Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dickens video clips from United Streaming

The impact of poverty on his life and work:

Brief author profile:

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The untimely death of prof. Ledger

Last week I was shocked and saddened to learn of the tragic and unexpected death of prof. Ledger, with whom I spent a lovely afternoon in London last July. You can read about our meeting in an earlier post on this blog, but I wanted to take a moment to express my gratitude and appreciation for the work she did and the kindness she showed me.

Her obituary on the Birkbeck site gives you a sense of how respected and well liked she was.

Her full obituary from The Guardian is also quite astounding.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Tired Feet

So...after seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting and touching London, a good deal of its Dickensian and Victorian history, and walking down most of its central streets, what will I pass on to my students?

Why was Dickens such an important writer?

How was he influenced by London, the city in which he lived, and how did he, in turn, influence it?

What is his legacy?

How did he come to be the beloved figure that he is?

Good questions! I've been struggling to answer them since I began reading Dickens myself, twenty years ago, and after this trip, I have a much better idea. However, instead of dishing out a deluge of my thoughts, I'd rather refer to the experts. Read on to learn more about all I heard and saw from the Londoners I met. For a chronological look at my travels, scroll all the way down to the bottom of this page and click on "older posts", then navigate to my first entry on July 18th.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Heading Home

My head is reeling with all that I saw and heard this week, and it will most likely continue to do so for at least a few more days. I hope that in the coming week I can put most of my thoughts down here so that you can share in my experience of the city and time period that created such a remarkable journalist/actor/writer/social critic/philanthropist/dramatist.

We're heading to the airport later today and in just 17 hours or so, we'll be back in Milwaukee. This whirlwind journey was exhilarating and exhausting and I am so very thankful to have had the opportunity to walk where Charles Dickens walked, eat where he ate, sit down and and think where he sat down and thought, ...look through books that he read, read notes that he scribbled, and THEN, listen to people who have been learning about his life and cherishing his work for their entire careers. It was truly amazing.

The tube that took us to the airport:

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Charles Dickens Walk

Just as David Perdue (who is the creator of one of my favorite C.D. resources, David Perdue's Charles Dickens page at: http://charlesdickenspage.com) informed me, Jean Haynes, a City of London guide, arrived in costume and did a wonderful job, using dramatic voices and numerous direct quotes from his biographies and his novels.

A peak at a portion of the childhood of Charles Dickens when he lived in the countryside of Kent, as told by Jean Haynes:

Charles's father, John Dickens worked for the Royal Navy as a clerk and for most of Charles's early childhood, the family enjoyed a comfortable middle class lifestyle. But John Dickens was reckless with his money and despite numerous promotions and a decent salary, he continuously spent more than he earned. When Charles was eleven, his family moved from the country back to London, and he stayed behind in Chatham, some believe, in order to finish the school term. A few months later he came to meet the family.

Once in London, his parents could no longer pay for Charles to go to school, and instead, a short while later, they began to count on him to bring in an extra income. Just days after his twelfth birthday, his parents arranged for Charles to work at Warren's Blacking Factory, a factory next to the River Thames that made boot polish and which was owned by a family friend. Understandably, Charles felt a bit abandoned by his parents and frustrated at his inability to continue with his education.

Jean describes the situation for us:

The photo to the right shows two jars from this factory; both used to hold Warren's Boot Black, or shoe and boot polish. In his biography written by Peter Ackroyd, Dickens is quoted as saying that it was his job to "cover the pots of paste-blacking: first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat all round." He worked for ten hours a day, with a short meal break at twelve and a tea-break in the late afternoon. He is said to have "hurt bodily and mentally" due to the drudgery.

Dickens also said this about the factory in a squalid area of town next to the Thames:

it was "a crazy tumbledown old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscotted rooms and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again."

As you can see in this small photo of a quote of his blown up into poster form, Dickens was dreadfully discouraged by this event. (Click on the photo to read the quote.) In his mind, his hopes of becoming an actor or writer or wildly successful man seemed dashed. His childhood was gone and it had not disappeared slowly or faded; it vanished overnight. To make things even more drastic, a few days after he was introduced to the blacking factory, his father was arrested for debt. A baker who lived near the Dickens family in Camden was owed forty pounds, which was a large amount of money in the early 1800's. John Dickens had not paid the baker for some time and he owed money to other people in London and even in Rochester, where the family lived when Dickens was first born.

He was put first in a "sponging house" or house for people who were about to be imprisoned for debt could have a chance to get help from family or friends before being locked away. It is believed that Charles was sent on errands by his father - to visit family members and ask for money on behalf of his father. What is known is that no one gave them any money. Perhaps they had asked for such help too many times before, and so, on February 20th, 1824, John Dickens was incarcerated, or locked up, in the Marshalsea Prison.

