Thursday, 22 November 2012

Social justice, child care, and a tale of a Christmas carol It seems we care a lot about our lack of care for children these days. The phrase ‘child abuse’ appears routinely in almost every news bulletin in some connection or other; child neglect has been an issue of expressed concern for the House of Commons Education Select Committee and more recently for the education secretary; and the government has just launched its consultation on the measurement of child poverty, informed in a timely way by this chid poverty map on the Guardian’s data blog. When issues of social justice and children coincide, it’s just the sort of context in which someone says, ‘what we need is another Dickens!’ Indeed. The other day I was told of a family where two children go to school on alternate days, because there is only one uniform to share. An issue like this would have incensed Dickens, particularly because of his own personal experience of disrupted education. As it happens, I was asked to give a short talk about Dickens the other day, to introduce some readings from A Christmas carol as part of an open air ‘Victorian’ high street festival. Groping around for some reminders, I chanced upon a phrase used by one of Dickens’s biographers, Edgar Johnson, who refers to his ‘uncompromising humanitarian radicalism’: fifteen syllables in three words may be OTT, but what an encapsulation! Sadly, we can’t have another Charles Dickens. Not because there are not talented, persuasive writers and passionate social commentators in our own time – there are. But because no commentator today could expect to sustain the level of attention that Dickens managed to command for several decades in the nineteenth century. The media channels were fewer and the hall of fame far less crowded then; and Dickens had the skills, energy and temperament to maximise his impact in the interests of social justice. He wasn’t ‘just’ a novelist, he was a communicator adept in the dominant media of his time. Lord Northcliffe described him as the greatest magazine editor of his or any age – how was that possible? It’s scary to be reminded that Dickens died at about the age I am now – he achieved so much that we might mistakenly think of him as long-lived. All of which leaves me wondering quite why we are in such a mess now, and what is needed to signal positive social change. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to start interpreting the above-mentioned child poverty map as representing many thousands of family crises, weeks of hunger, months of debilitating stress, sickness, sense of abandonment, fear and maltreatment and loss and ruined lives. What kind of influence over our power-mongers is needed to restore a respectable insistence on social justice? In 1843, Dickens was just 31 years old and a huge celebrity. He was at the height of his powers, full of ideas and overflowing with creativity. And he was besieged on all sides by people seeking to persuade him to use his influence in one...

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