This piece was first published in our parish magazine in November 2011. Today, Dickens's bicentenary, this project was completed.
The life of a freelance writer is a varied one. This week, for example, I’ve devised a script for a corporate video on bad management practices, written some copy for a craft catalogue, worked on a charity website, and told Charles Dickens where he was going wrong.
Yes, you read that last part right. I spent a chunk of my time this week editing the words of Dickens himself. In 2006, The University of Buckingham embarked on a frankly barmy quest: to make every issue of Charles Dickens’ weekly magazines available to the world via the Internet. Dickens edited two magazines, first Household Words, from 1850-1859, then All the Year Round, from 1859 until his death in 1870. He wrote extensively for both on the widest possible range of subjects, but also serialised some of his novels as well as works by other prominent Victorian writers like Wilkie Collins. Upon his death, his son Charles Dickens the younger, took over the editing of All the Year Round, and the magazine was still published weekly until 1890.
The University of Buckingham project is concerned with the issues from 1850-1870, and their aim was to have an image of every page online, with a text version alongside, by Dickens’ bicentenary in February 2012. Twenty years’ worth of weekly magazines, at 24 pages each makes for a total of nearly 25,000 pages, so it’s not surprising that earlier this year, they realised that there was no way they could complete all the editing in-house by the February deadline. As a result, the university team appealed through an article in the Guardian for volunteer editors to take on individual magazines. So any Tom, Dick or Rosie who fancied themselves a copy editor would get a chance to check the text version of the pages alongside Dickens’ original.
Well, I couldn’t register fast enough, and I was allocated the 31 January 1857 edition of Household Words. The team has scanned each page, and then used a system called Optical Character Recognition, which “reads” the text and then creates a file you can edit. Unfortunately, sometimes it misreads a letter or word, especially if there is a shadow or smudge, and for some reason it can’t see dashes, so any dashes In the original were omitted in the text and had to be inserted There are also many hyphenated words, and paragraphs split across columns. As an editor, it was my job to go through every line and check for errors, and reunite split words and paragraphs. It was fiddly and precise work, but the trickiest part was staying focused on the editing. The articles and stories were so fascinating, it was all too easy to get caught up in them, and forget to insert the commas and cross the ts, as it were. None of the volunteer editors will earn a penny from helping the University of Buckingham meet their 2102 deadline, but it’s an experience I, and I’m sure any others, would happily have paid for.
The first article in my magazine concerned the extraordinary efficiency and cost-effectiveness of British manufacturing. The article showed how the rise of specialised machinery in manufacturing had changed the face of both the industry, but the type and skill-level of work labourers would be expected to do. Indeed, the English factories were the cheapest and most efficient in the world. Witness this extraordinary example:
“…a single steam engine,continually working with the power of five thousand men, moves one hundred and fifty thousand spindles, and delivers thirty thousand miles of thread per hour. The Hindoo spinner [In India, where cotton would originate], earning bare subsistence,can produce only a mile of thread for four pence;nineteen miles can be produced in England for three-halfpence, and the yarn or cloth spun from the Indian cotton can be delivered back to the Hindoo by rail and ship and road, employing labour to and fro, and be, after the double journey, still a cheaper article than the Hindoo can make.”
How times have changed!
There is also a very detailed article about the coco plant (coconut to you and me), its use around the world, and the animals and humans who depend upon it for food. This contains some extraordinarily racist conjecture about the people of the coastal countries in Africa, and is a fascinating snapshot of the attitudes of the time.
The magazine also contains an uncredited poem, a chapter of a Wilkie Collins novel called The Dead Secret, an essay on the poetic nature of rail travel and an extract from A Journey Due North, by George Augustus Sala. In just 24 pages, my randomly selected magazine offered a snapshot of economics, politics, culture and travel in 1857.
I’m extremely proud to have been a small part of this astonishing project. At the time of writing, 90% of the magazines were corrected or in the process of being corrected, and the team is on course to meet their deadline (edit: and indeed they did!). Hundreds of enthusiastic volunteers have worked together so that this wonderful record of Victorian life will be accessible to scholars and the curious forever.