According to Peter Ackroyd, it was quite common for people to be arrested and imprisoned for not paying debts at that time:

"It has been estimated, for example, that in 1837 there were between 30,000 and 40,000 arrests for debt -- but nevertheless the insolvent debtor was classed as a quasi-criminal and kept in prison until he could pay...It often happened that such a prisoner remained indefinitely within the prison."

After his father was imprisoned, most of the families' belongings were sold off and his mother and younger siblings moved in to the prison as lodgers because it was cheaper than any other alternative. Many experts believe that the Marshalsea Prison haunted Dickens for the rest of his life. In fact Ackroyd states, "the high wall with the spikes on top of it, the shadows cast by the prison buildings, the lounging shabby people -- all of these images return again and again in his narratives."

The Broad Street Pump

Using the map in the book The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, I wound my way through the streets of Soho, which was just a short walk north of my hotel, to find the former site of the Broad Street pump: the pump which was contaminated in the late summer of 1854 and spread one of history's most horrifying and infamous cases of cholera to thousands of the poor, working-class people of the neighborhood.

Many of the smaller streets have new names, but the larger ones are still there, just as they were in 1854. My sister Martha, who is studying biology at DePaul University read the book last year while in an epidemiology course and gave it to me this spring. I was enthralled by Johnson's writing and the way he pieced the case back together, day by day. A brief synopsis from Johnson's website states:

It is the summer of 1854. Cholera ha
s seized London with unprecedented intensity. A metropolis of more than 2 million people, London is just emerging as a one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure necessary to support its dense population - garbage removal, clean water, sewers - the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure.

As their neighbors begin dying, two men are spurred to action: the Reverend Henry Whitehead, whose faith in a benevolent God is shaken by the seemingly random nature of the victims, and Dr. John Snow, whose ideas about contagion have been dismissed by the scientific community, but who is convinced that he knows how the disease is being transmitted. In a riveting day-by-day account, The Ghost Map chronicles the outbreak’s spread and the desperate efforts to put an end to the epidemic - and solve the most pressing medical riddle of the age.

When I reached the corner of Broad (now Broadwick) and Lexington (which used to be Cambridge) and stood in front of 40 Broadwick Street, where the fatal pump once stood, there was no discernible spot marking the site of it. I figured out, within a few feet, where I thought it must have stood and then noticed the name of the pub in front of me: The John Snow. How fitting! He was after all, the doctor who worked tirelessly and fearlessly during the outbreak and then for years after it, documenting each and every case, slowly proving to the public and the government what caused cholera and how it could be stopped.

His struggle was made increasingly difficult because the majority of doctors and scientists believed that cholera was caused by breathing in dirty or putrid smelling air, not from dirty drinking water. They were so strict in their attachment to this belief that they refused to listen to him even after he gathered tons of evidence proving a direct link between the cholera deaths around Broad Street in 1854 and the dirty diaper of a baby who died of cholera and lived in the building that I was standing in.

Cholera, as Snow discovered, is spread by ingesting or swallowing small particles found in the feces of a person who already has it. Obviously, even in a very dirty city like London in the 1850's no one intentionally ate something or drank something with human feces in it. BUT, due to the fact there were very few flushing toilets, most people dumped their waste in a cesspit in their basement or backyard area or out into the gutters in the street, and that the sewer system was fairly new in some areas and non-existent in others, human waste often found its way into the water that people drank.

According to Snow's reports, while the baby was dying, her mother rinsed her dirty diaper in a bucket of water and then dumped the water into the cesspit in the basement of their building. Years later, after much investigating and probing, Snow found that there was a leak in the well right in front of the house which allowed dirty water from the cesspit to run into the well and that well was connected to the Broad Street pump!

After getting some strange looks and a few questions from the bartender, I was able to snoop around the building. It was lovely inside and besides the framed newspaper clippings and portrait in a corner of the upstairs lounge, you'd never know that this was the formerly overcrowded, run-down house that stood at the epicenter of a terrible, disgusting disease. I was extremely curious about the basement, since it would be close to where the overrun cesspit once was, but unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, it was clean and tidy and showed no trace of its former existence.

Dr. John Snow died in 1858 before the public widely accepted his theories about cholera. There were a few more outbreaks of cholera in the city and it wasn't until 1866 when another horrible outbreak occurred that another scientist tested Snow's ideas and traced the deaths along water-supply lines and found an immediate pattern: an overwhelming number of the dead had gotten their water from the same source. Therefore, at long last, the disease was said to be spread through drinking water and not foul-smelling air or miasma.

