Kids Living in Poverty, Debt out of Control and Scrooge Bosses. Why These Hard Times Make Dickens More Relevant Than Ever

Article excerpt

Byline: Claire Tomalin

IT will be the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens next year - but despite two centuries passing, many of the issues he wrote about in his dispatches have not been resolved.

Dickens covered crime, poverty, politics and education, and aimed his words at ordinary people.

Biographer Claire Tomalin examines the parallels he would have noticed in the UK today...

WHEN Charles Dickens was writing two centuries ago, there was a huge gulf between rich and poor.

Children were mistreated, joblessness was soaring, street crime was rife and corruption was everywhere. So life wasn't much different to how it is today, really.

Dickens was a man of the people. His works were loved by the rich because he made them laugh, but they didn't like it when he shone a light on the inequalities of society.

I dare say if he were alive today he would be writing for Daily Mirror readers. Dickens took pride in standing up for the underdog.

There are many parallels between Dickensian Britain and the world of 2011.

Perhaps his most famous story, A Christmas Carol, was written in 1843 during a great recession and hardship across the country.

The main character Scrooge has lots of money but, rather like the bankers of today, he doesn't want anyone to have it.

At the start of the book, he is approached by a man collecting money for the poor.

The miser doesn't want to part with any of his money even though the collector appeals to him saying: "Many thousands are in want of common necessities; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, Sir."

"Are there no prisons?" asks Scrooge, knowing there are.

"Plenty of prisons," says the gentleman, laying down his pen.

"And the Union workhouses?" demands Scrooge.

"Are they still in operation?" "Both very busy, Sir,' comes the gentleman's reply.

"Oh, I was afraid from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," says Scrooge.

In Scrooge's mind, the poor are already adequately looked after by the State in the form of the workhouse and prison. The reality of course was very different.

Later in the story, Scrooge, who has become mellowed by night-time ghostly visits, meets two children, "yellow, scowling and wolfish" - one called Ignorance, the other Want - he wonders if he should do something for them. Scrooge remarks to the spirit visiting him: "Have they no refuge or resource?" The spirit repeats Scrooge's words: "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" I cannot help thinking of those words when free univer-sity education is no longer available in this country and any number of children, however wicked, are being put in prison. …