“To be shelterless and alone in the open country, hearing the wind moan and watching for day through the whole long weary night; to listen to the falling rain, and crouch for warmth beneath the lee of some old barn or rick, or in the hollow of a tree; are dismal things -- but not so dismal as the wandering up and down where shelter is, and beds and sleepers are by thousands; a houseless rejected creature.”
Charles Dickens - Poverty and the Poor.
Another anniversary! This time, we celebrate the bi-centenary of the great author and social commentator Charles Dickens, whose life was recently celebrated in a service at Westminster Abbey.
Dickens wrote novels that most of us at school studied as set texts. Many of them were bleak and were a social commentary on Victorian England, with its grinding poverty, poor houses, open sewers and sickness. In dark, pea-souper alleys, people lay sodden drunk from gin or spaced out in opium dens. There were regular runs on banks that ruined many. Small children climbed and cleaned out chimneys and sold matches. Stealing meant transportation for the smallest of misdemeanours.
As a result of his writings and the contribution of many other creative people, some of the most significant infra-structure projects our country has ever seen were delivered.
Whilst Victorian England has passed from living memory and remains something we read about in history books, most of us wander through towns and cities that contain solid-built Victorian buildings. My first flat was in a Victorian building, constructed by craftsmen who were proud of what they built, full of swirling plaster mouldings, patterned architraves and tiles hand laid with care and attention.
In London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol and most of our fine cities, we walk on the bones of these ancestors who generated wealth for us from the industrial revolution.
Whatever the moral rights and wrongs are from this wealth creation, as we move into a period in the present where we will be celebrating the life of a great artist, I ask you to consider whether much has really changed?
Of course we've benefited from technological advancement, but has this been shared with all the people?
Isn’t our drug and alcohol dependency still as high as it ever was?
Do our children and young people aspire to better their lives through good jobs and a decent education?
Do people live in decent, affordable homes?
Do some suffer from food impoverishment?
Whilst some of the terrible diseases people suffered and died from 200 years ago have been eradicated (cholera, typhus, TB, smallpox), the startling fact for me is that when you pick at the surface, much remains the same, because human nature doesn’t really change all that much. It’s just that our ‘toys’ and methods of communication become more sophisticated.
Where are the great social reformers for the 21st Century? Who are the creative people waiting to take on the mantle of the great Dickens? Where are the leaders who will take a risk and work from conviction rather than personal interest?
WHAT THE DICKENS IS GOING ON?