Jeremy Clarke confesses a blind spot for Dickens and a love of playing Pat the Balloonby Jeremy Clarke / February 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
Although I enjoy reading about Charles Dickens, I have yet to complete any of his novels. I usually give them up after the first chapter. Recently I had a stab at Martin Chuzzlewit; but had to put it aside after completing just 57 of the 920 pages, mainly because I did not have the physical strength to hold the book open for any length of time. The heavy, virtually cuboid paperback seemed to have been designed to spring shut like a gin trap the moment I relaxed my grip. Even by page 57, I still had not become acclimatised to Dickens’s relentlessly exuberant prose. It was like being confined in a room with a muddy, over-excited red setter. I put this down to my own shortcomings. If I were a more intelligent, humane man, I told myself, I should not fail to enjoy him. We share the same birthday after all. When I read in the television schedules that a series of Dickens’s readings was to be televised over Christmas, I determined to watch them in the hope that they would prove a less arduous, more engaging introduction to his work than my fruitless grapplings with his mighty tomes. By all accounts, the audiences at Dickens’s public readings could get quite emotional. The great man himself was continually astonished at the power of what he had created. After a reading at Harrogate, he described a man who caught his attention as having “found something so very ludicrous in Toots, that he could not compose himself at all, but laughed until he sat wiping his eyes with his handkerchief. And whenever he felt Toots coming again he began to laugh and wipe his eyes afresh, and when he came, he gave a kind of cry, as if it were too much for him.” I looked forward to seeing such extraordinary magic at work, no matter how diluted it was by the medium of television, or how false Simon Callow’s beard. I live in a residential home for the elderly. Our television is on a low table in the corner of the communal sitting room. We kept it turned off during Christmas day except for the Queen’s speech which was, we said, (as we always do) the best Queen’s speech we had heard for many a year. After the Queen, I got the presents out from under the Christmas tree and distributed them. Most of our ladies are so old and feeble-fingered nowadays that they need help to tear the paper off. I assisted our most senile resident to unwrap what turned out to be The SAS Survival Handbook, but discreet enquiries revealed that it had been handed to her by mistake. After the presents had been unwrapped and the discarded paper gathered up, the ladies were “toileted” in readiness for our traditional and popular Christmas day game of Pat the Balloon. The object of the game is to pat the balloon if and when it floats within reach. It is as simple as that. In the interests of continuity and sociability, it is of course preferable to pat it towards somebody else, but solipsistic patting is not penalised. I usually stand in the middle to nudge the balloon back into play if it looks like going into a dead ball situation. This uncomplicated game has the advantage that it is played sitting down and those with advanced senile dementia can join in-and possibly excel at it. Beryl, one of our keenest players, has two hip replacements and frequently sees Indian elephants in the field. Sadly, Commander Jim Elliot, our only male resident, failed to make the squad this year as he passed away in November, aged 96. Commander, who had taken part in the battle of Jutland, loved to pat the balloon and was always in the thick of the action: making a cheeky interception with the rubber tip of his walking stick here, or gamely extending a tartan slipper there and giving it such a hefty toe punt that the ladies would all go “Ooo!” He is sorely missed by those of us able to recall him. He took me aside once and confided: “Do you know something? I’m more stupid than I look.” I feigned incredulity. Although this year’s game did have its exciting moments, such as when Beryl lost sight of the balloon for a moment and we watched it descend gently and bounce off the top of her head, it was clear that without Commander’s savage commitment and innovative flair the game would never again draw the concerted squeals of apprehension from the ladies that it once did. This took us to six o’ clock; time for An Audience with Charles Dickens. I put the telly on, shoved up the volume and pulled up a chair beside a lady who has spent 40 of her 86 years living in a tent as an independent missionary to a tribe of north African nomads. Dickens appeared and began his recitation. I was ready to laugh, cry, cheer and boo at the slightest provocation. My disbelief was suspended until further notice. I lay back ready to be swept along on a flooding tide of the great man’s genius. And I was bored. Immediately. Looking around at the other gaping, wrinkled faces turned towards the screen, I saw that Beryl was certainly enjoying it; although she seemed to be under the impression that the bearded, gesticulating figure at the rostrum was conducting an orchestra and that we were listening to classical music. “Isn’t this lovely?” she said, also conducting. “Does anyone fancy watching Jurassic Park instead of this?” I said, reaching for the remote.