Monday, February 6, 2012

What the dickens?

I'm not much for the classics.  I don't think you *should* read something just because someone somewhere thinks it's a masterpiece.  You should read for sheer enjoyment, for broadening horizons, for information gathering, for entertainment, for developing your own vocabulary.  

But I couldn't not mark on this blog the 200th birthday of Mr Charles Dickens - author of many "classics that you *should* read, a man I first met way back in 1992 and didn't even know it.  

I spent my entire primary and intermediate school years at a tiny little country school, where I knew everyone and their parents and they in tern knew me. Our school library was tiny - by the time I left at the end of form two, I had read everything in it twice over.

Every year my little school would do a dramatic production - they grew in size and elaborateness, with hired costumes from "the big smoke of Palmerston North," sets hired from a theatre company in Feilding and professional stage make up liberally applied by the roped in mums (and thick globs of cold creme to remove it). 

Our 1992 production (totally showing my age!) was Oliver! and I was the Artful Dodger. I had to sing my first solo, a terrifying and pitchy rendition of "I'd Do Anything" - there's a terrible video of that lying around at my parent's place. Thank God no one has vcrs anymore.
I remember the hours of slavish line learning, singing lessons with the local opera teacher and rehearsals in the draughty community hall round the corner from school which we walked in strict single file to. I remember having no idea what "fisticuffs" meant, our school (all 70 of us) cooking up a huge vat of gruel so we could taste what Oliver and the orphans ate, and having a crush on the boy who played Bill Sikes. 

But I don't remember ever being told anything about Mr Dickens or the book that inspired our play/musical. 

Fast forward three years to Palmerston North Girls High.  I was a very small (albeit chubby) fish in a very  large and scary pond. All my new "townie" friends seemed so much more sophisticated and smart compared with country bumpkin me.  

But Dickens was our great leveller.  

In our very first English class, our teacher Mrs Young produced the first novel we were to study: A Christmas Carol.  Though we were familiar with the story (thank you A Muppets Christmas Carol), none of us had read any Dickens before.  It wasn't the first time I was to struggle with a set text in English class (I have a love/hate relationship with Mr Shakespeare as well) but it introduced me to so many things: a whole new way of looking at words, questioning why characters did things not just blindly accepting their actions, analysing and critiquing this marvellous language of ours called English.

I can't say that long ago lesson in Mrs Young's English class instilled a great passion in me for Dickens' work. It didn't and I can honestly say I have not picked up another of his works since.  But that first class helped stoke the fire in my belly for words, beautiful, complex, emotion drawing, life affirming, words.  

And for that, I thank you Mr Dickens.  Happy Birthday old fellow.


Emma said...

Hi Kelly,

I'm the Web Editor at Booksellers NZ - we've chatted on Twitter and Facebook before. I'm keen to work with other book reviewers this year and wonder if you're keen? If you are email me at and we can talk more.


apple cheeked, potato shaped girl said...

Dickens can be a hard slog. I do like his work - but not all and I am a big believer of putting down books you're not enjoying and some of his are in the discarded pile.

There is however one that stands above the rest - not only worth the read in terms of narrative and theme(and a lot of easier read aren't) but it flows well with fewer character is simpler to read.

A Tale of Two Cities. It was historical even when it was written and has a dream like feel to it which I think also gives it some fluidity.

I can take it or leave it when it comes to Dickens but this is my all time favourite book and I highly recommend it to anyone.

I couldn't out it down and even if you don't like Dickens you should give it a go - you can always put it down. :-)