Stuff vs. Theory

In a rather acid moment, my publisher once said that all my books could secretly be titled Fun Stuff I Have Found Out. He did not mean it unkindly, or at least I tell myself he didn’t. And up to a point it’s a fair cop, guv. I came to history-writing by the back door. I was writing a biography of four Victorian women, and to understand their own particular lives I felt I needed to know more about the lives which most women of their background and time
lived. My next four books, to a greater or lesser extent, focused on exactly that: how did the people of the time live; what did they do, what did they see, feel, smell; how did they amuse themselves, what was available to them on a day-to-day basis? If we don’t
know about ordinary life, goes my brain, how can we understand what motivates the less ordinary?

The historian Robin Winks divided history into ‘three things: what happened in the past, what people believe happened in the past, and what historians say happened in the past’. This tripartite division is a good description of what history is. History-writing, however, can just as well divide into two schools: theory, and ‘stuff’. Stuff falls into Winks’s ‘what happened in the past’ category, while theory spills across the other two. But stuff encompasses more than just ‘what happened’. It is also ‘what was it like when it happened’.

Take urbanisation, for example. Theory discusses the broad sweep of city growth and the socialisation of populations. Stuff uncovers that, in the new cities, when traffic began to be
segregated according to different types of transport, carts went in one lane, pedestrians and horses in another: the division was wheels versus legs. Not an insight that alone will set the world on fire but one that, nonetheless, does indicate a mindset revealingly
different to our own.

The source-materials for stuff are also pleasantly far-ranging. I would never take Tennyson’s description of ‘streaming London’s central roar’ as evidence of ‘what happened in the past’. It might mean the city was noisy, or it might be a flight of fantasy. Nor Dostoevsky calling London a city filled with ‘the screeching and howling of machines’ – he is hardly known as being the most even-keeled of writers. But then there is Dickens. Novel after novel abounds with throw-away lines like this from Our Mutual Friend, where one character asks another, ‘Would you object to turn aside into this place… where we can hear one another better than in the roaring street?’ Add in visitors’ reports of being
unable to hear a sermon in St Clement Danes on a Sunday over the sound of the traffic in the Strand, and Jane Carlyle complaint of the ‘everlasting sound in my ears, of men, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, waggons,
carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, door bells, gentlemen-raps, twopenny post-raps, footmen-showers-of-raps, of the whole devil to pay…’ from her small by-street in Chelsea, and Tennyson and Dostoevsky now appear to be merely reporting.

I do understand the qualms of the theory-ers, who question whether the experiences of individuals alone can be the basis on which to formulate more abstract ideas about society. Yet stuff allows us a mosaic-style formation of a picture. One tile tells us
little: it is too highly coloured, or too pale; but combine the many, many tiles that make up stuff, and a vivid picture emerges. We can stop with these pictures – that may be all we ask of ‘what happened in the past’. But my view is that, carefully assessed and
weighed, stuff can indeed lead more naturally to theory, to understanding how the people of the past thought about what happened.

It took me a phenomenally long time to discover exactly how a doorstep was whitened in the 19th century. Every household management book assured its readers it had to be done daily, but detailed instructions were scanty, for the simple reason that it was done daily, so everyone knew how. I was finally enlightened not by a book, but by my great-aunt (born 1905). The step was scrubbed down with boiling water. After it dried, a white paste
was applied. (Details to be found in The Victorian House, should any of you kids decide to try this at home.) It was done first thing in the morning, she said, before they went to school, so she and her sister had to jump from the threshold to the path, because
walking on the step would mark the white. How, I asked, wondering, did they get back in again after school? This was the revelation: ‘You could walk on it after eleven; everyone had seen it.’

This stuff therefore has two parts. First, the step was scrubbed before it was whitened; the whitening was not part of the cleaning process. And secondly, whitening a doorstep was not about cleanliness, it was about status. The very transience of the white announced the householder’s respectability: she had cleaned that day, and would clean again the next. So here, stuff leads to theory. What happened, what people thought about it, and why.

