Saturday, 24 November 2012

CD Review: "Psychedelic Pill" by Neil Young & Crazy Horse"

Two studio albums from Neil Young and Crazy Horse in the same year – how awesome is that? Americana – the band’s rock ‘n’ roll take on an eclectic mix of (mostly) traditional folk standards – was released back in early June. And now here we are, before the year is out, with another CD.

Psychedelic Pill is studio album #35 for Neil Young. It’s also his longest studio album ever, and the first to span two discs. It clocks in at 87 minutes – despite the fact that it contains only nine tracks. It’s the first album of original songs he’s done with Crazy Horse since Greendale, back in 2003.

It’s been a busy and fruitful year for Neil Young. In addition to the release of the Americana CD, his autobiography – Waging Heavy Peace – was published by Blue Rider Press in September. The new album can be seen as a sequel to both of those projects: musically, it was built on a series of jam-sessions he did with Crazy Horse following the completion of their album of traditional material; lyrically, it explores many of the themes that Young raises in the recent book. And now he’s in the midst of a long tour that helps promote all three projects – although he’s more likely to be doing it for the love of playing live with the Horse, than for the need to push product that many Young fans – me included – will have already bought. Friends of mine who saw them play recently in Toronto and Kitchener say that both concerts were great.

Neil playing his 1952 Gibson Les Paul

Psychedelic Pill kicks off in an audacious fashion – the very first track is a loose, twenty-seven minute epic called “Driftin’ Back”. It’s pretty much a two-chord piece that goes on and on and on, with Neil providing extended lead-guitar solos over Frank Sampredo’s rhythm guitar. The song’s often-bizarre lyrics raise several topics that come up repeatedly in Young’s recent autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace. Much of it sounds random and improvised: “I used to dig Picasso / Then the big tech giant came along / And turned him into wallpaper”; “Hey now now, hey now now / Gonna get a hip hop haircut / Can’t get me no resolution.” About this song, Neil says, “Things that bother you fade away to maybe return as a shadow, not so big.” So the title “Driftin’ Back” doesn’t mean so much that he is returning with sentiment to the past, but that the things that keep bothering him, and that he tries to keep under control (“blockin’ out my anger”), seem to keep drifting back to haunt him.

As an opening track, “Driftin’ Back” ought not to work as well as it does. It’s an amazing risk he takes here – starting the album in such a guileless manner. But that’s the way Neil Young works. He invariably comes at you out of left field, and does the unexpected. What this introductory track really does is to boldly establish Neil’s modus operandi – to lay out the album’s basic aesthetic: loose, extended, guitar-dominated rock of often uncompromising intensity, with simple and artless lyrics that eschew any big statements. Sit back; turn up the music to LOUD; and let the extended guitar workouts carry you where they will.

Besides the rockin’-out epic tracks – of which more later – there are some short, more modest pieces. “Born in Ontario” is, in spirit, a sequel to Young’s CSN&Y track “Helpless” – invoking his childhood in Omemee with parents Rasa and Scott Young. He looks back with gratitude to those days, but he is often prompted to do that, he says, by a need to “try to make sense of my inner rage.” Neil’s playing of a pump organ in the final section of the song is a nice touch that adds to the nostalgic atmosphere of the track.

“Twisted Road” is a song that Neil’s been doing in concert for years. The song – given a rather brief rendition here – is a tribute to several of Young’s musical heroes: Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and Roy Orbison. His image of Dylan singing “Like a Rolling Stone” is brilliant: “Poetry rolling off his tongue / Like Hank Williams chewing bubblegum.” Music from the past is also evoked in the album’s title track, “Psychedelic Pill”. He uses flanging (aka phasing) throughout the track to intensify the psychedelic atmosphere of the piece – a lyrical portrait of a sixties party-girl whose “every move is like a psychedelic pill / From a doctor I can’t find.” The use of flanging throughout the track is a mistake – the effect works better when it’s used sparingly. Recall, for example, its brilliant use in The Small Faces’ single “Itchycoo Park” (summer of 1967), where it is used three or four times during that recording in brief five-second snippets. There is another (unbilled) version of “Psychedelic Pill” tacked on to the end of the album, with all of the flanging removed. Many will prefer this unadorned interpretation.

“For the Love of Man” is a complete change of pace. Some might think it doesn’t really belong on this album. It’s a pensive, acoustic song about Neil’s son Ben – one of two sons that Young had who were born with Cerebral Palsy: “Some things can never be understood,” Neil writes; “These are the things that keep returning, making you wonder.” He and wife Pegi spent long and difficult years caring for the boys – finding the best care and treatment they could.

Neil and Crazy Horse (l-to-r): Billy Talbot, Frank Sampedro, Ralph Molina, Neil Young

 And those long years together with Pegi inspire “Ramada Inn”, my favourite track on Psychedelic Pill. The lyric portrays, from different perspectives, their life on the road. The refrain sounds a positive note: “And every mornin’ comes the sun / And they both rise into the day / Holdin’ on to what they’ve done.” But the last verse raises a more troubling tone: “A few drinks now and she hardly knows him / He just looks away and checks out / When she says it’s time to do something  … He just pours another tall one / Closes his eyes and says ‘that’s enough’.” The lyric is delivered with typically-sweet Young and Crazy Horse harmonies. But it’s the guitar playing – the improvised solos that run through the track – that lift this song to another level.

