One hundred and seventy-five years ago, on 19 December 1843, Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol was first published. The first edition of 6,000 copies sold out within a few days, before Christmas. It has remained one of his most popular works ever since.
A few days ago, to celebrate this, the BBC screened Simon Callow’s one-man show, a performance of this set in a disused building. Callow declaims from memory, though his text, following Dickens’s own theatrical script, is quite abridged in places, particularly the rather unctuous moralising. If you missed it, it’s well worth catching on the BBC iPlayer (here).
I’ve read the book many times, but one passage rather escaped my attention, or my memory, until I saw Callow’s production. It comes at the end of Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Present, a jolly giant of a figure with a great green robe, open at the chest. This figure of ‘Sir Christmas’ would have been familiar to Dickens’s audience. Scrooge notices something about this robe:
“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?”
“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”
Ninety-nine years later in 1942 a pamphlet was published which also became a best seller, with sales of over 100,000 in a few weeks. This was Sir William Beveridge’s Report, Social Services and Allied Services. In this, Beveridge identified the Five Giant Evils: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.
The post-war government addressed these five evils through the Welfare State, the Health Service, Education, Housing and a policy of full employment.
It’s difficult to get a ‘handle’ on what things were really like in the 19th century, and much of the 20th. Most literature was written by and for those of the ‘middling sort’, the middle classes or bourgeoisie. You can get a flavour from Alexander Irvine’s My Lady of the Chimney Corner, and more recently from the writings of the ‘world’s oldest rebel’, the late Harry Leslie Smith, such asHarry’s Last Stand. In short, for most people in those times, life was ghastly.
The Welfare State and its components have been a political football from their inception; sometimes improved and expanded, sometimes reduced. Even under a Conservative government in the 1950s, 300,000 houses were built yearly to replace slums, tenements and hovels.
Today, neo-liberal economic policies are almost universal, the idea that the state should retrench in favour of private enterprise which in turn should be ‘untrammelled’ and freed from ‘onerous’ regulation over employee rights and conditions of work; ‘welfare’ has been changed to ‘benefits’, and ‘universal credit’ is being rolled out. Privatisation is established in the health service and in education. It is a return to laissez faire policies, those policies which, for example, turned the blight of the lumper potato in Ireland from a problem into the dreadful An Gorta Mór.
Recently, the death of a man in Westminster was reported. He was homeless, and sleeping near the tube station; he was an immigrant, and in work. Some MPs had noticed that they had to rather gingerly make their way from the tube station to the Palace of Westminster to avoid tripping over such rough sleepers. In the Palace, the same MPs have subsidised bars and restaurants. MPs receive about three times the median pay in the UK; and they get expenses (and freebies).
Food banks are now ubiquitous; food banks in a country with the fifth (or sixth) largest economy in the world. There are homeless rough sleepers in Belfast; we have other charities that provide for them and the destitute.
As I write, the increased rates of measles infection in Europe were reported in the Guardian (here). The MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine was the subject of adverse publicity some years ago; these claims were withdrawn, but there is now a strident, and increasing group of ‘anti-vaxxers’ so scared of imaginary side effects that they won’t vaccinate their kids. Measles can be a fatal disease; mumps can cause sterility.
A particularly potent force in politics is populism, in which the pure and virtuous ‘people’ are set against a corrupt and venal ‘elite’; the anti-vaxxer movement is an example of this. Paradoxically, the leaders of populism are often an elite, despite saying they are ‘men of the people’. (Just think of Brexit.)
Dickens identified Ignorance and Want, the poor children of the future. Beveridge found Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. Today we also have Inequality, as marked now as it was at its worst. For thirty years after the war, progress was made. Scrooge’s first visitor, Jacob Marley, warned him of his personal future unless he repented. These problems have returned; the combination of neo-liberalism and populism don’t give cause for much hope for the future.