Jeremy Clarke confesses a blind spot for Dickens and a love of playing Pat the Balloonby Jeremy Clarke / February 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
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…