Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Young Digital Reporter at Dickens Readers' Day

Young Digital Reporter at Dickens Readers' Day, Saturday 13th October, 1.45pm, Mechanics Institute

Words by Milli Cooper.

Arriving at the Mechanics Institute 15 minutes before the start of the Dickens Readers’ Day, I was slightly concerned by the lack of people around, but the audience soon grew around me and turnout was impressive; around 100 people were looking on as the keynote speaker of the day, Michael Slater started proceedings.

He presented a traditional approach to Charles Dickens, discussing the man behind the words, his relationship with the public and his attempts to maintain a public image, calling even Dickens’ correspondence ‘performative rather than informative’. Talking about various biographies of Dickens, from Forster to Ackroyd, Slater was an engaging speaker, bringing to light aspects of Dickens’ personality, such as his dislike of both Henry VIII and James I, and quoting an entertaining letter he wrote asking for his clock to be mended. This introduction was an excellent start to the event as it eased the audience into Dickens’ life, provided a relatively broad overview of the man himself, and was also suggestive of the basis of research into Dickens.
The audience were then asked to choose from a range of enticing seminars: Gaynor Arnold’s Dickens’ Women, Michael Sanders' The Relevance of Dickens Today and Ronald Frame's Bringing Dickens to Life. Being a relatively young student of English Literature at A-Level, I was most intrigued by Sanders’ session. Sanders’ passion for Dickens shone through as he opened with myriad reasons why Dickens is most certainly still relevant, from being a ‘scourge of self-serving politicians’, a ‘social reformer’ and a ‘champion of education and reforms’, to being a ‘novelist of marriages… family… parent-child relations’. However, making an intelligent and thought-provoking link to the politics of today’s world, Sanders focused on Dickens as a novelist of financial crisis.
With reference to Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend, he explored how Dickens suggested that it is impossible to escape from a system out of our control, and how the financial crisis we are living through could be explained as a result of certain individuals cheating. However, since cheating is so endemic in the system, others felt that they too had to cheat even if they were personally reluctant to do so. Thus it could be seen that the crisis was due to a combination of individual responsibility and systemic fault - what Dickens saw as two sides of one equation, with neither side true in isolation. Sanders also explained how Dickens’ one recurring question throughout his work was that of fault, but going on to say that Dickens does not provide answers to our questions, rather he formulates them more clearly. Sanders concluded with the idea that Dickens saw money, and want of money, as part of the problem, and again linking back to the modern financial situation explained how a Dickensian perception of the crisis could be that it is a ‘symptom of the underlying disease that is the monetisation of society’.  Referring to Dombey and Son, Sanders showed how Dickens asked his readers what could replace money, and concluded by saying that, until we know the answer, Dickens will be relevant to us.

Sanders then extended the invitation for questions and comment, allowing the group of thirty or so the opportunity to pick the brains of a Dickens authority, and diplomatically yet humorously elaborating on a comparison of Michael Gove to Mr Gradgrind of Hard Times and summarising Dickens’ complicated political standing.

Next, there was a performance of Dickens’ Short Stories to be Read at Dusk. And what a performance! Interactive and inventive, the Tea Break Productions’ performers made full use of the space as well as the audience, handing out picture frames to create a portrait gallery and photographs of Paris to conjure up an image of France. They incorporated music, using voice and various instruments including clarinets, accordions and bird whistles, and successfully evoked the idea of stories within stories, acting out the correspondence between Gaskell and Dickens. The energy of the performance made it enthralling to watch, and its creativity seemed to summarise the feeling of the whole event, that of something with forward momentum that is still growing, celebrating something that is both traditional yet still relevant today.

The event was rounded off with a glimpse into the future, with the announcement of the Portico Poetry Prize bringing aspiring poets into the limelight. The theme of the Poetry Prize was Dickens, and the way in which poets can still respond so creatively to Dickens’ work beautifully illustrates Michael Sanders’ point; that Dickens is still relevant to people today. The winning entry, In the Dock, Fagin Reflects was read by Mandy Coe, described as resident poet at the Portico Library, on behalf of the author Marion Brown, who lives in New York. Ian O'Brien was awarded a close second with his Duffy-esque Great Expectations, which he read - a moving performance.

The Dickens' Day comprised an impressive range of components, from accessible yet intellectual speakers to dramatic productions, and all ages and tastes were catered for. The chance to choose also allowed the audience to build their own afternoon, and for me it moved almost chronologically, from the more traditional approach of Michael Slater, through Dickens’ relevance to our society and politics today, and into the cutting-edge interpretations of up-and-coming poets. A thoroughly inspiring day - my only regret was that it did not last longer! 

Throughout the Festival in 2012 we will be working with a group of young people to support them to become digital reporters, and to document a range of events from their perspective. As well as writing blogs and reviews, the young digital reporters will respond to our events using other methods such as photography, illustration and radio. We are really excited to see how our young reporters get on and hope that you will enjoy reading, listening to and watching their work.