Out of my depth, literally and figuratively

Dear Charlie,

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Calgary’s City Hall, looking a touch damp. Good thing you weren’t touring this week, Charlie!

It’s been a surreal week, my friend. Massive flooding has devastated many neighborhoods of my fair city, including its downtown core. Remember that photo I took of you on Stephen Avenue when you were on tour? Yeah, that’s underwater now (or was a few days ago). Living in a city on the prairies, flooding wouldn’t seem to be a huge danger, but the beautiful Bow and Elbow rivers that run through Calgary can turn into angry mofos every century or so, and do one hell of a lot of damage.

Anyway, I think that’s one reason my mind hasn’t been as focused on your works this week, since I’ve been glued to Facebook, Twitter and news sites for the latest developments. The other reason is that I’m reading a volume of your “Miscellaneous Papers,” and I’m finding them, for the most part, extremely tough going.

One of the great things about your novels, Charlie, is that you weave the social issues of your day effortlessly into the plot. I can watch several lives being destroyed by the convolutions of the Chancery system in Bleak House, or see the impact of the Debtor’s Prison system, or the difficulty in obtaining an English patent in Little Dorrit. Oliver Twist brings to light the plight of uneducated street kids. I may not know the specifics surrounding these issues, but I can very clearly see and appreciate the gravity of the results.

Some of the articles you wrote for the Examiner and Household Words, on the other hand, are almost incomprehensible without some sort of annotation or guide book (which this edition doesn’t deem necessary). I can tell that you have some serious hate on for Lord Aberdeen, but I can’t share your sense of outrage, because I have no idea who he is. I can tell that you feel very strongly about other specific political leaders and issues, but it’s frustrating not to be able to appreciate your scathing sarcasm and satire. It would make as much sense as me handing you a newspaper from today and expecting you to care who in City Council said what regarding flood relief. As well, many of the articles are so short and so dependent on the reader knowing and living the context in which they were written that I may as well be surrounded by aliens all shouting at me from their different soapboxes for all I’m getting out of them.

hippo

The hippopotamus at the Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park, London, 1852.
Who wouldn’t want a monument to this guy?

That said, there are a few articles that are less specific and that have a wider appeal. For example, I enjoyed the series of letters written by your rather snarky raven (I’m assuming it was Grip) about how human beings have all the vices commonly associated with his species. The hippo (“His Rolling Hulk”) even gets to be guest blogger to the raven’s column, and explains how his existence in the local zoo is nothing less than a civic service, since by doing nothing all day he provides entertainment for those London citizens also fond of doing nothing. As such, he feels deserving of a commemorative monument.

As in your other pieces for Household Words, there are articles with recurring themes – your criticism of prolonged solitary confinement in prisons, your advocating of education for children of the poor, your arguments against capital punishment, and other concerns that found their way into your novels. It’s nice to know that these issues weren’t mere plot devices, but that you were a continual champion against social injustice.

So as my city dries out and we start the long process of cleaning up, I’ll keep plodding my through these bits and pieces of your brain, my friend. I’ll try to make sense of the politics that infuriated you, shake my head when your unfortunately virulent racism appears, and enjoy those moments when your time and mine align and I can share your concerns.

And so, I remain waterlogged but always,

Affectionately yours,

Melissa

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