Writing Portfolio



After coming back from Canada, I noted that I had some catching-up to do on the iPlayer – and first up was the start of a surprisingly original take on the works of Charles Dickens.

I describe the BBC show Dickensian as ‘surprisingly original’ because I can’t believe that no-one had previously thought to take characters from different Dickens stories and put them into one story. Thus, we have a situation where a young Miss Havisham from Great Expectations and the future Lady Dedlock from Bleak House are best friends (although I guess they didn’t bond over the fact that both of those characters have been played by Gillian Anderson in previous, straightforward Dickens adaptations), Mr and Mrs Bumble from Oliver Twist are having Mr Gradgrind from Hard Times over for dinner, half the cast seems to have borrowed money from Ebenezer Scrooge and/or pawned something in the Old Curiosity Shop (or, if they’re really desperate, sold their valuables to Fagin), and Silas Wegg from Our Mutual Friend runs a pub whose clientele includes Bill Sikes and Nancy from Oliver Twist, the afore-mentioned Mr Bumble when he needs a break from Mrs B., Mrs Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit, Bob Cratchett and an unseen Mr Pickwick. Oh, and to top things off, Inspector Bucket from Bleak House is investigating the murder of Scrooge’s late business partner Jacob Marley.

This time, Marley was not dead to begin with – although, thanks to his as-yet-unidentified assailant, he was by the end of the first episode. Like Dickens’s stories themselves, Dickensian boasts a cast of many acting out various storylines which occasionally coincide with each other – and, like many a Dickens adaptation, it has a number of actors and actresses who you may recognise from somewhere else (among others, there’s Tuppence Middleton, Caroline Quentin, Stephen Rea, a couple of blokes from Spooks and Omid Djalili as a scene-stealing Mr Venus who, it turns out, is a chiropractor and the early Victorian equivalent of a forensics expert as well as a taxidermist).

There have been quite a few alternative twists on Dickens in the past – some time ago, ITV did a spin-off series following the (mis)adventures of Mr Micawber, while there has also been a novel in which Sydney Carton escapes the guillotine by agreeing to become a spy, setting up a Flashman-esque adventure at the time of the French Revolution which I really need to get my hands on sooner or later.

This one, though, is as far as I can see the first to throw characters from different Dickens stories together, and as a result it’s a real mish-mash of plots and sub-plots, albeit a highly watchable one. As well as Inspector Bucket’s investigation, in which several characters are of course suspects, we’ve got characters who are there for comedy value (the Bumbles, for there’s nothing quite as absurd as a couple with unrealistic expectations of social advancement, as well as a sub-plot between gin-loving Mrs Gamp, Silas Wegg and the latter’s wooden leg that wouldn’t be out of place in a Carry On film), a bit of social commentary (mainly concerning the twin spectres of debt and poverty, ongoing themes in Dickens’s works) as well as a few scenarios that are very much the precursors to the books.

Herein lies a problem for Dickensian – because some of the sub-plots are the events that precede those of the books, we know what’s going to happen. Amelia Havisham, for example, has become engaged to the villainous Merryweather Compeyson. If my knowledge of Great Expectations is anything to go by, this will result in her being jilted and defrauded, leading to a lifetime of hating men while wearing her wedding dress and sitting at the table in her decaying mansion, wedding breakfast untouched. Similarly, as far as the Bleak House characters go, we know that Honoria Barbary is going to marry the elderly Sir Leicester Dedlock even though she’s expecting Captain Hawdon’s child who will be raised by her spinsterly sister. Bill and Nancy? That’s not going to end well. Oh, and no need to worry about Tiny Tim being ill – his dad’s boss is going to bankroll all the medical treatment he needs after experiencing a ghostly vision.

Unless, of course, the writers have a few surprises in store. They’ve already departed from one Dickens storyline by ensuring that Little Nell doesn’t die – so who’s to say that, this time, some of the others aren’t going to get the ending that their creator gave them? That would liven things up a bit as, the murder investigation aside, it’s all looking a little too predictable (as I write, the show is 13 episodes into a 20-part series)

The main thing I’ve noticed, though, is how much like a soap opera this all is, even down to the cliffhanger endings of each half-hour long episode (Bob Cratchett getting arrested on his daughter’s wedding day was a good one, while the reveal of Honoria’s pregnancy was anything but a surprise for reasons outlined above). Could that be because the man behind this series is one of the writers from EastEnders? Or maybe it’s to do with the original author, with his multitude of characters and storylines? We may know of his stories as novels, but when they originally appeared they did so in regular instalments, spread over the course of months and even years, and he used cliffhanger endings to ensure that his readers remained interested enough to buy the next part.

Charles Dickens didn’t just provide the world with a large amount of interestingly-named and unforgettable characters. He also invented the concept that we know of today as the soap opera.


