Books I Would Recommend to My Children: #1

The first book I would have on my list of recommended books for my children to read is “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens.

This book is essentially about the legal system in England in the 19th century and Dickens likens the legal system, of which he had practical experience and a dim view, to fog.

In the first chapter he opens up

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest. Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds. Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look. The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery. Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery,…

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House . Kindle Edition.

What a description-can you picture yourself standing on the footpath seeing that scene?

But I could recommend any Dickens book to my children and hope that they would persevere long enough to recognise the genius of the writer, for if they do a lifetime of enjoyable reading opens up to them like an Aladdin’s cave.

I could have recommended “Oliver Twist”, “Hard Times”, “Dombey and Sons”, “A Christmas Carol”, or any Dickens book. Regardless of where they would start their Dickens journey, however, it is a journey well worth travelling as his books paint a remarkable picture of 19th century England and each book deals with a grander social issue, for example the exploitation of child labour in Oliver Twist or the class system and the place of women in society in “Dombey and Sons”.

I view “Dombey and Sons” as one of the earliest feminist novels and a remarkable portrayal of pride in Mr Dombey.

In conclusion, I would say, “read Dickens, anything by Dickens”.

You can pick up “Bleak House” on Amazon here.

#9

Writing As Art

I have been labouring under the misapprehension all my life that a sentence must have a verb. Master McDyer told us this in the national school in Enfield when I was in 5th class. ‘Hogs grunt’, he would say, ‘that’s a sentence’.

I have just finished a book called ‘The Elements of Eloquence: How To Turn the Perfect English Phrase’ and the author, Mark Forsyth, points out that this is not the case. And some of the examples he gives come straight from the first chapter of the first book I ever read from the author who would later become my favourite.

The author was Charles Dickens, the book was ‘Bleak House’, and the first sentence in that book goes as follows: ‘London’.

And then the book proceeds for a further 384 words, or thereabouts, without a verb. It describes the fog in London at that time, the fog being a metaphor for the law. The fog was everywhere, all pervasive, enveloping the city, stifling London during Michaelmas term, if memory serves me well.

The fundamental hypothesis of Forsyth’s book is that words and writing are not only for communicating but also for the creation of art. He argues that the popularity of the ‘plain English’ writing championed by, amongst others, Ernest Hemingway is not the only way to write and even if you have nothing to say you can say it well with beautiful writing.

He makes the valid comparison between writing and clothing and the acceptance (by most of us anyway) that clothing serves other purposes in addition to the purely functional task of covering the human anatomy and keeping us warm.

So it is with writing and language and words.

The book is not a white knuckle ride or a page turner by any stretch of the imagination. But if you like words, if you place a value on words and how they are laid out and used, if you have an interest in rhetoric the ‘The Elements of Eloquence: How To Turn the Perfect English Phrase’ is worth the few bob I paid on Kindle.

And like virtually every book I have read, no matter how apparently boring or useless or didactic or lecturing or smart alecky, there is always one or two gems you can pick up. Like diamonds in a pigsty. And that is certainly the case with this one.

The Best 10 Minutes of My Day

My favourite time of the day is the ten minutes in the morning it takes me to drive to work. When I leave the house it is usually between 6.15 am and 6.30 am and it takes approximately ten minutes to reach my office in Enfield.

In that ten minutes, however, I am transported to another world courtesy of my mobile phone and the Audible app which allows me to listen to the novels of Charles Dickens.

It is not just the stories; it is not just Dickens’s use of words; it is not just his construction of sentences, paragraphs, chapters and books; the narration is also a huge factor in my enjoyment and transport me, however briefly, to another world.

A world of London in the mid 1800s, and the tough life for working class people, and the class system, and the idea of a good marriage being one made  between money and blood.

The ability of the narrators such as Simon Callow, Martin Jarvis, Owen Teale, and other professional British actors to carry off the various accents of the characters is a vital factor in the overall audiobook experience.

To my mind Charles Dickens is the pre-eminent writer in the English language.

The first book of his that I read was “Bleak House”, Dickens’s great criticism of the legal profession.

It was tough going at first-tough because of the words he used, the length of his sentences, the length of his paragraphs, the length of the book’s chapters, and the doubt whether it was worth my time or not, whether there was a story in there at the end of it.

Boy, how there was a story. Each and every time. A story populated with such memorable characters.

I am tremendously glad, a few short years later, that I persisted.

Like cheese or Guinness or many of the finer things in life for which it is worthwhile to cultivate a taste, it may not be sweetly saccharine and digestible at the first attempt.

But the perseverance has been worth it and now I admit to having read many of his books more than once, and am also making my way through the audiobook versions.

Presently I am reading “Bleak House” for the second time, having also listened to the audio book, and am listening to “Dombey and Son”.

I believe that reading Dickens’s books has helped me greatly to improve my vocabulary, improve my writing in my day to day work as a solicitor, and assisted in the fight against the invasion of the use of trite, meaningless words from across the Atlantic-words such as “super” and “awesome” and “sick” and “amped”.

I also have great fun from time to time “speaking Dickens” to my wife by observing that she is once again “going into society” when she is going out to meet a friend or “improving my acquaintance” with someone when I myself am meeting someone or when I “lay to prodigiously” when I am describing how I polished off a meal or when I talk about “feeling all the glories of dissipation” after a rare overindulgence in alcohol.

The characters that populate his books, too, are a wonder to behold and tremendously memorable; characters such as Carker the manger in Dombey and son or Uriah Heep in David Copperfield or Fagin or the Artful Dodger or Master Bates or Bill Sykes or Nancy in Oliver Twist or Thomas Gradgrind and Josiah Bounderby in Hard Times or the various solicitors such as Mr. Tulkinghorn or Mr. Vholes in Bleak House or the wide range of saintly female characters such as Little Dorrit or Florence Dombey in Dombey & Son.

And the villains, the villians you have no difficulty hating with a passion so true to life and credible are they.

To make things even better many of Dickens’s books are considered to be “classics” which means they are available for free or a pittance on Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.