Happy birthday Boz (and hold on to your hat)


Today’s Charles Dickens’ bicentenary and I thought I’d mark the occasion by posting a favourite passage. It is a bit of comedy from the Pickwick Papers, early on in his career, that demonstrates his brilliant powers of observation. It begins with the Pickwickians watching a military parade or ‘a grand review… on the Lines.’ And here they get entangled in the action with unfortunate results.

‘Hoi!’ shouted the officers of the advancing line.

‘Get out of the way!’ cried the officers of the stationary one.

‘Where are we to go?’ screamed the agitated Pickwickians.

‘Hoi – hoi – hoi!’ was the only reply. There was a moment of intense bewilderment, a heavy tramp of footsteps, a violent concussion, a smothered laugh; the half dozen regiments were half a thousand yards off, and the soles of Mr Pickwick’s boots were elevated into the air.

Mr Snodgrass and Mr Winkle had each performed a remarkable somersault with remarkable agility, when the first object that met the eyes of the latter as he sat on the ground, staunching with a yellow handkerchief the stream of life which issued from his nose, was his venerated leader at some distance off, running after his own hat, which was gambolling playfully away in perspective.

There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. A vast deal of coolness, and a peculiar degree of judgement, are requisite in catching a hat. A man must not be precipitate, or he runs over it; he must not rush into the extreme opposite, or he loses it altogether. The best way is, to keep up with the object of pursuit, to be wary and cautious, to watch your opportunity well, get gradually before it, then make a rapid dive, seize it by the crown, and stick it firmly on your head; smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you though it as good a joke as anybody else.

There was a fine gentle wind, and Mr Pickwick’s hat rolled sportively before it. The wind puffed, and Mr Pickwick puffed, and the hat rolled over and over as merrily as a lively porpoise in a strong tide, and on it might have rolled, far beyond Mr Pickwick’s reach, had not its course been providentially stopped, just as that gentleman was on the point of resigning its fate.

Reading this again it’s striking to think how well it would work as a piece of stand-up comedy – with a Peter Kay, perhaps, narrating the action. And then there are the beautiful images, the moment of intense bewilderment’ or the vision [the hat] ‘gambolling playfully away in perspective’.

All very vivid and all very funny. Happy birthday Boz.

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