As this is the chestnuts and crackers Dickens issue, I decided to write this column from my shop in Spitalfields, London.
Like Dick and Ebenezer, in old Fezziwig’s place, we have to lift up the wooden shutters to the windows when we close. The heavy lanterns that hang on the ironwork of the awnings are blown out, and the chestnut pan smoking on the street is brought indoors.
The first greengrocers opened on my premises in 1805, and it is likely that Scrooge walked past it on his way back to his gloomy chambers.
Dickens was writing in the mid-nineteenth century, but he chose to set his ghostly tale earlier – soon after the turn of the century, in Georgian, not Victorian London.
We know that Scrooge’s counting house is in the City, near Cornhill, and that Bob Cratchit runs home to Camden Town, where Dickens lived as a boy. The walk is uphill, but not uplifting, and he probably cut up City Road, and past the infamous Eagle slum dwellings, that gave us the Nursery Rhyme – Half a pound of tuppeny rice, half a pound of treacle – that’s the way the money goes, pop goes the weasel. The next verse, busy with its ‘in and out the Eagle’, ends with the same ‘popping’ or pawning, that poor Bob must have had to do once a week on his dismal fifteen shillings salary.
Scrooge’s walk home, via his ‘melancholy dinner’ in a ‘melancholy tavern’, was certainly shorter, and likely to have landed him in Spitalfields, much the same as Fagin in Oliver Twist.
The descriptions of the houses are unmistakable. Dickens imagines Scrooge’s house as playing hide and seek when it was a young house, and getting lost forever in the gloomy looming courtyard where Scrooge has his chambers.
The house Dickens describes must be a 1720’s Huguenot weaver’s house. This is confirmed by Dickens’s conjuring-up of the stairway – ‘You might have got a hearse up that staircase, and taken it broadwise, with the splinter bar towards the wall, and the door towards the balustrades.’
The Spitalfield’s weavers’ houses boast stairways of impressive proportions, not to wow the visitors, but to get the looms into the attics. Look up at any row of these houses in Spitalfields, and you will see the weaver’s windows across the front roof. Peep through the letterbox, and you will see the staircase that Scrooge saw. Only, don’t be like the unfortunate boy who warbles God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen through Scrooge’s letterbox, only to be set upon by a ruler.
Walking Dickens is nearly as good as reading him. Perhaps students should be made to do it, along with their set texts. The feel of old London is best got underfoot. Everybody walks in Dickens, and by joining them on their walks we get a richer sense of who they are.
Peter Ackroyd talks about London as an ‘animal’. Certainly it is alive, with a spirit to it that is ancient and unruly. Dickens responded to this ancient and unruly spirit, and so London becomes as much as a character in his work as any of the people he writes about.
Reading him now, especially at Christmas, so much associated with Dickens and the Victorians, is an invigorating exercise away from both sentimentality and commercialism. A Christmas Carol is a moral lesson in miracles; they happen. London itself colludes in this happening, because London itself is older and stranger and wilder than anything built, bought or sold by the moneymen of Dickens’ day or ours.
It is a London of little shops and narrow streets, of dark doorways and foul dens, of back yards and seedy taverns. It teems and seethes with life, wanted or not. It is the antidote to modern, corporate, soulless, retail London.
Which brings me back to my shop, stacked with clementines, hung with game, smelling of coffee and cheese, wood panelled, and lit by a fire, and selling thick hot soup and meat pies.
I only want real things in my life, not expensive copies, and it bothers me that life is becoming an expensive copy of itself.
Dickens hated sham and humbug. False feelings and false friends are endless exposed in his work. Christmas time, of all times, is a time for real feelings, real friends, real food, and real life. Little of that comes in a ready-wrapped package. Like Scrooge we are made to discover it for ourselves – sometimes through the agency of a good spirit, often in the company of a good book.
Back to top
« Go back