I didn’t study Charles Dickens’ novels with a magnifying glass in High School nor take any serious interest in Victorian literature as a student while haunting the corridors of the Angel’s Roost at a small liberal arts college in Halifax in the late 1980s. I was at best, an average student who majored in History, worked part-time as a service bartender in Halifax and barely made it through Drama and English classes at Kings’ College, sleeping my way through classes far more interested in trying to impress women, than studying literature or books. I wasn’t a slacker but I wasn’t a
scholar in High School either, more a bona fide track and field geek with an
interest in band. So as an awkward teenager, of 15, 6'4 and 167 pounds, skulking like a spider in a black and gold Horton District High wrestling singlet after school in winter and training summers in the Pole Vault pit my future as a burgeoning poet and man of letters looked bleak – Dickens' novels rated down there with serving at St John’s
Anglican Church on Sundays or cleaning out the rabbit hutch on Saturdays.
Books were on the shelves in my father's study and propped up windows, casually flipped through by my library loving mother. Robert Graves, Bernard Berenson, yes, great literary lights, but I was more Encyclopaedia Brown. I wanted to play sports and go tubin, not admit that I loved to read.
However by 17 my interest in literature was peaked by my grade twelve English teacher, Mr. Sheppard, who was serenely poised as the entry point to university. He was laconic, laidback and cool in a way that was mildly compelling to a independently spirited kid who'd been brought up in a tightknit community. He'd been out of the community and he'd been back again. He'd been in a band, hitch-hiked through Europe as a teen, edited a student newspaper of 60’s counterculture at Acadia University and told of his escapades of hippy life on 60's communes to a rapt audience of naïve, valley-obsessed teenagers in English 421 in 1985.
So it was to Shep a young male of dubious writing talent and even more dubious life experienced turned for inspiration. English meant 'stories' to me, though, not novels and Shep was good at keeping our attention in grade 12; unlike other teachers who drilled ‘outline method for studying’ into us or insisted we do a book report of fifty classics over the course of the year, Shep was more laid back. He was Mormon, or rumoured Mormon, blond and balding, a little on the dumpy side but kind of handsome; he was a kind of shaggy dog enigma but also well established within the school. This was the 80's, so part of the charm, the cult of the English teacher; many students made efforts to impress him either by sitting at the front of the class or taking him up on his offer of merit points for public speaking. Occasionally he fell down in class from a bum leg and he spoke with great affection about Hemingway and his vaunted BS detector. To be fair I think the “BS Detector” was directed towards us as a class, as if to say: "Do you really know what it takes to make a great writer? Do you know the significance of the great books of literature other teachers might tell you must read?"
I don’t know if I really understood my English teacher but I admired him. Shep also spoke personally about a reclusive Ernest Buckler, author of The Mountain and the Valley, whom Shep visited on occasion further down that way. The part that stuck with me was that the old writer wasn’t too keen on visitors and had to warm up to you in the kitchen before you were invited into the living room of the old farm house. This telling detail sparked a curiosity about writers in my mind at seventeen and an inkling of who I wanted to be in my life was formed. What did they talk about? I was wondering about that man Buckler, what he knew, what did he have to say about things he had seen, and what had he seen? This to me was part of the charm and love of literature of English 421. One further story from that English class stuck with me: Shep spoke of visiting an old pensioner friend who had an old cat that died that winter and the old gent was so traumatized he stuck the dead cat in the freezer till the spring thaw so he could bury it properly, as he loved the cat so much. I could relate to that. We had cats and I loved them. Therefor English class meant ‘stories’ to me not novels and certainly not Victorian novelists. English meant Lord of the Flies, Macbeth, More Joy in Heaven. My favourite book was The Crucible – the main character John Proctor, stood out. I was fascinated how so many teenage women could lead one innocent man to hell.
My personal connection to Charles Dickens is small, only that I liked the musical Oliver! very much as a boy visiting my grandparents in London whilst my parents uprooted the family from the Annapolis Valley in NS, for a university sabbatical in the 1970's. For my father, a Londoner, it was a homecoming. For us kids it was a new experience riding the tube with my grandmother, holding onto her coat tails through the Science Museum and Museum of Natural History, wondering at crowds on busses, feeling separated from the valley but also strangely enervated at meeting our English relatives in bustling London.