It’s just extraordinary that a writer as prolific as Dickens also found time to produce an edition of these magazines every week for twenty years, while still generating some of the greatest writing in the English language (and being a father to ten children!). Like me, do you feel maybe you could have got a bit more done today?
I’m going to launch straight in with a statement many of you may not agree with. I think it’s wrong that Fred Goodwin was stripped of his knighthood. Before you all jump on me, let me tell you where I’m coming from. My understanding of the world
of politics is limited, and my understanding of economics and the world of finance is even more so. But if there’s one thing I do understand, it’s narrative, and I think we’re being sold a really reeking story here, and Mr Goodwin is the rather fishy red herring.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’re all in fairly deep financial doo-doo. I understand very little of exactly what has happened or why, but I do know I have heard no good news about the financial situation anywhere in the world for a number
of years, and that in my own home, we are bringing in less money, spending more and worrying even more. I don’t know what will happen in the short or medium term… I have no idea what the real implications would be of the collapse of the Euro, for example. All I know, selfishly and simply, is that I am grateful we have work at all, I cannot foresee any luxuries for us for a long time, and I fear for my teenage son about to go to university. There are plenty of people in our boat, and many more in much, much worse situations. To put it bluntly, most of us are screwed, largely through no fault of our own, and there is little or nothing we can do to change the situation we’re in.
So what do the media do? They give us a lovely story. People to blame, people to look up to, characters to make the enormously complex situation we cannot change into a pantomime we can stomach. So they tell us about the greedy benefits claimants, sitting on their arses, frittering away our hard-earned tax dollars (“Boo! Boo! Hiss!”). They tell us about the philanthropic Australian bus company boss who gave his staff £10 million in bonuses when he sold the company (Hooray! Three Cheers!”) They tell us about Stephen Hester and his ludicrous £1 million bonus (“Throw rotten tomatoes!”). We are suddenly disconcerted when the government tells us their hands are tied and he must have this money, and we are metaphorically patted on the head and told that we would not understand the complex machinations of high finance and bonus packages anyway. We all feel even more uncomfortable when we learn that Hester’s salary is the equivalent of the salary of forty teachers. Because if that’s the case, we’re not all in this together, and this isn’t a system that rewards hard work and contribution to society, it’s a system that rewards greed, nepotism and participation in a small and closed-shop industry, and the rest of us be damned.
Then Hester refuses his bonus, and before we can draw breath, we hear that Goodwin has been stripped of his knighthood. Applause!
Now Goodwin is an easy one to hate. We’re told that he drove RBS into the toilet, caused the financial crisis and then took early retirement and claimed his ludicrously massive pension. He also bites the heads off kittens. That last one isn’t true, but it’s easy to believe. He’s one cape and a twirly moustache short of a pantomime villain. Now he has no knighthood. Hoorah! But what has really changed? He still has all his money and his enormous pension. The people that hated him still hate him, and the people who were his mates still like him, except now he’s a bit martyred, so they like him even more. He’ll need new address labels for his Christmas cards, sans the “Sir”, but that’s about it.
But we’ve all had a chance to boo and hiss at the villain and we all feel vindicated, so we don’t ask any real questions like – never mind Hester, what about the rest of the RBS executives? What bonuses are they getting? And if David Cameron has promised us that he will tackle excessive executive pay, and he can’t even stop it in the boardroom where we are 82% shareholders, why should we believe it will stop anywhere else? And what about the massive corporations and high earning civil servants avoiding millions of pounds in tax?
Politics in this country are painted in broad strokes, with lots of shouting and rhetoric and “Hear, hears!” The media then takes what is going on and turns the broad strokes into a cartoon. But we don’t have to swallow it all. This is life, our lives, not a trip to the pantomime. We may be in the audience, but it’s our job not to be so stupid that we believe everything we’re told, feel what we’re told to feel, cheer for the hero and boo the villain. So when the government or the press says, “It’s behind you!”
Let’s all shout really loudly – “Oh no it isn’t!”
