Saturday, 1 September 2012


Another week, another tranche of media coverage and another set of interviews. We always intended our fundraising walk to act as a catalyst and three weeks on, it’s good to see the interest continues.

Last week, the Daily Telegraph devoted an entire, full colour, magnificent broadsheet page to our efforts and it generated strong levels of interest – even if the photography highlighted the need for an urgent and drastic diet (and there was me thinking that walking 94 miles would deliver an overnight Olympian physique).

Their reporter and photographer joined us for several hours on day two of our walk. As always happens, an hour long interview and copious note taking on a series of highly entertaining stories that Gerry and I shared, ended up hugely edited. But nonetheless, having our goal presented to 600,000 right wing, true blue readers, most of whom will be affluent, influential and interested, was highly valued.

The article led to BBC Radio Ulster including the story in their daily arts programme and the on-air interview earlier this week was lively, well researched and engaging. The station is the most listened to in Northern Ireland and it exposed another 580,000 people to our fund raising goals.

I don’t know if there are ex-pats from Derry, Belfast, Ennniskillen or Limavady living in Tanzania, Israel, India and China listening to the station on-line, but on the following day these countries could be added to the long list of those reading this blog.

Who’d have thought it? Colombia and China the latest to be following a couple of blokes plodding through leafy Surrey three weeks ago, simply trying to raise some cash….

In all the interviews, the same questions generally get asked. In most, there is amazement at finding there isn’t a statue for Charles Dickens already in the UK and they want to know why that is. As I explained to the presenter on Radio Ulster a couple of days ago, it’s partly down to a long running debate on the terms of Charles Dickens’s Will and how it is interpreted.

If you were to read “On no account make me the subject of any monument, memorial, or testimonial whatever” in his last Will and Testament, you would be forgiven in thinking the argument is pretty clear. This is the line that is constantly trotted out by those who are convinced that the plan for a statue is going firmly against the wishes of Dickens and why nothing exists to date – in the UK anyway.

Put that line in context and it makes for a very different read. “I emphatically direct that I be buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner; that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial; that at the utmost not more than three plain mourning coaches be employed; and that those who attend my funeral wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hat-band, or other such revolting absurdity. I direct that my name be inscribed in plain English letters on my tomb, without the addition of 'Mr.' or 'Esquire.' I conjure my friends on no account to make me the subject of any monument, memorial, or testimonial whatever”.

From that, it is clear that Dickens was leaving clear instructions on where he wanted to be buried, (which was ignored), who he wanted to be at his funeral, what they should wear, the manner in which it should be conducted and the type of grave they should erect for him. In this context, his reference to a memorial clearly relates to the style of grave and his abhorrence to the over the top melodramatic response to death so favoured by the Victorians – ‘revolting absurdities’ indeed.

Let’s be sensible here. No one commits their Will to immortality, spending time detailing the minutia of their funeral and then, in the same sentence, adds an apparent aside to the world by saying “Oh and by the way, no statues please”.

My great-great grandfather makes it clear that he addresses these requests to his friends. He does not issue a global dictat to descendants he will never meet and he doesn’t demand this from his fans. Why would he, when he is talking about his funeral?

But to flip the coin, suppose the alternative interpretation is true. To believe that, one has to accept that his ego was hugely inflated and he was massively arrogant. Was Dickens really trying to say in his Will to the world “And furthermore, I believe my work to be so brilliant, it will remain relevant and valued for ever more. Because of that, people might wish to celebrate my talents through a variety of tributes including a statue in one, two or three hundred years after my death. I expressly forbid them to do so”.

Nope. That doesn’t stack up for me either.

Of course, it’s all open to debate and personal opinion but the family view is very clear and that’s why we are so happy to support the statue initiative being driven by the Portsmouth branches of the Dickens Fellowship, so positively encouraged by Portsmouth City Council. And judging from the response of those we have spoken to across a broad range of media, they seem to agree.

But whether folk are against a statue or not, it’s all rather academic as two already exist and have done so for well over 100 years. One sits in a park in Philadelphia, USA while a second can be found in Sydney, Australia.

The one in America was created by Frank Elwell in his New York studio around 20 years after Dickens had died and placed at Clark Park in the Spruce Hill section of West Philadelphia. It sits high on a plinth with an adoring Little Nell gazing up to the figure that bears only a passing resemblance to the great man. In Australia, a cold and austere life sized white marble Dickens broods under the southern hemisphere sun. This too was erected at the end of the 19th century - again on a high plinth, but not high enough to stop someone rather ungraciously knocking his head off in the 1970’s. It was all reinstated earlier this year and now sits on the corner of Dickens Drive and Loch Avenue in Centennial Park. The re-crafted marble face bears the rather startled look of someone who has indeed been recently decapitated. But despite that, it’s good to see him back.

Looking at the statues already in existence brings the one planned for Portsmouth – the UK’s first - in to sharp focus. There is no saccharine American sweetness to what is planned and neither is there any element of a formal and stiff cold soul brooding down at us. Dickens was a man of the people and with the UK sculpture, we hope that children will want to clamber up his knee and sit in his lap. We want the piece to be a celebration of what Dickens achieved and to applaud his long lasting relevance through a thoughtful, engaging and respectfully considered tribute.

In amongst all the interest in the project from the nice folk Gerry and I have been talking to over the last few weeks, another common theme has emerged. It was repeated again this week when a journalist confided in me; “I love Dickens – this has made me want to read him again”.

Now that’s what I call a legacy and one I think CD would be the first to describe as anything other than a ‘revolting absurdity’.


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