My grandmother, Mabel, was a big theatre goer in the war years and I was impressed by her interest in theatre and in plays. However it was whilst watching the musical Oliver! with her, one Saturday afternoon,when I was taken by the boy, the story and music; I could relate to the idealistic young Oliver, his sense of justice despite being under intense pressure to go along with thieves and pick pockets. That beaming, searching face stayed with me from that family sabbatical in the UK to when we returned to the valley; I was so impressed when we returned, I considered trying out for the local Kipawo Showboat Production of the Musical Oliver! in Wolfville. I went to an audition in the back of a travel agency but soon chickened out when I realized there were far more children in the valley with greater determination and singing talents than me. Instead I took a back seat, took up the violin and trumpet and sang in the Port Williams Elementary School musical, The Frog Prince!
When I came back to London in 2003 at the age of thirty-seven, I did so knowing that this was a bigger step for me than leaving 'The Port' in 1995 and going up to Toronto to make a go of things. I really only had a couple of ideas in my head and those were to continue writing and performing in London, the stories/sketches anecdotes of the Annapolis Valley which had catapulted themselves to the front of my life – a few years before, in Toronto, and which were connected to the poetry book Scouts are Cancelled. Part of the reason I started writing the Scouts are Cancelled poems in Toronto was that I missed the Valley so much. I was younger too, 28, when I went up to Toronto. I was also haunted by this idea? Could the poems translate in London in the same way? Was I also biting off far more than I could chew in taking this one in middle-age?
2003 to 2008 in London. Married. Money pressures. A lot of writing, a few more books published back in Canada including Taking The Stairs, plus a film version of Scouts are Cancelled, which covered those Toronto years. Some accomplishments were made, including breakthrough publications in London Magazine, New American Writing, Amnesty International Events and many more publications in other journals, involvement in influential writing groups, a citation by the Poetry Library at The Royal Festival Hall. But no great breakthrough in London literary society and to be fair was this ever likely to happen at my age? Was I ever going to finish any more work about the valley and or any more work in general?
Inspiration for a middle aged man?
The idea of reading Dickens first came when I was holed up at the BFI and watching some of the old movies from the 1940’s to pass the time after receiving word that I had lost my job. The film I watched was David Lean’s first version of Oliver Twist, not the musical I had remembered as a boy. Why Oliver again, you might ask, when there are so many films about London? Why not a film about how to get and keep a job in London? Well if you read this far, I'll try to explain. I guess that character that stuck with me as a small boy was still there and I was still haunted by having chickened out for an audition for the Kipawo Showboat Production in the 1970’s in my hometown of Wolfville. I was reminded in that small cubicle of watching that movie, that I was an edgy character now, gassed up on caffeine and aging. I was also reminded that I was still that excitable person, mired in self-analysis and implosion. I felt like my time had come – and passed.
When I saw the David Lean version of Oliver, I was impressed by the scene around Saint Paul’s and where the boys sneak down the steps towards the water and the water fountains through snaking alley ways. The water fountains are still there! Since the Lean version with Alec Guinness as Fagin was even better than that old 70’s musical, and had different lines in it, I decided to have a look at the actual text. Cue my time in the British library looking through books and coming across the most famous of them all A Christmas Carol. There in the texts I saw the words themselves:
“Dead as a doornail.”
“As solitary as a lobster.”
Seeing the words made the caricatures of so many movies just fade into the background. It was like reading a movie script of an old classic film with the notes of the writer penned in the margins. There was the mind sprung to life on the page.
“Recalled to life”
Later on I read Sketches by BOZ which were compiled from Dickens time as a court reporter. I read it was not BAWZ as I imagined the North American inflection but ‘Boze’ as in ‘Moses’, which was what Dickens called his younger brother Moses. Instead of saying: “Moses”, he said ‘Boze’ like when you are suffering a cold. Seeing the words on the page – both Dickens’ ear for language – and choice of words gave me inspiration as well as seeing the energy and wit and wisdom in every line; I knew that Dickens was a man who didn’t just write to show off. He wrote because he knew deep inside him that if he didn’t do it, who was going to do it? "Bah humbug"
A cliche perhaps, but a cliches is nothing more than a very successful turn of phrase, no? SO "Bah Humbug!" was the start of my being hooked on Dickens at age 43 or 44, in the same way I had been so impressed by Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Norman Mailer, Stephen King, and in an earlier period, TF Rigelof – yes – and JD Salinger and my musical hero, Neil Young.