A morning in the British Museum

London is home to a lot of fantastic museums, and I will freely admit that I haven’t visited them all (somewhat inexplicably, I still haven’t been to Sir John Soane’s Museum, which I must do at some point). My favourite is the British Museum, home of artefacts from all aspects of human history, mainly because I am a history addict but also because I always manage to find something new to look at whenever I go. It is, like all of the ‘national’ museums in Britain, free to get in – which also adds to the appeal.

After entering via the impressive porticoed entrance on Great Russell Street (although I usually prefer the northern entrance on Montague Place, opposite Senate House; less crowds) I wandered, as I usually do, over to the Egyptian collection to look at both the Rosetta Stone and the crowds of people looking at it, then taking in the bust of Ramesses II that apparently inspired Shelley to write ‘Ozymandias’ (“I met a traveller from an antique land…”). Having taken in the nearby Elgin Marbles and pieces from not one but two of the Seven Wonders of the World (the British Museum has bits from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the Temple of Artemis), I followed the crowds upstairs to Rooms 62 and 63 – the ones with the Ancient Egyptian mummies (I read somewhere that the British Museum’s collection of Egyptian things is second only to that of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo).

From there I passed through various rooms to get to the Weston Gallery (Roman Britain, including the 4th century AD 28-piece silver dinner service that is the Mildenhall Treasure), and thence to admire the finds from the Sutton Hoo burial site and – one of my favourite exhibits – the Lewis Chessmen. By this point I’d lost track of the time completely – a good thing, as the best museums are always the ones in which you’re so taken by what’s on display that you’re not fully aware of the passage of time.

So much to see, and I’d only covered a fraction of the museum. But what was the ‘something new’ that I saw on my latest visit? Tucked into a corner in one of the larger rooms was a crystal skull – a life-size carving of a human skull made from a single block of clear quartz crystal. I knew that the British Museum had one of those (there was something in the news about it when Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out back in 2008), but I had never come across it before and, given its provenance I hadn’t though that it would be on display. Back in the late nineteenth century, the British Museum had acquired it on the assumption that had been made by the Aztecs – although scientific tests (including a joint project with the Smithsonian Institution in the USA, which has a similar item in its collection) later showed that it is in fact a fake – made in the nineteenth century at a time when public interest in ancient cultures was high, and passed off as an ancient artefact to cash in on such interest. The accompanying sign says that it’s “probably European, 19th century AD” and “not an authentic pre-Columbian artefact”.

I wonder what I’ll find there next time?



There is something to be said for revisiting authors you haven’t read for a while. A few months ago I re-read The Thirty-Nine Steps while writing an article on it, and this prompted me to take a closer look at some of John Buchan’s other works. There was, after all, much more to him than just that book.

When I first got into John Buchan, I focussed on his ‘shockers’ – the adventures of Richard Hannay and some of those concerning the semi-autobiographical Sir Edward Leithen (although it was only in recent months that I read Sick Heart River, the one set in Canada – of which more at a later date). Over the years I also encountered his short stories, one of which happens to feature an elderly (and decidedly unimpressive) Bonnie Prince Charlie (the story in question being ‘The Company of the Marjorlaine’, which can be found in The Best Short Stories of John Buchan, Volume 1). Like many a novelist, Buchan wasn’t averse to the odd walk-on appearance by a real person (in Greenmantle, Richard Hannay’s escapades in Germany during the First World War include a brief meeting with the Kaiser who is not depicted as some sort of panto villain; even when he was writing his ‘shockers’, Buchan was far too clever for that), and it’s the appearance of a real person that was what fascinated me about one of Buchan’s more overlooked novels.

The Young Pretender, or rather the rebellion he led in 1745, forms the backdrop of Midwinter (1923) which tells the story of Alastair Maclean, a young Jacobite officer on a mission in the English Midlands of the pre-industrial age. His task is to establish how much support the Prince can expect from the English as he advances south, and the main thrust of the plot concerns his attempt to stop two noblemen (who are posing as Jacobite sympathisers) from passing false information to Bonnie Prince Charlie (in this, an unseen character); they are doing this while simultaneously passing information about actual Jacobite sympathisers to the Hannoverian government in the hope of being rewarded with the lands which those sympathisers will forfeit in the event of the rebellion being defeated. Maclean is, though, conflicted because he happens to fall in love with the wife of one of the antagonists, and he faces the age-old dilemma of having to choose between love and duty.

In some ways, this is a reversal of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel Waverley (in which, to be brief, an English officer heads north of the border during the Forty-Five), although as far as resourceful (and fictional) young military men are concerned Maclean is a much more convincing character than that romantic and incompetent fool Edward Waverley ever was. Like Waverley, Maclean meets many characters who represent the country which he is visiting, from country squires to gipsies – among them the titular Amos Midwinter, leader of a shadowy, semi-pagan group of innkeepers, charcoal-burners and peasants going by names such as the ‘Spoonbills’ or the ‘Naked Men’ which represents an England that “has outlived Roman and Saxon and Dane and Norman … the land of the edge of the moorland and the rim of the forests and the twilight before dawn”. For a titular character, his appearances are fleeting which has led some to suspect that Buchan may have intended to return to him and his group (representing an England that, by the above description alone, would appear to predate England itself) in a later work.

