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I wrote on this blog a little while ago about a theatrical adaptation of Great Expectations – by Charles Dickens (as if there were….). I thought it would be good to venture at reading the original novel. I can’t remember having read it before, and having by now read it, am sure that I would not have forgotten. I have seen various TV versions over the decades though, and in a sense could say that ‘I know the story’.

Watching the novel played out on stage with ‘real’ actors – being shown, rather than told the story – might be thought to have brought it alive, and indeed that was a sort of unconscious assumption that I made during the watching. Within a couple of chapters of reading though, I became aware, firstly, that Dickens’ own description of the marshes on which the story opens were far more vibrant in my imagination than the equivalent had been on stage – and that is not to criticise the staging.

In fact, as the told story unfolded I began to realise that it was Dickens’ words that were bringing the whole story alive in a way that its being shown could not. Neither lighting nor shadows, props nor set, costumes nor passages of direct speech taken, commendably word for word – if memory allows sufficient evidence of that – from the text, let alone ‘real’ actors, had brought the story to life quite so viscerally as did those words, of narrative, and speech and thought that Dickens gives us, one at a time and in order in the novel.

Words, of course, exist only in our minds, and not exactly, I’m sure, in each of our minds as they do in each other’s. Even within that limitation though, what Dickens meant by, and felt about the words he chose has a resonance with what those words mean and feel to us that trumps that of the observed parodies of reality that we see on stage. That resonance is expressed in and by our imaginations. We are not invited to imagine what we are shown, but only what we are told.  What we are shown can only be observed and analysed, well or badly. Imagination is something uniquely of our own, evoked by words that are themselves the nearest possible translations of the imaginations of their authors.

What Dickens also does , and which the theatre was perhaps less adept at doing, is telling a story about ourselves. In particular he does this at moments when Pip, his narrator, suddenly cuts through what he is telling us about himself, to what he might be saying about us. There is one especially potent example of this in Great Expectations, and I initially intended to quote it – to show how clever I am – but have decided to leave it for you to discover, and thus show how clever Dickens was.


Went to Keswick yesterday afternoon. Saw Great Expectations.  Tilted Wig & Malvern Theatre know their Dickens, and how to do it.

Dickens knew how to make stiff-upper lipped moustachioed and bearded men in starched collars and cumberbunds cry. He made them weep bucketloads, over Little Nell, over Oliver Twist, over relatives who died too young, wives who were the wrong woman, lovers who went unrecognised for too long. He knew how to make young women faint in their crinolines and tight corsets. He even set fire to his stage once, but not like this.

It’s only on for three days more – the play – if you can get there, clear high water, risk tides, don’t wait for time. Meet Magwitch on the marshes. No-one does melodrama like Dickens does. There’s even a reference, like a whiff of smoke, to the Blacking Factory – no guys, it wasn’t missed!

Nothing to fault, but one thing to say, don’t go for a quiet relaxing afternoon – go ‘cos you’re up for going through a wringer, and will be wrung out, exhausted, drained, the way Dickens wanted you to be. Bravo. Encore.

The lighting was spot on (no floods over the marshes). The costumes were clever. The switches, of character and set, swift and neat. The climbing-frame of a set boxed the players in, and opened the story out. Narrative, some say, kills an acted story dead, but don’t believe it, stories a plenty were told in this, and as it should have been. Loved it. Dickens loved a play. He would have loved this, I think.

It’s Christmas Day in the morning, and I wrote this a fortnight ago. Here’s wishing you a very happy Christmas. Or should I say, a Cool Yule?


In our family one of the Christmas traditions that has grown up over the years is as secular as mistletoe, log and tree – let alone as the fairy that gets impaled on the topmost twig. That is the compulsory watching of The Muppets Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens has a lot of Christmas traditions to be thanked for, and his short story about Ebeneezer Scrooge is the source of many of them. Dickens was, it seems, a warm, emotional character, despite his lifelong drive to enrich himself. Fear of poverty and want dogged him, but he was no Scrooge, sharing his bonhomie and generosity with many, though sometimes not wisely!

O Henry, the twist in the tale short story writer was another Christmas sentimentalist, with his tear jerking story The Gift of the Magi, which out-sentimentals Dickens, but doesn’t dig to the depths of the human condition the way the ‘Carol’ does. It’s worth mentioning that the climax of the written story is Scrooge’s encounter with the two feral children, Want and Ignorance, who crouch beneath the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come’s robes. They had an airing on Radio 4 earlier in the month, which is good, because the tone of earnest, and trenchant campaigning that overtakes the story at that point might seem out of place in the more personal and family orientated events of the rest. They are our children, Dickens tells us, and of the two we should fear most the boy, Ignorance, a warning that seems more than usually potent as 2016 draws to its close.

Whatever you call it, the spirit of Dickens’ Christmas was, and remains, that of goodwill to all men (by which he meant people), but it was a goodwill that in his own life he made sure to put into action and that is all we need to do, I suspect, to solve most of the problems we see around us.

