Dickens in Florida?


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20130207-223700.jpgWell, I’m in Florida (very nice, thank you, since you asked) and this is the hotel (The Don Cesar) where Scott Fitzgerald stayed during the late twenties and early thirties. (I didn’t stay there at any time). Zelda Fitzgerald had one of her many breakdowns here too. Al Capone used it as one of his regular get aways.

But Charles Dickens (who I’m currently obsessed with) didn’t get quite this far. He did famously visit America, of course, (and didn’t like it much) travelling as far south as Louisville, Kentucky, but he didn’t get as far as St. Pete beach in Florida where I am lucky enough to be right now – though he was only 908 miles away. (That’s only a few miles further than from Lands End to John O’ Groats, actually, so what was wrong with him?)

Apparently he didn’t like the way the Americans always seemed to be spitting (I haven’t noticed that yet) but he was more annoyed by the way they were producing pirated copies of his books and paying him no royalties! He was extremely popular with them (at least until they read his ‘American Notes’) and he (also at first) loved all the attention they gave him (as if he didn’t get enough at home), boasting about himself that:

“.. there never was a king or Emperor upon the Earth, so cheered, and followed by admiring crowds.”

Apparently, when he died, just three years after his second reading tour to the United States (Dickens and America had forgiven each other for their fall out by then), we blamed the Americans for making him work too hard and hastening his demise.

The American public still love him now of course (quite rightly) though it may have something more to do with what Dickens represents – old-worlde England and ‘Christmas Pasts’ – rather than simply a love of his works.

Here for example is an advert for “Celebrate Florida” I found on the web:

image“Now Snowing, Central Florida’s original and premier “Snowing” event, offers an all new ice rink and a schedule filled with surprises. Now Snowing is a month long Winter Wonderland Spectacular featuring strolling Charles Dickens Carolers, photos with Santa, horse drawn carriage rides, the Celebration Express train, and nightly snowfall at 6:00, 7:00, 8:00 and 9:00 PM.”

They don’t get much snow in Florida, apparently.

I particularly like this advert for a production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ which nicely fuses Dickens with “Florida’s Space Coast”:image Then there’s this Christmas advert for Westfield Malls (a shopping centre in Sarasota – a city I skirted on my way to Siesta Key Beach for more non-snow.)

“Black Friday at Westfield Malls – Shop First! Remember that guy Oliver, from the Charles Dickens story? He asked for more, and Westfield shoppers are also clamoring for more. But they’re not looking for food… this holiday season they’re looking for more time to shop!”

But I’m being unfair. I also found a reference to this extraordinary event:

image“Beginning at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Florida State will kick off its second annual Read-A-Thon, featuring “Bleak House” as this year’s book of choice. President Eric J. Barron, as well as a roster of enthusiastic students — including members of Florida State men’s basketball team, and the women’s volleyball and soccer teams — will take turns reading aloud from the novel. So will readers from the FSU School of Theatre.”

A great choice of novel, Which brings me round to wondering if Inspector Field (Dickens’ model for Inspector Bucket in ‘Bleak House’ and, in turn the model for Bucket in my novel, ‘Inspector Bucket and the Beast’ – Dahliapublishing.co.uk) had ever been to Florida or anywhere in the infant United States.

In my novel I do have Bucket nipping across the channel to have a word with Eugène François Vidocq, the real French criminologist, but the answer to my question about whether Field crossed the Atlantic is, of course, no.

But in a (very) obscure sort of way, Inspector Bucket did meet a fellow detective in the United States, the fictional detective Auguste Dupin, the  enigmatic private investigator in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’. imageDickens met Poe on two occasions in fact, both times in Philadelphia, and it’s likely that Dickens might have read ‘Murders’. (Poe was supporting Dickens’ anti-piracy campaign and was trying to persuade the great man to help him get his newly written mystery stories published in England.) Poe was, anyway, interested in Dickens’ pet raven, Grip. Dickens hadn’t brought his raven to America, of course, but he had included him as a minor character  in ‘Barnaby Rudge’, which Poe had reviewed and wherein he wondered why Dickens hadn’t made more use of the bird. Poe himself made up for the deficit, famously, in his ‘Raven’ with its “nevermore” refrain.

One wonders if the mysterious Dupin of ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ might not have imagebeen equally as inspiring for Dickens as Grip was for Poe when Dickens wrote ‘Bleak House’.

But, anyway, between the two of them they managed to establish the detective genre for evermore.

And, by the way, there was a thunderstorm in St Petersburg, Florida, last night.

The rain was warm.


A pox take it!


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blakes job      “That stinking child!  Look what she did to me. Look!” He began to rub at his cheek where he had been perspiring, and, as the cakes of paste seemed to fall away, he slowly uncovered a face terribly lined and pocked with smallpox scars. “Look at me! Look at me!” he shouted. Everyone in the whole room looked at him with fresh distaste.