The highlight of Midwinter, though, is the appearance of one Samuel Johnson as one of the main supporting characters. This is in itself a clever piece of plotting by Buchan, as it is not known what the great man of letters was actually doing at the time of the Forty-Five. In his Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell stated that “his literary career appears to have been almost totally suspended in the years 1745 and 1746, those years which were marked by a civil war in Great-Britain”, adding that Johnson, being an old-fashioned sort of Tory, “had a tenderness for that unfortunate House [of Stuart] … some may fancifully imagine, that a sympathetick anxiety impeded the exertion of his intellectual powers”. Boswell is used as part of the framing device for the story – in this case, a text supposedly written by Johnson’s biographer is purportedly found in a solicitor’s office that claims to shed light on the great lexicographer’s ‘missing years’. Thus is the main story, that of Captain Maclean’s mission, introduced.

The Johnson of Midwinter is introduced as a “big shambling fellow” of whom “disease and rough usage had wiped every sign of youth from his face. That face was large, heavily-featured and pitted deep with the scars of scrofula … he wore his own hair, straight and lank and tied with a dusty ribbon. His clothes were of some coarse grey stuff and much worn … he had no boots, but instead clumsy unbuckled shoes and black worsted stockings.” Being an embodiment of the ‘John Bull’ type of Englishman, he eats and drinks heartily, although his well-known physical traits are not ignored; his short-sightedness is touched upon and at one point he suffers from “a grievous melancholy … his left leg twitching like a man with the palsy.” But he is identified as a good man of “simplicity and courage and honest friendship”, speaking with a “queer provincial accent” yet “at moments he had a fine dignity, and his diction was metropolitan if his pronunciation was rustic.”

Naturally for a man reckoned to be the second-most quoted Englishman in history (after Shakespeare), this is a character who talks “wisely, shrewdly, truculently, and with a gusto comparable to that which he displayed in the business of eating”. Buchan of course couldn’t resist inserting a few classic Johnson quotes into the character’s dialogue, and who can blame him for doing so? If one is going to have Samuel Johnson as a character in a novel, one must have him speak like the real thing although quite a few of the quotes are reworded to suit the plot rather than inserted verbatim. On encountering Maclean in one of several country pubs that feature in Midwinter, Johnson declares that: “Of all the good gifts of a beneficient Providence to men … I think that none excels a well-appointed inn”. Claret, he advises, is “but a liquor for boys”, while “for men port, and for heroes brandy.” On Midwinter and his group, he declares that “when one praises rusticity it is because he is denied the joys of town. A man may be tired of the country, but when he is tired of London he is tired of life.” On learning of Maclean’s profession, he declares that: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier” (that one I had thought to be from Kipling, but my copy of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations attributes those words to Johnson). He also chants “what sounded like Latin hexameters” and expresses a desire to visit the Western Isles one day – which, of course, he would do with Boswell in 1773.

His presence in the English countryside in 1745 (he had moved to London in 1737) is explained by his being a tutor at a country house, which is how he encounters a young lady called Claudia, the wife of one of the novel’s antagonists and Maclean’s love interest. He’s not just there to talk, though – he spends quite a bit of time in the saddle and gets involved in the fight scenes as well (in a fist-fight, Johnson – a much bigger man than his opponent – has “no skill, but immense reach and strength … He simply beat down the other’s guard, reckless of the blows he received, and presently dealt him such a clout that he measured his length on the floor”), and it is he who helps Maclean to decide what to do with regards to the protagonist’s love/duty dilemma.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, little is made in Midwinter of Johnson’s noted antagonism towards the Scots; he befriends Maclean and helps him on his quest, and after hearing of the Prince’s retreat north from Derby he acquires a sword and expresses a desire to accompany his new friend to Scotland to fight for the Jacobite cause, and even “change my name to MacIan, and be as fierce as any Highlander” – thus trying to put his above quote about soldiers into practice by becoming a man of action! In the event, though, he is convinced that he should return to his wife and his writing career in London.

Although not in the same vein as Buchan’s ‘shockers’, this is an historical novel par excellence – there’s intrigue and treachery aplenty as Maclean is ultimately faced with an uncomfortable choice (albeit one not unfamiliar to romantic heroes). What elevates it above most, though, is a convincing and realistic portrayal of a great historical figure.


A walk through the Royal Parks

Walking is a favourite pastime of mine, and I’m always keen to look for new walking routes in the London area. For some time, I have been wondering about how I could possibly replicate the Parisian ‘line of history’ walk in a London setting. After some consideration, I hit upon the notion of a walk through Central London’s four Royal Parks, from Kensington Palace to Whitehall. My write-up of this can be found on Londonist – so if you’re in London and fancy going for a walk containing plenty of places of historical interest, why not give this one a go?