Category Archives: Literature

Articles about poets, novelists, essayists and biographers.


Having watched every episode of Tony Jordan’s 20-part brilliant evocation of Charles Dickens’ world (Dickensian, BBC 1), it has whetted my appetite for the London of the novels, for the streets and alleyways that he populated with an array of the most colourful characters ever to leap from a page.

Traitor's Gate at The Tower of London
Traitor;s Gate at The Tower of London

The series is a true celebration of a master story teller, where people like Miss Haversham, Nancy,  Bill Sykes, Fagin, Jaggers the lawyer, and the Cratchit family, are all cleverly interwoven into a Victorian tapestry, perfect for the small screen.  Dickensian carried with it a constant surprise, as there were no hints given as to who would pop up or from which book.  And as always, with a BBC production, the location, the settings and the atmosphere are pitch-perfect.  And it’s fun trying to remember in which book a character appeared, and in admiring the clever way Jordan has stitched together a new story using these familiar characters.

Although Dickens wouldn’t recognize London should he return today, we are lucky enough to be able to suss out some of the haunts he mentions, the alleyways, streets, pubs and inns, many of which survive, although what the Blitzkrieg couldn’t destroy, the city planners have almost managed to accomplish.

Houses of Parliament, London
Houses of Parliament- Photo Mari Nicholson

The City of London was once a walled city covering a mere square mile, inside which the Guilds and Liveries reigned supreme – in fact they still do, along with the money merchants, the financiers, the major world Banks and the controllers of a shadowy world of high finance.  Established in around AD50, seven years after the Romans invaded Britain, the City, or Square Mile as it has become known, is the place from which modern-day London grew.  Walk through the surrounding areas, and with just a little imagination, you can begin to populate the streets with Dickens’ characters.   A good place to start from is  St. Paul’s Cathedral, built by Sir Christopher Wren, who, while his great church was being built, lived in a house on the other side of the River Thames from which rowed across the river daily, to check on its progress.

A Familiar Sight at The Tower of London
A Familiar Sight near the Tower of London



The historian Dr. Ruth Richards claims to have discovered the workhouse, the Strand Union in Cleveland Street, that inspired Oliver Twist.  This was near where Dickens lived as a child, and it is thought  possible that he worked with a lot of the poor apprentices from that workhouse during his time at the blacking factory.  Most workhouse children were hired out, or apprenticed, to places like these, and if the young Dickens did work with the workhouse paupers, he would have heard tales of the hardship in that establishment, all of which were grist to the mill when it came to writing what is one of the best loved, and most often filmed, stories of all times.

The Guildhall, London
The Guildhall, City of London



When Pip in Great Expectations arrived in ‘ugly, crooked, narrow and dirty’ London he got off the coach at the Cross Keys Inn on Wood Street, a posting Inn and a terminal for the coaches from the countryside bringing passengers and parcels to the City (read Great Expectations for his description of the nearby Cheapside market and ‘the great black dome of St. Pauls).   Little remains of the Cross Keys inn today save a paved area in the nearby churchyard in Wood Street, marked by railings with cross keys on them, the symbol of St Peter, keeper of the gates to Heaven.

This is also the inn where the young boy, Charles Dickens, aged 12 and alone, arrived from Rochester in Kent after his spendthrift father had once again made the family destitute (Dickens senior subsequently spent time at the Wood Street Compter just a little bit further down the road from Cross Keys).  From Wood Street, Pip walked along London Wall to the offices of Mr. Jaggers, the lawyer, through narrow streets where the houses are crammed tightly together and jostle for space.  You are near Postman’s Park here so a detour to this delightful spot can be recommended and although nothing to do with Dickens, I would recommend a detour to see this very Victorian location.

