Dickens Twist: Please sir, I want some more empathy

Dickens Twist: Please sir, I want some more empathy
Gruel. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

I did once put my hand out. In the street outside a cinema in Cape Town I asked a passing woman: “Scuse me lady, could I please have 20 cents to see this movie?” We go way back, Oliver Twist and me.


The author supports Isabelo, chef Margot Janse’s charity which feeds school children every day. Please support them here.

Charles Dickens would have been a bleeding heart liberal if he’d lived in our times. Rarely has a writer possessed as much empathy with the common man, the underdog, the have-nots who walk past the big houses on their way back to the slum they call home.

Dickens would have been all over Maverick Citizen, a key member of the Treatment Action Campaign, would have sung at LiveAID and thrown a “food, glorious food” refrain into We Are The World, and pestered Geldof and Bono to urge that more be done for all the Tiny Tims of the planet; Tiny Tim being the sickly child whose father Bob Cratchit was in the employ of Ebenezer Scrooge, literature’s most infamous miser and money counter.

If you Google “what does Tiny Tim symbolise” in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (the Scrooge story for those unfamiliar with the title), the answer is concise: “Symbols have a way of marking and fossilising the distance between the person who gives meaning and the meaningful object. For (Ebenezer) Scrooge, Tiny Tim is a reminder of what must be prevented: the disease and dependence that comes from poverty and industrial exploitation. (Definition by Syracuse University)

That description neatly wraps up Dickens’ view of the London of his day, and consequently of society and the world. A realm of haves having too much and caring little for the have-nots, who should have, but usually never have, anything remotely like the kind of wealth, or even a modest living, of those haves; and who, were they living in today’s world of every posh dinner plate in every restaurant being photographed and Instagrammed to death, would have had that unattainable wealth shoved in their faces every time they checked their social media. Like Oliver Twist and the other poor orphans in the forbidding Victorian workhouse in Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, they see what their minders in the workhouse are served, even smell the aromas as platters of glorious food are delivered to the facility’s wardens, but then have to endure the bowls of grey sludge they call gruel that is set in front of them.

In our time and my particular realm of work, I have rubbed shoulders with the creators of very fine food, much of it very expensive. I have eaten at chef’s tables where I’ve been served foie gras and truffle in the same dish. I’ve long been aware of the privilege of this and how it jars with the reality of many lives. In most instances, I could not myself even come close to affording much of the fare I have been fortunate to enjoy. My past and origins are very much at odds with all this, and I am acutely aware of it, being a descendant of working class Yorkshire folk who’d give many of the supposedly important people I’ve met what they call “short shrift”.

Oliver Twist, the novel, made the most impact on my young self. I read it when I was nine years old and ill in bed for a few days. It has never left me. Later, when the movie Oliver! came out, I saw it at a cinema in Cape Town (we had just moved there) and thrilled in particular to the scenes of young Oliver being taken in by the kindly old man who briefly gives the boy a glimpse of the kind of life he might have had if born into wealthier circumstances. (Which, ironically, he was, but that’s another level of this deep and undulating tale.)

The story is a punchbag of a tale of the pushing and pulling of a poor kid sideswiped by society and circumstance. Shoved into a workhouse, that shame of shames of the Victoria decades, made to eat intolerable gruel, a grey slop repugnant to eye and stomach. Yet brave enough to ask for some more, his courage igniting a series of circumstances which would see him fleeing to London where he’d be hoodwinked by the delightfully mischievous Artful Dodger into joining Fagin’s little gang of pickpockets and runabouts. Ultimately, twist and turn upon twist and turn (its plotting is remarkable even today and surely would get a Netflix green light even if its author was unknown) leads to him being welcomed into the kindly gentleman’s fancy townhouse home where, in the film’s most remarkable sequence, this in a musical brimful with fabulous choreography that must have been a massive challenge to film, Oliver Twist’s eyes are opened.

I don’t care how cheesy anyone finds it, but the sequence where he sings Who Will Buy as he opens his bedroom window to stare out at London awakening in the morning is one I can never tire of watching. Aspects of it have become awkwardly unPC over time, or supposedly so (as if it is politically incorrect to know that there is poverty and that there are haves and have-nots), yet the unfolding scene retains a relevance in that, first, it shows the ways and mores of the author’s time, and that is what the disparate strands of Victorian society were like, and second, it juxtaposes the haves and have-nots with crystal clarity; so that we see the stark divide and can take our moral stance based on what we see. In the houses are the rich men and women and their cosseted children. In the street are the traders, the milkmaid (“any milk today, mistress?”, the flower seller (“who will buy my sweet red roses, two blooms for a penny?”), the knife sharpener (“any knives to grind?”), the strawberry seller (“ripe, strawberries ripe!”), every one of them having trekked into the finer streets of old London from the stinking Thames-side slums where they trudge out their miserable days when not drinking themselves into oblivion, and who can blame them.

