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One day recently we stumbled over “Sketches by Boz”. We had heard of them somewhere in the mists of the past but never read them. Courtesy of the Internet that changed. Boz, you may or may not know, was the name under which Charles Dickens wrote in his early years. A quick glance at Wikipedia tells us that the full name was “Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People” and is a collection of short pieces Charles Dickens originally published in various newspapers and other periodicals between 1833 and 1836. The version we first picked up on the Internet took us straight to the section titled, “Scenes”, the third one of which was entitled “Shops and their Tenants” and it was there we can across the following in the introduction:

“What inexhaustible food for speculation, do the streets of London afford!  We never were able to agree with Sterne in pitying the man who could travel from Dan to Beersheba, and say that all was barren; we have not the slightest commiseration for the man who can take up his hat and stick, and walk from Covent-garden to St. Paul’s Churchyard, and back into the bargain, without deriving some amusement—we had almost said instruction—from his perambulation.  And yet there are such beings: we meet them every day.”

Now these ‘sketches’ may not appeal to every inhabitant of the twenty-first century because much modern literature appears to encourage us to be lazy and uses limited vocabulary. Dickens has no such consideration. Reading through these delightful sketches of “Everyday Life and Every-day People” we have been struck by two things in particular. The first, to follow this particular thread, is that his writing is punctuated by words that are either no longer used or only used by the very erudite, and yet he was writing pieces for newspapers of the day.  The second, is the incredible clarity with which he writes, producing the most graphic of descriptions of the people and activities of the early part of the nineteenth century in London, a beautiful way of understanding history.

But back to our quote above. A little bit of searching tells me that the ‘Sterne’ referred to is Laurence Sterne whose novel ‘A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy’ was published in 1768, and Dickens chides him for (possibly humorously) siding with the traveller who can go places without taking notice of what he sees. Dickens, on the other hand, takes delight in the people he sees, and the things they are saying and doing in various parts of London.

Arriving at the later years of life (which could go on a mere year or an amazing thirty) we find we have both the time and inclination to observe our world around us in ways that, previously, we had been too busy to consider. This is why, no doubt, a number of our more recent Silver Surfer pages have been about ‘being aware’, hence No. 64 ‘The World I Missed’ and No.65 ‘I Didn’t Know’ let alone all the previous ones under the headings, “E. Appreciating the World” and “F. Living with Change”, not to mention “G. Being British”.  We realise that all of these are, in one way or another, reflections on being aware of the world we have lived through and the world in which we now find ourselves.

We have often rued the fact that no one said these things to us earlier in life, but it is never too late to become an observer and once you are retired and have more time available that surely must be an admirable moment to sit and think or sit and observe or sit and ponder, or do all three! To what end? Surely for pure enjoyment and maybe, as Dickens wrote, ‘for some instruction’. It’s never too late to learn and if you want one sure way of fighting off dementia, it is to use your mind.

Having drifted down this particular avenue for some time, while with no set objective in mind, it has still been a pleasant amble. Now, having come across the Sketches of Boz, it is like being stopped by a passer-by who asks have we noticed the details of the avenue. His own examples are so sharp that they produce a challenge to stir ourselves out of the self-centred reverie that we have allowed ourselves to fall into, so that we look around and take note of the people around us in a new way. Even more, his challenge comes up against that habit of sitting in front of that screen that gets bigger every year (the size of which I suspect is directly proportional to age – the younger you are the bigger it is likely to be, income accepting) and which tempts us to spend more and more time away from our present location in the fictitious make believe world of others.

Now there is a distinction to be made that is, we believe, worthwhile, and it is the distinction of this sort of graphical, distinctive descriptive writing from the opinions that are so often confronting us through the media in the day in which we live. We write at a time when, with the blink of an eye, it will be a year since the Brexit referendum. We have made a point of watching the papers in this past year, observing a) how it is being reported b) the comments and opinions that are being made about it. It is dispiriting stuff because the one thing that stands out is that what you find yourself reading depends on the previous viewpoint of the current newspaper writer, or indeed the newspaper’s proprietor. One historian has written that we entered what became the EU on as much ignorance as we came out of it, and therein is the problem; we live in an era of speculation, so much of which proves to be untrue. As we said, dispiriting.

But then we come to the writings, the descriptive writings, of someone like Dickens and there we find a clarity that is devoid of public opinion and yet, and here is the clever thing, he writes in such a way that he draws you into his world and then you find you are reading of a world that has so much wrong with it that it makes you squirm, and that’s what he wants. He is a recorder of social history and without going into preachy language about the ails of the past, let’s just simply say we are glad we didn’t live in those times. We can add that we are so grateful to be living in these days, even though there are, no doubt, many things Dickens would slip into our consciousness to challenge our conscience. That in turn challenges: can we be more than observers? Do we have a place in life that can bring pressures to bear that may change those conscience-challenging things of modern day society that Dickens would bring to our attention? Post-retirement suggests that we may have the time to achieve such things.  

OK, as we usually finish, a few quips and quotes

I love reading people. I really enjoy watching, observing, and being able to figure out a person, the reason they wore that dress, the reason they smell the way they do.  Rihanna

I'm just observing the world. I was born into it, like you were, and then I found out there were some really disturbing aspects to being alive, like the fact that you weren't going to be alive forever - that bothered me.      David Cronenberg

When two people are paying close attention to each other, check out the others in the group and see who's observing. Human dynamics are amazing, but so much that you might learn is subconscious interplay.    Steven Erikson

It has been my observation that the happiest of people, the vibrant doers of the world, are almost always those who are using - who are putting into play, calling upon, depending upon-the greatest number of their God-given talents and capabilities.      John Glenn

One can state, without exaggeration, that the observation of and the search for similarities and differences are the basis of all human knowledge.      Alfred Nobel

Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.     Marcus Aurelius

If you make listening and observation your occupation you will gain much more than you can by talk.       Robert Baden-Powell

“Do stuff. be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration's shove or society's kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It's all about paying attention. attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. stay eager.”     Susan Sontag

“It's funny how, in this journey of life, even though we may begin at different times and places, our paths cross with others so that we may share our love, compassion, observations, and hope. This is a design of God that I appreciate and cherish.”   Steve Maraboli,

“To acquire knowledge, one must study;  but to acquire wisdom, one must observe.”    Marilyn Vos Savant

“Have you noticed how nobody ever looks up? Nobody looks at chimneys, or trees against the sky, or the tops of buildings. Everybody just looks down at the pavement or their shoes. The whole world could pass them by and most people wouldn't notice.”   Julie Andrews Edwards,

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