Damn you, reality! by Jan Needle

My mind drifted into fantasy land at a very early age, and stayed there, more or less. Like my mother, I’ve never really thought of writing as a proper job, and the highs and lows of earning from it (which for most of us are getting lower all the time) never had much concrete reality. When I needed proper money I did a proper job (or worked on the grotty tabloids at least) until the financial choke-chain eased a bit, and for the rest of it – well, who wants to be rich anyway? Enough is as good as a feast; did any of you ever meet a rich man/woman who was happy? Me neither.

Lately, though, my life’s been more grounded in reality, and I haven’t enjoyed it particularly much. People very dear to me and mine are falling gently to pieces, and I’ve been a minor part of the hands-on caring process. It’s made the idea of knocking off another novella or two, or taking much part in Cally Phillips’s Edinburgh ebookfest (both of which I actually want to do) seem a wee bit too much. Despite the fact that caring is boring, it fills the mind. O untramelled fantasy, where art thou?

It's the cuts. Nelson without a leg to stand on
As it happens, I was down in Portsmouth recently, and I passed Charles Dickens’ birthplace. Now there was a strange exemplar of the reality/fantasy dividing line. Before I knew who he was I knew his house was next to the little dairy in Commercial Road that did lovely frozen milk ‘ice lollies’ for a penny, and that on the other side was the Smiths Crisp factory.

My sister and I used to sit outside the New Inn nearby of a Saturday night eating said delights, while our betters supped Brickwoods mild in the public bar bar and listened to the penny in the slot piano. The pub, inevitably, is now called the Charles Dickens, as my first school, Church Street Primary just down the road, is now Charles Dickens School.

I only missed sharing a birthday with the great man by twenty four hours (give or take some hundred years and guessing), but it took me even longer than the city fathers to realize how big he was as a name (and how usable for civic pride in a city that sure needed some.)

Being an ignorant little working class git I didn't get to read him until I took up with a university student (I was a reporter on the Daily Herald), and I must say I was sold on Great Expectations without a lot of trouble, although some of the others did me 'ead in in a very big way. That Bleak House? Come orf it, Charlie! When I got kids we used to watch Oliver over and over, and we can all still sing the songs - magic. As for the death of Nancy, well surely Dickens would have wept for joy watching whatsisface bashing in her pretty little bonce. A tabloid delight.

We all sniff at tabloids and journos these days, although I still miss the sheer fun of high-speed subbing and necking endless pints of bitter with bright and witty men and women, but Charlie would have thought such snobbery completely mad. He was a reporter, a shorthand writer, a snuffling terrier after truths, however sordid and degrading. If he hadn't been, he wouldn't have written the books, would he? I mean, how many stories do you get in a blacking factory? In the News of the World, remember, you found 'all human life'.

His private life was pretty raunchy too, and between him and his mate Wilkie Collins, the Fake Sheikh would have had no trouble dishing dirt. Charlie had a hyperactive fantasy life, which seemed to stoke his boiler with almost inexhaustible energy. Whether you think he was the greatest, or tend towards Oscar Wilde’s view of the death of Little Nell, hardly matters. Fantasy/reality? Poor sod worked himself to death. Almost inexhaustible, I said.

Like another great writer who understood the need to earn a living. Apart from anything else he wrote the probably most covered and casually sung song of the twentieth century. Altogether now:

         Und der Haifisch,
         Der hat Zaehne,
         Und die tragt er
         Im Gesicht
         Und Macheath,
         Der hat ein Messer -
         Doch das Messer -
         Sieht Man nicht!

Bert Brecht, like Dickens, would also do almost anything to earn a buck, so drove a donated Steyr when Mac the Knife made him a bit famous, to promote the brand. And when he crashed it, he called the Press in to photograph him alongside the wreck, asserting that any lesser vehicle would undoubtedly not have saved his life. Crafty Bertolt...
Had a lot of mistresses, as well. I think Mr Dickens would have saluted him! What’s wrong with lives of fantasy, after all? They keep the wolves away.

Poor old Pompey. They've had to sell the masts...


Dennis Hamley said…
They haven't really sold the masts, have they? I wouldn't be surprised. I know your feelings about football but even so we're going to watch the now locally owned lads play the U's at the Kassam tomorrow week. (I'll provide a translation for any who need it.) But thanks for a lovely post which gave me a good chuckle.
Bill Kirton said…
Reluctant as I am (being from Plymouth) to join in your specific nostalgia, I have to acknowledge that our realities do overlap. The differences? I actually lived in such a pub and therefore, rather than sit outside with an iced lolly, I was inside drinking rum and blackcurrant (my favourite then) and smoking. We had no penny in the slot piano; ours was a real one, played with gusto by my mum.
Alas, we had no equivalent of Dickens. The best we could manage was Francis Drake and, more recently, Michael Foot. I can match, perhaps even trump, your birthday proximity to greatness. I actually share mine with Roy Keane.
I do, however, concede your pre-eminence in the field of writing. Your pedigree, Sir, is immaculate.
madwippitt said…
My youthful pubbing is so tame ... buying a bottle of cider for Sunday lunch from the offy - you had to hammer loudly and repeatedly on the hatch before anyone would respond. And whenm I was actually old enough to go inside and drink alcohol the gits wouldn't serve me because they thought I was underage. Not possible to be underage for anything in Dickens' day.
Jan Needle said…
Where is Dan? In his absence, let me announce the publication of my latest Nelson novella, which Endeavour sprung on me by email yesterday! To add to the jollity, Amazon has me on the title page as a definite female. Made it at last, although they are going to change it, they say. It's an extortionate £1.90.
Lydia Bennet said…
Congratulations on your new book and your elevation to female status ;) Perhaps in due course they'll name the school, and even better, the pub, after you!
Jan Needle said…
even a blue plaque would be nice. or do i mean a blue plague?
julia jones said…
Vimto for me and a packet of Smith's crisps (+ blue paper twist of salt) TO SHARE. Have just got home from Peter Duck where I've been re-reading Great Expects. Very fine novel of the lower Thames, I'd say.
julia jones said…
Sorry about the domestic disintegrations though. My sympathies to whoever you think might like them xxj
Jan Needle said…
Thanks Julia. Your geographical eclecticism (is there such a word?) is fascinating, though. Vimto from Manchester and Smiths from the south. Our tipple of choice was Corona, which was flogged from a visiting lorry once a week. The day I tasted Wilsons bitter (brewed at Newton Heath,along the Oldham Road) was the day I knew I had to become a northerner. Brickwoods was a drab and disgusting travesty of beer.

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