For the book I am currently working on, an attempt to outline the development of the idea of home, I am by the nature of the subject dealing more with theory than I ever have before. For the first year, I felt like a cow in ice-skates: please let me have my stuff back, I cried. I can trace the development of artificial lighting with no trouble. I can do it with both arms tied behind my back. Please please please don’t make me write about why, as lighting
became brighter, cheaper and more accessible, window-curtains moved from being rarities to being routine, or why the trends in decoration pronounced darkened rooms more aesthetically pleasing. (Although my stuff-nature leapt upon the nomenclature. In Germany in the late 19th century, one especially gloomy tendency was known as the braune Soße – gravy – style of interior decoration.)

Sometimes I think theory is like dealing with a particularly inquisitive five-year-old. Why was there an Industrial Revolution? Because of the consumer revolution. OK, so why was there a consumer revolution? Because of the… and we’re off, an endless series of ‘whys’ pushing each question further and further back.

At other times, I am amazed not so much by the material (although that is astonishing too), as by Winks’s second category: ‘what people think happened’. Or, in some cases, what they refuse to believe happened; we refuse to move from stuff to theory. Dutch academics have produced exceptional work on 17th-century inventories, comparing the paintings of the Golden Age to the actual design and contents of the houses supposedly
depicted. There is, they show, little overlap – barely any houses had marble floors, brass chandeliers, carpets on tables, or owned musical instruments; meanwhile many items that were in common use, such as strip-matting on the floors, were rarely or barely ever painted. The Dutch of the 17th century knew these pictures did not depict reality; it is we, in the intervening centuries, who have lost sight of that.

But the fascinating thing is how little purchase this work has had, how rarely it has been incorporated into the mainstream of general knowledge, despite – or indeed because – of the popularity of the paintings. The reason for this obscurity, of course, moves us from stuff (the inventories) to theory. The pioneering curator and design-historian Peter Thornton knew of this work, but continued to argue for the verisimilitude of Dutch
Golden Age art: the departure from reality for artists ‘is never all that large’, he wrote. And how, he challenged, if there were no carpets in houses, could artists ‘find carpets on floors to depict so accurately’, taking for granted that artists paint only the world about them, that they do not own props, nor create staged settings to paint.

In part, Thornton’s rejection of the research may have been one of age. He had relied heavily on paintings and engravings for his great histories of interior decoration; to accept the symbolic nature of supposedly realist works as he reached his eighties would bring into question a lifetime’s work. But his refusal mirrors the seemingly inexplicable obscurity of such fascinating material.

His refusal is ours. We really don’t want to know that these paintings are not realistic. From their re-popularisation in the 19th century, these paintings have been a major component in what we think of when we think of the word ‘home’. We want those tranquil, golden-lit rooms to have been real, to be, now, a place that once existed, and might therefore exist again. If we accept they are imaginary, we must accept that our own notions of home are, in part, imaginary too.

Is this theory correct? I don’t know. But what I do know is this: stuff doesn’t lie.

This article first appeared in The Author.

Making sense of a cruel world

Dickens Judith Flanders

The actor-biographer Simon Callow has played Dickens, and has created Dickensian characters, in monologues and in a solo bravura rendition of A Christmas Carol. Now he suggests that the theatricality of Dickens’s own life is a subject worthy of exploration in book form.

So it is, and if Callow had done so, it might have made a useful addition to what he rightly identifies as the ‘tsuanami’ of books that are appearing for Dickens’ bicentennial. But in this cursory biography, he merely makes token gestures in that direction: we learn rather a lot about Charles Mathews’ one-man shows; and Callow describes the theatrical impulses behind some of the novels. But mostly he follows the well-worn biographical path — of Dickens’s unhappy childhood, when his feckless father was imprisoned for debt and he was sent to work in a blacking-factory; followed by the lower-middle-class boy becoming, through sheer effort of will, a journalist, then a sketchwriter, then a dizzyingly successful novelist; next the unhappy marriage and secret mistress, before he reached new audiences as a performer-reader of his own material.

