Tag Archives: Charles Dickens



My first job, when I left school aged 17, was with  a firm of lawyers who came straight out of a Charles Dickens novel:  Calderwood, Bryce Hendrie, Smith & Abercrombie.  The year may have been 1959, the town may have been Bulawayo, the country may have been Rhodesia but the atmosphere was definitely mid-Victorian.  We had to wear stockings to the office, and only dresses or skirt and blouse; trousers?  No, no, no! Not permitted.

I was hired as a Junior Shorthand Typist. The typewriters were manual Underwoods, weighed a ton, and left your fingers sore at day’s end from pounding those keys.    Typex hadn’t been invented, neither had the photocopier – it was carbon paper copies and no erasures allowed!


If a Senior Staff member passed you in the corridor you were expected to flatten yourself against the wall and wait until they had swept past.

Every Thursday the entire office received cake at tea-time, Mr Bryce-Hendrie having left a specific bequest in his Will with the proviso that  his favourite, Fly Cemetry slices from Downings Bakery , be served. In case you’re wondering about the disgusting name, the cake consists of a hard biscuit top and bottom with a sticky mixture of minced cake fruit sandwiching the two together. Very more-ish, despite the awful popular name.

Because I was a bright little button they decided to shift me from the Debt Collections Dept and teach me the glories of Property Conveyancing .  Debt collection might have been squalid, but at least it wasn’t boring.  Conveyancing, I soon discovered, was stultifyingly boring.  So after six months of hard labour, for the princely sum of Seventeen Pounds per month (approx ZAR34-00 : can you believe it, & on this I paid rent at the Girls’ Hostel, as well as daily running costs i.e. cigarettes, toiletries etc ). I left this Dickensian style salt-mine  – freedom at last! but it was short-lived, my next job was in the office of a textile weaving mill: deafeningly noisy, underpaid, and baffling  – terrible working conditions – I lasted two months there. The only bright spot was a devastatingly handsome Portuguese factory Manager who gave me lessons in Portuguese; confined alas to the language, because he had a fierce, buxom Portuguese girlfriend . My Portuguese never progressed much beyond polite greetings, plus a scattering of words which I already  knew  from one of Nyasaland’s native languages, Chinyanja, which I spoke fluently in those years. So I knew useful things like the Portuguese words for hat and shoes, but not much else.

As you can see, my entry into the workplace was varied, un-enjoyable, and driven by economic necessity. Pretty much the story of the remainder of my working life, I regret to say. Job satisfaction and career didn’t feature much in my working life, but keeping a roof over my head and food on the table was Numero Uno for many years. I assume there’s a moral in it somewhere – darned if I know what it might have been!






Sometimes events have unexpected side effects.  For instance: I recently had my house re-carpeted. This meant I had to pack away all loose items, my collection of cat memorabilia, and oh woe – the bookshelves. The Carpet Man took one look at the overloaded shelves, shook his head, and said We can’t move those – too heavy. You’ll have to pack them away and then we’ll move the empty bookcases. Fair enough – I knew how heavy they were. Amazing how sheets of paper within cardboard covers have such a cumulative dead weight. But they do.

So: Clement came into my life. His day job is working for the window cleaners who come once a month to clean my windows (note: I don’t wash windows or cars; I’m too short to reach. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.I engaged him to come and help pack the books. He’s a skinny little Malawian, who works all the hours/days that he can, in order to send money back to his family in Malawi; speaks beautiful English and works with vigour. In a couple of hours the job was done, the boxes stored in the spare bedroom, and every flat surface covered in towering stacks of books. We ran out of boxes, so we got on to Plan B. Just love Plan B.  I noticed Clement eyeing the books with interest, and offered to lend him a novel, which he took with alacrity.

New carpeting duly installed, I arranged for Clement to help unpack the books, which we speedily did. We pretty much just shoved them into shelves, and left it at that. Since then I have had a delightful time re-arranging them into themed shelves –  novels, travel, poetry, cookery books (I discovered a brand new Jamie Oliver which I don’t appear to have even opened let alone read or cooked from; I have a vague memory that I won the book in a competition). My Tarot books have been packed into suitcases and banished under the spare room bed. Right now I’m not in the mood.

