Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Day 27: Hard Times

Today’s heading is a nicked title from a Charles Dickens novel that I’ve yet to read. I’ve given the great novelist from the Victorian era plenty of air space already on this site and here’s why:

I grew up in the environs of Portsmouth, home to Her Majesty’s Navy, on the south coast of England. Charles Dickens was born in Porstmouth, we're both writers; that’s where the similarities end.

Some six or seven years ago, I know what why, but I found myself fondling the Penguin Classic edition of The Pickwick Papers, in one of my favourite bookshops, late one night, thinking that if I wasn’t careful, I would go the whole of my life never having read anything by my fellow-Porstmuthian. I marched to the counter with said picaresque novel and pledged (to myself, not the assistant) that I would read a Dickens novel a year, in the chronological order that he wrote them, ‘til the job was done, which would be some seventeen or so years later.

Oliver Twist followed, then Nicholas Nickleby (in which a pub I used to drink in is mentioned), The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzelwit. I admit to slipping off my literary dietary regime last year.....Dombey and Son still awaits my attention and, if I’m to catch up and get back on track, I’ll have to knock over David Copperfield as well, before Christmas (I embrace a challenge).

Sometimes in this busy life, when the challenges appear insurmountable, I want to wish the world away so that I can be left alone, behind my front door, with the outlandish, grotesque, misshapen and distorted figures that slip in and out of the London pea-soupers in Dickens’ world (I don’t really give a fig for his romantic characters and their airy persiflage). I especially want to hide away on days like yesterday when the world wasn’t spinning in the direction that I wanted it to spin.

There’s a particularly chilling piece of writing in Barnaby Rudge, where the character of the title, sits in Newgate prison awaiting his own execution the next day at Tyburn (which has long since been superseded by the edifice that is Marble Arch at the western end of Oxford Street, near Marks & Spencers [good window shopping if you’re on the cart to the gallows]). I dare not tell you what happens to Barnaby, even if you are never to read it; I can’t give away such hard-earned riches (on the part of the author) nor such secrets striven for, by the reader, but that’s not the point.

On days like yesterday, I too felt like the condemned man; thankfully, not the gibbet for me but I fear, had I lived in England’s late 1800’s, they’d have carted me off to Marshalsea, where they used to incarcarate debtors back in Charlie’s time. Dickens snr temporarily relocated to one such debtor’s prison whilst Dickens the younger (Charles) was sent to the workhouse. Now can you see the well of inspiration that Dickens jnr drew from? Precious ideas forged between the hammer and the anvil of life.

Bills pile up today, irons in the fire are slow to heat or are cooling, and now a vet’s invoice for a sick cat looms large. Writer’s cannot afford the unusual, unplanned for or unexpected bill, they are one of our curses, storm clouds on our horizon.

What solace I take, comes from knowing that EVERY writer, at some point in their writing journey (often again and again), finds themself contemplating their very own version of Marshalsea. It’s grim, but I must share it with you. Because when we share our truths we realise that we are not alone and, I cannot lie to you: writing is not all dandelion and burdock.

Day #27 Tip: Advice For Those In Peril On The Sea: Ride Out The Storm
I have no quip, no pithy one-liner, for surviving the tough vicissitudes of life, I can only tell you what I do in such times:

I pray. I speak to friends. I lean on loved ones. I live my life in 24 hr increments (less if necessary). I drink tea. I listen to Elgar’s Violin Concerto. I don’t go into my head’s a dangerous neighbourhood at times like these. I look to the garden. I walk. I ring more friends. I sit out the storm. I reef the mainsails. I stop fighting. I reach for a Patrick O’Brian novel about Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship’s surgeon of a friend Stephen Maturin (I do whatever they do when they’re being tossed about by the roaring forties or the trade winds: I surrender to the forces that engulf me). I think of my heroes. I do the crossword. I remember my favourite quote about ‘fear’ that I’ve shared here before: “Ships are safest when in harbour, but ships weren’t built to sit in harbours.” And from this quote, I gather the strength to batten down the hatches and ride out the tempest.

That’s the Portsmouth, seafearing, hardy mariner in me. Fleets have left my home city for Trafalgar, Dunkirk the Falklands and once, long ago, for Sydney Cove. My city’s football team (with a proud heritage of over 100 years) are perilously close to being put out of business by administrators who run the game at the moment, our backs are to the wall, we are cornered; it’s during time like these that I must become steely-eyed and face the wind-southerly.

Chaplin, the ship’s cat is now in the surgeon’s quarters being tended to, I have come below deck but have my sou’wester and lamp to hand, ready to take my watch, and turn at the wheel, as it comes. As sure as day must follow night, so must the storm give way to calmer seas.

On the City of Portmouth’s crest (or coat of arms) are inscribed these words: “Heavens Light Our Guide”. So mote it be, for Chaplin, Charles (Dickens) and I.

Steady as she blows cap’n.

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