Saturday, 11 February 2012

Charles Dickens in Broken Barnet

This week, as we know, has seen the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Mrs Angry has been musing, over the last few days, about the associations of the great man with our beloved borough of Broken Barnet, and wondering what would he make of the place, if he were to return.

Dickens was already familiar with this area by 1838, when he was writing Oliver Twist and editing the memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, the clown, who had a cottage in the Fallow Corner area of Finchley Common. Dickens had been enthralled by performances of Grimaldi that he had been taken to see when a boy.

Grimaldi was hugely popular in his day, and indeed is still commemorated every year with a church service in Hackney held in his memory, feted as 'king of the clowns', attended by a gathering of latterday performers in full get up: a thought to strike horror in the hearts of coulrophobics everywhere, including Mrs Angry.

There is, regrettably, still a tradition of clowning still observed in the council chambers of Broken Barnet, with which, no doubt, Grimaldi's biographer would have been suitably impressed.

Tory leader Richard Cornelius and Cabinet

Indeed our man, who spent the early part of his career as a court and then parliamentary reporter, would have been entranced not only by the low comic perfomances that pass as council meetings in Hendon Town Hall, but also, surely, by some of our more colourful local figures. Forget Sarah Gamp, whom Dickens is said to have based on a local Finchley woman: what on earth would he have made of our Councillor Coleman, or the obsequious Tory leader Richard Cornelius?

Or Mrs Angry?

The answers to these questions might well be see: a. Mr Bumble, b. Uriah Heep and oh dear, ok maybe c. Sarah Gamp.

Move on.

In 1843 Dickens returned to Fallow Corner, staying at Cobley's Farm, where, as he wrote to Thomas Beard:

'I have discovered a lovely Farm House at Finchley and am going to bury myself there for at least a month to come ... immersing myself in my story.'

Cobley's Farm, by William Henry Hunt

The story was Martin Chuzzlewit: largely set in America, where he had travelled in the previous year - and been given the present, by a comedian called Mr Mitchell, of a little white terrier called Timber Doodle. Timber accompanied Dickens to Finchley, where in another letter he describes a rather amusing incident involving the local postman, a 'demon' postman, with 'something fiendish in his face' who meeting the writer in the road, made 'proposals of marriage' involving poor Timber ... at first Dickens refused the proposal, 'having my doubts on certain points of consummation' but relented, and dined in a local tavern (perhaps the Green Man, or Five Bells) while Topping, the postman, took poor Timber to meet his eager partner,who was, he assures us 'in the full glow of youth and passion'. After an hour and a half, Timber was returned, 'covered with disgrace and mortification. He had done nothing. The official report was, that he had tried, but was considered weak in his loins ...'

Poor old Timber. Happily, his master, who was to produce ten children, and then maintain a mistress who was herself in the full glow of youth and passion, and twenty seven years younger than him, clearly had no problems with consummation.

Cobley's Farm House was demolished sometime around 1902 and the land sold for development. A plaque on a house in Queens Avenue marks the spot, and there is a Dickens road on the other side of Squires Lane, marked by a couple of very old chestnut trees which presumably must have been here when he used to wander, with his friend and biographer John Forster, along the 'green lanes' of Finchley.

Dickens refers directly to Barnet in 'Oliver Twist', setting this as the location for the meeting of Oliver and the Artful Dodger, and remarking on the number of pubs there. In fact, he is known to have dined at the Red Lion, with his Forster, on the day his daughter Mamie was born, the 6th March 1838. The Red Lion, interestingly, was the location for the meeting of the Board of Guardians of the newly built Workhouse and it has been suggested that Barnet Workhouse was a source of inspiration too for Oliver Twist, after an acquaintance of his reported overhearing a boy dare to ask for more food at dinner time. This is not entirely impossible. A contemporary print of Barnet Hill seems to suggest that an 'infants'' section of the workhouse was almost next door to the inn, which Dickens must have seen.

Barnet Workhouse

Barnet Workhouse was demolished ten years ago, despite a campaign to save the building: the existence of this historic building had been conveniently omitted from the plans approved by our council, and despite a last minute local protected listing - at the behest of the then Labour leader - the place was knocked down by the developers, supposedly so as to create space for a car park adjoining the newly built hospital buildings for Barnet General. The car park has still not been installed, despite the chronic shortage of (very expensive) parking for visitors.

