Dickens Walks The Streets of London

Perhaps the greatest ballad singer of the last century, Liam Clancy’s rendition of The Streets of London remains his most popular song. Originally written by Ralph McTell, the song has been covered by many different artists. Each are echoes of the same universal sorrows every person fears to wade through. The Streets of London, like any great poetry, brings this fundamentally human experience to life. How then does it yield a sort of transcendence? Simply spoken, it warns of the dangers and pitfalls of life in a way as powerful as any literature. It highlights our privileges, exposes our fears, and knocks us back into reality with a greater understanding of ourselves. It’s a bit like the old saying, “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” Mirroring this, the chorus goes as follows:

And then how can you tell me you’re lonely

Or say that for you the sun won’t shine?

Let me take you by the hand and

Lead you through the streets of London

I will show you something to make you change your mind.

The chorus welcomes the reader into the story, and figuratively taken by the hand, we are led through portraits of people embodying the many dimensions of sadness. In a way, the speaker feels like a gentler version of Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, guiding us through a gloomy vision, foreshadowing what we fear to eventually be.

Following this comparison, it’s fitting that each portrait tells the story of someone weathered into age. McTell’s first image poignantly portrays an old man who has lost his purpose in life; a man who has become as valued as the outdated newspaper he holds. His second is of an old woman, “Carrying her home in two carrier bags,” too long adrift to engage with the world around her. His third portrait plays like a still life image.

In the all night cafe at quarter past eleven

Same old man sitting there on his own.

Looking at the world over the rim of his teacup.

Each tea lasts an hour and he wanders home alone.

McTell’s language describes a life lived over and over again, each day the same as the last, and each ending just as lonely. His final portrait hints at the end these people will meet.

Have you seen the old man outside the seaman’s mission,

his memory fading like the ribbons that he wears?

And in this winter city the rain cries a little pity

for one more forgotten hero in a world that doesn’t care.

Tragically, this last old man forgets himself in a world that has already forgotten him.

By this point, our Dickens ghost has shown us who we may fear to become, but also who we are not yet. Like Scrooge’s grave, a grim future where we find ourselves purposeless, impoverished, forgotten and alone is possible, and like Tiny Tim’s grave, it may also happen to others. This may be frightening, but it is also comforting. We, like Scrooge, are still endowed with the time and power to make our own decisions, shape the course of our lives, and ultimately lead it somewhere better. Likewise, we must also feel pity for Tiny Tim. The broken people around us are really not much different from ourselves, and we could easily become them. Consider, is it not a triumph of literature that Dickens could reveal these truths to us? It is the same with this song. It’s The Streets of London‘s ability to convey this message in much fewer words that earns it its distinction as poetry. Yes, McTell’s lines rhyme with rhythm. His stanzas realize themselves in repetition. But it is his ability to resonate so soundly with something profoundly human, to uplift and restore fragile spirits, that makes this song a timeless masterpiece.

The Myth of The Other: An American Tradition

From its earliest stirrings to the present day, The United States has continued to construct itself on the foundation of maliciously mythologized others. The first writers of the American story saw fit to demonize the “Indians,” painting them as savages and uncivilized, conveniently lending settlers the right to take their land. Today, not much has changed. Now the other is in the Middle East, labeled a terrorist in a third world country, and just as conveniently paves the way for America to take their oil.

It is obvious that these stories are born out of greed. A greed that begs for moral justifications. But how does a country create a myth of the other? The ingredients are age old.

The first ingredient is fear. This fear can come in many forms, usually entailing some kind of loss. Loss of culture, loss of stability, loss of jobs. Other times, it comes as the fear of violence. Ironically, slave holders used their fear of slaves to justify their slavery, and yet this group of “others” were the foundation of the southern economy. In the lead up to the Iraq War, this same fear of violence, or nonexistent WMD’s, was used to manipulate the public into supporting an unjust and catastrophic disaster.

