Thursday, December 5, 2013

Dickens at the races - the quick dropping of all the pins out of their places

“The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices” ends with a report on the annual horse races of Doncaster.  It is less a narrative about or even employing the characters than a Sketch by Boz twenty years later.  Dickens reporting live from the scene.  The pure stuff.

I want to do nothing but quote from it:

Reaction also apparent at the Guildhall opposite, whence certain pickpockets come out handcuffed together, with that peculiar walk which is never seen under any other circumstances – a walk expressive of going to jail, game, but still of jails being in bad taste and arbitrary, and how would YOU like it if it was you instead of me, as it ought to be!

The pickpockets raise a good point.  I wouldn’t like it at all.

One of the apprentices finally makes it to the racetrack:

Francis much delights to be, not in the Grand Stand, but where he can see it, rising against the sky with its vast tiers of little white dots of faces, and its last high rows and corners of people, looking like pins stuck into an enormous pincushion – not quite so symmetrically as his orderly eye could wish, when people change or go away.  When the race is nearly run out, it is as good as the race to him to see the flutter among the pins, and the change in them from dark to light, as hats are taken off and waved.  Not less full of interest, the loud anticipation of the winner's name, the swelling, and the final, roar; then, the quick dropping of all the pins out of their places, the revelation of the shape of the bare pincushion, and the closing-in of the whole host of Lunatics and Keepers, in the rear of the three horses with bright-coloured riders, who have not yet quite subdued their gallop though the contest is over.

Most of the greatest prose writers of human history would have been satisfied with coming up with the “grandstand as pincushion.”  Very few would think to start moving the pins around.  Dickens keep the metaphor going as the days of the races pass:

The course as pretty as ever; the great pincushion as like a pincushion, but not nearly so full of pins; whole rows of pins wanting.

The ordinary activities of the town are replaced with drinking, gambling, talk of “’t’harses and Joon Scott,’” the consumption of “modest daily meal[s] of turtle, venison, and wine.”  But eventually the races end (“No turtle and venison ordinary this evening; that is all over”), the crowds wander off, the citizens of Doncaster return to their own homes, which they had let to gamblers for exorbitant sums, and Doncaster sweeps up.

[The Course] is quite deserted; heaps of broken crockery and bottles are raised to its memory; and correct cards and other fragments of paper are blowing about it, as the regulation little paper-books, carried by the French soldiers in their breasts, were seen, soon after the battle was fought, blowing idly about the plains of Waterloo.

The chapter is I suppose of some historical cultural interest, but really is just good writing for its own sake.  It ends Christmas Stories because it had to go somewhere.


  1. Incredible. Even with such a few short excerpts, I am right there.

  2. And so much of it is metaphor of some kind - the walk of hte pickpockets is "expressive," the heaps are "raised to the memory" of the races. Not actually descriptive, yet descriptive.

  3. It's as if everything went into him in poetry and came out of him in prose.

  4. I've been regretting having no more Dickens novels to read. Why didn't I think of the short stories? Thanks! You've just made the prospect of air travel this holiday less of a drag.