Last year, Mrs Angry naughtily suggested on the council's new Ideas website that it might be time to rebuild the lost Workhouse, as the flagship of a series of One Barnet new model institutions. This was what we bloggers refer to as ' a joke', meant to underline the idiocy of the venture, and the lack of authenticity of the data being planted on the so called consultation website. To Mrs Angry's horror, however, while other ideas in conflict with correct One Barnet thinking were censored, the workhouse idea was retained, and even endorsed by some deluded site visitors. No doubt Barnet is already in talks with Capita and local stakeholders over the supply of gruel, and outsourced contracts for the unpicked oakum.

The demolition of the workhouse was a terrible thing, and the woman who fought for its protection, Dr Gillian Gear, is now fighting another battle: she is struggling against impossible odds to save our last remaining local museum, which she runs with a team of volunteers doing what the Tories keep telling us we should be doing, Big Society style - yes, I'm talking about the Barnet Museum, where the few remaining artefacts from the workhouse were preserved.

(Oh: by the way - the other museum, now closed: see previous blogs, last week: yes, more Dickens stuff - let Mrs Angry get it out of her system.)

Dr Gear published a book, 'Benjamin Woodcock's Diaries' the diaries of the Workhouse master who was in charge from 1836-38, when Dickens made his first visits to the area. This book demonstrates that in fact in its early days, this workhouse, which had a wide catchment area, including Finchley, was relatively progressive in outlook, and the management humane, and supportive of its inmates, in contrast to the later institutionalised and greatly feared regime of the later nineteenth century.

So first the Workhouse, now the Museum: soon a whole chapter of our social history will be entirely eradicated, here in Broken Barnet, making room for a new generation of disadvantaged residents to create their own annals of misery. And Victorian values are back in fashion here in Broken Barnet, with the notion of the undeserving poor once more an element of the moral judgement made of those in need of support.

What would we do with Oliver Twist in Broken Barnet?

Well, we don't put people in a workhouse anymore, Charles: there is progress, of sorts. I think. The creation of a welfare state was supposed to take their place, with free access to healthcare, a safety net of benefit support, a decent standards of education for all, and the provision of social housing.

In the twenty first century, however, we are watching this system of support for the disadvantaged members of our society being deliberately torn apart.

NHS 'reforms' are delivering our right to free and easily available healthcare into the hands of market forces, and budgets, and at the mercy of politicians who have never been dependent on the NHS for their own needs.

Similarly the education system is being broken down by a cabal of public school boys whose own privileged children attend the most exclusive fee paying schools, and will never have to worry about paying back their student loans.

Social housing is now barely an attainable option for those in need - we sold as much of it off as possible in order to make a quick profit, and for the purposes of gerrymandering, social engineering: and the ghettoes of deprivation, the sort of places you would have written about if you were here now, are divided and conquered by teaching the working classes to read the Daily Mail and become working class Tories.

Here in Broken Barnet we have gone even further. We have reintroduced the idea of moral judgement into the consideration of housing the feckless underclasses. Instead of temperance movements and evangelism (although that's coming back into fashion, too) we preach the virtue of 'aspiration' and reward the deserving poor for showing 'a positive attitude'. We punish the children of the undeserving poor, and kick them to the bottom of the housing list.

Instead of the workhouse, the children of the dispossessed, whose parents have nowhere to go, may be put in a long term stay hostel, like Barbara Langstone House, just a stroll along from where Dickens used to live in Finchley. In a latterday version of his childhood experience, when his family were obliged to reside in the Marshallsea debtors prison as a punishment for their father's financial misfortunes, children in Broken Barnet are being accommodated with gang members, drug dealers, and individuals with serious mental health issues.

Dickens is often criticised for his sentimentalised portrayal of women in his fiction, and yet in real life he showed a liberal and generous attitude to women living on the margins of society, reduced to surviving by the means of prostitution. Perhaps his own secret life gave him a more acute sense of perspective and an understanding of the hypocrisy of a society that punishes the prostitute and fails to sanction the men who use her.