A few weeks ago, I was going on a night out. As any of you who are parents of a small child will know, this is a rare and precious occasion. I thought I would mark it by actually wearing some make-up. Yes, yes, don’t judge me, but I am one of those women who genuinely can’t be bothered on a day to day basis – and I’m definitely not one of those who chip up at the school gate at 8am with perfectly blow-dried hair and an immaculate face. You’ll be lucky if I’ve brushed my hair and teeth to be fair.
Anyway, as I say, I thought I’d bung on a bit of lippie and mascara, but I couldn’t find my make-up bag. I searched high and low, and it was nowhere to be found. We’d returned from a week in Barcelona a little while before, and it occurred to me that I might have left it in the apartment in Spain or lost it in transit. Fiddlesticks, I thought, (or a slightly less family-friendly facsimile of ‘fiddlesticks)’. Now I’ll have to get new make-up. I started to do a rough tally in my head of what I had had in the bag and what it would cost to replace. Reader, if you are male, you’re probably thinking twenty quid? Maybe fifty if I had a lot? If you’re a woman, you’d have a better idea of the real total: several hundred pounds.
And I started thinking… how did I, a woman with scant interest in make-up and beauty products, come to spend a few hundred of my hard-earned pounds on make-up? And what if I were interested? How much would I have spent? You don’t need me to tell you how huge the beauty industry is (£6.2 billion a year, was one estimate I found). It is quite simply remarkable how much there is to buy – and how much more there is year on year. I know that the basis of any industry is that it has to grow, but it’s fascinating how this particular industry had developed new markets. Dove, for example, the company that ran masses of ads touting the idea of “real beauty”, now tells us that we should be self-conscious about our armpits and buy their special beautifying deodorant. Then there’s teeth whitening, anal bleaching and my new personal favourite, labia blush. Yes, if age, race or just being a normal woman gives you cause to suspect that your labia lack the ‘natural’ neon pink blush of a young Aryan virgin, you can now use cotton buds to apply a chemical dye to the tender and vulnerable mucous membranes in your most delicate place. Call me crude (although I prefer pragmatic), but in my experience, if someone is close enough to examine the colour of my labia, they’re unlikely to back out of the whole experience because of a slight variation in hue. It seems to me that in its effort to grow, the beauty industry spends a lot of time thinking of new things to make us feel bad about, so they can sell us things to make us feel good about the things we weren’t worried about in the first place.
Now don’t get me wrong, I know that beauty and make-up mean more to many (or most) women than me, and as I have said in this blog before, I don’t believe women should be telling each other what to do or not do. But I do ask you to think about it for a moment with me. How much are we spending on it? Not just money, but time, effort and thought? And how much, if we let it get to us, does it stand in our way? Do we become self-conscious if our bums are not size eight, our teeth are not snow white, our labia pink and our eyelashes jungly? Do we hold back in our personal relationships, think less of ourselves, ask for less, aspire to less? While it’s lovely to look good and have someone compliment you, desire you, and do things for you, maybe it isn’t everything. If we weren’t spending hundreds of pounds on make-up, or having sleepless nights worrying about our weight or the colour of our twinkles, what might we achieve?
Anti-feminists are always quick to point out that the female sex has never produced a Churchill, a Mozart or an Einstein. There are a million good reasons for that, but while I am not a historian or a sociologist, I believe without a shadow of a doubt that Winston, Wolfgang and Albert did not give a moment’s thought to the hue of their bumholes. Men are generally better than us at finding a healthy balance in their own heads between the way they look and who and what they are.
I’m always so conscious of the extraordinarily short time we’re alive on this planet. Years seem to pass in a heartbeat, and decades disappear, leaving me peering round bewildered and wondering what the hell happened to the nineties. Time goes, and then you’re dead. We can’t use every second well, and I’m all for frittering time away on fun, laziness and meaningless pursuits, within reason. So my wish for you all this 2012, is that you go forth, wear as much or as little make-up as you like, but try to spend at least some of your time, your money and your energy wisely. Be defined (and judge yourself) by your actions, not by the way you look. And by the way, you look lovely today.
PS: the make-up bag turned up. It's basically full of a lot of half-dried up old tat. Revising my estimate, it's probably worth around 50p.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.