The Poor Wee Drinkur

A kid walks into a bar … .

Further to last week’s glimpse of Charles Dickens as an admirer of interventionist policing, today’s entry concerns itself with Dickens the ‘little gentleman’: the child labourer and prototype for many of the lost children in his own fiction. Here he is venturing into a pub for a little refreshment between shifts at the sweatshop:

‘I was such a child, and so little, that frequently when I went into the bar of a strange public-house for a glass of ale or porter, to moisten what I had had for dinner, they were afraid to give it me. I remember one hot evening I went into the bar of a public- house, and said to the landlord: ‘What is your best – your very best – ale a glass?’ For it was a special occasion. I don’t know what. It may have been my birthday. ‘Twopence-halfpenny,’ says the landlord, ‘is the price of the Genuine Stunning ale.’ “Then,”‘says I, producing the money, ‘just draw me a glass of the Genuine Stunning, if you please, with a good head to it.”

This is a fragment of autobiography embedded in David Copperfield, Dickens’s favourite of his novels and the one which adhered most closely to the contours of his own life. It draws on the author’s experiences as a twelve-year old newly employed at Warren’s, a factory that manufactured boot blacking, operating in a ‘crazy, tumble-down old house’ at 30, Hungerford Stair, a building that stood roughly where Charing Cross station is today. Dickens was sent to work there in 1824, decades before Bazalgette embanked the Thames, and the tottering factory abutted the filthy river itself. Young Dickens was terrified of the building: of its reek of filth and decay, of the rats ‘swarming in the cellars’ and ‘squeaking and scuffling’ up and down the stairs, and, above all, of the dashed hopes represented by his employment therein. Only a few days after Charles started work at Warren’s his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for non-payment of debts: the family’s grip on bourgeois respectability was tenuous enough as it was, but debtors’ prison raised the spectre of total societal failure.

Warren’s blacking factory, with the spire of St.Martin in the Fields beyond.

So, in the teeth of his more refined sensibilities, young Charles was forced to labour alongside ‘common men and boys’, and was deeply ashamed of his association with them. ‘No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship.’ His one friend in the factory was an older boy called Bob Fagin, who trained the middle-class refugee how to prepare the bottles for sale and whose kindness Dickens later repaid by appropriating his name for his first great villain (a projection of Dickens’s fear of relegation to the lower orders). But the experience gave Dickens the raw material for his work. Dickens kept re-purposing the riverside warehouse in his fiction: 30, Hungerford Stair, its once-fine rooms sinking into filth, was a potent symbol of class collapse, put to good use throughout Oliver Twist (Fagin’s lair, Bill Sikes’s hideout, etc.) and beyond. ‘The bright pure child in the mouldering house’ (John Carey’s phrase) turns up in Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Dombey and Son, and the dark, flickering, early-19th century Thames-side atmosphere saturates his fiction, all the way to Our Mutual Friend. But in David Copperfield the childhood trauma might have been too close to home: Dickens’s self-pity and self-regard is showcased to the detriment of the book. It is a rare achievement for an author to make a reader want to strangle a put-upon child hero, but young David is an unbearable little creep who grows up to be an unbearable prig. Here is the rest of the passage quoted above, from chapter 11, wherein the 37-year old novelist fondly recollects his childhood precociousness (in a pub in Parliament Street):

‘The landlord looked at me in return over the bar, from head to foot, with a strange smile on his face; and instead of drawing the beer, looked round the screen and said something to his wife. She came out from behind it, with her work in her hand, and joined him in surveying me. Here we stand, all three, before me now. The landlord in his shirt-sleeves, leaning against the bar window-frame; his wife looking over the little half-door; and I, in some confusion, looking up at them from outside the partition. They asked me a good many questions; as, what my name was, how old I was, where I lived, how I was employed, and how I came there. To all of which, that I might commit nobody, I invented, I am afraid, appropriate answers. They served me with the ale, though I suspect it was not the Genuine Stunning; and the landlord’s wife, opening the little half-door of the bar, and bending down, gave me my money back, and gave me a kiss that was half admiring and half compassionate, but all womanly and good, I am sure.’

(I cannot read that passage without hearing the voice of Martin Prince, Bart’s classmate in The Simpsons.)

Dickens was able to leave Warren’s Blacking factory after his father had settled his debts and been released from the Marshalsea. By then Warren’s had abandoned Hungerford Stair in favour of smarter premises on Chandos St., on the north side of the Strand, and Charles had become so adept at preparing the bottles of blacking he was put in the window to perform the task for the benefit of passers-by, a winsome human advertisement for the firm. A blue plaque now commemorates Dickens’s stint there, floating on a wall above a branch of TGI Friday. For those seeking a flavour of the late Georgian riverside, Gordon’s at the bottom of Villiers St. – right opposite the site of Hungerford Stairs – remains an atmospheric place to drink, a subterranean cellar where drops of Thames water fall gently from the vaulted ceiling into your glass of port or Madeira or whatever. It is nice to hear that it has re-opened, but Covid regulations will make getting a table an even harder propostion than before; but if you manage to get a seat you can try ordering a Genuine Stunning and see what they give you.

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