Monday, 3 December 2012

What the Dickens?

I have a feeling I've written before about missing the fucking point. Surely it must have come up, at least once in this blog, that far from being the respectable face of Literature, Shakespeare was a filthy minded bastard writing for a group of people who were considered little better than whores? That theatre, far from being an institution, was something known to contemporaries as 'The Anti-Christ's lewd hat'1?

This actually hasn't come up?

Nah, it must have done.

So, I shan't bang on about tidying up the past, about assuming things were simpler and more respectable than they were2. I shan't make a fuss about the mistaken concept that those really pretty clothes confer some kind of moral value upon a time period, I will simply say that I get it.

Honestly, I do get it, this need to romanticise the past. I get that if we don't romanticise something we might as well give up now. On a day-to-day basis, this ability to imagine is sometimes what makes it worth getting out of bed in the morning.

So, by all means – enjoy your fiction about Lords and Ladies, lusty gamekeepers, great artistic genius, the Golden Age of chivalry or whatever it is that floats your boat. But two small requests? Bear in mind it had fuck all basis in reality. And, please, please don't make my sense of irony jump down my throat and drown me in my own misspent bile.

This is particularly relevant when it comes to books, and to writers. There is a significant and important line between “dreamy eyed fan fic” and “what is actually going on in the fucking novel”. Of course, Henry Tilney is the perfect man, and life would be a much so much duller if I... *ahem*, I mean one... couldn't indulge in the odd teenage style daydream complete with anachronistic attitudes to gender and pre-marital sex. However, one really should remember that – while it is about marriage - Northanger Abbey is far more satire than romance. Have as many wet dreams as you like about Fitzwilliam Darcy but do take care to remember that Austen was an acerbic and potentially cynical woman. And don't buy this. Please, don't buy this:

However that particular travesty of literary interpretation is not the reason for this little rant. Not even slightly. No, this weekend past I found myself back in my old stomping ground of North Kent and managed, somewhat against my intentions, to wander into the centre of Rochester in the middle of its Dickensian Christmas extravaganza.

Now, Rochester is very proud of Dickens and, while he's not my personal cup of tea, I do think it's nice that a local writer gets the full treatment of adoration and civic display3. So, for one weekend only, Rochester turned out into its Victorian best. Crinolines abounded. The odd Gothic minded young women did a passable (and potentially inadvertent) impression of a demi-mondaine. Soldiers wore those terribly impractical but wonderfully smart red uniforms4, and one wanker missed the point entirely and turned up with a pair of goggles on his topper5.

Okay, there were very few rickets. There was no ostentatious penury, infant mortality or displays of brutality. There were not even the plimsolled, soot-faced waifs that frequent May's Sweeps' Festival6. And, yes, omitting all these is to downplay Dickens' role as a writer pushing for social reform but, I'll concede that good clean fun and late 19th Century conditions of deprivation are perhaps mutually exclusive. Then I saw it. Letters three feet high, blazoned across a refreshment marquee:

Miss Havisham's Tea Tent.

You... you don't mean that?


Wanker with the goggles? Come back. All is forgiven.

2Or, indeed, grimier and more miserable.
3Actually, I'd rather we did it rather more often, only with less of the attendant nationalism, but you know...
4And pith helmets, which was a little unexpected outside of the colonies (and no, it wasn't a Home Service helmet.) but maybe they were supposed to be on leave.
5Actually, I love steam-punk, but that is now the OMT for steam-punk garb at an historical event.
6Well, it was a bit chilly and certain agencies would complain if the council pushed historical accuracy to its fullest.