MONTHLY BLOG 108, Why must Humans beware the Midas Touch?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)





BY LAURA TURNER (2010; updated 2019)

Viewed at Palace Theatre, Appleton Gate, Newark NG24 1JY

16 November 2019

Cast (alphabetically): The Chapterhouse Touring Company –

Gareth Cary; Matthew Christmas; Eliza Jade; Graham Hill; Alexandra Lansdale;

Amy Llewellyn; Zachery Price

Director: Antony Law

‘Bah! Humbug!’ With those great words, Scrooge launches an evening of festive entertainment and a ripple of appreciation spreads through the audience. The central theme is set. When is it right to be frank, forthright and unsentimental? To speak the truth as one sees it. But when does such behaviour become surly, selfish and inhumane? Dismissing genuine concerns as simply sentimental and confected? There is a special resonance to such questions right now since an election campaign is in train when the Prime Minister seeking re-election has dismissed concerns about personal safety and the coarsened state of public discourse, as emotionally expressed by a female MP, as ‘Humbug!’

On stage, the youthful cast of seven actors throw themselves energetically into recreating the bustling life of mid-nineteenth-century London. All but one play multiple roles, including the ghost of Scrooge’s former partner Jacob Marley. Their parts are rather stereotyped; but they make an effective ensemble, under the skilful stage direction of Antony Law.

One character, however, has to undergo moral growth and change from being an old skinflint into a sentient, feeling human being. He is Ebenezer Scrooge, as played by Matthew Christmas, who is visibly youthful and good-looking. Does that matter? Surely not, Acting is make-believe. If Sarah Bernhardt in her 70s, with a wooden leg, could make audiences cry when she played Hamlet, then a young actor can play an old man, or woman, come to that. Christmas was stern and inflexible enough as Scrooge in the opening scenes; but perhaps he needed to convey a bit more thoroughly that Scrooge had spent an entire, dreary lifetime in amassing money, and in doing nothing but that. His avarice should be imprinted in his visage. Anyhow, once Scrooge began to soften, Christmas played the role very well. His look of initial surprise at himself when returning to the world of emotions was excellent.

The outcome of the story as a whole, as Dickens had intended, is heart-warming. There is a danger that scenes involving ghosts (four appear during the play) can be unintentionally risible. This production avoided that outcome, by playing everything to the hilt, with full intensity. There is another danger that scenes involving youthful death – in this case the demise of the handicapped but perennially cheerful Tiny Tim – can become too sentimentalised and, as a result, also unintentionally comic. No danger in this production. The actors switched immediately into a clear and still rendering of an appropriate Christmas carol, unaccompanied. It was very moving. Indeed, they sang a number of carols throughout the play, underpinning the theme of festive cheer. What a bonus to find a troupe of good actors, all with excellent singing voices.

So what does the story of A Christmas Carol mean? In one sense, Dickens’s moral is clear and simple. People should care for their fellow humans. Heartless austerity is indeed heartless. Individuals should give personal help willingly, not just for the benefit of those in want but also because caring for others is a means of unlocking one’s own heart, which otherwise would remain frozen. To be complete, a human has to be part of society. Not necessarily married or dwelling within a group. But emphatically not living in chill segregation from others.

At the same time, there is a hidden power within the story in the lure of money. Dickens is well aware that it’s not just love which makes the world go round. Money provides the basic means of subsistence but can also effect so much more. It constitutes a great source of social status and esteem, as well as confers the economic power of capital. Scrooge is an old skinflint. But he is also a respectable pillar of society and an employer, with the potential to give great happiness to others. Moreover, Scrooge’s diligence and his application are admirable qualities. Dickens is not encouraging people to live idly or without employment. Nor is he trying to envisage a different structure for society. He campaigned for reforms (for example, to the prison system), not revolutionary change.  Unlike (say) his contemporaries Robert Owen or Karl Marx, Charles Dickens is not a visionary with alternative communitarian economic models in mind.

Instead, his challenge to the world is to re-infuse everyday transactions with moral values. People must work for money but not love it too much. Gold can corrode the heart, as in the classic tale of King Midas. If everything within touching range turns to gold, then nothing is left to eat and drink. Other people too become lifeless, as King Midas killed his little daughter with a touch. Scrooge has, through his lifestyle, destroyed his own heart and feelings. He is outwardly rich and powerful, but innerly tragic.

Capping the accumulation of immense wealth and undertaking a degree of social redistribution can thus be advocated as a moral as well as a political good cause for democratic societies to undertake. The sort of economic policies that the very rich deride as the ‘politics of envy’. They certainly won’t like to hear that they must redeploy some of their wealth for their own good, as well as for the good of others. They will join Scrooge with further reiterations of ‘Bah! Humbug!’ So how are attitudes to change? It’s not enough to rely upon fictional Dickensian ghosts to create a moral awakening across society at large.

