When I was a child in the late 1940s and early 1950s I believed that my father was a close personal friend of Charles Dickens. They must, I thought, have met at various inns in London and shared jokes and stories and enormous slap-up breakfasts with baked meats and ale. Samuel Pickwick would often be there, too, and Dickens would address my father as ‘VSP’, as all his friends did. We lived in the country for much of that time, in a house which I imagined was just like Dickens’s Dingley Dell. There was a walled garden, with a little summer-house, and I half expected the Fat Boy to pop up from behind the rhubarb and make my flesh creep.
I suppose I believed this because my father used to read a lot of Dickens to my sister Josephine and me; I remember David Copperfield and, best of all, The Pickwick Papers. And he was so good at it; he did a brilliant Mr Jingle and an excellent Sam Weller. It was the sheer vitality of his reading that captivated me, just as, later in life, I came to marvel at the energy of his own writing.
We moved back to London in 1956 when I was 16, and I began to see how much Charles Dickens and VSP had in common. They both knew London well and wrote about Londoners. And they had a particular part of south London in common – Southwark and Bermondsey. This was the site of the Marshalsea prison where Dickens’s father was locked up for debt, and this was also the centre of the leather trade where my father went to work as an office boy when he was 15.
My father and I walked everywhere in London; often from Camden Town across Regent’s Park, with its frenzied, shouting football matches and its boating lake. It was while we were gazing at that lake that he first told me a particular story of his childhood in south London. After one of the frequent family rows his mother would say: ‘I’m going to the park to drown myself in the lake. Come on, Vic, get your coat.’ At first he’d trail anxiously b
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