London Child Hero -
One of the Tiles in Postman’s Park – Photo Mari Nicholson

But it was Southwark, a less reputable area, that haunted Dickens and coloured his outlook and his novels ever afterwards.  A portion of the Marshalsea Debtors Prison wall still stands in St. George’s churchyard off Borough High Street, the prison in which the Dickens’ family languished, and his vivid description in Little Dorrit leaves the reader in no doubt of his intense loathing of the place.

The George Inn, just off Borough High Street, has survived, one of the many “rambling queer old places” that the writer described in The Pickwick Papers.  A little further along is Lent Street where the writer lived and from where he walked to the hated job at the Blacking Factory in the Strand.  The factory that caused such grief to the young man but which gave him so much material for his novels is no longer there: on the site now stands Charing Cross Station.

There is to be another series of Dickensian, and I urge anyone who has not seen the first series to catch up with it and then follow on with the second series.  Mr. and Mrs. Bumble we’ve met, Mrs. Gamp and Sarah Peggotty, but there are many characters yet to be given a backstory, characters who lived life on the edges of the tales, like Laura Badger, Ham Peggotty, Mrs. Ticket, and the one remembered by every child that saw the original black and white production of Oliver Twist  – Magwitch.

Dickensian is not Tales from Dickens, it is a re-imagining of a Dickensian London peopled by the colourful characters from the novels of one of England’s greatest writers.  It is not to be missed

London’s Hidden Gems (1)

A Misunderstanding at Nether Fondle.

I love Jan Toms stories of Nether Fondle (reminds me of a village that would appear in Beyond Our Ken). This is her latest. Read this, and if you enjoy it, catch the others on her WordPress site.


. Misunderstanding at Nether Fondle

Tales from a Village Somewhere in England

High Street Nether Fondle A village scene at Nether Fondle

The best thing about being out of work was having time to daydream about better jobs. Top of Bruce Daylounger’s list was being a personal trainer in a girls’ school but so far nothing had turned up.
Then, to his amazement, his reluctant application to the Nether Fondle Weekly was successful and he was appointed junior sports reporter. The down side was that he hated exercise. Watching others heaving and sweating was only marginally worse than doing it himself but before he had a chance to speculate further, the editor, a hard-bitten ex-Fleet Street hack called Jerry Bruise crushed any aspirations.
‘This paper’s crap. Don’t get no ideas of writing nothing worth reading. You gotta be prepared to cover baby shows, dog shows, craft shows, vicars’ tea parties. Most exciting thing happens…

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The Poetry is in the Pity: War Poets and Poetry

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Reading some of Linda O’Neil’s poetry on her blog ( sent me back to my favourite war poets, Wilfrid Owen, Sigfried Sassoon,Isaac Rosenberg, Alun Lewis, Edward Thomas and many others, and to France where they fought.  I’m a regular visitor to France, sometimes to visit the World War I War cemeteries there, sometimes to cruise the canals, and sometimes I can combine the two.

Reading Linda’s lovely poem Embroidery, which I think we can call a homage to the poet Wilfrid Owen, reminded me of the time I visited, not the vast fields of War graves, but Owen’s grave in the little French cemetery at Ors in north eastern France near the site of the battle to cross the Sambre Oise canal.  He was killed here, just one week before the Armistace of 1918.

Today his body lies, not in Poets’ Corner in England, but in a tranquil plot in the British war graves section of Ors’ village cemetery, a short walk from the place where he died.   Britain’s greatest war poet, Owen wrote what was, by any standards, poetry of a rare compassion and beauty, war poetry that did not hesitate to describe unseemly death and disablement in ways that had never been attempted before.  ‘My poetry is in the pity’ said Owen, and it is the pity and the compassion that we take from the poems.

My first visit to his grave was made nearly 20 years ago when, together with members of the Western Front Association and the Wilfrid Owen Society, we took part in the dedication of a Memorial to the poet.   The military historians who accompanied our party breathed life into statistics and Battle Plan references that our maps high-lighted.  Ground was fought over and won and fought over again and lost, as we listened to the story of the attacks across fields we stood on, and marched up trails that were once dirt tracks.

