did that?’ ... ‘Very well’ with a resigned air ‘then it must be done’” - we almost hear Bertie Wooster saying “lead me to it”); in Chapter 14 the bar-side storytelling with captious comments, a constant feature of the Mulliner stories; later, numberless glasses of hot punch, with gradual change of personality; in Chapter 15, the argument about Tupman’s choice of fancy dress - a bandit (the germ of many Wodehouse conversations about Pierrots). More radically transformed, the master-and-servant relationship is a source of Jeeves and Wooster. Dickens does all these things once - in Wodehouse they become motifs, an epic diction that composes a “world” (the phrase “epic diction” is taken, I think, from Stephen Medcalf). [I was too hasty, however; the “change of personality caused by imbibing alcohol” does, in fact, recur several times - for instance when Pickwick drinks cold punch and falls asleep in a barrow.]

* Tollgate House, a 3-spoked office high-rise in Bristol, built 1975, demolished in 2006 - it was part of the site on the edge of St Jude's now gleamingly occupied by Cabot Circus.




At 6:03 am, Blogger Vincent said...

Fancy that, your being at Ashdown House in 1985. I worked there for several months as a contractor there in '73, writing an interminable program in Cobol which never worked under the team leadership of Bob Bollom. That's the only name I recall. Does it mean anything to you? Perhaps I was assigned one or two segments of a Cobol program, whose function was never quite made clear. It was still unfinished when I left. Was Gerry his real name? What was his surname? Bob Bollom was tall, ageless, a forever unruffled civil servant. In a Le Carré movie he'd have been played by Pete Postlethwaite.

As for The Pickwick Papers, it brightened a part of my lonely Dickensian childhood (Victorian at any rate), when I learned about the world through found books. I loved its light-hearted sparkle, dreaded the nightmarish interludes (the madman's memoir, Pickwick being sued and imprisoned for breach of promise.

John Carey has written brilliantly about Dickens' faults as a writer (& as a person?)—can't remember the name of the book.

At 11:05 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Gosh - I may have been supporting that same interminable program, twelve years on. I don't remember a Bob Bollom, though the name feels vaguely familiar.

John Carey's book was The Violent Effigy; I too liked that one a lot. My ignorant strictures about Dickens biographies were made before Tomalin but after Ackroyd, which makes them inexcusable really.


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