So this time of my life which coincided with the bicentenary of Dickens and a number of high budget BBC Television productions of works such as Little Dorrit, Bleak House and other Dickens books, I decided to finally get to reading this man and get a better sense of the measure of him as well. There are so many books, but I went through the main ones Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers, Sketches by Boz, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, David Copperfield, portions of a Christmas Carol and parts of Martin Chuzzlewit.
What is so odd about it is that I came to see London in the same way I saw my own small town in the Annapolis Valley in NS. Both, arguably, have had the great influence of the American War of Independence hanging over them. For the good folk of the valley it was the empire loyalists and planters who settled the region, loyal to the King and who were given favourable tracts of land to settle on; to the people of London it was the news that the colonies had fractured and their riches lay east not west; thus, by Victorian times England had long gotten over their responsibilities in the US and was profiteering from their ventures through the East India Company.
Geographical comparisons to London must also be made. I come from a town which has a winding tidal river running through it, though when I was growing up in Port Williams the population was closer to 250 persons. Dickens walked, sometimes up to more than ten miles a day from his childhood home in Kent, (also on a tidal river) into London where he crossed the river and explored the city in a way that he must have known every blade of grass, every back alleyway, every turn from Borough Market to The Strand through to Hungerford Bridge near to where he worked at the Blacking Factory as a child. He was also a man of secrets and bitter disappointments and tragic loves. He was a tireless worker, walker and amateur actor with a rumoured exceptional temper.
I know from my old routes I would take in the valley, as a child, up behind the barns and down onto the dyke lands. I know of the cow corn, we would walk through and play cowboys and Indian in, the routes through the eight-foot stalks of corn. I knew of the sand pit, where we were forbidden to go, where old truck cabs sat dormant, farm hands who lived in mobile homes sat with pulp chips piled high out back, carcasses of old farm machinery sat dormant, the chicken barn where we would steal soft rotten eggs from (softies) or ‘two and three yolkers’ to throw art each other, the stray cats that came into the milking room, the hay barn where we would make forts and stay in for hours after school, jumping like Tarzan onto hanging ropes till the skin burned off our hands and we fell to the ground. For me growing up the valley, I knew my routes well; I knew the old school burned down because I watched it burn with half the students on our street. I water skied the Minas Basis when the tide was in, crashed my fathers car twice on the Wolfville Ridge Road. I knew the black berry patches, where the wild cucumbers were most populous and also that those cucumbers made excellent weapons for wars we had in the back words. I walked those routes for nearly twenty-five years and saw the changes. Elm Trees which had to be pulled down because of Dutch Elm Disease, new subdivisions coming in all of it.
The first Dickens clues to his routes in London were in the books, and so I went back to my old standby Oliver Twist and read with interest. Now I better understood the term Hackney Cab, (rarely does a Hackney Cab arrive in a Dickens novel when something good has happened or is about to happen) and read with interest that when Oliver first comes into London with The Artful Dodger he comes by way of Barnet area and through The Angel, down into St John Street and through Islington and into central London, to the rookeries of Holborn or more importantly, Clerkenwell and Saffron Hill where he settled in with the old con man Fagin. Seeing as I was working in Angel it didn’t take me long to try and retrace the route – and while the old crowded back alleys are long gone, – Saffron Hill, the drinking dens, One and Two Tuns, are still there tucked in behind some imposing Insurance buildings. Thus, finding Fagin’s lair, in person I was hooked and like a serious word nerd and history boffin, set out to retrace the old route of Oliver’s London. I learned and walked the route that Bill Sikes takes in his Hackney cab from Shoreditch and Bethnal Green out to Holborn and through the various law chambers and ‘Golden Squares’ of Nicholas Nickelby, followed the route Sikes takes Oliver to rob a rich house, then over time, came to identify the work houses which were featured along the way, just off high Holborn. I discovered Grimaldi’s lonely grave, (Dickens’ favourite clown) on Pentonville Road; Grimaldi deserves a biography of his own. What the Dickens?" you might even ask.
