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Dickens' Riotous Tale for Our Times

Posted: 26/01/2012 00:00

You'd have to have been living in a workhouse not to know that 2012 is the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens: novelist; playwrite; Victorian. The BBC props department have spent the last year stockpiling pocket watches and velcro sideburns in readiness, and let's just say that anyone with shares in Simon Callow is going to have a very good year indeed.

In the shabby, dusty vault that is our collective national consciousness, we hold a few ideas and images about Dickens and his books which are more or less helpful and more or less true: Oliver wants more, Miss Havisham's a loon, self-made men are great big hypocrites, people have funny names, stay out of debt, institutions are amoral, the poor get a rough deal, outrageous coincidences seem to happen a lot, London's busy and dirty.

But A Tale of Two Cities awkwardly resists this tickboxing shorthand. That's probably the reason why no one ever made me read it at school: it doesn't quite fit that profile of a Dickens novel that a teacher needs you to understand quickly. Even more disturbingly, the screen adaptations are black and white - which is almost as big a turn-off to a GCSE class as, gulp, the actual text.

There's nothing revolutionary about A Tale of Two Cities, apart from a whopping great revolution - the French one - at its heart. There are none of the complex subplots and experiments in narrative that mark out the longer books like Bleak House and Little Dorrit. It's also not particularly funny ha-ha. So why make a fuss about this book, which seems to be just a historical thriller and a standard 2D Dickens love story?

Well, in these troubled times I'd argue that this book still contains the most relevant and vivid portrait of revolution ever written. Could there be any more concise description of the current struggles for freedom across the Arab World (and beyond) than the opening passage?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

This brilliant topsy-turvey portrait holds true for Syria, and Yemen and Egypt today as it did for France at the end of the 18th century. The stakes are so ridiculously high, everything is on a knife edge, and the middle ground is swept away and replaced by impossibly violent extremes.

Reading it again recently I was also struck by an amazing filmic scene in the book. The setting is a town square in a suburb of Paris. Those in work are going about their business. A huge barrel falls off a cart and smashes on the ground releasing little rivulets of red wine between the cobbles. All hell breaks loose as people who have been utterly downtrodden drop their tools in a mad rush to get a few handfuls of booze. It's a frenzied scene that approaches pure anarchy. The thin veneer of civilization which five minutes ago might have felt utterly timeless and inpenetrable is broken in a heartbeat. Here, it's literally intoxicating. And joyous.

This instantly brought back to me what it felt like to be in England last year when the riots were in full swing. I'm not comparing the oppression and the injustice that led to the French Revolution to what's happening in the UK at the moment (I sort of am), but I do think that when you read that scene and put it next to the photos and videos of people looting the Debenhams at Clapham Junction, there's definitely some connecting thread.

In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens is much more honest than we have been about a dark and unpalatable truth: that the violence and the mindlessness always sits side by side with a genuine (if not always fully conscious) hunger for justice. And that the collective release of tension is dangerous and ugly but also, gulp, joyous. The best of times and the worst.