The illustration to the right was drawn in 1866 by George John Pinwell. It ran in an English magazine during that last large outbreak of cholera in London. It shows that finally:

public health officials were convinced that cholera was communicated through the water supply. Pinwell's image, which shows a skeleton figure of cholera working the handle of a pump, dispensing disease to all who imbibe the contaminated water, conveys the horror of the public realization that the population in 1866 might still unwittingly be exposing themselves to disease."
(Daniel M. Fox and Diane R. Karp, Images of Plague: Infectious Disease in the Visual Arts)

-- Go to this site created by the London Science Museum and click on the map half-way down the page to chart how the disease spread through the neighborhood

-- More of my photos of the intersection at Broad and Lexington and the John Snow pub

-- More on Dr. John Snow.

Soho and the Charles Dickens Walking Tour

Today we're on our way to check out the former site of the infamous, cholera-spreading Broad Street pump in Soho, and from there it is on to another walking tour given by Jean from The Original London Walks. This tour will focus solely on Dickens, and I heard that she does it in costume! It should be a thrilling, and very warm and sticky, last day in London.

Although it is a very sad story, I am very much looking forward to seeing the area of town that was involved in the cholera outbreak in 1854: Soho. From what I've read in Steven Johnson's book on the outbreak, it has been an interesting part of town for centuries. In the late 1600's and early 1700's it was a fashionable or trendy place to live. In the 1690's, almost 100 families lived there. The Prince and Princess of Wales had a house there in 1717. Many of the townhouses on its streets were elegant, but by the mid 1700's it began to change. The richer families and noble classes moved further west, out of the bustle of the city where they could build even larger houses on bigger pieces of property. As the richer people moved out, the neighborhood became grittier and more industrial. Artists and craftsmen and working-class people moved in. A new kind of Soho began to appear. It was busy and bustling and larger houses were subdivided into small apartments. Some formerly lovely courtyards turned into junkyards. Charles Dickens described it quite well in Nicholas Nickleby:

In that quarter of town...there is bygone, faded, tumble-down street, with two irregular rows of tall meagre houses, which seem to have stared each other out of countenance years ago. The very chimneys appear to have grown dismal and melancholy from having had nothing better to look at than the chimneys over the way...To judge from the size of the houses, they have been , at one time,tenanted by persons of better condition than their present occupants; but they are now let off, by the week, in floors or rooms, and every door has almost as many (name) plates or bell handles as there are apartments within.

By the 1800's Soho was, like the other over-crowded parts of the city, having problems with sanitation, or the disposal of sewage and waste. London had become a large city in the previous century, but the population kept increasing, rapidly. (In 1800 about 1 million people lived there, but in 1851, 2.4 million people lived there, making it the most populous city on the planet, and more densely populated than New York City is today! By the end of the century, or 1900, 6 million people lived in London. Imagine if within your school career at USM, Milwaukee's population almost doubled!) More and more people moved there and more and more babies were born there, but there were not yet systems in place for taking away all the garbage these people were creating. Most of the techniques for managing that mess that we are now used to - recycling centers, hospitals and clinics, safe sewer systems and garbage trucks and standard garbage cans and systems for pick-up -- none of that had been invented yet.

Imagine if your family shared your house with two or three other families and did not have running water inside your house, or a flushing toilet or garbage collectors to come and take away your refuse each week. Where would you put all of those half-eaten pieces of pizza, and banana peels, and moldy yogurt, and old newspapers, and empty milk containers? Where would you go to the bathroom? How would you clean your body? And most disgustingly, where would your human waste go?

What happened in London was an unplanned, unorganized response: the job of a scavenger was created. People who didn't have any other better way of making money collected and sorted and re-used or recycled all the garbage that Victorian Londoners produced. Steven Johnson explains it simply in his book The Ghost Map, "as the garbage and excrement (human waste) grew, an underground market for refuse developed." These things were then sold to established trades who could use them. He continues:

Specialists emerged, each dutifully carting goods to the appropriate site in the official market: the bone collectors selling their goods to the bone-boilers, the the pure-finders selling their dog (poop) to tanners, who used the "pure" to rid their leather goods of the lime they soaked it in to remove the animal hair...without any education at all, this underclass managed to conjure up an entire system for processing and sorting the waste generated by two million people.

But even with these scavengers removing and recycling most of the waste, it wasn't enough. Most experts say that even with today's infrastructure and plans and organizations, with all the current systems we have in place to take care of our garbage, the kind of growth that happened in London during this period would be difficult to manage. In other words, even if they had all the conveniences that we have today, there would have been major problems. "without infrastructure, (over) two million people suddenly forced to share ninety square miles of space wasn't just a disaster waiting to happen -- it was a kind of permanent, rolling disaster, a vast organism destroying itself by laying waste to its habitat," explains Johnson. And that disaster was the disease known as CHOLERA.

Listen to a description of life by the River Thames, the heart of the city during the Victorian era given by Jean Haynes, an official City of London guide.

Read the post above this one to hear more about one of the most famous cholera outbreaks in history.