Is it being too fanciful to consider that climate change will bring about a fundamental change? In a sense, unprecedented floods, storms, heatwaves, fires and rising seas are signs from Planet Earth that humans are at risk of behaving like a collective King Midas: destroying with their touch the very things that they love the most. These thoughts are perhaps straying too far from the evening of collective good cheer provided by the youthful payers on stage in Newark. They indicate, however, that Dickens’s fable – and Laura Turner’s dramatisation of its scenes of moral redemption – are genuinely thought-provoking. Don’t love money too much! Great wealth is a curse! Make friendships! Save Planet Earth! And enjoy the midwinter festival!

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If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

A growing number of historians, myself included, want students to study long-term narratives as well in-depth courses.1 More on (say) the peopling of Britain since Celtic times alongside (say) life in Roman Britain or (say) medicine in Victorian times or (say) the ordinary soldier’s experiences in the trenches of World War I. We do in-depth courses very well. But long-term studies are also vital to provide frameworks.2

Put into more abstract terms, we need more diachronic (long-term) analysis, alongside synchronic (short-term) immersion. These approaches, furthermore, do not have to be diametrically opposed. Courses, like books, can do both.

That was my aim in an undergraduate programme, devised at Royal Holloway, London University.3  It studied the long and the short of one specific period. The choice fell upon early nineteenth-century British history, because it’s well documented and relatively near in time. In that way, the diachronic aftermath is not too lengthy for students to assess within a finite course of study.

Integral to the course requirements were two long essays, both on the same topic X. There were no restrictions, other than analytical feasiblity. X could be a real person; a fictional or semi-fictionalised person (like Dick Turpin);4  an event; a place; or anything that lends itself to both synchronic and diachronic analysis. Students chose their own, with advice as required. One essay of the pair then focused upon X’s reputation in his/her/its own day; the other upon X’s long-term impact/reputation in subsequent years.

There was also an examination attached to the course. One section of the paper contained traditional exam questions; the second just one compulsory question on the chosen topic X. Setting that proved a good challenge for the tutor, thinking of ways to compare and contrast short- and long-term reputations. And of course, the compulsory question could not allow a simple regurgitation of the coursework essays; and it had to be equally answerable by all candidates.

Most students decided to examine famous individuals, both worthies and unworthies: Beau Brummell; Mad Jack Mytton; Queen Caroline; Charles Dickens; Sir Robert Peel; Earl Grey; the Duke of Wellington; Harriette Wilson; Lord Byron; Mary Shelley; Ada Lovelace; Charles Darwin; Harriet Martineau; Robert Stephenson; Michael Faraday; Augustus Pugin; Elizabeth Gaskell; Thomas Arnold; Mary Seacole; to name only a few. Leading politicians and literary figures tended to be the first choices. A recent book shows what can be done in the case of the risen (and rising still further) star of Jane Austen.5 In addition, a minority preferred big events, such as the Battle of Waterloo; or the Great Exhibition. None in fact chose a place or building; but it could be done, provided the focus is kept sharp (the Palace of Westminster, not ‘London’.)

Studying contemporary reputations encouraged a focus upon newspaper reports, pamphlets, letters, public commemorations, and so forth. In general, students assumed that synchronic reputation would be comparatively easy to research. Yet they were often surprised to find that initial responses to X were confused. It takes time for reputations to become fixed. In particular, where the personage X had a long life, there might well be significant fluctuations during his or her lifetime. The radical John Thelwall, for example, was notorious in 1794, when on trial for high treason, yet largely forgotten at his death in 1834. 6

By contrast, students often began by feeling fussed and unhappy about studying X’s diachronic reputation. There were no immediate textbooks to offer guidance. Nonetheless, they often found that studying long-term changes was good fun, because more off-the-wall. The web is particularly helpful, as wikipedia often lists references to X in film(s), TV, literature, song(s) and popular culture. Of course, all wiki-leads need to be double-checked. There are plenty of errors and omissions out there.

Nonetheless, for someone wishing to study the long-term reputation of (say) Beau Brummell (1778-1840), wikipedia offers extensive leads, providing many references to Brummell in art, literature, song, film, and sundry stylistic products making use of his name, as well as a bibliography. 7

Beau Brummell (1778-1840) from L to R: as seen in his own day; as subject of enquiry for Virginia Woolf (1882-1941); and as portrayed by Stewart Granger in Curtis Bernhardt’s film (1954).Plus it is crucial to go beyond wikipedia. For example, a search for relevant publications would reveal an unlisted offering. In 1925, Virginia Woolf, no less, published a short tract on Beau Brummell.8 The student is thus challenged to explore what the Bloomsbury intellectual found of interest in the Regency Dandy. Of course, the tutor/ examiner also has to do some basic checks, to ensure that candidates don’t miss the obvious. On the other hand, surprise finds, unanticipated by all parties, proved part of the intellectual fun.