(Inspector Bucket and the Beast, Dahliapublishing.co.uk)

In life, as well as in literature, the idea of being struck down by disease always seems to have had a moral implication. Here, in this quotation from my ‘Inspector Bucket and the Beast’, once the malevolent Beast is unveiled it is clear that his ugly character is matched by his true ugly and “distasteful” appearance – in this instance caused by smallpox.  I confess, now that I have read some of it, that I am perpetrating the wrong described by Susan Sontag (in her essay ‘Illness as Metaphor‘)  of using disease as a metaphor for character. The correlation is clear:  if you are wicked you will be punished with an affliction. I am not, of course, alone in doing this sort of thing. We can see this attitude to disease, for example, in the earliest reactions to AIDS, which was widely seen, I remember, as the ‘gay disease’  – in other words AIDS was considered by some to be some sort of moral judgement on and punishment for the ‘sin’ of being homosexual.

Disease as moral punishment starts as long ago as (and no doubt before) the Old Testament. For example, because the pharaoh wouldn’t let The Israelites go free, therefore disobeying God’s will, Egypt was punished with ten plagues, the sixth of which was “boils”

plague of boilsAnd the LORD said unto Moses and unto Aaron, Take to you handfuls of ashes of the furnace, and let Moses sprinkle it toward the heaven in the sight of Pharaoh. And it shall become small dust in all the land of Egypt, and shall be a boil breaking forth with blains upon man, and upon beast, throughout all the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 9:8)

I’ve always wondered why God didn’t just spring the Israelites himself, rather than forcing Egypt to undergo all the unnecessary horror of dispensing TEN Plagues. But let’s leave that to one side for a moment. God seems to have had a thing about boils and sores and tumours. Skin complaints of all kind actually:ugly and painful sores

“The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly and painful sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped his image.” (Revelations 16:2)

“But after they had brought it around, the hand of the Lord was against the city, causing a very great panic, and he afflicted the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them.”(1 Samuel 5:9)

It’s clear already that disease is to be seen as the direct result of disobeying the Lord’s strictures.

And as it is in theology so it will be in history.

dance of death

“…. there came the death-dealing pestilence, which through our own iniquitous doings, (was)  sent down upon mankind for our correction by the just wrath of God …”—Giovanni Boccaccio

According to William Blake, it was “boils” that Satan smites Job with, not the pox (neither the grand – syphilus – nor the small version) and not the plague. But it seems, in actuality, that the Hebrew term used in the Bible at this point in Job’s seemingly interminable sufferings was (apparently) non-specific. Satan, theoretically I suppose, had every disease in the universe available to him (past, present and future). He could have applied any chronic disease that took his fancy. Chief culprit as far as biblical scholars is concerned, it seems, is leprosy. (1)

        But in the 17th and 18th centuries physicians and pamphleteers wondered(2) if it mightn’t have been smallpox after all that Job had been afflicted with, for surely (they thought) there must be some biblical precedent for such a terrible scourge. It is no wonder that they saw smallpox as something that surely must have had cosmic antecedents for it was the cause of such epic and widespread carnage. According to one calcusmallpoxlation made in 1760, smallpox is said to have accounted for one-tenth of all mortality during that period. It affected approximately three quarters of all living people in the 18th century. If true, this is a remarkable statistic. (it was still killing vast numbers of people a year worldwide in the early 1950s(3) and though eradicated by 1977 is still rumoured to be extant and possibly obtainable by terrorists.)

By the latter part of the 17th Century, data  from the Bills of Mortality (2) indicated (according to the statisticians) that smallpox had supplanted the plague as Great Britain’s biggest killer, as well as the biggest scourge on those who survived it – for its consequence, if not death, was blindness and disfigurement. As Ben Jonson(3)said smallpox could “nullify a face.”

        Despite the beginnings of vaccination, Smallpox was an ever-present feature of life in the 19th century too, as I try to show in my own novel. bucket coverIn the following quotation the child killer, finally tracked down by Inspector Bucket, wonders aloud if Bucket’s own child, like the Beast himself, might not have suffered from the dread disease:

“I believe the one child you and your wife … spawn(ed) died of some disease,” he taunted. “What was it, Inspector, what was it? Influenza? Cholera? Or was it the smallpox?” He paused, pondering. “I might have died of that too.”