My Buddhist books have returned to their previous shelf in the bedroom. I’ve made a mammoth pile of fat, oversized books and stacked them on top of the case, behind the bedroom door. What’s there? Dombey & Son  (I keep meaning to …) . The Gary Snyder Reader (wilderness, eco-Buddhism) Shantaram , Collected Short Stories of the World – 2 vols,  IQ84 ( a Murakami triumph) The Collected Saki  (that bitter twisted wit) a Georgette Heyer Omnibus (comfort reading when I’m in bed with ‘flu) The Alexandria Quartet (I really DO want to re-read this). And so on. I tend to be put off by very thick books, but usually enjoy myself once I pluck up the courage. A good case in point is The Swan Thieves  by Elizabeth Kostova, a historical mystery/romance, featuring the French Impressionists – I couldn’t put it down, and read ‘til I was cross-eyed.

I chucked more books into the Diabetes SA Donations Box. They’ve done well out of my recent housekeeping efforts. The comic novels I dusted off and stacked together. I have a weakness for them, for which I make no apology. We all need to laugh a great deal more often.

Then there was a big, dusty pile of magazines with the word ‘KEEP’ scrawled on the covers. Sorting through those I came upon a trove of The Lady .  I paged through one after breakfast this morning, and enjoyed the wide variety of articles that are seldom found in other mags, which tend to focus on health, beauty and self-improvement. At one point I subscribed to The Lady, because I so enjoyed the cosy time-warp feel and look of the mag, it was like being back in the late 50s to mid 60s. And then the mag appointed a new, young, hot-shot MALE editor (big mistake!) who revamped the format and image, gave it a bright new look and turned it into a facsimile of every other magazine on the market, missing the point entirely. The whole point aboutThe Lady  was the fact that it wasn’t trendy, that it had a lot of black and white pics and illustrations, that it was old-fashioned.  So I cancelled my sub and went off in a huff. As a wise man I know often says, in his Tennessee twang: “If it ain’t broke, don’t tinker with it.”  Too right.




Did you know:  the most stolen book in Exclusive Books stores is the Bible?  EB have revealed that the most popular genres for light-fingered customers are religion, mind & body, business & self help.( Thanks to the Mercury Newspaper for this snippet). Bookworm comment –  surprise, surprise; I suppose lavish photographic books in coffee table format filled with exciting nudes are too big to cram into one’s backpack. Or is it a sign of the age ? we’re all earnestly trying to improve ourselves?

Did you know: The largest bookshop in the world is Barnes & Noble, NYC.  It has 20.71 km of shelving and covers an area 14 330  sq metres. (Thanks to the Mercury Newspaper for this snippet). Bookworm comment – I’m quite surprised; I would have thought Kinokunia, in Sydney, (my favourite bookstore in the whole world) might have claim to this title. I have lustful dreams about Kinokunia, Sydney. 

Waiting for the book Harry Potter and the Deat...

Waiting for the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in a californian bookshop (Borders, Sunnyvale), 5 minutes before the book’s official publication (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Did you know: The fastest selling book of fiction in 24 hours is Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows  by JK Rowling with 8.3 million copies or 345 833 an hour (July 21, 2007). (Thanks to the Mercury Newspaper for this snippet). Bookworm comment – how I wish HP were my creation ; apart from the fame there’s all that lovely  money …. I’m not too sure who’s currently on the Richest Women in the World List (apart from HM, the Queen) but JK Rowling must be on that list somewhere.

Did you know: A new book is published every 15 minutes in America. (Thanks to the Mercury Newspaper for this snippet). Bookworm comment – somehow this  statistic depresses me dreadfully.

English: Detail from photographic portrait of ...

English: Detail from photographic portrait of Charles Dickens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Did you know: The first novel ever written on a typewriter was Tom Sawyer. (Thanks to the Mercury Newspaper for this snippet). Bookworm comment – Who would have thought that good ole’ Mark Twain, he of the luxuriant hair & mustachios, was a technological ground-breaker in 1876? One hundred and fifteen years ago at time of writing.  I wonder which book will have the sad fame of being the last book ever to appear in printed form on paper, in years to come?

Did you know: Charles Dickens had to face north before he wrote anything. Thanks to the Mercury Newspaper for this snippet). Bookworm comment – ag shame! But still, he wrote reams, and we all have our own little foibles, don’t we?

