Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
If I might briefly wax psychogeographically, seeing as I'm about the only fucker left who has yet to twist that particular baseball cap around backwards in a pitiful attempt to get down with the kids - I have a friend who used to live in Dickens' old house, or specifically in one of the houses in which Dickens grew up in Chatham, Kent. This is Glenn Wallis of the group Konstruktivists, authors of the album Psykho Genetika which remains one of the most psychologically disturbing slabs of abstract noise you're ever likely to hear. I didn't exactly know Glenn at the time, but had been writing to him for a year or so and was slightly in awe of him. He'd hung out with Throbbing Gristle, and as such seemed to be a peripheral figure on a weird and engrossingly dark musical scene. When Throbbing Gristle were denounced as Fascist in the NME - or whichever worthless rag it was - owing to the cited Nazi salute given by a black clad supporter, it had actually been Glenn, not saluting but reaching up to retrieve his pint from where he'd left it on top of a speaker; and now he had invited me over for a cup of tea, and there was a blue plaque on the house as testimony to Dickens previous residence.

Inside fell some way short of what you might expect of such a hypothetically prestigious dwelling, being as it had somehow been converted into distinctly crappy flats by a slum landlord who occasionally threatened to kill people's pets. The basement served as communal kitchen and lounge, but was used mainly for the consumption of heroin, judging by all the needles. Into this environment Glenn and his new wife had just brought their newborn baby, a daughter they named Jade. They were trying to move out, because it was a seriously crappy situation.

Of all the grim places in which I've ever seen friends endeavour to exist, Dickens' old gaff remains one of the worst; and it wasn't just the squalor or the lack of room or sharing with junkies, the place was saturated with the kind of ingrained darkness which H.P. Lovecraft would have denounced as overwritten - The Exorcist meets Trainspotting or something in that general direction. I still have no idea how anyone could have spent a night under that roof.

Now I realise this was simply the spirit of Dickens Past causing me to shit myself in vindictive pre-emptive payment  - precompense, if you will - of that which I must set to digital paper.

Okay. So I remember enjoying A Christmas Carol as a kid - read inevitably when I was at school - but that's been it. Something has always put me off Dickens, and here I am, nearly fifty and still to tackle a second helping from the greatest writer who ever lived aside from that Shakespeare. At least I'm told he's the greatest writer who ever lived, time and time again, and A Tale of Two Cities is the biggermost selling novel in history, so maybe it's just me.

It's the names which put me off.

I beseech you, Mr. Whimplestropper, for all the goodness which may gladly reside in thine over-generous heart, cast ye not that hamburger into the road where it may provide succour only to stray dogs, instead let it nourish my charge, young Barnaby Tugspangle.

Oh piss off.

Admittedly this impression derives from four million Dickens-based costume dramas every bastard Sunday teatime when I was growing up, as opposed to my actually - you know - reading the fucking things; so I was hoping I might be proven wrong; and I went for A Tale of Two Cities having encountered the French revolution in a few other places of late, plus word on the street was that Chuck had eased off on the funnies with this one, so...

Okay. I can see the craft and accordingly the appeal. Mr. Dickens does indeed bake an exceedingly fine sentence, set a deliciously fulsome, near tactile scene, and upon these he doth build many intriguing and well-rounded characters; and in theory he weaves a wonderful story, delivering chuckles as well as sound moral principles unto an age which really needed a lot more going on in that department. Dickens speaks up on the behalf of the poor, the downtrodden, the starving, and even the just plain useless back in an era when such were routinely regarded as one social stratum above talented pets which had learnt to walk on their hind legs; and A Tale of Two Cities concerns itself with the hysteria of the mob and those injustices which may be perpetrated in its name, a topic which seems now more relevant than ever...

I tried and I tried and I tried but I just couldn't do it. I made it to page two-hundred and still found myself entirely unable to give a shit about anyone. I even looked on Wikipedia, studying the synopsis in order to reassure myself that I hadn't missed anything, and unfortunately I hadn't, but still it went on and on and on - blah blah some sort of legal shit blah blah blah soppy woman getting married without giving me any idea as to why I'm supposed to care yap yap yap yap yap yet another tosser with a silly name, and each time anyone asks a fucking question, what could have been a yes or no answer turns into why indubitably I would do you the honour of gifting something by way of confirmation, and so it becomes my very great pleasure to admit to you, my very dear friend, that the situation is indeed in exact accord with your summation just as you have described it rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb...
It's like being stuck in a lift with my cousin Paul.

I really don't like to give up on a book, particularly as I even managed to finish Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land - albeit skimming the final hundred pages - which has to be one of the worst things ever written, but Dickens was really kicking my ass here, and it's not as though I'm a stranger to fiction of this era. I'm sure A Tale of Two Cities has many wonderful qualities, but I found myself entirely unable to appreciate any of them, and I just couldn't face another couple of hundred pages of this droning bollocks. I always knew I probably wouldn't enjoy Dickens, and so in future I will endeavour to exercise more faith in my own uninformed prejudices, which is probably the exact opposite of what the author intended, which is ironic.

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