In Oliver Twist, Dickens wrote about poor Nancy, and shocked Victorian society with a sympathetic portrayal of a common whore, and actually dared to invest her with feelings, and self knowledge. What would he have thought of us here in Broken Barnet, with some of the most affluent residential areas in the country hiding an underworld of vice, and trafficked women working in suburban brothels, which spring up, are closed down and moved on with women left still at the mercy of the modern day equivalent of Bill Sikes? We have one of the highest reported numbers of such establishments, right here in this ward, where Nancy's creator lived, yet it is something that is hidden, and arrests of the men involved seem never to occur. The most important thing is to keep them moved on elsewhere. Domestic abuse and violence within the home? Check out the first few months of this blog, and see how long it took the local authorities to do anything about it.

In Victorian England, drink was the great social evil: it still is, but overshadowed by drug abuse. In the vicinity of Victoria Park, itself created from former fields of Cobley's farm, it is not unusual to see dealing taking place quite openly: North Finchley is the place to go for Class A stuff, if that's what you're after.

In this borough we boast about our brilliant schools, but the truth is that the good schools are selective, and largely full of middle class children from a wide catchment area. The rest are left to their own devices: not quite Dotheboys Hall, but not the destination of choice of any but those who have no other option. Choice in education is not for the dispossessed.

Healthcare? The hospital where Mrs Angry was born, and her first child, was shut by a previous Tory government. The A&E at the new hospital on the old workhouse site will soon have to cope with the overflow caused by the closure of Chase Farm's department, in complete contradiction of Cameron's pre election promise. And in this borough, if you need to see a consultant for something within a reasonable period of time, you better have private healthcare - unless you want to wait four months to see someone.

The shadow of the workhouse was something that used to be dreaded by the old, in the nineteenth century: in the twenty first century elderly citizens dread the fate of being admitted to a residential home, where abuse and neglect is largely unchecked, and where the drive for profit from the private care provider takes precedence over standards of service.

In short, most of the social progress we have made since Dicken's time seems to be something of an illusion, and much of it is being put at risk by politicians playing with the security of support that my generation have always taken for granted. We grew up in a golden age, when everything seemed to be incrementally moving towards a better future, improved with science and technology. It's all gone wrong though, hasn't it, somewhere?

Perhaps the reason Dickens was so successful, and is so enduringly popular in his work, was that he was able to attune himself so well to our eternal preoccupations with class: his own background gave him an insight into a breadth of social levels, from the most powerful to the least. The greatest writers in the English language have usually been educated out and beyond their class limitations: Dickens, Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Lawrence, and many others. Dickens' writing is centred around the possibilities of escaping class restrictions, by means of good fortune, and hard work, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the focus he brought to bear on the social injustices of his time, directly influenced the growth of nineteenth century philanthropy and then the great social reforms of the twentieth century.

Access to education, healthcare and welfare support should be a right for every child, and not just the gift to the middle classes: social mobility is dependent on the opportunities given by all those things, but many of the rights we have taken for granted are becoming a luxury for those who can afford it. Nowhere represents this more clearly than here in our borough now. Those that have, survive and prosper, those that don't are left to aspire to something better, without the means of getting there.

This is Broken Barnet, Mr Dickens: welcome home.


baarnett said...

Whatever the libertarian rights and benefits of private schooling, it is true is it deeply regressive, regarding social mobility.

It allows the dullard children of the rich to slip into undemanding well-paid occupations, ahead of the ambitious and talented poor.

A more moral social policy is to encourage 'rags to rags within three generations', unless a sprog actually has some real 'new' talent to offer the world.

Without the use of the guillotine (with Mrs A sat down knitting, alongside the basket) this can be effected by high taxation on long-term wealth (including land), and low taxation on income and business enterprise.

Actually, we appear to be ruled in Barnet mainly by untalented dullards, so my case is proved.

baarnett said...

And the council has changed its mission statement to a Dickens quote:

"Welcome poverty! Welcome misery, welcome houselessness, welcome hunger, rags, tempest, and beggary! Mutual confidence will sustain us to the end!"

Mrs Angry said...

hmmm, may I just point out, baarnett, that Mrs Angry does not knit, and the very thought of such activity is filling her mind with dreadful thoughts. I think I have already mentioned the vests for African babies which went horribly wrong, and drove Sister Gabriel to tears of shame. Let's move on.

Mrs Angry said...

oh I give up: writing drivel, wish you could edit comments - can you edit comments? No, don't tell me.