Grimaldi is a special case, a throw back to that childhood love of theatre and acting and plays and Dickens so loved Grimaldi that he personally took and worked on Grimaldi’s autobiography (and if you read close you can see it had to be written by the ‘inimitable’). This I found touching as the pathos and comedy is there in that Grimaldi book (filled with colourful tales of robbers, beatings, bets, swindles, poverty, dying clowns) the same as in Pickwick Papers. Following along in Dickens' hood, I found the Streets where some of the characters got their names, Margery Street, which he must have nicked for Joe Gargery the kindly Blacksmith uncle in Great Expectations, who comforts poor Pip just like Peggotty comforts David in David Copperfield. This street name just outside Islington Square was a particular find and I can imagine the thoughts going through Dickens’ head as he wandered these regular routes close to where he lived in Doughty Street (now the Dickens Museum) where he was holed up with his wife and her sister and first children, working feverishly in Oliver Twist and then Nicholas Nickelby. It took me some time but I soon crossed the Thames and found the old walls of Marshalsea Prison on the road in from Kent, where Dickens' father was incarcerated for debt, behind Borough Market and the old Inns where the coaches rest when many characters from The Pick Wick Papers, including Mr Jingle and Cocky cockney cheekie chappie Sam Weller, first stop for sustenance and ponder the pickles and various predicaments they find themselves in. After some time I laboured to find Ye Old George and Vulture Pub featured predominantly in The Pickwick Papers and of course was astounded to find Goswell Road, home dwelling of Mr Pickwick, where his landlady mistakenly thinks Mr Pickwick has proposed to her. Further on my travels down on The Strand I came upon the private banks, namely Coutts where Sidney Carlton the characters of a Tale of Two Cities frequent. Further along I discovered the sign for the Old Saracens Head Pub, which wasn’t far off Saint Paul’s either. This Is where ye ol Wackford Squeers the miserable school master comes in search of Nicholas Nickleby to serve notice of his intent to sue him for assault and perhaps lay claim to bringing charges against Nickelby for kidnapping, the mentally disturbed Smike. I came to realise how small a city London was in his time; Nickleby finds decent lodgings for his mother in Bow, a small hamlet in the countryside, now falling in the shadow of the Olympic Park and Stadium in the East End.
Key amongst all this was how interlocked all of these places were, the regular haunts of the Old Bailey: courts, clerks in and around Holborn, London Bridge with its constant flow of people coming into London. I thought of how I always felt crossing the bridge to come back home into Port Williams.
Another feeling I got from the text was most certainly when Mr. Pickwick returns to Dingley Dell and the land of his most fond remembrances and where he escapes from the charming machinations of one Mr Jingle, the stress of a mistakenly besotted landlady and where Mr Pickwick feels most at peace with his friends, even the ever curious fat boy, who spies on all comers and events. This Dingley Dell reminded me of my own home in Port Wiliams of the fantastic traditions, the winter camps with scouts, the pickles and relishes, the strawberry suppers, the Apple Blossom Parade, the feeling of being close to people and of knowing them well. The escape from the jibes and competitiveness of the city – in my case Toronto, first – were the same for me coming back to The Port , coming back home. This could be the same as Copperfield must feel when he escapes with Ms. Peggotty to her family on the Dorset coast, and to the family there, where Dickens feels most welcome and at peace with the good citizens of Dingley Dell. For the world outside this world is a foreign place and who would want to go and inhabit it? I remember as a boy how I felt when we took family drives down to the South Shore in the summer and or went into the big city of Halifax, through Bayers Road, to go to the Sears Mall. I forever wondered how people could live down there, how could anyone choose to live in such a place which was not the Annapolis Valley?
Many times I have wondered have I done the right thing, a country boy from a small valley town of two hundred and fifty people coming all the way to London to live and work in the city. But having this experience and knowing the routes and walks and that the city of London is just simply a series of linked villages I have found a way to survive, both by walking but by taking the roads less traveled and keeping a valley point of view and staying in the sidelines. The truth is that when I first went up to Toronto, I did so to get away from distractions, so that I could hole up and write. When I left Toronto, it seemed like I was getting to know many of the writers in the city and though I loved the writer friends I met, I felt like I needed my independence once again. I will always miss Toronto, what might have been there? In this way I know I can never be as big as Dickens as he was never as big as the London he came to inhabit. But in my small way I can find my own voice for my own upbringing and use the experience and passion of Dickens to continue to motivate me to try and get my time in the valley down right.
John Stiles was born in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, Canada, and currently lives in London, England. John is the author of the comic novel Taking the Stairs and is the subject of the critically acclaimed and award-winning poetry documentary Scouts are Cancelled. John’s work has received praise in: Publishers Weekly, The New York Times and in his work has appeared in Poetry London, New American Writing, Trespass Magazine, The Literary Review of Canada and The Globe and Mail amongst others. John attended the University of Kings College in Halifax Nova Scotia, the former Atlantic School of Theology. John is currently working on a novel set in the Annapolis Valley.