Celebrating Dickens 200 years on

Wed, Feb 8, 2012, 00:00

A FEW snowflakes, appropriately, fell around the parish church of Portsea yesterday in Hampshire as hundreds gathered inside to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of its most famous son, Charles Dickens.

Inside, actors Simon Callow and Sheila Hancock read passages from two of his works, while local pupils illustrated how Dickens has remained current for today’s generation, singing songs from the musical Oliver!

Callow, who read from David Copperfield, travelled to Portsmouth, where Dickens was born in 1812, rather than attend the main commemoration of his birth at Westminster Abbey in London, one attended by Prince Charles among other luminaries.

“I really made the strong decision to come to the place where he was born rather than to Westminster Cathedral where he never wanted to be,” said the actor, who is supporting a “Read All About It” literacy campaign by the local Portsmouth News.

Ten-year-old Sky Musselwhite, a pupil from a school in Broadstairs in Kent named after Dickens, said she had wanted to come to “be part” of history.

“We’ve just read Oliver Twist at school and it made me realise how lucky we all are to have enough to eat.”

Dickens, a journalist, rests at Poet’s Corner in the abbey because of other journalists, following a London Timescampaign in the days after his death in 1870 to have him buried there, rather than at Rochester Cathedral, near where he then lived.

His grave is marked by a simple black headstone, in accordance with one of his wishes, “that my name be inscribed in plain English letters on my tomb . . . I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works.”

Twelve mourners only were present, some of whom left a wreath of ferns and roses. However, the grave was left open for two days for the tens of thousands of Victorian Londoners who came to pay homage to the man who had done so much to immortalise their age.

Before hearing readings at the abbey from actor Ralph Fiennes and others, Prince Charles said that Dickens, “despite the many years that have passed”, had used his power over language “to campaign passionately for social justice”.

“The word ‘Dickensian’ instantly conjures up a vivid picture of Victorian life with all its contrasts and intrigue, and his characterisation is as fresh today as it was on the day it was written,” he said, before laying a wreath of white roses and snowdrops.

Two centuries on from his birth, Dickens’s social relevance to today was illustrated by schools minister Nick Gibb at a south London school, where he said Victorian-era levels of illiteracy are still plighting some of Britain’s poorest communities.

The schools minister is now planning to issue all children with a library card – and a map to show the location of their local library, though critics point out that Conservative/ Liberal Democrats coalition cutbacks are leading to the closure of some branches.

For Simon Callow, Dickens was above all a journalist, and a great one.

“He would have been up there with the anti-capitalist protesters.

“He would have gone down to the hospitals and found out if it was true there were not enough beds. If there was scandal he would have exposed it.”