What the Dickens!

Engraving of snail by Orlando Jewitt

George Braintree:
Poverty and Oysters; how words inspired Charles Dickens
Gotham Press 1970

“It’s a wery remarkable circumstance, Sir,’ said Sam, ‘that poverty and oysters always seem to go together.”
— Sam Weller to Mr Pickwick

One of the most striking things about Dickens’ writings is the range of curious names his characters, places and book titles sport — Micawber, Chuzzlewit, Mudfog, Uriah Heap, and so on.

Georgian literature was replete with artful names, of course, usually suited to the nature of the person so called: Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s play The Rivals, for example, is from the French mal à propos (meaning ‘inappropriate’), and religious allegories like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress were chock-full of them.

But the names Dickens invents are altogether more playful and seemingly pointless except for their memorability. Where did he get his inspiration for them? George Braintree thinks he knows.

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Something rotten

Jan Mark: Heathrow Nights
Heinemann New Windmills 2002 (2000)

Three teenage tearaways from Hertfordshire, Adam, Curtis and the narrator Russell, disgrace themselves on an outing to see a performance of Hamlet and as a result are banned from a school trip to Cumbria. Rather than confess to their parents — and having intercepted letters from school — they arrange to spend the week in London. Alas, things don’t go according to plan and they find themselves in limbo wandering around the terminals of Heathrow Airport.

While they do so Russell is able to meditate more fully on his situation: his father having suddenly died, his mother hasn’t taken long to get remarried, to the person who was with his father when the latter unexpectedly passed away on a plane.

His resentment at a changing situation over which he has no control causes him to see parallels between himself and Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the prince learns from his father’s ghost that he was murdered by his uncle Claudius and that his mother Gertrude rushed to wed his uncle.

But is the comparison exact? Are there also parallels between other characters and the people he knows? And what will happen when his week in limbo comes to an end?

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About children

1953 Coronation mug

Jan Mark: The One That Got Away.
Thirty Stories from Thirty Years
Roffo Court Press 2020

How have I not come across the fabulous Jan Mark before? I look over some of the titles of her children’s books, all written and published over some three decades from 1974, and find that not one rings a bell. Maybe they weren’t what I was avidly consuming then, or what our children brought back from the library, but I now find she represents a significant lacuna in my reading experience.

Collected here are some thirty short stories arranged by alphabetical order of titles; they represent a selection of varied narratives, from school stories to family vignettes via ghost tales and humorous anecdotes, speculative short fiction and flashbacks to life in the mid-20th-century, and everything else in between.

I can’t possibly comment on them all so I’ll point out the real highlights for me, the ones that lingered even more than others as I read through the collection over a month, though to be honest that could still be a lot more than the representative sample I was intending.

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Serene economy

carnegie-waukegan
Waukegan’s Carnegie library

Ray Bradbury:
Summer Morning, Summer Night
Edited by Donn Albright and Jon Eller
Harper Voyager 2015 (2008)

Its suburbs housed young and old, hermits and gossips, conservatives and eccentrics, the love-lorn and the unlovable; Green Town, Illinois, was — maybe still is — a town of mystery, secrets and heartaches underneath its bland exterior.

Bradbury’s chronicles of lives lived under his microscope extended from the observational vignettes in Dandelion Wine to the magic realism of Something Wicked This Way Comes. Based on the author’s childhood experience in Waukegan, Illinois, its aspiring middle-class neighbourhoods are portrayed as a hothouse harbouring secret passions and private obsessions, all seething beneath a thin veneer of respectability.

This selection of short stories (some only half a page long) similarly let the reader eavesdrop or spy on the everyday doings of townsfolk; but rather than it being an abusive relationship our fly-on-the-wall position allows us to extend our compassion to many of the denizens, just occasionally permitting us to be judgemental.

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Passing ships

Katy Mahood: Entanglement
The Borough Press 2018

“Trains don’t stop at every station.”
— A mother’s response to her child’s query, from a moving railway carriage.

“Ships that pass in the night,” as Longfellow wrote, are like all us humans “on the ocean of life,” engaging with “only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.” Sometimes there is not even that look or voice, the encounter completely unconscious, and yet the voyagers may still have unforseeable influences on each other.

This is the kernel at the heart of Katy Mahood’s impressive debut novel Entanglements. The title refers to a concept in quantum physics, a connection (as I understand it) whereby subatomic particles may be separated by distance but still affect one another; observation of this connection, paradoxically, causes it to change or even cease to be.

Of course, non-physicists see entanglement in a much more mundane way, along with the frustration that comes from strands of string or wool being intertwined, and this more prosaic aspect is present too as a potent symbol in this most engaging of novels.

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Nostalgia revisited

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Roddy Doyle: Two Pints
Jonathan Cape 2012

It’s 2011, going into 2012, a tumultuous year or so in Europe affecting everyone from the great and the good down to the two old soaks in a Dublin bar. The Eurozone crisis, a succession of deaths in the pop world, visits to Ireland by the Queen and Barack Obama, the London Olympics, other sporting events, tribal loyalties—they’re all up for discussion by these worldly-wise observers meeting up for the odd jar or two.

Nameless, though with individual voices, this middle-aged pair come together to chew the fat on family, fame, news and other miscellanea in short conversational vignettes. In some ways they are a modern equivalent of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon: the spotlight is totally on them and their inconsequential chat full of what might or might not be of meaningful significance: always humorous, sometimes poignant and for us now, at a few years’ remove, it’s even somewhat nostalgic.

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Sense and sensitivity

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Gail Honeyman: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
HarperCollinsPublishers 2018 (2017)

Eleanor is a mass of contradictions: a classics graduate familiar with dead languages but having problems understanding metaphors; sensitive and yet not always displaying ‘common sense’; a creature of habit yet one who can surprise herself by occasionally straying beyond her comfort zone; seemingly happy with her own company but unprepared when she has to admit to herself to being profoundly lonely. Despite her mantra of being ‘completely fine’ she most decidedly is not.

This is a very percipient portrait of a vulnerable young woman living alone in Glasgow, how she goes through crises and what she puts herself through in order to survive. (You know what must follow in these pages when the very first section is headed ‘Good Days’.) It’s also a very funny book for all that it treats with abuse, near-death experiences, anxiety and depression: Eleanor has acquaintances who support and advise her, employers and work colleagues who turn out to be sympathetic and a therapist who understands her, and it’s her reactions to them and the everyday situations she meets that provide the leavening in what could otherwise be a very dark read.

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