Lastly, the exercise encourages reflections upon posthumous reputations. People in the performing arts and sports, politicians, journalists, celebrities, military men, and notorious criminals are strong candidates for contemporary fame followed by subsequent oblivion, unless rescued by some special factor. In the case of the minor horse-thief Dick Turpin, he was catapulted from conflicted memory in the eighteenth century into dashing highwayman by the novel Rookwood (1834). That fictional boost gave his romantic myth another 100 years before starting to fade again.

Conversely, a tiny minority can go from obscurity in their lifetime to later global renown. But it depends crucially upon their achievements being transmissable to successive generations. The artist and poet William Blake (1757-1827) is a rare and cherished example. Students working on the long-and-the-short of the early nineteenth century were challenged to find another contemporary with such a dramatic posthumous trajectory. They couldn’t.

But they and I enjoyed the quest and discovery of unlikely reactions, like Virginia Woolf dallying with Beau Brummell. It provided a new way of thinking about the long-term – not just in terms of grand trends (‘progress’; ‘economic stages’) but by way of cultural borrowings and transmutations between generations. When and why? There are trends but no infallible rules.

1 ‘Teaching History’s Big Pictures: Including Continuity as well as Change’, Teaching History: Journal of the Historical Association, 136 (Sept. 2009), pp. 53-9; and PJC website Pdf/3.

2 My own answers in P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007).

3 RH History Course HS2246: From Rakes to Respectability? Conflict and Consensus in Britain 1815-51 (content now modified).

4 Well shown by J. Sharpe, Dick Turpin: The Myth of the Highwayman (London, 2004).

5 C. Harman, Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (Edinburgh, 2009).

6 Two PJC essays on John Thelwall (1764-1834) are available in PJC website, Pdf/14 and Pdf/22.

7 See

8 See V. Woolf, Beau Brummell (1925; reissued by Folcroft Library, 1972); and

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If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

You’re suffering from writer’s block? A common ailment. What to do?? The first and best answer is: don’t hit the bottle. It’s only too true that alcohol makes you think that things are going better (at least for a while) whilst concealing the fact that things are getting much worse. Eventually, you become so stalled that there’s no way out, other than a bleak confession of failure.

The prototype is Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up (1936).1  Beautifully written but  painful reading for all his admirers. Many famous writers have gone down this alcoholic route, almost invariably with disastrous results.2  On the other hand, recent research suggests that moderate amounts of booze for those who are not habitually heavy drinkers may unleash creativity and lateral thinking (at least when solving questions about word-associations).3  Great. Have your bright ideas with an alcohol buzz in your spare time. But be warned. Don’t sit down to unblock your history-writing, which requires concentrated reasoning over a good span of time, with a glass and bottle at hand.

october007Next bit of advice is to stand back from the blocked task and ask yourself: do you really want to do it? (Of course, this question may be resolved if the answer is that you have to undertake whatever writing is involved – say, to complete a course or to gain a qualification. In that case, skip this paragraph). Writer’s block is sometimes a deep auto-message to say that you should be doing something else. When I am advising friends on coping with this problem, I often start by giving them permission to drop the task entirely. A small but far from negligible percentage respond with sighs of relief. Their brows clear; they find a civil way to terminate their writing commitments; maybe they publish what they have done already; and then they do something else, often very enthusiastically, tapping into lots of thwarted energy.

But that’s not the case for everyone. Many want to complete the task but can’t find the time, space, self-organisation, or inspiration to proceed.  It’s not a good state of mind to inhabit for any length of time, since it’s often linked with vexation, self-chiding, and various degrees of despair. Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote two brilliant books of a trilogy, agonised for years over his prolonged failure to produce the missing third volume.4  Blocked writers particularly wince when innocent bystanders ask cheerfully: how’s the writing going – why isn’t it done yet? So the following comments are addressed to those who, when given permission to drop the writing, respond with irritation that they do really want to do the task but can’t even bear talking about why it’s not getting done.

I’ve been in that situation myself – fortunately, not often but enough times to know what a mental closed-circuit can result. One method that helped me was the technique of writing freely, in unstructured prose, a private memo to myself about the problem in a stream of consciousness, or Streamo, as I call it. No-one else need ever see this screed. It’s good to start simply by trying to work out for oneself: what is particularly troublesome about this assignment? Is it XXX? No, not really. What about the problem of YYY? or ZZZ? Perhaps, yes; perhaps, no. Writing as fast as possible. Musing to oneself. Not worrying if sentences aren’t perfectly grammatical. It can often take a long time, circling around, dredging thoughts from deep within, trying to pinpoint what factor or factors are causing the block.