And the watching Oliver, with grim foreshadowing, “Who will buy this wonderful morning…”… which will soon be grasped from him, with a deadly conclusion. It’s a cruel but brilliant Dickensian twist (perhaps this was why Dickens gave him the name) which illustrates exactly the kind of point the author was always striving to make; that life in an unequal society is cruel and has its victims, and circumstances are as likely to decide your fate as any endeavour of your own.

This has always spoken to me, personally. I treasured my memories of Oliver Twist and its social commentary when, in my adolescence, life and society contrived to throw a whirlpool of difficulties at me like some 20th century Oliver Twist buffeted this way and that, with no idea how to survive. Alcoholism in my immediate family, the disappearing father, an easy bent to truancy (so much easier than getting the bus to the dreaded school), and paucity of income that finally had my mom and I living on social welfare packages. I used to gaze into the blank distance and ask myself aloud, how will I get out of this, what is the way out. There were no question marks because there were no apparent answers. Yet life was to teach me, over and over and over again, that if you pick yourself up every time, if you keep going no matter what is hurled at you, ultimately you have a decent shot of survival and even of thriving. I say this not to engender sympathy, I am decades beyond that, but to lay out context for empathy, which is what Dickens was doing in weaving his tales of the have and have-not and its eloquent subtext of saying, look, we can do better than this, we can open our eyes to the Olivers and help their eyes to be opened onto better things, a better world and a better life.

I was a street urchin for a while back there. I didn’t join some latterday Fagin’s gang of pickpockets, but I did hang out in the docklands and imagine what life was like wherever those great passenger liners went to; and I did board them with a little permission slip which was so easy to obtain in those days from the liners’ agents’ offices on the Cape Town Foreshore. And I did consider hiding away somewhere and waiting for the tugging of the great ship at its moorings and that gurgling, flowing feeling as it shifts away from the quayside and into the water, and the hooting of the tugs and the billowing of their smoke, and then waiting for an hour or more until, your kid’s mind fancied, it might be too late for them to decide to turn back and make you walk the gangplank back to a life that felt doomed.

I did, just once, put my hand out. I was hanging around outside the Metro cinema on the lower Foreshore in Cape Town and wanted to see a movie that was showing there. Admission was 20 cents. A lady approached, someone’s mom. Coat and handbag, it must have been winter. “Scuse me lady, could I please have 20 cents to see this movie?” Her eyes flashed anger, I can see them now. “You have a nerve, boy!” she said. Then gave me the 20 cents. Something in her reluctance stayed with me, and I never did it again. Which is what learning life’s lessons is for. Once, while honing my truancy skills back in 1969, I went to a movie house to see Oliver! How’s that for foreshadowing.

To use food as the central theme of Oliver Twist was pure genius, because it is and ever will be at the very core of every human being’s existence. Like air and water, we cannot exist without it, yet the quality of the food we eat relates absolutely to what we can afford and what the Victorians saw as our relative statons in life. The gruel young Oliver Twist was served at the workhouse contrasts poignantly, in the musical’s opening sequence, with the fine fare placed before the workhouse’s overfed staff. The trenchant truth is that the London portrayed in the tale is defined by disparity and that disparity is illustrated by the food its denizens can or cannot eat. Which remains and will ever remain a metaphor for any city in our time, or any time, where the beggar pleads in the street outside the restaurant door, the vagrant sleeps in the gutter alongside the hotdog cart that has been shuttered for the night, the prostitute touts for business outside a trattoria packed with happy, well-fed and well-heeled punters. 

Bless Dickens forever for the way he had of drawing and describing a character, to the extent that the phrase “Dickensian” instantly conjures a certain type of figure in the mind, just as the names of his characters do, from Mr Bumble, Fagin and Bill Sykes to Micawber, Gradgrind, Pickwick, Bob Cratchit and Uriah Heep.

But always, for me, Oliver Twist, who was never far from me in my youthful taste of a poor kid’s life, and I often think that the kind of writing I have ended up doing has everything to do with those days of getting so close to putting my hand out and asking for money for nothing, or just five cents for bread please, lady. That didn’t happen, but for that lone exception, but empathy is a lesson worth learning, and young.

All of the above provides context for this: as of next week, contributors to TGIFood will link their stories to a charity of their choice which helps those who suffer in one way or another in the context of food or the lack of it. Please support them once you’ve enjoyed the food stories we share with you. Contributors will select a charity with each story and provide links to where you can donate. See the top of this story for my chosen charity for this column; it will only take a minute or two to make even the most modest donation. DM/TGIFood


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  • Kanu Sukha says:

    A glorious description of the multilayered complexity of food and its varied significances ! Having lampooned the use of glamourous pictures of food these days, it is almost ironic to see what seems like a splendid and colourful one of ‘gruel’ (normally bland & bleak) accompany the article !

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