Callow appears to have written at warp-speed, paying little attention to his prose, substituting lists of adjectives for characterisation. Dickens is ‘vivacious, charismatic, compassionate, dark, dazzling, generous, destructive, sentimental’; a dozen pages later, he is ‘vivacious, imaginative, amusing, dreamy, affectionate’. Before that, he was born ‘in a small but pleasant, newly built’ house, and later lived in another ‘nice’ one.

‘Nice’ is a favourite word; and a Niagara of clichés pours over these pages. When Dickens’s first love, Maria Beadnell, rejected him, ‘He had given everything of himself. He had lowered his guard, bared his heart. And she had just toyed with him.’ He lacks only a moustache to twiddle.

Callow is also fairly cavalier when it comes to who did what when. He repeats old myths that have long been rejected, and gives actions and thoughts that are nowhere available to us (‘Dickens gasped’, for instance). The book is devoid of historical context, describing as ‘odd’ things that were commonplace at the time (the Dickens’s quiet marriage, or the sister-in-law living with the newly married couple). We are informed that Dickens lived in a world without ‘telephones, telegrams, tape-recorders or television’ — so recreating a vanished world is clearly not on Callow’s agenda.

Instead, what Dickens wrote as an adult is assumed to be the reality lived by him as a child. He is given remarkably little credit for imagination. To assume David Copperfield’s childhood to be a precise replica of Dickens’s own is alarmingly facile.

Callow sees Dickens through a prism of historical inevitability: he is now regarded as the great novelist of the 19th century, and therefore everything in his lifestory must lead towards that point. Far more interesting is Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s view. Becoming Dickens is everything Callow’s book is not: brilliantly original, stylishly written, thoughtful, measured and altogether exhilarating.

He begins by reminding us that novels are word-machines ‘designed to help us look differently at the world’. Concentrating on Dickens in his twenties, when he was growing to be the writer we think we know, Douglas-Fairhurst shows us what might have been by examining the careers Dickens tried and rejected: the lawyer’s clerk, the shorthand writer, the journalist, the hopeful actor, playwright, theatrical impresario, even the potential emigrant to the West Indies. This matters, because, Dickens wrote: ‘These things have made me what I am.’ So too, of course, did his childhood trauma, his failed love-affair with Maria Beadnell, his initially happy marriage, and the death of his sister-in-law, for which he seemed to begrudge his wife and her parents their grieving.

Inventing stories is a way of making sense of a world that seems cruel, or merely indifferent, by taking for oneself the lead part in a drama and creating a coherent narrative out of random events. And yet, even while Dickens was constructing that alternate reality, he, like everyone else, lived in a world of dead-ends and might-have-beens. It is Douglas-Fairhurst’s triumph that he helps us understand how the textures of 19th-century life generally, and Dickens’s life in particular, were reformulated into works of art that continue to resonate two centuries later.

Becoming Dickens is itself a work of art. Incidents that have been written about hundreds of times before are made fresh: when Dickens’s father was arrested for debt, ‘the family had to face up to the fact that the luxuries they could no longer afford included the young Charles’s childhood’. Callow gives us several pages on Charles Mathews, and we’re not quite sure why. Douglas-Fairhurst is far more succinct, yet throws new light on Dickens’s fascination with Mathews’s monologues, which showed ‘that personal identity was largely a matter of self-identity’, a crucial lesson to this self-inventor. Throughout, we are given just the right amount of historical background, so that we understand the context Dickens was operating in without being overwhelmed by unnecessary detail.

But, ultimately, it is the keen psychological insights that make Douglas-Fairhurst’s book so rewarding. It was, he shows us, Dickens’s identification with children who hunger not just for food, but for love, for acceptance, and for security, that make it not at all coincidental that his most famous line was, ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’

Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World Simon Callow Harper Press
Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Walking with Dickens

“Judith Flanders’s evocative and detailed survey of daily living in Victorian London, from the murk and the misery to the downright odd, is outstanding…” according to the Sunday Times,  which commissioned this short film for the online version of the newspaper. In it, Judith takes a tour of contemporary London charting the sweeping changes  that have taken place since Dickens’ day.

Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, by Simon Callow, and Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist, by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

The actor-biographer Simon Callow has played Dickens, and has created Dickensian characters, in monologues and in a solo bravura rendition of A Christmas Carol. Now he suggests that the theatricality of Dickens’s own life is a subject worthy of exploration in book form.

So it is, and if Callow had done so, it might have made a useful addition to what he rightly identifies as the ‘tsuanami’ of books that are appearing for Dickens’ bicentennial. But in this cursory biography, he merely makes token gestures in that direction: we learn rather a lot about Charles Mathews’ one-man shows; and Callow describes the theatrical impulses behind some of the novels. But mostly he follows the well-worn biographical path — of Dickens’s unhappy childhood, when his feckless father was imprisoned for debt and he was sent to work in a blacking-factory; followed by the lower-middle-class boy becoming, through sheer effort of will, a journalist, then a sketchwriter, then a dizzyingly successful novelist; next the unhappy marriage and secret mistress, before he reached new audiences as a performer-reader of his own material.

Callow appears to have written at warp-speed, paying little attention to his prose, substituting lists of adjectives for characterisation. Dickens is ‘vivacious, charismatic, compassionate, dark, dazzling, generous, destructive, sentimental’; a dozen pages later, he is ‘vivacious, imaginative, amusing, dreamy, affectionate’. Before that, he was born ‘in a small but pleasant, newly built’ house, and later lived in another ‘nice’ one.

‘Nice’ is a favourite word; and a Niagara of clichés pours over these pages. When Dickens’s first love, Maria Beadnell, rejected him, ‘He had given everything of himself. He had lowered his guard, bared his heart. And she had just toyed with him.’ He lacks only a moustache to twiddle.

Callow is also fairly cavalier when it comes to who did what when. He repeats old myths that have long been rejected, and gives actions and thoughts that are nowhere available to us (‘Dickens gasped’, for instance). The book is devoid of historical context, describing as ‘odd’ things that were commonplace at the time (the Dickens’s quiet marriage, or the sister-in-law living with the newly married couple). We are informed that Dickens lived in a world without ‘telephones, telegrams, tape-recorders or television’ — so recreating a vanished world is clearly not on Callow’s agenda.

Instead, what Dickens wrote as an adult is assumed to be the reality lived by him as a child. He is given remarkably little credit for imagination. To assume David Copperfield’s childhood to be a precise replica of Dickens’s own is alarmingly facile.

Callow sees Dickens through a prism of historical inevitability: he is now regarded as the great novelist of the 19th century, and therefore everything in his lifestory must lead towards that point. Far more interesting is Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s view. Becoming Dickens is everything Callow’s book is not: brilliantly original, stylishly written, thoughtful, measured and altogether exhilarating.

He begins by reminding us that novels are word-machines ‘designed to help us look differently at the world’. Concentrating on Dickens in his twenties, when he was growing to be the writer we think we know, Douglas-Fairhurst shows us what might have been by examining the careers Dickens tried and rejected: the lawyer’s clerk, the shorthand writer, the journalist, the hopeful actor, playwright, theatrical impresario, even the potential emigrant to the West Indies. This matters, because, Dickens wrote: ‘These things have made me what I am.’ So too, of course, did his childhood trauma, his failed love-affair with Maria Beadnell, his initially happy marriage, and the death of his sister-in-law, for which he seemed to begrudge his wife and her parents their grieving.

Inventing stories is a way of making sense of a world that seems cruel, or merely indifferent, by taking for oneself the lead part in a drama and creating a coherent narrative out of random events. And yet, even while Dickens was constructing that alternate reality, he, like everyone else, lived in a world of dead-ends and might-have-beens. It is Douglas-Fairhurst’s triumph that he helps us understand how the textures of 19th-century life generally, and Dickens’s life in particular, were reformulated into works of art that continue to resonate two centuries later.