Once I had stalled because I’d reached a tricky question, whose answer I couldn’t resolve. There was a genuine intellectual point at issue. The problem was that there was not one simple response but a plethora of interconnected ones. After lots of scribbling, I realised that I was worrying wrongly about the lack of one striking answer. Instead I could offer many. With a sigh of relief, I deleted all my scribbles. In the blocked chapter that I was writing, I inserted a new sentence, saying something banal like: ‘This is a complex problem, for which there is not one simple answer’. After that, bingo, my prose flowed again. Sometimes I smile when re-reading that text, to think of all the grief it caused me. But it had value. The technique of Streaming is not only useful for unblocking but also for planning new projects. So my Streamos, which I mainly delete once projects are launched, are not as substantial as first drafts but rather constitute first drafts of inspiration. They are useful as mechanisms to coalesce disparate strands of thought. Try writing one as fast as possible, preferably on-line, and see if it helps you.

(Solo meditation, for intellectual blockage, tends to be more useful, in my view, than the talking cure, which often works well in other circumstances. Vocalising writer’s block as a ‘problem’ risks giving it an unwelcome life of its own. It invites thoughts of the renowned grand projects which remain forever anticipated but forever postponed.5 )

Actual history writing, of course, moves much more slowly than the fast and furious pace of memos to oneself. So it’s important also to think about the long-term context of regular writing. Obvious things like: get a desk or working area and, ideally too, a room,6  where you are happy to spend a lot of time; find lighting that focuses a concentrated pool of light on your working areas; try ear-plugs for heightened concentration; institute good filing and storage arrangements for notes, drafts etc.; and of course implement a rigorous back-up system after every batch of writing; plus find a goodish span of time to write, on each occasion (less than two hours is unproductive); and a personal start-ritual.

Different writers have their own preferences. The prolific Charles Dickens used to patrol his house, checking that everything was in order, and then arrange the items on his desk in a specific order, before sitting down to write. Each to his/her own. Many make do these days with the sequenced rituals of switching on computers, ipads etc. But find your own preferences; stick to your sequences; and don’t open email during writing stints.

What else? Another very important way of keeping the flow of writing going is to undertake regular exercise of the repetitive kind. Swimming, riding, running, walking, yoga, these are all good. The subconscious mind can work on problems, in a non-linear way, whilst the body is absorbed in such activities. And the fresh air is an ideal antidote to the confinement of sitting for long hours at a desk, gazing into a screen. Dickens was also a great walker. But again, it’s really a case of each to his/ her own. If your preference is for an explosive sport, then go for that. Exercise of any kind is much better than nothing. But repetitive and rhythmic exercises (avoiding the obvious innuendoes here) are particularly good for unblocking, especially if sustained for at least half an hour – daily.

Lastly, to write history, you need not only something to say but also good and relevant evidence to intermesh with your analysis. That means a whole lifestyle choice. You have to do the research as well as find time to write. It’s a wonderful thing, if you have the will, the interest, and a subject that enthrals you. If you have these things, then go for it but keep running/ riding/ swimming/ regularly alongside the scholarship, and scribbling a Streamo whenever you have an intellctual problem to solve. These methods  will unblock a block, if you have one; or, better still, prevent it from forming in the first place.

Burning Bush, Winkworth Arboretum © Antony Belton, 20131 F.S. Fitzgerald, The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vol. 2: The Crack-Up with Other Pieces and Stories (Harmondsworth, 1965), pp. 39-56.

2 See e.g. D.W. Goodwin, Alcohol and the Writer (Kansas City, 1988).

3 A.F. Jarosz and others, ‘Uncorking the Muse: Alcohol Intoxication Facilitates Creative Problem Solving’, Consciousness and Cognition, 21 (2012), pp. 487-93. c

4 Published posthumously from his notebooks: see P.L. Fermor, The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, ed. C. Thubron and A. Cooper (London, 2013), following A Time of Gifts (London, 1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (London, 1986).

5 The most celebrated fictional example remains Dr Casaubon’s ‘Key to all the Mythologies’ in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871/2); and a real-life case was Lord Acton’s projected ‘History of Liberty’, two chapters being published posthumously in J.E.E. Dalberg-Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays, ed. J.N. Figgis and R.V. Laurence (London, 1907).

6 See inevitably V. Woolf, A Room of One’s Own: An Essay on Women in Relation to Literature (London, 1929).

7 For creativity and work routines, see M. Currey, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (New York, 2013) – even if in reality there may be variations from day to day.

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