And what makes the guitar-work so astonishing is the sound he gets out of ‘Old Black’, his 1952 Gibson Les Paul. I talked about Neil’s obsession with recorded sound on my review of his book, Waging Heavy Peace. And what you hear on this album bares out exactly what he’s on about. The liner notes in the accompanying booklet explain the album’s A-A-D recording. The music was played through an old-fashioned (analog) tube console – a Universal Audio mixer called the “green board”. (Young talks about this equipment in his book.) It was recorded to Studer 2” eight-track analog tape, mixed to Ampex ½ inch two-track tape, and finally transferred to 24-bit digital. If you play this album through a decent set of speakers, the guitar tone you hear is awesome. The multiplicity of sounds that Young pulls out of ‘Old Black’ is astonishing. Play it loud!

"I used to walk like a giant on the land; Now I  feel like a leaf floating in a stream."

And then there’s Walk Like a Giant – the third epic on this album. This is a mesmerising piece of music. The theme of the lyric is about regret and failure – the failure of the sixties counter-culture to sustain its idealistic hopes for the future. “Me and some of my friends,” he sings, “We were going to save the world / We were trying to make it better.” But a cultural reaction set in: “the weather changed”, is how Young puts it. And there is regret and anger. The regret is expressed in this lovely image: “I used to walk like a giant on the land / Now I feel like a leaf floating in the stream.” The anger is expressed in an onslaught of incredible guitar sounds. Neil plays his heart out improvising. He’s all over the place on his fretboard – deep, growling howls of sound, and ringing tones from the higher strings. It’s extraordinary stuff – similar to the wonderful sounds on “Ramada Inn”. But the aggressive tone is softened by an incongruously jaunty riff that is whistled by the band intermittently throughout the song. And then the track ends with an incredible coda: it begins with Neil and Ralph Molina (the drummer) pounding out a huge, incessant, thumping noise – giving us an impression of a giant bestriding the land. They hammer away, coming in and out of synch with each other. This long thumping then evolves into sustained feedback. And so it goes for four minutes. Astonishing.

Another tremendous album, then, from Neil Young and Crazy Horse. It won’t be to everyone’s taste. It’s a typically uncompromising approach to music-making. Take them on their own terms, or don’t bother. There are a few rather inconsequential pieces here, but overall this is a straight-ahead, intense album of no-nonsense guitar rock. If you are familiar with the brand, you’ll love this. How do they keep doing it? Neil’s on an extended roll. Long may it run.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Book Review: "Who I Am" by Pete Townshend

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I first became aware of Pete Townshend’s prowess as a writer when I read a witty record review he had written about The Who’s greatest hits collection, Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy way back in 1971 for Rolling Stone magazine. It was evident then that this was an intelligent and articulate man. He had begun writing record reviews in 1969 – for the British weekly music paper Melody Maker; and then its editor, Ray Coleman, invited him to contribute regular articles. He also submitted letters intermittently to the London newspapers about topical issues that caught his attention. And then in 1983 he was asked by Robert McCrum to join the editorial staff of the prestigious publishing house of Faber and Faber – working for its popular arts division. In 1985 they released a collection of Townshend’s short stories called Horse’s Neck.
Who I Am is Townshend’s recently-released autobiography. It has been about 15 years in the making (commissioned back in 1995). After two years of fitful work on the book, Townshend had asked the publisher – Little, Brown – to release him from his contract because he “found it too hard”. Eventually, however, he got back into the project and worked at it steadily for a decade. Why so hard? Primarily, I would imagine, he has struggled to find the correct tone – to balance, on the one hand, the public voice of a well-known former rock ‘n’ roll raver – the creative force behind the great English rock band The Who – with  the private doubts of an often introverted recluse, driven by creative ambitions, but often beset by a deep sense of unease and, even, self-loathing. “Can you see the real me, can you?” he wrote back in 1973 in Quadrophenia. As you read through this often searingly honest autobiography, you do wonder exactly who this Pete Townshend really is. He calls the book Who I Am – a neat reference, of course, to the title-song from the Who Are You LP. It sounds definite, doesn’t it – seeming to promise conclusive thoughts about the man and his music. Three-quarters of the way through the book, however, he mentions a record-company executive in the mid-eighties telling him that his fans don’t know who he is any more. “Had they ever known?” he wonders. “Even now I’m still trying to find out who I am.” Even after five years of analysis – with therapy twice a week. The dominant tone throughout the book is interrogative, not assertive. A more appropriate title for the book would have been Who Am I?