Becoming Dickens is itself a work of art. Incidents that have been written about hundreds of times before are made fresh: when Dickens’s father was arrested for debt, ‘the family had to face up to the fact that the luxuries they could no longer afford included the young Charles’s childhood’. Callow gives us several pages on Charles Mathews, and we’re not quite sure why. Douglas-Fairhurst is far more succinct, yet throws new light on Dickens’s fascination with Mathews’s monologues, which showed ‘that personal identity was largely a matter of self-identity’, a crucial lesson to this self-inventor. Throughout, we are given just the right amount of historical background, so that we understand the context Dickens was operating in without being overwhelmed by unnecessary detail.

But, ultimately, it is the keen psychological insights that make Douglas-Fairhurst’s book so rewarding. It was, he shows us, Dickens’s identification with children who hunger not just for food, but for love, for acceptance, and for security, that make it not at all coincidental that his most famous line was, ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’

Why Dickens?

It can scarcely have escaped anyone’s attention that 2013 is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth – anyone who has not been in a medically induced coma for the past months, that is. If you missed the last two biographies (one, by Michael Slater, jumping the gun in 2009, another, by Claire Tomalin, published a couple of months ago), then there is another coming along in a couple of weeks, by the actor Simon Callow, who has also been performing his seasonal ‘one-man theatrical extravaganza’ adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

Or you could watch the current BBC’s production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. That is, if you’ve finished watching their version of Great Expectations. Or listening to the radio retelling of A Tale of Two Cities, or learning about his favourite songs on Charles Dickens’ iPod (yes, really), or exploring an Indian reimagining, The Mumbai Chuzzlewits. Or watching Armando Iannucci telling us why he was funny, or Sue Perkins on his poor, much-maligned wife, on Mrs Dickens’ Family Christmas. If you’re more academically inclined, you can present a video about Dickens at a free online conference. That is, if you don’t want to wait, and pay for a cinema ticket to the soon-to-be released Great Expectations with Helena Bonham-Carter, paying for it with the new £2-coin featuring – who else? Or, who knows, let’s be crazy, you could even read one of the books.

In fact, if you’re interested in any art form – television, film, theatre, literature, cinema, radio – you can’t miss Dickens. The question is, why? Thackeray’s 200th was in 2011, and I don’t remember this cavalcade. In fact, I distinctly remember an entire lack of cavalcade. Part of the answer, of course, is sheer familiarity. Dickens has been turned into theatre, into film and television regularly, ever since the first Oliver Twist adaptation in 1838, months before Dickens had actually finished writing the serial, so the play and the novel had different endings. And so everyone knows, or thinks they know, the plots and the characters, even if they don’t know the books. (If I had a pound for every person who misquotes Oliver Twist’s ‘Please, sir, I want some more,’ as ‘Can I have some more?’ I would be rich enough to pay for my own adaptation of Oliver Twist.)

And Dickens is international. Be it As Aventuras de Oliver Twist from Brazil, or Twist Olivér in Hungary, or Italy’s Storia di un orfano, everyone knows Oliver and Fagin, not to mention David Copperfield, Mr Micawber, Edwin Drood, Mr Pickwick and the rest of the familiar troop. Or they know about them. Or their names. Or the plots, sort of. Can you name the characters in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair? A few may dredge up Becky Sharp. Never mind the characters, can you name another Thackeray novel? Thought not.

So part of the argument for the Dickens-fest we are enjoying-enduring is circular: we like Dickens because he is popular, he is popular because we like him. But there is another, deeper, and more important, reason that Dickens is popular, one that resonates particularly in our own time, and that is the story of his own life.

Dickens, as everybody knows, was a lower-middle-class boy made good after a dreadful childhood, when his father was imprisoned for debt and he was sent to work in a blacking-factory. True, no one really has much idea of what a blacking-factory is these days, but we’re unanimous in knowing it is pretty bad.

And bad it was. Dickens was taken out of school when he was twelve, and he worked pasting labels on blacking (which is shoe-polish, by the way) pots, possibly for as much as a year, before his father, finances temporarily recovered, returned him to school. But he left school for good only two years later, aged fifteen, and went to work as a lawyer’s junior clerk.