I wish I could tell you that I have been successful in that myself, but I wish you a Merry and a Joyful festive season nevertheless!

Another non-literary blog today……but keep an eye open for a literary reference….

Breakfast this morning forty floors up on the Heron Tower in London. {No photos yet…. but there will be). Pretty cool – probably around zero in fact. And the observation that Dickens’ London lay 35 + floors below, like an archeological horizon, four or five floors deep and with who knows what still buried below that.

Later, on theGlasogow train, theannouncer’s voice is nuanced, modular (rather than modulated) – the merest pause between ‘calling at’ and ‘Glasgow’, and she works through names, heading north -as we all inevitably must – becoming more sensual. At Penrith she get a little breathy. Carlisle she sells like a box of ‘not ordinary’ chocolates.

The restaurant at the top of the universe was of course the Duck & Waffle – or should that be?????? The building trembles in the wind, or was that me? – the trembling, not the wind, I assure you!

And later, on the train, six hours on from breakfast, Carlise still four away but closing, a real announcer – with a regional accent – tells us that tickets will be checked again – but only for those travelling first class. Virgin Trains obviously know who they can trust…..

Goodnight sweet ladies, and gentlemen, I’m for supper (at ground level), and a glass of the vinous red!


I have favorite pieces of film – a few seconds or minutes at most – from full length movies, that I can watch repeatedly. The attack on the Cong village from Apocalypse Now is one – and to be more specific, those few seconds (longer in the early version than in Redux I think) where the helicopters rise into the air to the sound of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. The barn-raising sequence in Witness is another.

A longer piece is the drive of Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins, through the early morning snow to their destinies in the film version of Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain. I can watch this clip, which opens the film and runs throughout the titles and credits, over and again and the hairs will still stand up on the back of my neck. I first saw film simply because this scene had hooked me unexpectedly in the act of turning off the TV after watching a programme I’d intended to watch.

A large part of the attraction, for all three, is the soundtrack music. In fact, in the case of The Human Stain, the clip could be a ‘video’ to the music, rather than the music a background to the movie. Not that the visual themselves aren’t gripping – the soft slipping of the vehicle over the snowy road; the baleful eyes of the headlamps; the faint glow of those headlamps’ beams on the surface of the snow; the bare trunks of the trees; the close-ups on the faces of Hopkins and Kidman.

Even without that first time surprise of finding out what happens, the scene is potent and haunting, it has that quality of ‘a certain surprisingness’ which C’S’Lewis tells us is why we can read and re-read a story – through whatever medium perhaps – without losing interest. Text, Music, Image, to borrow a title from Roland Barthes, all can provide us with such tropes.

The word itself is worth a glance. You’ll find it in Scholes’ Dictionary of Music (and probably on Wickipaedia too), where, in relation to liturgical texts and music, it’s described as ‘an intercalation of music or words’. More helpful, perhaps, is an explanation offered to me by the leader of a Gregorian Chant group. Tropes, he said, were small musical fillers put in, as one might put grace notes into a line of song. Scholes says they appeared in the 9th century, and were banned in the 15th. My friend suggested that in between they got a bit too big for themselves, as practioneers used them to show off their musical talents! The term is still used, musically, but now for a form of hymn, intended to stand alone.

You’ll find the word also in dictionaries of literary terms. The Penguin one pins it to the Greek word for ‘turn’, and for myself, that’s ‘turn’ as in party piece. Popular usage has it referring to sections of secular text that stand out from their surrounding stories. I can think of a few: Gerty McDowell showing her knickers to Leopold Bloom in James Joyces’ Ulysses springs to mind, but that often happens! In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the backward running film of the bombing raid on Germany is one. So is the death of Simon, to my way of thinking, in Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

The death of Little Nell, the murder of Nancy, and the meeting of Pip with Magwich are among many from Dickens. They are the pieces he used to perfom on stage, sending tight corsetted Victorian Ladies gasping for their smelling salts, and stiff-upper lipped Victorian gentlemen for their handkerciefs. These are the sort of tropes that won for themselves the description of Purple Passages – sections from larger stories, famous for their heightened emotional content.

My examples are all from novels, and it might be said that novels are really archipelagoes of tropes in seas of tropelessness. Adopting another metaphor, tropes might be seen as the emnotional punches novels subject us to, and all the rest is the fancy footwork, the ducking and weaving, jabbing and probing, that goes on to set the writer up for throwing those punches, and to manouevre the reader into the most vulnerable position for receiving them.

Perhaps, we might argue, a difference between the novel and the short story, is that whereas the former may contain a series of tropes, the short story is built around one – a knockout blow delivered at the end.

In many cases, authors often ploughing the same furrow, or at least the same field, repeatedly, the trope might be seen as type of content, or a type of style that is in common use by that author – a way of doing things; a reason for doing them: a step away from that older meaning, but still, in some ways ‘a turn’. You might even say, that a trope is a flourish, a signature, a maker’s mark, the hallmark of an author at his trade.