Another reason for the long time it took Townshend to complete this book is that he wrote it himself – no ghost writer, no heavy editing. Editorial advice, no doubt, but it was Townshend himself who wrestled the text into shape. Big deal, you might think; Neil Young wrote his own book. Well, yes – but chalk and cheese. Young’s book is a structural mess. And he takes the easy way out – despite some self-criticism, some acknowledgement of past failures, he takes the high road. Townshend chooses a much more revealing path – there’s a lot more self-flagellation here, a lot more self-recrimination. Neil Young’s book is sunny and upbeat – his focus on the world around him is extroverted and optimistic. Townshend’s creative projects are also goal-orientated and ambitious, but they are invariably solitary enterprises that he pursues often in a rather tortured and inconclusive way.
The most interesting part of any artist’s biography, or autobiography, is usually the early section, dealing with their childhood – how they were brought up by their parents, and how they were educated. The child is father to the man. Pete Townshend was born in Chiswick, London on 19 May, 1945. His father, Clifford, was a professional musician who played clarinet and saxophone. His mother, Betty, was a gifted singer. Clifford played with the RAF Dance Orchestra during the war. He did a long post-war stint with The Squadronaires, a British swing band. Pete often accompanied his father on the band’s tour bus and watched them play gigs around the country: “I grew up with a feel for what entertains people.” And through his parents, Pete was exposed to an eclectic mix of music, which later fuelled his creative ambitions and underpinned his pursuit of musical experimentation.

There were two crucial incidents in his childhood that marked Townshend for life – one was psychological; the other was musical. In 1951, when Pete was six years old, he was sent to live with his grandmother Denny. She was living alone; he was sent, apparently, to keep her company. Pete couldn’t really understand why his parents had seemed to abandon him. He was angry and resentful. Even worse for him, his grandmother was mentally unstable, and she would often treat him cruelly. She also brought men into the home for one-night stands, or sometimes even longer liaisons. On one occasion, Pete believes, he was sexually molested by one of her male visitors. He has no clear memory of the incident, but he mentions the situation several times – considering it, I suppose, as a trauma that he had long suppressed. And when he was about ten, on a holiday in the Isle of Man, he was playing the harmonica and got deeply lost in the sounds he was making. “Suddenly I was hearing music within the music – rich, complex harmonic beauty.” The next day, again, the murmuring sounds of a river “opened up a well-spring of music so enormous that I fell in and out of a trance.” Sometime later he had a similar experience on the River Thames, near Isleworth. “I began to hear the most extraordinary music … it was a sublime experience. I have never heard such music since, and my personal musical ambition has always been to rediscover that sound and relive its effect on me.” Townshend subsequently experienced other strange, visionary, dream-like, and hallucinatory, experiences.

Fans of The Who will want to read about Townshend’s formative rock ‘n’ roll experiences and the early history of The Who. And Pete doesn’t disappoint. Here are some choice factoids from the book. We learn that Pete’s first live performance was playing banjo (!) for The Confederates on 6 December, 1958. His first decent guitar was made in Czechoslovakia and cost him £3. In 1961 Pete was exposed to a tape recorder for the first time. He realised what an “extraordinary creative tool” it was – the beginning of his life-long passion for home-studio recording. In 1961 he entered Ealing Art College and met Roger Daltrey, who invited Pete to join his band, The Detours. His first gig with The Detours was at Chiswick in 1962. His guitar then was a Harmony solid-body Stratocruiser. He began to worry about the division between his rock band life and his art school life. But by March 1963, they were playing 18 shows per month, and taking home £30 per week.

" ... no one knows what it's like to be the sad man, behind blue eyes ..."

His musical development continued apace. He bought his first impressive guitar amp from Selmer’s Music Shop in Charing Cross Road; it was a Fender Pro Amp with a 15” speaker. The salesman was John McLaughlin! In the summer of 1963, The Detours opened for Johnny Kid and the Pirates, who used a drums, bass, lead guitar format. They decided to follow suit – which left Daltrey free to concentrate on his singing. The Who had morphed into a “power trio” and Pete was now required to play a mix of rhythm and lead (what came to be called later “power chords”). When he first heard the Rolling Stones live, he says, he was blown away. He noticed during their warm-up that Keith Richards did this windmill thing with his right hand. But just the once; he didn’t do it again. Townshend liked the move, and he adopted it as a trademark of his own guitar-playing. Eventually, The Detours discovered that there was another group with their name. They had to change. They did – on Valentine’s Day, 1964, they became The Who. Townshend admits that as a live performer he was “anarchic and narcissistic” – more of a showman than a committed guitarist. He was inspired to try new ways of playing by Malcolm Cecil. And then he became familiar with the work of Gustav Metzger, a pioneer of “auto-destructive art”. Townshend secretly planned to destroy his guitar on stage if, and when, the moment seemed right. It happened in June, 1964. At a show in the Railway Hotel in Harrow (west London), he accidentally jabbed the head of his guitar into the very low ceiling above the stage. When some of the audience began to snigger, he got angry and thrust the neck into the ceiling again and again. And then threw it down on the stage. The Who as champions of the auto-destruct was born.