The second ingredient is nationalism. This is purely an extension of tribalism, and is just as small-minded. A group bound together by a common fear will act together out of that common fear. This is why many times political leaders will beat the drums of war to silence opposition and maintain power. American exceptionalism is yet another way of creating an “other.” If America is the best, all other nations are inferior. Comparison creates division, and these divisions can be exploited.

The third and most dangerous ingredient is dehumanization. Historically speaking, The United States has been very skilled at dehumanizing groups of people. The most glaring example is represented in The Three Fifths Compromise. If a population dehumanizes another population, it will readily commit inhumane acts against them, oftentimes ending in genocide. But how does a population dehumanize another? Here rhetoric is key. The media and leading figures paint the “other” as an animal, vermin to be exterminated, or as savages who won’t “properly” develop the land, or cannot look after themselves and must be looked after. Once these ideas are planted, they are hard to uproot.

It is incumbent upon individuals and entities to be able to recognize these trends and stop them. If we are to break these cycles, it will be through strong measures. The media must tell stories of the decency of people we once feared. The American priorities of endless wealth and power must be called into question. We must redefine greatness. Above all, we must treat each other with compassion. If we act on that, we can begin to see our reflections in our “others.”

Four Dollar Democracy

Imagine, if you will, a nation divided by race and dominated by the wealthy upper-crust of society. That’s not very hard, you live in it. Now imagine exploring it from the eyes of a child. That’s Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson.”

Especially if you’re white, you probably remember a specific set of doctrines learned from your childhood. The United States is a democracy, money comes from hard work, and poverty is the product of laziness. If you didn’t learn it in the classroom, you learned it in the national anthem, in gated neighborhoods where the roads don’t run straight, and in hands holding cardboard signs by highway exits. This is normal. You shouldn’t be angry. Just keep moving. Stay in your place.

The field trip that Ms. Moore leads refutes this by crossing the usually unspoken boundaries. She wants the kids to be angry, and so she leads them to a toy store full of decadent wonders. When she suggests they go into the extravagant store, Sylvia thinks she’s “got as much right as anybody” (113) to enter the toy store, but “somehow I can’t seem to get hold of the door” (113). It’s this contradiction between what’s theoretically true and whats realistically true that causes the anger. The kids walk “on tiptoe” (113) in fear of something undefined. In other words, a class and race boundary. They are somewhere society says they don’t belong. A place where a simple toy sailboat is given the same value as a year’s worth of food for all the children present. A place made for people with that kind of resources to spare.

Sugar, one of the children, reaches the crux of the expedition. “I think that this is not much of a democracy if you ask me” (115). Sugar is right. The United States, a self-proclaimed democracy, may be the wealthiest country in the world, but close to half of all Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency. Three individuals hold as much wealth as the lower half of the country, while these same wealthy elite buy our politicians and silence what should be majority rule. If Bambara’s critiques were relevant in 1972, they’re now more true than ever before.

Rats

George Saunders is a master of writing stories with authentic details and relevant imagery, and tackling serious topics with a certain nod to humor. A striking example of which is his use of the rat tattoo. “Rogan had a tattoo of a rat on his neck, a rat that had just been knifed and was crying. But even through its tears it was knifing a smaller rat, who just looked surprised” (59). This small passage actually reflects the dynamic of the story quite well. If we were to assign characters to the different aspects of the tattoo, one could argue the larger rat is Jeff, and the smaller rat is Heather. Jeff knows what Darkenfloxx does to a person, he has had it done to himself before, yet he is willing to allow Heather to be Darkenfloxxed. At the same time, Heather has no idea what her fate is, and she is taken by just as much surprise as the smaller rat. One has to wonder who knifed the larger rat. Fitting within the metaphor, Abnesti would be the obvious culprit, but there’s no imagery to symbolize him. Perhaps the fact that the rats are present, while he is not, represents that through the pain, Jeff and the other victims still have humanity, while Abnesti has none.