The Curious Mr Dickens

The Curious Mr Dickens

Editor: public works
Contributors: Sarah Jarvis

When we walk down a city street what does it tell us? How curious are we about what we see, about stories caught like fragments of archaeology to be explored? And what was it like for people who walked these streets before us?

Union Street embodies both the universal process of urban change, and the specific experiences here. But the street we see today is just the present incarnation of a place that has changed over time – look at the recent redesign of Flat Iron Square.

188 years ago one person amongst the thousands who have walked here did tell us what he thought. Charles Dickens lived in Southwark for only a short time at the age of 12, but the experience lived with him, and beyond him, through the pages of his books – David Copperfield, Little Dorritt, The Pickwick Papers.

Among the broad sweeps of description Dickens's curiosity also alights on small details of the city – such as the "green shutters, lodging bills, brass door-plates, and bell handles" of Lant Street. These observations can inform our own journeys around the city. Inspired by Dickens's curiosity, I have produced a number of images, printed as postcards, that focus on elements of the streetscape – such as the buildings that Dickens would have seen, the importance of negative as well as positive space, street furniture and structures that often go unnoticed but which have a story to tell – to begin a conversation with the street and explore some of its stories.

A short informal walk in the area will explore some of these 'postcard views' in more detail, and we hope to learn more stories along the way from people who live and work in the area. As we go we can consider what it is that we choose to record and give significance to. We can capture places and stories onto a map, but unlike a conventional plan we might find that amongst the 'important' places, we choose to record things that we previously thought of as insignificant. By writing our responses onto the postcards I hope we can learn more both about this place, and about how to explore other places with a deeper curiosity. (Sarah Jarvis)

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