The Who (l-to-r): Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey and John Entwhistle

There is plenty of stuff in Who I Am about the band. Pete acknowledges Roger Daltrey as the leader of the group. It was usually Roger, the lead singer, who dragged the others back into live performing, after they had been on sabbatical for too long. Roger was the most level-headed. He didn’t over-indulge himself with alcohol and drugs – at least not as much as the others did. He tried to stay fit and healthy. Bass player John Entwhistle was the quiet one on stage – similar to the Stones’ Bill Wyman. But he was a brilliant player – and his fluid, loud playing was a trademark of the band’s sound. The power trio format encouraged loudness – and Entwhistle and Townshend began to buy ever-louder and more powerful amps and speakers – usually from Jim Marshall’s shop in west Ealing (Jim was the creator of the “Marshall stack”). As Pete puts it, he and John got into a “musical arms race”. Townshend says that he was the first guitarist to use two amplifiers simultaneously – and he would get incredible distortion effects from the interaction between them, as they began to feedback reciprocally. Entwhistle, whilst often an enabler of Keith Moon’s wild and self-destructive behaviour – John participated in a lot of it – had a quiet and secretive side to his personality. Townshend reports, for example, that after John’s death in June, 2002, he found out – much to his astonishment – that Entwhistle was a freemason. Keith Moon, the group’s drummer, was a notorious wild-man. He was the last to join the band. As Pete says, Moon was a flashy show-off, as a drummer. He struck eccentric poses, in order to draw attention to himself. And he loved to employ constant cascading rolls over the toms. Interestingly, Townshend points out that, unlike most drummers, Moon did not serve as the foundation of the rhythm section, by maintaining a simple, steady beat (like Ringo Starr, or Charlie Watts); Keith preferred to listen to what John and Pete were doing, and follow them.

The Who made their name in the mid-60s as a singles band. Their first three albums were not as interesting, or as successful, as those of their rivals. But Townshend had grander visions for his music – after all, here was a guy who was listening to music as diverse as Miles Davis, Richard Wagner, Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Everly Brothers. In 1968, Townshend – influenced  by S. F. Sorrow, a concept album by The Pretty Things which featured a suite of interrelated songs – began working on Tommy, his own concept album, which he began to refer to as a “rock opera”. It was released in May, 1969. This was followed by an even-more ambitious project – a science-fiction rock opera to be called Lifehouse. After Townshend put in intense, non-stop work for a year (from August 1970 to the following summer), the whole thing finally collapsed around him. Out of the remnants emerged The Who’s finest work, the LP Who’s Next, which contained eight of the songs that he had written for Lifehouse. Pete was shattered – he thought the title of the new LP was pathetic, and the cover photo struck him as a sick joke. Despite the failure of this second concept album, Townshend went on to produce another, Quadrophenia (October, 1973). In fact, everything after Tommy seemed to emerge as sets of songs with “an idea, a story, or a concept”.
Who I Am goes into great detail about these, and other, ambitious projects. Most of this work was done alone, in Pete’s home recording studio. He would get lost in there for hours and hours, days and days – neglecting his wife, pursuing his creative muse. Many of these projects were conceived as stage productions, and they often foundered because Pete was unable to convince key people that they were of enough interest, or sufficiently stageable. Over the years, it has only been Tommy that has succeeded over and over – in various forms and in several reincarnations on stage.

Who's left? The survivors - Roger and Pete.

Most readers of this autobiography will be Who fans, or fans of Townshend’s solo work – or both. There’s enough in here to keep them interested, although, as usual, I was hoping to read a lot more about some of his best work – so the detail about some of the failed projects does become tiresome at times. You also want to find out about Townshend as a person. And, in this, the book is a resounding success. The author is very honest. He is not afraid to revisit times and incidents in his life that present him badly. And he delves into some very difficult territory – particularly his psycho-sexual life. The childhood trauma he recalls from his days with grandmother Denny haunted him for many years: “I suffered a deep sexual shame over my dealings with Denny,” he writes. He would come back to deal with it obliquely again and again in his music. The nine-minute ‘mini-opera’ “A Quick One, While He’s Away” (from the 1966 LP A Quick One) was his first musical stab at the problem. Listen to the leering introduction that is given to it in its later incarnation on the expanded edition of Live At Leeds (1970). Townshend also explored his problematic sexual-identity in the songs “I’m a Boy”, “Substitute”, and “Pictures of Lily”. In Who I Am, Pete says that fans in the early days often said he looked effeminate; and some thought he might be gay. He writes about homoerotic feelings and a couple of bisexual incidents. And then there is the infamous incident when he was arrested by London police, suspected of subscribing to child-pornography sites on the internet. Townshend explains the situation – it’s complicated, but convinces the reader that he is innocent of the charges against him.
For most of his run as the creative force behind The Who, Pete Townshend was an unhappy man. He writes that he was “a desperate man running away from the present”. He coped by being a workaholic - and an alcoholic and heavy drug-user, especially in the 70s and 80s. His angry, aggressive pose on stage was a fabrication. He was often actually a shrinking, introverted recluse. A thoughtful man, but one, he admits, who oscillated between the “polarities of my ego – the artistic grandiosity and the desperately low self-regard.” He acknowledges that his actions were often deranged and absurd – his compulsions complicated further by constant mood swings. For 20 years he led a life that was “desperate, chaotic, and increasingly fragmentary.” In some ways, if one compares him to his contemporaries, he is lucky to have survived. This is a fascinating book. Granted, it’s often not too pretty. Townshend comes across sometimes as a rather unlikable character – but ultimately he redeems himself by giving us a book that is honest, instructive and immensely readable.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Book Review: Charles Dickens 12 - "Little Dorrit"