The literature of the 19th century generally, it might seem, treated smallpox as so much part of the fabric of life that, as in George Elliot’s ‘Daniel Daronda’, its consequences might be used as a commonplace comparison with feelings of rejected love. For one character (Alex) we are told, “… the disappointment of a youthful passion has effects as incalculable as those of small-pox …” Similarly In ‘The Sad History of the Reverend Amos Barton’ (‘Clerical Lives’) Amos has, “a narrow face of no particular complexion – even the smallpox that has attacked it seems to have been of a mongrel, indefinite kind.” So prevalent were smallpox scars throughout this period that Wilkie Collins too, like Elliot, refers to smallpox almost casually in his depiction of characters’ features.  In two of his sensationalist novels, for example,  (‘Poor Miss Finch’ and ‘No Name’ ) several characters are described as having faces “pitted” or “deeply pitted with the smallpox.” The implication is often that the smallpox sufferer is at heart a wicked person or, as in the case of Amos Burton, judged by others to be so.

smite the wicked         Of course the righteous, or the noble and the beautiful, are, on the whole, content (at least philosophically) to see disease as a judgement on the wicked and the irresponsible poor, but smallpox was different in that it was egalitarian in its attacks. That is, the wealthy and the noble were as likely to be smitten by it as the poor and disreputable.This was very unlike the plague, which seemed to deliberatly select the poor and spare (certainly in terms of numbers affected) the rich because (presumably) they could retreat to their country estates and generally they had a standard of living which (relative to the state of the poor) protected them from the sources of infection. Nobody, it was felt, could suspect a lady to die of the plague(!) But, apparently, smallpox wasn’t quite so class-conscious as its sister scourge.

Queen Anne, for instance, suffered a severe attack from smallpox (and her son died of it, putting paid to the future hopes of the Stuarts).The son and daughter of  Charles 1st died of it too, as did Queen Mary. The plague was seen very much as a judgement of God for wickedness. But when the victims of smallpox seemed to be everybody, the pure and the angelic as well as the wicked and the ugly, the simplistic notion of divine punishment for sin perhaps needed to be modified (that is if the well off wanted to continue to maintain their faith in a benign Creator.)

Job’s afflictions are not, of course,  the consequence of his wicked behaviour either (though his friends and relatives, like the parishoners of Amos Barton, quickly jump to this conclusion). Job’s sufferings are, it seems, rather a test of his faith – of his inner beauty and steadfastness, rather than merely (!) an attack on his outward appearance. old job

My inspiration for ‘Inspector Bucket and The Beast’ is, of course, from Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’ and it is in this novel that we see the character of Esther Summerson famously afflicted by smallpox. Esther is clearly a ‘good’ even an ‘heroic’ person, if often (it must be said) overwhelmingly sentimentalised. And yet she too, falls prey (by common critical agreement) to smallpox (though like Job the illness is never actually specified). She survives  but is (temporarily) made blind by it. Dickens is clearly using smallpox, as well as the other ‘infections’ in the novel such as cholera and money and the law and legal system) as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of society. Lady Dedlock’s love affair with ‘Nemo’, now an impoverished document copier, links her with the poor classes and the likes of Jo the crossing sweeper – from whom Esther, by way of Charley, contracts her smallpox (because of her many acts of selfless care.) In turn she could have infected the wards of Jarndyce, Ada and Richard, but, selflessly again, shuts herself off from them. The upper, the middle and the poor classes are connected by a chain. Esther’s ultimate  reward is that Allan Woodcourt, the stalwart surgeon, who, like her, is connected to and cares for people in all classes, marries her and sees only beauty in her. Dickens is here showing (unlike my poor effort  in ‘Inspector Bucket and the Beast’) that the uglness of smallpox (and by extension any disease) may reveal the beauty and moral strength of the person within.

Just as it did in the end with Job.

(1) J. E Hartley,Book of Job’.

(2) R.A. Anselment ‘Smallpox in Seventeenth Century English Literature    

(3)   According to the W.H.O. factsheet, 50000 worldwide a year

(4) An Epigram to the Smallpox

The Next Big Thing!


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I’ve been tagged in The Next Big Thing by fellow writer Leela Soma (www.leelasoma.com Blog http://leelasoma.blogspot.com). Leela has written two novels Twice Born (2007) and Bombay Baby (2011) and has had short stories in various publications.

bombay-baby-cover-194x300I’m instructed by Leela (and who am I to disobey?) to tell you about my current or next book (as if you didn’t know) by answering  her questions and to tag other writers about their Next Big Thing.

What is the title of your current book?

It’s called Inspector Bucket and the Beast, a murder mystery and romance set in Victorian England.

bucket cover

Where did the ideas come from for the book?

From my love of Charles Dickens’ work. I was fascinated with his character Inspector Bucket, from ‘Bleak House’ and wanted to explore his character in my own ways and in new contexts.

What genre does your book fall under?

Well, historical fiction certainly, but it is essentially a melodramatic, even gothic, crime novel – lightened, I hope, by comedy and romance.

Which actors would you choose to play your character in a movie rendition?

Well, of course Alan Armstrong played the role in the BBC’s production of ‘Bleak House’ but I’ll go for Michael Gambon!

What would be a one sentence synopsis of your book?

A child killer is loose in London, terrorising both the rich and the poor, and only Inspector Bucket can track him down.

