What the Dickens?

Posted on February 23, 2012

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Credit: Dickens' Dream, 1875 by Robert William Buss, © Charles Dickens Museum

Londoners. If you’re anything like me, you may suffer a bit of a love/hate relationship with our fair city. Yes there may be something wildly exciting to do every night of the week and Gordon Bennett don’t we have enough art on our doorsteps to satisfy the most greedy of culture fiends? But alas, we also have dirty old men using crowded tubes as an excuse to cop a feel, and an abundance of pavement vomit.

I could go on, but don’t worry I won’t. What I will do is implore you to get down to the Dickens and London exhibition showing at the Museum of London at the moment – because it will make you fall in love with the big smoke all over again.

Walking straight into poverty-stricken, festering Dickensian London, it’s an immediate immersion into a wonderland of the sordid kind. We’re confronted with artistic projections and oil paintings depicting the scenes and rhythms of London from a time gone by – miserable rabbles outside the old workhouses, flower sellers, theatre goers and old public house photos. It’s a reminder of how history seems to literally seep out of the metropolis tarmac.

Dickens was a terminal insomniac who roamed the city streets in the small hours of the morning – claiming he knew London better than anyone else alive. As the first author to chronicle London’s world of urban inequality and grime, he may well have been right. He called the city his ‘magic lantern’ and referred to its many parks and green spaces as the ‘lungs of London’.

If you consider yourselves a Dickens expert, there are some interactive Q & A panels to prove you woefully wrong (in my case, anyway) and you’ll get to lay your eyeballs on the one and only writing desk used to conjure up his stories.

At the end of the exhibition we were treated to The Houseless Shadow – a film by artist/filmmaker William Raban, which was inspired by Dickens’s essay, ‘Night Walks’. In a bid to portray London, and all its shadowy peculiarities, at night, he filmed over five months while carrying his equipment in a large supermarket bag, so as to blend in with ‘the people of the night’.

The results are stunning. Dickens’s 150-year-old words play out against a modern-day reconstruction which retraces his footsteps and poses the question, how much has changed? To the untrained eye, not much.

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Posted in: Art and Culture