And this is where the story really resonates. It’s not just the cruel childhood as a child-worker, living in a room on his own, walking through London to work every day, budgeting for himself, with never mind no one to make sure he ate his greens, with no one even to make sure he ate. (To save money, his mother and his siblings were living in prison with his father.) It’s also the story of the person from the disadvantaged background who made good through his own efforts, who not merely survived a bad childhood, but turned it, triumphantly, into art, who made himself, through his own talents, the most respected, most courted man in Britain. (He refused honours, and turned down meetings with Queen Victoria.)

This is why Dickens is feted over Thackeray, perhaps even over Jane Austen (although hold onto your hats: her bicentenary is in 2017). We may admire Becky Sharp. We may want to be Lizzie Bennett or Mr Darcy. But it is Dickens himself, the man, not his characters, who speaks to us so powerfully today. We too live in a time that is, to parrot the man, both ‘the best of times’ and ‘the worst of times’. What most don’t remember is how those opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities continue: ‘it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’, not to mention ‘it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair’. And then, ‘we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.’

In these divided times – the super-rich and the jobless, with little certainty in between, the frothing religious fundamentalists and the screamingly secular, the climate-change believers and deniers – everything seems as sharply divided as Dickens saw it.

And unlike Thackeray, unlike Jane Austen, Dickens didn’t write about the graciously upper class, the respectably wealthy. Some of his characters were – there is Sir Leicester Dedlock, Bart, carefully given his title every time. But most of his characters were not. Some were indigent: I know of no character in literature more moving than Jo the crossing-sweeper in Bleak House, who has grown up on the streets, and ‘Don’t know that everybody has two names. Never heerd of sich a think.’ He has no family, no friends, has never been to school, and isn’t sure what the word ‘home’ means.

Even more of Dickens’ characters are what became known as ‘shabby-genteel’: people who are keeping up appearances, despite precarious finances, despite irrevocably sliding down the social scale, possibly losing a job, losing a family, losing everything, as the Dickens family once had so traumatically. In our own times, this speaks to us as we desperately work harder and harder, run faster and faster merely to stay in the same place. Primark, Walmart and Lidl may mean that we no longer look ‘shabby’; a more informal dress-code means no one really looks ‘genteel’, either, but in these decades of stagnating middle-class wages, in times when university education seems to be moving beyond the reach of many who had previously expected it, when social mobility seems to work in only one direction, the idea of lives lived precariously poised on the edge of financial despair is one we all recognize.

For, finally, it is the fear of destitution, and hope and idealization of the future, so uniquely mingled in this writer, whose books are more bizarre than any adaptation can do justice to, that makes him meaningful for our day as much as his day. Too many adaptations make his novels seem no different from Sherlock Holmes, all quaint hansom cabs, cobblestone streets and weirdly stilted prose used to indicate a generalized ‘past times’. What makes him powerful, though, is the present. In the BBC’s recent Great Expectations, there was much to disapprove of. (And I did, God knows.) But when the convict Magwitch, on the run, erupts from the marshes, grabbing the child Pip’s foot as he crosses a bridge, it encapsulates every child’s universal terror. It is just so that all children imagine a monster will emerge from under their beds, bursting into their nice safe world and bringing it crashing down. For Dickens is not safe, he is not ‘heritage’. He is fierce, and ferocious, and formidable.

No one has depicted the homeless with more sorrow and pity and terror than he, depicted them from both sides: from middle-class safety, looking outwards; and from their own point of view, looking at a world that seems to offer such richness, such happiness, to everyone except to you. And then, as an act of mediation, he moves us between the two worlds, so we understand both. When David Copperfield, like Charles Dickens once, a middle-class child-labourer in a factory, finally finds his aunt, returns to his family, ‘I thought of all the solitary places under the night sky where I had slept, and how I prayed that I never might be houseless any more, and never might forget the houseless.’