"Lev Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana", 19...

“Lev Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana”, 1908, the first color photo portrait in Russia Français : « Léon Tolstoï à Iasnaïa Poliana », 1908, le premier portrait photographique en couleur en Russie. Suomi: “Leo Tolstoi Jasnaja Poljanassa”, 1908. Ensimmäinen Venäjällä otettu värimuotokuva. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Did you know:  It took Leo Tolstoy six years to write War & Peace. His wife had to copy the manuscript seven times, by hand . (Thanks to the Mercury Newspaper for this snippet). Bookworm comment – Mrs Tolstoy deserves a medal, at the very least, but who gets the fame & acclaim? No prize for the answer.




D is for:,  Desert Island books, Diaries,  Dickens,  Dictionaries, Dirty Books 

Desert Island books: Remember the old radio show Desert Island Discs? I think there was a book version too. The very idea of having to choose only one book to last me for who knows how many weeks? months? years ? (I mean, look at Robinson Crusoe!) fills me with angst. What to take? Something huge and voluminous (and probably dull) to last for ages? Like Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell, for instance (weighing in at 800+ pages), or The Museum of Innocence (728 pages), or maybe Shantaram (934 pages;at least they were entertaining pages, on the whole).Then there’s the Collected Works of Wm Shakespeare. No, I think not. Maybe an omnibus edition of a good crime writer?  But what do you do when you’ve read it once and know whodunnit?  Perhaps a bumper book of The Times Crosswords? No, no, I’ve got it: now’s the chance to tackle something you’ve always meant to do/wanted to do, and never found the time. So how about Teach yourself Mandarin?   Or Trigonometry for Beginners ?  AAArrgggh! It’s all too much. Time for a cold shower and a lie down.


Diaries:  Does anybody still keep a diary, I wonder?  Time was when everybody of any consequence was a diarist, ranging from Winston Churchill to Noel Coward. I have on my bookshelf The Assassin’s Cloak , edited by Irene & Alan Taylor, a fascinating day by day selection of entries from the famous & notorious. Entries for 1 January include the entries of Samuel Pepys, James Boswell, Sir Walter Scott, Adrian Mole (!),and  Katherine Mansfield who writes pettishly: what a vile little diary! But I am determined to keep it this year. We can all identify with Katherine M, I’m sure. I know nowadays people are journaling, blogging and tweeting the minutiae of their lives. But I do notice that the stationers and booksellers still offer diaries for sale, ranging from nice My Barbie pink diaries to solemn, leather-covered, devotional day by day diaries. Time will tell.

Dickens:  Hands up anybody who has read a Dickens novel that wasn’t a school set-book? Yes. I thought so. The only person voluntarily reading Dickens seems to be British novelist Nick Hornby, who admits to a passion for Dickens. I keep buying Dickens novels on charity book sales, because I’ve always meant  to read Nicholas Nickleby or Dombey & Son and duly influenced by Nick Hornby’s recommendations, I add the tomes to my To Be Read Pile. Where they remain. Luckily tucked away in a cupboard, so at least they are not gathering dust.

Dictionaries:  During a clear-out when elderly friends moved to a retirement home, I inherited their Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in two volumes. And mightily useful it has been. The onionskin paper, the dense, tiny black type, the cut-out alphabetic index heading up each section is exactly what a dictionary ought to be. I’m not comfortable with on-line dictionaries, crammed full of peculiar American spelling. As Churchill dryly observed “The English and the Americans have everything in common, barring the English language.”

Dirty Books :  No, not that sort of dirty book, although I must confess to discovering my father’s hidden copy of Peyton Place, and devouring the rude bits, which – in light of today’s fiction – was milk & cookies tame … but not for the early 50’s, it wasn’t. No, I mean books that are physically dirty. Like a recent library book: one of TV star, Dr Phil’s books, which was so dirty that after about 6 pages I closed it, and washed my hands with Dettol, picked the book up with my braai-tongs, popped it into a plastic bag and returned it to the Library, before I got infected with some awful disease –  cholera, or typhoid, or rabies, or something.  That library book had not only been thoroughly read, finger-licking page after page, but the plastic cover was sticky and grimy, the pages were creased with wear and tear, and stained and gritty. Ugghhh.


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