More Dickens, please?

Dickens is my hero. Happy 200th birthday, Sir. His true gift – which we need more than ever – is his ability to engender empathy in his readers. He campaigned on specific issues –such as sanitation and the workhouse –but his fiction changed hearts as well as minds. So much so that it led to social reform.

Oliver Twist shocked readers with its images of poverty and crime and was responsible for the clearing of the London slum, Jacob’s Island. The Pickwick Papers was influential in having the Fleet Prison shut down. Bleak House demonstrated how the  interminable lawsuits of the Court of Chancery destroyed people’s lives, (did anything change there?), and Hard Times accelerated progress to factory reforms. Karl Marx said Dickens, “…issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”

I was prompted the other day to think that we need more writers today like Dickens to penetrate the smog of politics and statistics and PR to connect on an empathetic level with the lives of our fellow citizens across the widening social divide. It was an article by Amelia Gentleman in the Guardian Society about the operation of the DWP Work Programme in Hull. Neither polemical or demeaning of the efforts of the people employed to help, the piece is about humanity and the absurdities we find ourselves part of, half wondering, what the Dickens are we doing?

In a classroom upstairs, an 18-year-old man with red acne scars and a powerful stammer, who has been unemployed since he left school with no GCSEs and whose parents have never worked, is sitting with a 33-year-old father of six, who hasn’t worked since his plastering job, helping renovate the Travelodge hotel, finished two years ago. They’re being taken through an induction programme by a man who introduces himself as a multifunctional trainer and who tells them (reading from a script) that: “Through a range of activities, we integrate your vocational, social, personal development needs with your work aspirations.”

“We want to share your brilliance with the rest of society,” he tells them. The teenager looks at his fingernails and the older man’s brow wrinkles with polite scepticism.

The trainer spends a long time taking them through the “You and I Charter”, which he reads with hushed reverence, as if it were poetry. “You and I need to always be on time… You and I need to sustain an understanding of what we are together aiming to achieve. You and I need to be proactive. You and I need to just be… You and Me.” The older man nods agreeably, the teenager bites his lower lip.’


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