For much of the past century, it was fashionable to dismiss Dickens as ‘sentimental’. But in hard times, Dickens is once again ‘our’ writer precisely because he never forgets the houseless: never forgets the fear and shame of being houseless, before showing the security and haven in returning to family, to home, to being loved once more.

Cleveland Street Workhouse under threat again

Below is a leter from the group that fought to save the Cleveland Street Workhouse, the sole surviving 18th-century workhouse, and a probable model for the workhouse in Oliver Twist. The building was indeed listed, but now it looks like the University College Hospital Trust is hoping that weather and squatters will damage the site so badly that it can then be sold off to developers for ‘luxury’ apartments (is there any other type?).

Please take the time to write and register your concerns (details below), and if you have any access to the press, use that to publicize this backward step. And please tweet and Facebook your support.

Dear Cleveland Street Workhouse supporter,

Thank you for continuing to support our campaign to save the Cleveland Street Workhouse. Your signature, together with nearly 6000 others, was vital in our effort of obtaining listed status for the workhouse. As you will hopefully be aware, the workhouse was granted Grade II listed status by the Secretary of State in March 2011, however it has come to our attention that the building may again be under threat. We are therefore asking for your help once again.

University College London NHS Foundation Trust recently decided to evict the current guardians of the site, leaving the building exposed to possible further decay, speeding up its demise. With the recent spate of squatting in the area, our group is also concerned that squatters may take over the building and damage it, further exacerbating the situation.

The Cleveland Street Workhouse has served as short term accommodation for young professionals for more than 3 years. The inhabitants have been placed within the building through a “Protection by Occupation” scheme, which forbids squatters from occupying the premises and helps prevent decay. Without constant monitoring and heating during the winter months, the elements will take their toll.

In light of these potentially disastrous developments, we would like to call upon UCLH NHS Foundation Trust to reconsider this decision.

If you could take a moment of your time to write to the University College London Hospital Trust expressing your concern about recent developments, you would once again provide invaluable help to preserve the building. Due to the urgent nature of the situation, please address your correspondence direct to UCLH NHS Foundation Trust’s CEO:

Sir Robert Naylor

Chief Executive

UCLH NHS Foundation Trust

235 Euston Road

London NW1 2BU

e-mail: [email protected]

 

For more information, please visit our website:

http://www.clevelandstreetworkhouse.org/ -OR- http://bit.ly/fZCI3V

 

Thank you for your continuing support.

Kind Regards,

Aimery de Malet Roquefort

on behalf of the Cleveland Street Workhouse Group

www.clevelandstreetworkhouse.org

Help write Victorian history

What fun. The British Library (here) is calling all budding Victorianists to join them on 4 June for a massive edit-in. The idea from the library’s point of view is to help spread the word about the depth and breadth of the various Victorian collections quietly waiting for readers at the BL, by adding new Wikipedia entries, or updating and expanding already existing ones, and particularly focusing on their special collections: Dickens, boys’-own stories, penny-dreadfuls, the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays.

‘Access’ is changing. When I first started to write, if I needed a date, I checked it in an encyclopaedia, on the shelves across the room. Spelling, a dictionary, on the other side. A page reference? It was jotted down on a ‘to check when I’m next in the library’ list.

And now? Dates are online, either Wikipedia for the biggies, the Dictionary of National Biography for the UK figures, accessed via the London Library (blessings on your head, LL!) or a dozen other websites. Spelling, OED via the Westminster Public Library. Page reference? Google books. Checking citations, Project Gutenberg. And every day it still seems like a miracle. My ‘to check in the library list’ is now vanishingly small.

One of the greatest developments is also the BL’s, its digitization of hundreds of complete runs of 19th-century newspapers. This has opened up huge new research areas, and is quickly changing our views of British history, turning it from a London, Times-centric research base, as has been the default, to a broader view, geographically, politically and socially.

The one caveat is that it is only free if you are physically in the BL, which strikes me as very peculiar. If you have a reader’s ticket, and can key in your number, why not free to any registered BL reader, as with so many libraries?

A girl can dream…