Is your book self published or represented by an agency?

Like Leela I have been published by a small indie press, Dahlia Publishing, based in Leicester. The book is available from www.dahliapublishing.co.uk as well as from www.waterstones.com. Waterstones at Kingsgate, Huddersfield still  have some copies in store as I write.

What else about your book might interest the reader?

I hope that I’ve been able to conjure up something of the atmosphere of the mid-Victorian era but I hope, too, that I have been able to deal successfully with a few issues that are, unfortunately, still relevant today – in particular child abuse and the hypocrisy that is still too often found in ‘high’ places.

Now, enough about me. Here are a couple of fine authors that I’ve tagged to tell you about their Next Big Thing!

Louise Swingler

www.evolvingwriting.wordpress.com or www.writingfromundera beechtree


I’m waiting for a couple of other writers  to respond and I will update my blog as they do.

My thanks to Leela Soma for tagging me and allowing me to take part in The Next Big Thing!

elephant backsideBye for now!

Walking Under Water


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It would be nice to say I’ve been walking on water but enjoyable as the Stations book launch has been I (nor we) didn’t quite do that (well nearly)! No, but the Stations Book Express has certainly been steaming through the London Overground at a great pace and to be honest I’ve barely been holding on, Cherry Potts (editor at http://arachnepress.com/) stokes the engine so!  stationsBut I have done my bit to get up a head of steam at Clapham, at Shoreditch (http://shoreditchradio.co.uk/) and at Rotherhithe, shovelling extracts from my story Inspector Bucket Takes the Train with all the energy I could muster. Now, though,  I must climb out of the carriage and catch the train back to the frozen north.

brunelmuseumBut what a delight  the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe was: the readings, of course, with the lovely Stations authors, and the quaint (and unexpected) Turkish cafe with its charming hostess, and then the plunge into the shaft of the Rotherhithe tunnel itself, the entrance to what was once seen as the eighth wonder of the world (at least according to the museum guide, Robert Hulse). And we were amongst the first visitors the place had had for over 140 years! (To the air shaft I mean, not the museum!)

Of course all we can see right now is the doomy shaft itself, its echoing walls covered with the soot of thousands of steam train journeys, some in solid flakes like black crustaceans, its drab concrete floor (stopping us from tumbling onto the railway lines underneath us), huge bolted pipes and the outline of the wooden staircase that would have once led the Victorian visitor down to what essentially became an underwater shopping mall.  in 1843 the idea of walking under the water, with who knows how many tonnes of the Thames only a few feet above the ceiling, must have been, as our guide pointed out, “like walking on the moon”.


The Brunels, father and son, were the first to successfully tunnel underneath a navigable river and developed the technique for all river and, I presume, channel tunneling that followed – and that we take so much for granted as we nip under the water on the Eurostar. Robert Hulse, the museum guide, pointed out, with almost ghoulish delight, that we were standing on the spot where six men died as the tunnel flooded and the men drowned in river sewage. One man who did survive was Marc Brunel’s son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. (How the history of engineering might have turned on that event. No Leviathan, Great Western Railway or Clifton Suspension Bridge then!)220px-IKBrunelChains

‘But what has all this to do with the contexts of writing?’ I hear myself ask. Well, Charles Dickens must surely have passed through the same shaft that I stood in for one thing!  In Household Words‘, one of the many periodicals that Dickens founded and edited, the writer (perhaps Dickens himself) describes his sense of awe when:

“crossing the Thames by means of The Rotherhithe Tunnel… gasping for a breath of vital air… (feeling) a cold shudder run through (him)  as (he)  heard the drip of oozing water.”

Dickens, like Brunel the younger, was born in Portsmouth and admired the work of his  contemporary, citing the “great works of Brunel, Babbage and Stephenson” (again in ‘Household Words’) and telling us that “Mr Brunel is not a man whom we can afford to lose.” (We nearly did!)  It is perhaps Dickens too who describes Brunel’s Leviathan as “the floating marvel of the age”.

The tunnel was originally designed as a commercial proposition to create revenue by offering a route across the congested Thames for cargo traffic – but after the tunnel was dug there was no money left to build the shafts with the spiral ramps that horses and carts would use to ascend and descend. Instead the tunnels became a tourist attraction, a place where you walked under the water to the shops located in each of the cross-tunnel arches (as seen in the picture at the head of this blog) to buy and to be entertained.  Apparently on the opening day 50,000 people walked through paying a penny each and bought souvenirs from the shops in the arches to show how brave they were for shopping under water. Soon, however, it became a favoured haunt for prostitutes, and visitors found they could buy rather more than a souvenir.

As it happens, I have Polly Meakin, a character from my novel ‘Inspector Bucket and the Beast’ visiting Rotherhithe (though not, unfortunately, the tunnel.) book lauch(Available from dahliapublishing.co.uk, Amazon, via this provider, & Waterstones.com)

Bucket thinks that she may have been an accomplice of the Beast in his attempts to entrap young girls, but she insists she didn’t know who or what the Beast was and only helped him because she was desperate.

