The arts flourish in hard times. Dickens didn’t quite say this in his novel of the same name. He was more concerned to reveal the conditions under which working people laboured and to expose the misconception that prosperity makes us moral. You reap what you sow. Mr Gradgrind discovers the use of creativity but ultimately fails as a MP. Josiah Bounderby is revealed as a hypocrite and a bully. Louisa grows old and childless. Only the circus performer, Sissy Jupe, really finds happiness. In Hard Times’s take on deprivation culture helps but cannot on its own save the world.
Yet Dickens himself certainly knew how to capitalise on times of industrial darkness. Hard Times was written in parts and sold as a serial. Like a Victorian version of Eastenders. The process allowed the author to hone delivery of cliff-hanger suspense which kept his huge audience completely enthralled. The he backed the book with a seemingly never-ending reading tour. Charles Dickens, a bit like the Rolling Stones, was forever on the road.
It was he, more than anyone else, who popularised the idea of live dramatic readings from works of fiction as a form of public entertainment. Pay your money. Come in and hear the writer speak. During the 1860s Dickens gave hundreds of performances from his work – first in America and then later up and down the UK. The shows were full of gesture, dramatic declamation, changes of pitch and of voice. Dickens worked propless. He was a great success.
Wales enters its own version of hard times with its literary readings machine operating at full stretch. At no time that I can recall have there been so many well-attended and well-organised public performances of poetry and prose put on at venues across the country. In the south-east it’s even possible to attend something of a literary nature every night of the week.
Owen Sheers, Nigel Jenkins, Mab Jones, Gemma June Howells, John Williams, Dave Oprava, Nick Fisk, Ifor Thomas, Mike Jenkins, Paul Henry, Liam Johnson, Menna Elfyn, and Catrin Dafydd work well and often. The National Poet, Gillian Clarke, engages in gruelling tour schedules of Dickensian proportions. The pay is little more than adequate. But audiences can be spectacularly good.
Hard times threaten all this.
Literature has seen more than a decade now of Welsh development. Such determined foundation building is now providing results. It’s cheap, too. Hour for hour poets tend to cost less than plumbers. Take the money away and, far from being more creative, a lot of them will have to turn back to teaching and other staples to keep the world from the door.
A version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #166