Charles Dickens had a lot to say about Christmas.
Indeed some suggest that in many ways he invented the Christmas festival that many of us now enjoy in much of the western world and beyond. A Christmas world of snowy streets, jolly family feasting and, of course, a time when charity is also remembered amongst the mid-winter festivities.
Dickens lived when there was much poverty and great suffering in both the expanding cities and the often hostile countryside of Britain, and many children were caught up in this. At the same time there were also a better-off part of society, a burgeoning middle-class and a political system that had it within its power to help. Dickens recognised these things and his stories, at least in part, were morality tales aimed at highlighting and ultimately ending the suffering of people, especially children. Consider the weird and jarring scene in A Christmas Carol when the eponymous miser Scrooge spies a bony claw-like hand under the robes of the jovial and festive figure of the Ghost of Christmas Present?
Here in abbreviated form is the scene:
‘From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at [the Spirit’s] feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.’
Scrooge is so dismayed at their appearance that he can only manage to ask the Spirit if the poor children are his.
The resounding and chilling reply comes back ‘They are man’s!’
Then the Spirit adds, ‘This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.’
The fact that these figures are portrayed in the company of the third Christmas ghost (the one of the current time) emphasises that Dickens is signposting issues of his day for his devoted readers.
Dickens was very much a social campaigner and active not just in illustrating the pressing issues of the day but also a champion of certain charities. Are there lessons in this for those of us trying to campaign today?
His writings were immensely popular. The books so famous now were equally so when first published and mainly sold in serialised form. They were Victorian soap operas with a keen readership avidly awaiting each chapter and each new series and Dickens himself (something of an actor) would also perform them in modified form to packed theatres.
February 7th 2012 is the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth. We shall be hearing much more about him in the coming year. A new biography reportedly suggests that this great Victorian moralist was a flawed individual himself; eventually abandoning his wife of many years and many children for a younger actress. This bleak interpretation of his character may disappoint his current fans, but what is undeniable about Dickens is the effect of his writings, and our ongoing fascination for him and his stories. Is he the major literary figure in the English language? Is he greater in his influence than Shakespeare? I think he is. He wrote in a way that was accessible to all. His stories grip, entertain and gently educate with a pervasiveness that remains effective today. Adaptations of his stories still abound. We never seem to tire of Dickens. Even as I write, BBC TV is featuring as part of its Christmas season his deeply twisted tale of Great Expectations and the entry to the New Year here in the UK will be marked by something of a festival of films on TV derived from Dickens’ stories.
What would he have made of our modern forms of communications: twittering, tweeting and blogging, films in three dimensions and the live-streaming of You Tube and the rest of the new-dimension of the internet? I think he would have engaged heartily with all of these things as new ways to tell stories, even though he would have had censure his wonderful erudition for the brevity much of this new ‘information highway’ is best suited to.
And what does any of this have to do with whales and dolphins? Well, at the same time that Dickens was trying to open the eyes (and the purses) of those around him to the inhumanity of man to man, so animal suffering was also starting to be recognised and addressed and, in fact, Dickens was again in the vanguard of this reform. In 1824 the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals was formed and Dickens was both a member and a great supporter.
Bill Sykes the principal villain in Oliver Twist is famously cruel to his poor but faithful dog, Bullseye, as well as abusive and bullying to all around him, culminating in the awful murder of his lover, Nancy. Animal cruelty appears again in Great Expectations where the very unpleasant character Bentley Drummle mistreats his horse, an activity that eventually causes his death. Dickens clearly recognised the link between mistreatment of animals and cruelty to people.
For some critics, Dickens’ characters are too simple. They compare them unfavourably with the better-fleshed out and sophisticated individuals drawn by other later authors; but my goodness he could tell a story. So, one lesson for those of us trying to achieve improved protection of animals that are suffering in a world dangerously overly-burdened by the unsustainable needs of our own expanding and self-obsessed population may be that we too need to use compelling stories. We need to engage the attention of our fellows and show them why they should care.
Fortunately, in the UK we no longer have workhouses and helpings of gruel being doled out, but we did witness terrible things in 2011, including unprecedented civil strife and growing unemployment and, elsewhere in the world, things every bit as terrible as those in the streets of Dickens’s world continue. Against this backdrop of human strife, we have to show people enough about the animals that they will care about them; understand the importance of saving the societies of cetaceans and, ultimately speak out for those beings that – despite their sophistication - cannot do so for themselves.
This is not going to be at all easy (it wasn’t easy before economies started to falter), but through our knowledge of these animals (including our adoption schemes) we have the opportunity for people to learn to know individual animals and their communities and for their very specific stories to be told. Whales and dolphins are also animals that can captivate our attention. Real encounters are rarely forgotten.
We have stories to tell, characters to bring to an eager public and we have a just cause.
I know everyone in WDCS would want to join me in wishing all our supporters and friends around the world a very Happy New Year.
‘…and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!’