“The Bobbies shifted us on from Hyde Park as soon as they saw us. It’s always, ‘Move on! Move on!’, they said, but they never tells you where to move on to, does they? We went to Rotherhithe in the end, to try to get some factory work, soap boiling or candle making or some such. No hands wanted, we was told.”

If I had known about the Rotherhithe shaft and tunnel then (and of course I should have done!) I would certainly have used it in my novel, if not for Polly Meakin than perhaps the Beast himself. In another scene from the book I show Inspector Bucket searching the secret areas of a so-called Gentlemen’s club where prostitution and all manner of nefarious activities are going on. Perhaps I might have had the Beast frequenting the alcoves of the Rotherhithe tunnel as well as this ‘Hell Club’.

 “There were alcoves, and in each one a lascivious act was framed.  In front of this series of alcoves the voyeurs promenaded, sometimes pausing to view their favourite scene. No one accorded us attention as we passed along; nobody seemed to mind us nor be ashamed to be seen. Indeed, it was as if they were out for their Sunday stroll! Some of the voyeurs were serious in demeanour, as if they were connoisseurs of some fine art or sculpture, pointing out some special feature of the action displayed for them or commenting, without lewdness, on some item of physique. Some were laughing. Some sights were almost pretty. But most were cruel.”

Although there are plans afoot to reopen the shaft itself as a major entertainment attraction (there are already concerts and other entertainments held there) for the moment the only glimpse we can get of the tunnel is at the weekend when the tunnel’s lights are on, and if you alight at Wapping you can look back and see the lit panoply of what was once one of the marvels of the age.

Inspector Bucket Takes the Train


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With Arachne Press due to publish its Stations Anthology (arachnepress.com/books/stations) wherein dear old Inspector Bucket has another outing in my story Inspector Bucket Takes the Train (dealing with devious thieves on the Highbury and Islington line) it’s time to blog about trains and their place in Dickens’ writing!

So what did Dickens think about the train?

Despite the fact that the railway age had started in 1830 (when he was already 18) it might seem that Dickens, like my version of his character Inspector Bucket in Inspector Bucket Takes the Train and Inspector Bucket and the Beast, had no time for the train. Perhaps he too might have

“preferred to see the streets and the alleys and courts of London as he rode along – not just the backside of factories.”

In the popular imagination Dickens is probably mostly associated with the coaching age, the era of the horse and carriage and of coaching Inns. And with good reason.

Dickens’ first novel, ‘Pickwick Papers'(1836/7), is, of course, about the very business of ‘coaching’, describing the Pickwick Club’s adventures as its members journey through Regency England, just prior to the railway age. Though serious themes are dealt with and though some encounters with coaches and coachmen are sometimes angry ones, the associations linked with the idea of coaching are invariably to do with being “hearty” and “easy” , and of rolling “swiftly past fields and orchards”. Despite some of the novel’s darker elements its tone might be summed up in this description:

“The coach was waiting, the horses were fresh, the roads were good and the driver was willing.”

Similarly, In 1840, when Dickens began ‘The Old curiosity Shop’, although both London Bridge and Euston Railway Station had been open for nearly four years, Dickens was still enveloped in nostalgia for the old coaching days:

             “What a soothing, luxurious, drowsy way of travelling (it is) to lie inside that slowly-moving mountain, listening to the tinkling of the horses’ bells…”

The sleepy lyricism of this contrasts with an early description of a railway engine from ‘Pickwick Papers’ (1836), treating the train as an object of comic ridicule:

“a nasty, wheezin’, creakin’, gaspin’, puffin’, bustin’ monster, alvays out o’ breath, like a unpleasant beetle … alvays a pourin’ out red-hot coals at night, and black smoke in the day…”

Curiously, apart from this reference, the train seems to play little or no part in any of Dickens’ first five novels. In ‘Martin Chuzlewhit’ (1843), the sixth,it appears at last, (though in an American incarnation) transformed from something whimsically comical into something much more agonised, with an

“… engine (that) yells as if it were lashed and tortured …and (that) writhed in agony.”

Clearly some of Dickens’ later novels though written in the railway age are set before it – whether it be the horrors of the French Revolution, as seen in ‘A Tale of Two Cities'(1859) or in the nostalgia of Great Expectations, begun in 1860 but clearly about a world mostly stuck between 1812 and 1830. But those novels that are set in a contemporary world see the train as something destructive or presaging  something hopeless or catastrophic.

In Dombey and Son (1846-8), for instance, the building of the railway is described as “an earthquake” which “rent the neighbourhood to its centre.” It is compared to “the track of the remorseless monster, Death!” But it is also seen as an an agent of avenging justice when the novel’s villain James Carker is run over by a train and “mutilated” so that his split blood has to be “soaked up by a train of ashes”. In ‘Our Mutual Friend'(1864/5) a train “shot across the river, bursting over the quiet surface like a bomb shell.” Here we have the continued metaphor of the railway age as despoiler of the natural world but Dickens also seems to imagine the railway as a metaphor for a despoiled society – as in ‘Bleak House’ ((1852/3) where, because of the railway, “everything looks chaotic and abandoned in full hopelessness“. In ‘Hard Times'(1854) the metaphor is extended to despoiled or diseased human beings, where the arrival of a train gives rise to “the seizure of the station with a fit of trembling, gradually deepening to a complaint of the heart…”

Although Dickens’ final (unfinished) novel, ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood'(1870), is written at a time when most of the major Victorian railway stations were already built and the railway age was in full bloom, Dickens chooses to return to the nostalgia of his almost railway-less youth in Rochester, where, significantly, the railway station in imaginary Cloisterham is “unfinished and undeveloped”. In fact, we are told, “… the trains don’t think Cloisterham worth stopping at.” Actually, Dickens had bought his childhood dream house in Gad’s Hill, Highham, Rochester, (the model for Cloisterham) in 1857, using it as his country retreat and dying there in 1870. It is inconceivable that the endlessly moving, the endlessly travelling, Dickens would ever have lived in Higham at all if there hadn’t been a railway station with a good connection to London, what ever he may have felt about the railway in other ways. Indeed, in her biography of Dickens (Charles Dickens – A life), Clare Tomalin speculates that on the very day he died Dickens may have taken the train (and cab) from Higham Station (a mile from his house in Gad’s place) to Peckham in South London where he regularly paid the housekeeping for his lover Nelly Ternan.

It was Nelly Ternan, too, who was with Dickens on the day of the Staplehurst train disaster, the 9th of June 1865, when the train to Charing Cross hit a bridge and fell into the river below. Ten people died and fifty were injured. Dickens almost lost the manuscript of his last completed novel, ‘Our Mutual Friend’. Dickens famously went to help his fellow passengers with, according to Clare Tomlinson, “his brandy flask and his comforting and practical presence.” But he made sure that his lover, despite injuries to her arm and neck was, according to Tomalin again, “discreetly and hastily removed from the scene before anyone could become aware that (she) had been travelling with Dickens.” Clearly Dickens was, unsurprisingly, “shaken” by this experience and we are told, in a remembrance of him by one of his sons, that “.. sometimes in a railway carriage when there was a slight jolt…he was almost in a state of panic and gripped the seat with both hands.”

Although there is much in both his life and work advocating the railway for its economic and practical advantages, as well as demonstrating the  pleasure to be found in train travel itself (as in his journalistic piece ‘Flight, 1851), in his novels and some of his shorter fiction (such as ‘Mugby Junction’  and ‘The Signalman’, both 1866) the railway remains an issue of anxiety and an image of foreboding darkness.

The final irony is that Dickens died on the fifth anniversary of the Staplehurst disaster and that his final, funereal journey from Higham to London and Westminster Abbey was, of course, via Charing Cross Railway Station – by train.

The Launch!

An exciting day – for me anyway – at the ‘Bucket’ book launch. Quiet to begin with but then when strangers  came up to me to ask about the book it suddenly all seemed real!

Why on earth would they want to buy my book?

But they did!

Then of course when friends and family and neighbours arrived to cheer me on (and buy books) it was overwhelming!

We sold out!

So of course The Lady Vivienne and I now think we can conquer the world!

We went for a very enjoyable celebration afterwards. Here’s some revellers:

But, of course, this is all well and good, but what about the after-launch comedown?

What I mean is, people who’ve bought your book might actually READ it and say something about it.

Now that IS scary!

I’ve been walking about feeling naked ever since. But slowly comments have come in and nobody seems to have burnt the book quite yet. A few people have actually said they liked it!

Here, for instance, is a very heart warming Waterstones.com review.

Overall rating:
4 out of 5
4out of5
Very enjoyable.
04 November 2012
Set in Dickensian London this book draws you in from the beginning as the story unfolds from the perspective of a young, aspiring journalist. The dark mystery at its core is balanced by a blossoming romance, both of which are brought to life by vivid dialogue and descriptions of the quirky characters and the places they inhabit. A very enjoyable read and I am looking forward to more.
And this isn’t even my mum!
After feeling I’ve been walking around without my trousers for a couple of weeks I now feel that at least I’ve got my pants back on!

The book’s out!

Just a short post to say, as the postcard  says, Inspector Bucket and the Beast will be formally launched on October 13 at Waterstones, Kingsgate, Huddersfield. I’ll be there signing copies of my novel between 11am and 1pm so I hope you’ll come along if you can  – or I shall feel very lonely! The book will be discounted at the store on the day (at £9.99) so it’s much cheaper to buy it there  – and of course you get my autograph too! What a great deal!

But, of course, if you can’t wait (!) it’s actually available now via http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/products/peter+cooper/inspector+bucket+and+the+beast/


Or, of course, you can order it from  the lovely people at http://dahliapublishing.co.uk/

You might be interested to know (or you might not) that I did an interview for Two Valleys Radio on Sunday which was great fun. Millie and Matt were very friendly and made me feel at ease immediately. Apart from being upstaged by a nine year old (not difficult I know) and losing my place whilst reading out an extract, it went very well. There’s a link to Two Valleys here:















It was nerve wracking waiting to go on air (as us broadcasters say) especially when I was listening to the Sunday style thought for the day from the Reverend Joe and then the little 9 year old girl, Abigail, talking about her book, Miriam and the Hens – a title structured in an eerily similar way to Inspector Bucket and The Beast. Suddenly the extracts I’d chosen to read (about little children being murdered and half dead people crawling though the midnight mist to take their revenge) seemed slightly out of place! Also when Matt asked me, just before we went live, what music I’d been listening to whilst I was writing the book, that threw me too. (The true answer is I don’t listen to music whilst I am writing.) All I could think of at that moment was Dylan’s new album Tempest that I’d been playing just last week. Perhaps fortunately they didn’t have that album,  although on reflection the  barely restrained violence in Dylan’s lyrics would have matched the darker aspects of the novel really well! But  inspiration hit and I thought of Bryan Ferry’s As time goes by album. The title track from that album seemed to reflect  the novel’s dip back into  former time very well. Playing Miss Otis Regrets, with all its repressed horror, also seemed to fit my last extract. Seeing as that reading ended with a reference to the moonlight, the playing of Van Morrison’s Moondance seemed a nicely apt way to finish the interview.

My brother says I sounded like Olivier when I was reading the Beast. But then he is my brother. The truth is I sounded more like Gollum!

Lawrence Olivier


The age of sexual consent

            No young girls. I swear, Inspector. No very young girls.

            None younger than 12 I take it you mean! said Bucket with ill-disguised contempt in his voice.

(Inspector Bucket and the Beast, Dahlia Publishing, 2012)

As I was saying in my last blog, one of the issues that is in the background of my novel ‘Inspector Bucket and The Beast’, set in London in the 1850s, is the sexual abuse of children.

It is quite shocking, I think, to realise that the age of sexual consent in England, up until 1885, was set, for the majority of that time, as low as twelve, the same age as it had been since the first recorded age-of-consent law in 1275. Canon law in medieval Europe, apparently accepted, even more shockingly, that consent could be meaningful if the child were as young as eight years of age!

According to ‘The Age of Consent: A warning from History – the work of Josephine Butler‘ (Jennifer Davis, 2009) up until 1875 there was no specific law at all against sexual activity with a girl of the age of 12 and upwards. If a girl was raped, according to Ms Davis, “she would have to prove before a court that she had not given her consent. Of course, few ordinary young girls would have been confident or articulate enough to have done so and, even if they were, their evidence against a seemingly respectable person may not have been believed.”

Josephine Butler, the 19th century campaigner for the protection of children

from sexual exploitation, saw for herself the “bitter case of wrong inflicted on a very young girl”. The girl had reportedly been seduced by a don at Oxford University and had become pregnant. When Josephine Butler approached a senior figure at the University to ask him to intervene on the girl’s behalf, she was told: “It could only do harm to open up in any way such a question as this; it was dangerous to arouse a sleeping lion.”

The apathy that Josephine Butler encountered in her attempts to defend young girls seems typical of the attitude to children shown for much of the 19th century and, of course, during the centuries before.

A magistrate’s comment on a case of child abuse at this time was : “If it had been a dog, I could help you; but it is only a child”. (Stafford, A, The Age of Consent, 1964)

The age of consent, thanks to the work of Josephine Butler and others like her, was set at 16, at last, in 1885 and remains at that age still today, although there are voices which wish to reduce it to the age of 12 again (see ‘Sex is not just for grown ups’ , Miranda Sawyer’s article in the Observer of 2nd November, 2003). The setting of the age of consent at 16  does not, of itself, of course, protect young girls but at least the legislative framework established makes it possible for the law to take action when abuse occurs.

Some of the characters I depict in ‘Inspector Bucket and the Beast‘ show, however,  the same cold contempt for the rights of children as the magistrate I have quoted above and  continue to pay scant regard to any age of consent then prevailing, as perhaps this extract from a scene in a ‘hell club’ might show:


“If you want to avoid the clap, have a young gal every time, one gentleman was saying. He leaned forward to his crony, waved a large brandy glass by way of emphasis, and then smoothed his broad moustache.

Wouldnt want one too young, o course, old fellow, replied his companion. As he did so, he leaned over to light a cigar on a small gas jet protruding from the wall. Best stay within the law! He blew out a plume of white smoke and adjusted his heavy stomach into a more comfortable position.

The younger the better, old bean – and let the law rot! replied the one with the moustache. He gave an ugly laugh that sprayed out brandy vapour. Sir Henry says that a young gal will get you clear of siph. He should know. Five years in India and all that. Sounds better than a mercury dose at any rate, what?


‘The Beast’, as he is called by the newspapers in my novel, has a predilection for “very young girls”, especially those who are dressed up as, or might actually be, the children of the aristocracy. Though based on no particular real historical character his abuse of children might be seen as more widespread than we might like to accept.  ‘My secret life, by Walter‘ (published 1888), for example, was an account of Henry Spencer Asbee’s, arguably, real encounters with child prostitutes at a time in England when the age of consent was still only thirteen. In 1885 the journalist, William Stead, proved how easy it was to procure girls of the same age, the resulting outcry assisting Josephine Butler’s campaign to raise the age of consent to 16.

Nothing changes, as they say, for, despite the law and an age of sexual consent which most people might think, on the whole, reasonable, the sexual abuse of young people caries on only too horribly in today’s society.

A charity advert on the underground that I saw recently described the dire plight of young girls who are forcibly married off before they are twelve.  Only the other day, as I write, in a report to be found in several national newspapers, the Deputy Children’s Watchdog, Sue Berelowitz, gave a warning that “Girls as young as 11 are ‘commonly’ being gang raped and forced to perform sex acts”. She went on to link this with the recent case in Rochdale involving the sexual grooming and abuse of underage girls. Peter Davies, Chief Executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, expressed the view that “group and gang related children’s sexual exploitation is far more widespread than people would care to imagine.” A government spokeswoman said that sexual attacks on both girls and boys was a “notoriously under reported crime.”

             Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose!

Inspector Bucket


, , ,

Hello everybody and welcome to my blog!

It’s called ‘petercooperstellingtales’ because it will deal with aspects of my own writing but it will also be about the writers and the ideas that I find ‘telling’ or meaningful. I hope you will join in with your own comments and insights and tell me where I am going wrong!

The starting point for this blog (inevitably) is the publication of my own novel, ‘Inspector Bucket and the Beast’ due to be published at the end of September by Dahlia Publishing. http://dahliapublishing.co.uk/

But who ( I hear you ask)  is this Inspector Bucket?

Anyone who has read Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens will know him from that novel: an enigmatic policeman who appears and disappears seemingly without warning, often in disguise, and with a manner that seems to uncover the guilt of his opponents with a word or a look. He is one of the earliest detectives in fiction, alongside Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste C. Dupin (The Murders in the Rue Morgue, 1841) and Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff (The Moonstone, 1868).

Charles Frederick Field

Actually, Dickens based Bucket on a real policeman, Charles Field, with whom Dickens would often tour the streets of London and its underworld dives, and where he doubtless learned more about the lives of the poor and the homeless. In Inspector Bucket and the Beast I have my narrator, Jakesbere, being taken on just such a ‘trawl’ by Bucket himself. In my depiction of the Inspector, I have amalgamated several of the features of the ‘real’ and the fictional Bucket. Charles Field, for example, retired from the police force in the mid 1850s and started his own private inquiry bureau, as I have his fictional counterpart doing. I hope that I have been able to add some new features to the character of Bucket too, by giving him a family, for instance, and furnishing a backstory to his wearing of a ‘mourning ring’.

I have taken up Bucket’s tale several years after the events that Dickens describes in Bleak House, in 1851, when I have Inspector Bucket hunting down a child killer known as ‘The Beast’. As with Jack the Ripper, who operated in the 1880s around the Whitechapel area of London, there is doubt about the actual identity of the Beast. I have the newspapers arguing over whether ‘The Beast’ might be a low-life villain or even a Lord of the Realm, for he appears throughout the novel in several different guises.

Whilst the search for ‘The Beast’ is the driving force of the novel, I have attempted to depict some of the social issues of the time; for example, the book deals with aspects of child prostitution as well as the notorious practice of ‘baby farming’.

The backdrop to the novel is the Great Exhibition of 1851 and London itself, in all its squalor and excitement.

I hope to explore some of this background and the social issues I have mentioned above in subsequent blogs, so please keep reading!

Meanwhile, if you would like to dip into a story or two about Inspector Bucket, you can find a couple of gentle tales in the latest two issues of What the Dickens? magazine at http://wtd-magazine.com, namely Inspector Bucket and the March Hare and Inspector Bucket and the Olympics (yes!) in Issues 3 and 4 respectively. Oh, and watch out for Inspector Bucket takes the Train, due to be published by Arachne Press in the Stations anthology in November this year (http://arachnepress.com).