Dickens portrait by Ary Scheffer (Nov. 1855)
Despite all of the success and adulation he continued to receive for his literary work and his public activities, and despite the personal satisfaction he got from his artistic growth as an increasingly serious novelist, Charles Dickens at this time was not a happy man. Something fundamental was gnawing at his gut. He felt trapped by his past – caught in a troubling vision of his life that kept coming back to haunt him. And he was growing ever more dissatisfied with his domestic situation – unhappy with his wife and bothered by constant problems with his children and his siblings.
Dickens had finished Hard Times in August, 1854. He took a year off before getting started on his next novel. During that year-long hiatus from serious writing, he continued with the same kinds of activities that he’d been involved with for the last few years: producing his weekly magazine, Household Words, planning amateur theatricals involving family and friends, doing public readings for charity, and making regular trips back-and-forth to France.
Dickens was back in England in December, 1854, from a holiday in France, in order to prepare for his second round of Christmas-time public readings, undertaken again to benefit several charities that he supported. The use of privately-organised foundations and institutions to support charitable enterprises was very important during the Victorian era, and most public figures engaged in activities designed to help the poor and disadvantaged. Dickens had inaugurated public readings from his books during the Christmas season of the previous year – and that first experience had been a resounding success. On December 19 of this year he did a performance in Reading for the Literary, Scientific and Mechanics Institution; two days later he was in Sherborne on behalf of the Literary Institute there; and, just after Christmas, he was up north in Bradford for the Temperance Educational Institution, doing a reading in front of 3,700 people at St. George’s Hall. Since these were all done during Christmas time, Dickens used A Christmas Carol for all three readings.
One innovation of this season’s readings was an invitation to the audience from Dickens to respond freely to his work – whether with tears of sorrow, or shouts of laughter. They should not feel inhibited by the formal situation, he told them. The audiences would erupt into applause when he made this announcement. And they certainly took him at his word, much to Dickens’s delight – he loved the immediacy of the feedback, and the readings became more dramatic and theatrical as time went on.

The brothers - William and Frederick Dorrit in the Marshalsea Prison yard
Also during December, Dickens was busy organising the annual Twelfth Night play for his family at their London home, Tavistock House. This year he produced a version of Fortunio and his Seven Gifted Servants a fairy-tale play written in 1843 by J. R. Planché. His friend, writer Wilkie Collins, participated as an actor in the performance. More amateur theatricals came in May, 1855. Dickens had just begun work on the first chapter of the new novel, but it wasn’t going well. He abruptly postponed further work on the book and threw his full effort into a new theatrical production – a sentimental melodrama written by his close-friend Wilkie Collins called The Lighthouse. Among the cast were some of his loyal accomplices: the playwright Mark Lemon, the artist Augustus Egg, and the play’s author, Wilkie Collins.
In the New Year of 1855, the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne visited England. He made note of the current critical opinions of Dickens that he read in the press. The general public may still have adored him – especially his lower-class and middle-class readers – but he was not to the taste of the literati. They generally preferred William Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair (1848). Blackwood’s Magazine pointed out sniffily that “it is the air and breath of middle-class respectability which fills the books of Mr. Dickens.” And the novelist Anthony Trollope – only three years younger than Dickens, but very early into his own writing career, at this time – dubbed him “Mr. Popular Sentiment”.

At the beginning of February, Dickens noticed that Gad’s Hill Place was for sale. This was the house that his father, John Dickens, had pointed out to Charles, when he was still a small boy. They had walked by the place together when the Dickens family were living nearby (close to Rochester). Dickens’s father had told Charles that it was the sort of reward that might come to a man of success. He had passed the place often during walks between Rochester and London – and always remembered what his father had said. He remarked to his colleague W. H. Wills – his editorial assistant on Household Words – that “the spot and the very house are literally ‘a dream of my childhood’.” He made some enquiries. It wasn’t actually a particularly impressive house – nowhere near as grand, for example, as his current London home at Tavistock House. It was what it stood for that fired his imagination. He made plans to visit and examine the house just three days after his initial enquiry.