On the Somme the villages seem caught in a time warp.  After the war most places were rebuilt exactly as they had been before 1914, and you pass through villages whose names echo with a terrible resonance down the years, Thiepval, Fricourt, Maricourt, Montauban – villages which stand today almost as they did then.  What has changed is the terrain.  In many places today the Somme is like a prairie.  Hedges have been uprooted to maximize planting, and the flat, rolling plains are unlike the former fields of France.  Despite these changes, and nearly 100 years after the 1914-18 battles, the Somme still throws up the bones of long dead combatants, old bits of ordnance and the occasional live shell.  Mametz Wood is a chilling place, even on a fine day when the sun is shining.

The sun was shining as we gathered on the banks of the Sambre-Oise canal to listen to the story of the battle in which Owen was killed.  The geese from the nearby farm were loud in their scolding, and staring at us from the opposite bank were cows, not Germans.  It was all a far cry from November 4th, 1918, when the men of the 2nd Manchesters and the 15th and 16th Lancashire Fusiliers fought long and hard for control of these now peaceful waters.  Difficult to imagine on this sunny morning, the men of the Royal Engineers working feverishly to make and mend the bridges and pontoons that were carrying the assault troops across the canal: difficult to imagine the shouts of the men, the sounds of the gunfire, and the screams of the wounded.

The day lives in my memory chiefly because of the French welcome.   The whole town turned out, or so it seemed, for us and for the dedication of the Memorial.  Representatives from the Western Front Association and the Wilfrid Owen Society took their places along with M. Houson the Mayor of Ors and dignitaries from other nearby towns, and then down the street came the band, bussed in for the occasion from the neighbouring village of le Catillon.  That afternoon they had their most appreciative audience ever.

Certain songs have instant access to our emotions – one of them is Roses of Picardy.  As the opening bars of that sentimental old melody began, the chattering stopped and the crowd fell silent.  There were few there who were not moved to tears and the relief from the emotion of the moment was almost audible when the Mayor started his speech of welcome.

For some of us the pilgrimage ended as we laid our tributes on the grave of the poet and read the words on the pristine white slab that marks his burial place.  I remembered his last letter home to his mother …. There is no danger here, or if any, it will be over before you read these lines ..      Prophetic words.  The bells were ringing to announce the Armistice when the doorbell rang in the Owen household and Susan and Tom Owen got the telegram they’d been dreading.

Readers of this column with an interest in Owen’s poetry who visit France, will have no bother finding Ors.  It is an easy spot to reach lying not far from Amiens (Michelin Touring Map No. 50.  200 Km. North of Paris, 40 Km. North-east of San Quentin and 25 Km. South-east of Cambrai).  Walk across the bridge that spans the canal and you will see the Memorial erected to Owen just nineteen years ago by the villagers, the Western Front Association and the Wilfrid Owen Society.  The Commonwealth graves are in a quiet spot at the side of the village cemetery, their pristine white slabs terribly upright in sharp contrast to the polished granite and marble of the French headstones.

The bond that grew between the men who fought in World War I was of a special kind, forged in the hell of the trenches and kept alive by the inability of those on the home front to comprehend the horror of that war.  Some may think that Westminster Abbey is the only fit place for a great English poet.  I believe Wilfrid Owen is happier to lie at Ors with the men whose life, and death, he shared.

Read Linda’s poem on  and you’ll see why my memory slipped back to nearly 20 years ago.  Travel takes one to strange places and although I have visited the graves in the cemetaries on the River Kwai many times and been moved to tears more than once, those upright white slabs in France seem to resonate with the tragedy of all wars.  Is it the poetry the fallen left behind?  Is it the prose,not just from the English combatants, but Frenchman Henri Barbusse, German Erich Maria Remarque, and the Russian Pavel Antokolsky.  They have all left their mark on literature, and on lovers of poetry, but still wars go on.