“Do you know Dickens? Charles Dickens?” the aged woman asked the burly young South Asian worker, poised delicately on a ladder at my local supermarket. He was stacking shelves. This was going to be interesting: I decided to hang around and listen in.
“He was one of England’s greatest writers and you know, this year, we are celebrating his 200th birth anniversary,” the little old lady informed the muscle-bound shelf stacker.
Now, the unwritten rule of supermarket etiquette is that staff do not go anywhere as long as the customer is talking to them. This little old lady was clearly not in a hurry to go anywhere. So Dickens it was going to be. “Yes yes, I think I’ve heard of Dickins,” said the stacker, clearly lying. “Writer, yes?”
“Have you heard of the book, Oliver Twist?” she persisted, raising the quiz bar with admirable zeal. “We are all doing something this year. I’ve decided to call friends over to tea for a Dickens meeting. In fact, don’t you think the local community should get involved? Can you tell your friends about Dickens, in your mosque?” Then a quick afterthought: “Or temple?”
I couldn’t catch the man’s mumbled reply but it would have been along the lines of “sure thing, madam.” Ever since a bigger, second supermarket opened up in our neighbourhood, this older one has struggled to retain customers. If it requires talking to co-worshippers about Dickens, well then, so be it. The word needs to be spread through the temples of worship.
South Asians in Britain need to ‘do’ more culture (not just Bollywood), as do Indian tourists, some 370,00 of whom visited Britain last year.
There’s a lot of it to soak in if you’re heading here in the year of the London Olympics. Apart from Dickens celebrations, there are spectacular exhibitions of landscape paintings by David Hockney, portraits by Lucien Freud and a Shakespeare theatre festival. To misquote Dickens, it would be a far, far better thing than you’d have ever done.