Dickens's love in his late-teens, Maria Beadnell
But he got side-tracked from that plan by another dramatic memory of his past. Out of the blue he received a letter from Maria Beadnell – the young woman he had courted back in his late teens, when he was working as a parliamentary reporter. He had been infatuated by her, but she eventually rejected him. Dickens had been deeply humiliated by the rebuff – he thought it was caused primarily by his lack of social position. Maria’s letter was a message of fond reminiscence to her former suitor – now a famous author. Dickens was surprised – and strangely moved – by this unexpected communication. He described his response as a “softened emotion” caused by thoughts of his ardent youth – and a realisation that the wound she had caused him was now buried deep in the past. The more he thought about her, the more impassioned he became. He exchanged a couple of discreet messages with her from London. But soon he was back in Paris again, and from there he sent her a series of lengthier, and more intense, messages. It seems evident, in hindsight, that Dickens behaviour was driven by a deep unhappiness, an intense dissatisfaction with his wife Catherine. He arranged a clandestine meeting with Maria. As soon as they met, after so many years without seeing each other, all his romantic longing evaporated. The youthful beauty of Dickens’s memory was long gone. As Georgina, Dickens’s sister-in-law, bluntly put it later, “She had become very fat and quite commonplace.” As often happened with Dickens, the reality did not match his imaginative vision. He broke off contact with Maria as quickly as he could decently manage it. But only a few months later, Dickens revisited this disappointing experience by introducing a character into his new novel based on Maria Beadnell. Her name was Flora Finching; and she is depicted as an affected, loquacious, sentimental fool. Recalling his own disappointment, Dickens describes the very first encounter that his middle-aged protagonist, Arthur Clennam, has – after twenty-odd years – with  his former sweetheart, Flora: “Clennam’s eyes no sooner fell upon the subject of his old passion, than it shivered and broke to pieces.” Although he softens the portrait of Flora (Maria) later in the book, it is clear that the shock he felt about the discrepancy between his imagination and the reality pushed him to respond cruelly. He must have known she would read his latest book – especially after their recent rendezvous; but as was often the case with him, he only really cared about his own attitudes and needs. Given that, however, Dickens does make her one of the few positive characters in the book, and the reader cannot help delighting in many of her astonishing monologues.

Gad's Hill Place near Rochester (a photo of mine from a visit in 2009)

Later that year, in November 1855, Dickens decided to buy Gad’s Hill Place. He had finally seen it in detail a few months before. He paid £1,790 for it – paying by check on a Friday (his lucky day, he said). He thought of it initially as an investment – he planned to continue living in Tavistock House in London – and intended to rent it out.
Dickens had begun Little Dorrit in May, but when he found the going difficult, he put the work aside to concentrate on amateur theatricals. His friend and confidant, John Forster, thought that Dickens was experiencing “a drop in invention”; but the key problem, as usual, was finding a leading theme for the novel – what he called a “guiding idea”. And then he had it: a group of travellers would meet in the port of Marseilles, France; they are held in quarantine there for some time, and then move on to pursue their own lives. The story would show future connections amongst the travellers. Some of them are soon back in London. One of them meets Amy Dorrit, ‘Little Dorrit’, and discovers that she and her family live in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison.
But Dickens was still not sure exactly where this story was going. It certainly wasn’t as carefully planned out and structured as some of his more recent works. The second number of the serialised novel took him three months to complete. His work was interrupted further by his sitting for portraits by Paris-based artist Ary Scheffer and his brother Henri. [Ary’s portrait is featured at the beginning of this review]. Dickens sat for these portraits simultaneously during November. He found the whole process very tedious, and to top it off, as he wrote to John Forster, “I do not discern the slightest resemblance, either in his portrait [Ary’s] or his brother’s”. Finally, at the beginning of December, the first monthly issue of Little Dorrit was published. His publishers, Bradbury and Evans, mounted a big publicity campaign: they put up 4,000 posters around the city; and they printed an incredible 300,000 handbills! Dickens described the response to the first instalment as “a brilliant triumph”. The print run was increased for the next issue to 35,000 copies.

Wrapper of first instalment (Dec. 1855)
Little Dorrit was published, as usual, in nineteen monthly instalments (the last being a double-issue, sections XIX and XX) between December, 1855 and June, 1857. It was divided into two Books – “Poverty” and “Riches”. It was a neat division: the first half dealt with the Dorrits’ life cooped up in the Marshalsea Prison; the second followed their exploits after being release from the prison. This was Dickens’s fifth novel published by Bradbury and Evans – he had been with them now for just over a decade. The new book was illustrated, as usual, by Hablot Knight Browne (‘Phiz’). Each issue was priced at a shilling – except for the last, which, as a double issue, cost two shillings.

As was often the case with Dickens, certain topical events were picked up and used in his new novel. The satirical chapters aimed at government bureaucracy (the ‘Circumlocution Office’ represents HM Treasury) reflected his disgust with the appalling incompetence with which the government was running the Crimean War. Thousands of soldiers were dying of disease and malnutrition because of the lack of supplies, the lack of medical facilities, and the lack of clothing that could protect the troops from the extreme cold. He saw this calamity as another example of the failure of the system – exposing again the callous stupidity of the political aristocracy running the country. He hated Parliament; it was a glaring emblem of the current failure of representative government. Another contemporary event that caught his imagination was a dramatic bankruptcy that rocked the financial system in London. A prominent financier – John Sadleir – committed suicide near Jack Straw’s Tavern on Hampstead Heath, after a long series of financial improprieties. For Dickens, this incident was further proof of the corruption of the entire financial system. He introduced this theme into Little Dorrit in the figure of Mr. Merdle, a popular and socially-prominent financier, who – it turns out – is running a type of Ponzi-scheme.
Dickens’s constant trips back-and-forth to France (usually Paris and Boulogne) indicate his growing disenchantment with London. It was no longer his city. He would soon move permanently to Gad’s Hill Place in Kent. He noticed the physical ugliness of the city more and more. And he felt oppressed by the corruption he sensed at all levels of its society. Little Dorrit is a sustained attack against the current state of English society – its government, its legal system, its bureaucracy, its financial system, and its aristocracy. Dickens also seemed to be avoiding London because of a growing dissatisfaction with his wife Catherine. In May, 1856, for example, when he came back to England from yet another visit to France, he stayed for four days at the Ship Inn in Dover, rather than return immediately to the family home at Tavistock House. His wife’s family (the Hogarths) were staying there and he just didn’t want to deal with them. And in many ways it was Catherine’s sister, Georgina – who had come to live with the Dickens tribe in 1841 as a fifteen year-old, in order to help raise the children – who now ran the household, because of her sister’s physical frailty and diffident attitude.

