Hard times, great expectations
Mid-Atlantic. 35,000 feet. Dead of night. Everyone around me fast asleep. My seat bathed in the eery glow of one small lamp. Chapter 22: “A Gritty State of Things Come On”. The height of the novel. I turn the last page and briefly scroll my eyes to the bottom of the text. The final full stop stares back at me. Back to the top.
Reading slowly. Savouring. Reflecting. And then, inevitably, the last paragraph, the last sentence, the last word, the last full stop and it is all over.
I am emotionally exhausted. I want to wake the stranger next to me but these days you get shot for less on an American plane. So I ask the flight attendant for a whisky and settle back in my seat staring into the black nothingness of the cabin. Thirty-five years since I first met Pip and Magwitch in the Kent churchyard and fourteen and a half novels, scores of adventures and hundreds of amazing characters later, I take leave of a precious friend, never met. Charles Dickens, born two hundred years ago this week, dotted that full stop and promptly took the mystery of Edwin Drood with him to the grave.
It is apt that the bicentennial should fall in a year where large chunks of the developed world are being forced into austerity, and movements for social justice and a fairer distribution of the tax burden are popping up everywhere (and in the case of the tax burden, in particular, everywhere where Mitt Romney shows his face). Dickens was a campaigner for social justice and many of his novels dramatize the major issues of the day.
It is, therefore, ironic that Dickens says very little about taxation. Beyond the occasional jibe at tax collectors and the mention of property rates, the only novel in which they take a battering is Tale of Two Cities, where criticism is heaped on- you guessed it – the French. Indeed, in his only lengthy monologue on the subject – a letter to his friend Macready in 1852 – he defended the much hated stamp tax on newspapers, fearing the mushrooming of a gutter press that would compete for readers with the likes of The Times, The Economist and – that bastion of Victorian propriety – The News of the World.
So how did the man who demonized the Workhouse in Oliver Twist, lambasted the Debtor’s Prison in Pickwick’s Papers and Little Dorrit, and heaped compassion on destitute Joe the crossing sweeper in Bleak House, steer so clear of the social injustice of the tax system that seems to bother all men of conscience today?
The answer seems to be quite simple really – despite only relatively well-off men being enfranchised, the distribution of the tax burden was remarkably fair. For much of the nineteenth century most revenue came from property and excise based taxes or stamp duties as well as gradually falling import tariffs. The Poor Rate , Land Tax, Window Tax (levied on the number of windows in a house above a certain minimum), and excise taxes on luxury goods fell infinitely more heavily on the rich than the poor. Furthermore, in 1842, the reintroduction of a temporary income tax (still temporary 170 years later) had a threshold that left huge swathes of the population outside its clutches.
The problem, put in 21st century terms, was that, as Britain moved towards a free market system in the course of the 19th century which included a commitment to lower taxes while seeking a balanced budget, a massive cut in public expenditure on the poor was inevitable. The issue came to the fore in 1834 with the reform of the Poor Law that saw a reduction in the Poor Rate tax charged and the concentration of poor relief almost exclusively on the dreaded Workhouse that was to be the utterly unpleasant refuge of last resort. This replaced a system that included less horrific workhouses for the orphaned, old and infirm while maintaining Out-Relief for able bodied men, thus keeping them in the workforce. Hence, Dickens’s broadside on the Workhouse three years later in his second novel, Oliver Twist; his problem was with the fabric of society rather than the pursuit of specific economic solutions.
On a recent vacation in England with my two youngest sons, I ordered tickets for the revival of Oliver! But we had to stop off somewhere on the way. Hailing a black cab, I asked the driver to take us to 48, Doughty Street which, judging by his smiling “No problem guvner, jump in” was, as I would soon discover, chiefly significant to him for the major roadworks blocking the junction with Guilford Street necessitating an extra five quid on the meter. The ride was worth every penny as he abused, in updated Dickens fashion, every perceived maniac on the road, even offering a “Sorry boys” to my children for words which, had they been checked on the worldwide web, would have invited all sorts of inviting pop-ups.
Arriving at Dickens’s home, for many years now a quaint museum, I took the boys to the study window overlooking the timeless back-garden and showed them what Dickens would have seen as he brilliantly conjured up Fagin, Bill and Nancy – just standard grass, shrubs and trees. There was a lesson there, which was further brought home at the outstandingly original staging of Lionel Bart’s musical at Drury Lane a few hours later. If you want to succeed, be innovative. It was true of the industrial revolution in the 19th century; it is all the more true of the information revolution in the 21st. Therein lies the hope of today’s austerity-stricken nations. Happy Birthday, Mr D, wherever you are.