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Celebrating Charles Dickens's birthday in the Bronx

Posted: 7/02/2012 15:53

On February 7 1812, the young wife of a Navy pay office clerk gave birth to the second of her eight children in the small British town of Portsmouth. Her son, a "very small and not-over-particularly-taken-care-of-boy", would have a childhood interrupted by poverty and a stint working in a blacking factory. His name was Charles, and he grew up to be one of the best-loved authors in the English language.

Two hundred years after Charles Dickens's birth, people across the globe are celebrating the life and work of this most irrepressible of authors. At the British Council, we're taking part in a dizzying array of Dickens celebrations, from a 24-hour global read-a-thon with live readings from China, Russia, Pakistan and Albania, to audio tours of cities from Singapore to Karachi, inspired by The Uncommercial Traveller, Dickens's non-fiction account of his wanderings around London.

In Pakistan, past and present students of Karachi's National Academy of Performing Arts will work with the British immersive theatre company Punchdrunk and east London's Arcola Theatre to create a multi-sensory journey through the building where they studied - the Hindu Gymkhana, a gorgeous public building built in 1925. Guided by headphones, audiences will follow a map while listening to a soundtrack of music, spoken word, poetry and sound. The idea is to encourage people to see familiar surroundings in an entirely new way.

Here in the US, we're working with the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York, home to a diverse and creative community. Many people who live in the Bronx today don't have historical links to the UK, so we wanted to really engage with them and illuminate an aspect of Dickens's work that is more than just top hats and foggy Victorian London.

Dickens is famous for his unforgettable characters - the impish street urchins, villainous pickpockets and haunted misers who leap from the pages of his novels. But it's his sense of social justice and curiosity about hidden parts of society that make his work so relevant today. As British biographer Claire Tomalin says, "When he went to America in 1842, one of the points he made was that the 'unimportant' and 'peripheral' people were just as interesting to write about as 'great' people."

Together with the Bronx Museum, we've launched Sketching the City, a project linking people in the Bronx to Dickens's legacy, through a teachers' workshop and creative writing and art contest for Bronx high school students. We're inviting students to write, draw, paint and blog about their local communities, inspired by Sketches by Boz, a collection of short sketches of London scenes written when Dickens was still in his early twenties - not much older than the young people taking part in the contest.

When he couldn't sleep, Dickens would walk the backstreets of London in the early hours of the morning, and write about parts of the city that usually remained hidden from the public view. He was fascinated by the city where he lived, and the people who lived around him.

We think Bronx public school students are perfectly placed to write about their local community with the same fresh, inquisitive energy. We hope they'll uncover new stories and create vivid snapshots of their city, and really make the project their own - and we're sure that the great man would have approved.

 

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