Looking north at the original wall of the Marshalsea Prison (my photo from a 2012 visit)
The key symbol and dominant theme of Little Dorrit is the prison. The book’s opening chapter is set in a prison in Marseilles, with two characters (one French, one Italian) who quickly drop out of the story, only to return later on. Also in Marseilles are a group of travellers being held in quarantine. And, then, back in London we meet the Dorrit family, who have been living for twenty-odd years in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. Some characters are physically incarcerated. But there are many more characters in this book who have imprisoned themselves: they are constrained materially; they are trapped psychologically; they are restrained emotionally. They are invariably caught in a web of their own making.
And this theme of imprisonment surely reflects Dickens’s own life. He felt trapped in an increasingly unhappy marriage, and trapped in a life dominated by a whole host of family and professional obligations. He was also helplessly trapped in thoughts of the past – prompted especially by Maria Beadnell and Gad’s Hill Place. But were these memories a form of escape, or another kind of mental constraint? Two versions of the situation Dickens found himself in can be seen in the two innocent protagonists of the novel – Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam. Arthur is an unhappy middle-aged gentleman who feels that his life is already pretty much over. His emotional-life has been severely scarred by an unhappy childhood that was dominated by a cruel mother. He is a good man, but trapped by emotional constraint – still influenced by his mother’s tyrannical Calvinism. Arthur Clennam is something new in a Dickensian protagonist. Dickens’s ‘heroes’ are usually rather insipid ciphers; but Clennam is a more complicated man. He is self-critical and reflective – someone who has been buffeted by life, and who knows it. It’s hard not to see that this is Dickens pondering his own disappointments. And Clennam is the dominant point-of-view for the novel’s narrative arc. Amy Dorrit is also an innocent character. She may be imprisoned physically in the Marshalsea, but she is seemingly free of psychological and emotional damage. She represents a kind of perfect Christian religiosity – untouched by the degradation and corruption around her. If Arthur Clennam suggests Dickens’s own current, middle-aged plight, then Little Dorrit represents another ideal version of Dickens’s ‘innocent’ childhood. But, of course, he, unlike Amy, was deeply affected – fatally warped – by his brush with the debtors’ prison.

Northern wall of the Marshalsea  - all that's left of the entire prison (my photo from a visit in 2012)
At the time Dickens was writing Little Dorrit, the Marshalsea Prison had not been in operation for some thirteen years. It was closed in 1842 – all of the inmates were moved to other locations on November 19. Curiously, Dickens did not visit the site of the prison, located on the south side of the Thames in Southwark, whilst he was writing about it. He preferred to rely on his memories and his imagination. But just before the long novel was finished, he made a trip to the place on 5 May, 1857. In the Preface to the 1868 edition of the book, Dickens recalled that visit:
Some of my readers may have an interest in being informed whether or no any portions of the Marshalsea Prison are yet standing. I myself did not know, until I was approaching the end of this story, when I went to look. I found the outer front courtyard, often mentioned here, metamorphosed into a butter shop; and then I almost gave up every brick of the jail for lost. Wandering, however, down a certain adjacent "Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey," I came to "Marshalsea Place": the houses in which I recognized, not only as the great block of the former prison, but as preserving the rooms that arose in my mind's eye when I become Little Dorrit's biographer ... .
It’s instructive to consider William Dorrit, Little Dorrit’s father, another fictional portrait of John Dickens, Charles’s father. Charles had already created a fictional version of his father with Wilkins Micawber in David Copperfield. Micawber had been a delightful, loquacious, good-natured character – who, despite his continuously improvident ways, was defiant and optimistic in the face of his troubles. William Dorrit – the Father of the Marshalsea (thanks merely to his seniority in the place) – is a much less likeable and positive character. He is a dithering, obsequious man. He is anxious to uphold the dignity of his family, but when they attain their freedom, he becomes a snob and a spendthrift. In Amy’s relationship with her father, we have yet another Dickensian instance of a sweet, innocent daughter sacrificing herself on behalf of an ineffectual and emotionally-exploitative father, or grandfather.

Mrs. Clennam, Flintwich and Arthur Clennam
Little Dorrit is the second of Dickens’s late-career London trilogy. It is his so-called ‘dark period’, when his novelistic art turns away from the exuberant comedy of his earlier work and takes on a sadder, rather cynical hue. These three books are set in a capital that is not only physical ugly, but also rife with moral and institutional corruption. His earlier books were a lot more fun. He would revel in the grotesqueries and absurdities of his exaggerated characters, and usually end his novels with a sense of benign conciliation. Not any more. His later novels are much more structurally sound. They show a better connectedness between the characters and the plot. The humour is less playful now; it often has a sharp, satirical bite. Not many happily-ever-afters here, despite the obligatory wedding involving the two protagonists.
Dickens was a sad and troubled man. He was unleashing much of his anger and hatred with the way things were in this novel. Little Dorrit is full of negative figures that he depicts in a harsh and straightforward way. Many of the characters are pretentious snobs. Most of them are imprisoned by their class prejudices and their yearning to climb the social ladder. They lack an honest response to life – everything is contrived, everything is a scheme. In one heart-rending scene, William Dorrit even lectures his blameless and upright daughter, Amy, about her social inadequacy. She is the one family-member who has remained unsullied, loyal, and upright. Her father is now a horrible snob, living off money he never earned. He tells her that she needs to develop a “surface”; she needs to assume a persona, a front, a mask. She needs, he says, to develop a sense of pride that is commensurate with the family’s wealth and rank. She accepts the rebuke without a word.

Blandois and Cavalletto in Marseilles prison
There are things in this novel that don’t work. The character of Blandois (aka Rigaud, aka Lagnier) is a smooth-talking scoundrel – but there is too much of the melodramatic villain in him – the devil incarnate – to  make him credible. The premonitions and ominous dreams of Affery Flintwich, who works as maid in Mrs. Clennam’s house, are also rather over-the-top. Miss Wade, on the other hand, is a more interesting case. She has a cold-hearted indifference that grates – when it’s laid on thick it reminds us of the over-drawn drama of Edith Dombey. But her championing of the disaffected maid Harriet Beadle (‘Tattycoram’) implies a lesbian relationship, although Dickens doesn’t depict it as such. And what do we make of Mr. Meagles? He is a retired banker, full of Pickwick-like benevolence. But there is something too patronising about him, and his attitude doesn’t ring quite true.
But it is the character of Little Dorrit that raises the most questions. In some ways, she can be dismissed as a typically exaggerated Dickensian heroine – too sweet, too insipid, too unbelievable. And most modern readers would see her like that – a highly unreal figure. But, as Irving Howe argues in his introduction to the Everyman Library edition of the novel, Dickens is after something more than a realistic character. What Dickens is up to, he says, is to portray a figure of “perfect goodness”. He almost achieved that before in his portrait of Samuel Pickwick. But that was a more benign world. The world of Little Dorrit is full of pretense, deceit and corruption. Amy Dorrit, by contrast, is mild and selfless. Instead of seeing her as innocent because she is inexperienced, and sentimental because she lacks grit, see her as simply good. Her goodness, Howe suggests, is a state of being. And, as such, it is presented to the reader as a tremendous contrast to nearly everyone around her. She is an adult, but she seems so childlike. She is the ultimate Christian example of goodness, because there is no dogma, no institutional affiliation, no formulaic ethic. She is good by virtue of her love and compassion. And she stands alone - there is no appeasement between her and the world around her. So how do we react to a person like that?

The monthly issues of Little Dorrit continued to sell well throughout its run. By the end it was selling close to 30,000 copies. But the reaction of critics was not generally kind. It was treated pretty much as a failure – another step in the author’s sad decline. Some of the negative response was the result of irritation with Dickens’s politics; some of it was the typical phenomenon of knocking an idol off his perch; and some of it was sheer snobbishness – the literati still objecting to this hero of the middle and lower classes. Blackwood’s Magazine succinct review called it “twaddle”. Nothing new, then; Dickens’s later work was invariably given a cool reception.

Not from me, though! Little Dorrit is a fascinating read. This was my first time with the novel – as was my recent exposure to Bleak House. Despite the critical acclaim accorded to the latter book (many consider it Dickens’s best), I much preferred Little Dorrit. It’s more of a page-turner. The themes are more relevant. The writing is less complex and arch. And the protagonists are more interesting and gripping. I got the sense that Dickens, himself, was more fully involved with this story. He was working through some complex emotions – using his incredible imaginative power to deal with deeply difficult problems in his private life. Trying to escape the prison that continued to hold him.

Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit get married

[2012 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Lots of special events and activities are planned in England this year. Back in 2009, my good friend Tony Grant (in Wimbledon, UK) and I did a pilgrimage to three key Charles Dickens destinations - his birthplace in Portsmouth (the house is a Museum), the house he lived at on Doughty Street in London (now the chief Dickens' museum), and the town he lived in as a child on the north-coast of Kent (Rochester). 

These visits inspired me to begin reading through all Dickens's novels. By last summer I had done six, but stalled in the middle of Dombey and Son. I thought what I could do to mark this special year of Dickens was to start again, read through all of his novels inside the year, and blog about them. So this is the twelfth of a series.]

Next: A Tale of Two Cities

[Resources used: "Introduction" to Little Dorrit by Irving Howe (1992); "Introduction" to Little Dorrit by G. K. Chesterton (1907); Dickens by Peter Ackroyd (1990); "Portraits of Charles Dickens (1812-1870)", an excellent web-page collection of Dickens pictures.  Dickens Portraits ]