Belfast Telegraph

For shared celebrations, let's take a leaf from Dickens' book

The author's bicentenary events can help us to understand centenaries closer to home, says Leon Litvack

Today, February 7, 2012, marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the greatest novelist in our language. This event is being celebrated throughout the world, by exhibitions, theatrical performances, readings, films, and gala dinners.

In Northern Ireland, there is a year-long festival of events planned, with proceeds going to a charity that has a deep and abiding interest in the welfare of children. I think Dickens would have approved.

There is also a wreath-laying at his grave in Westminster Abbey. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall will be there, together with the Archbishop of Canterbury, 200 members of Dickens's family and leading figures from academia, literature, the arts, and entertainment.

It's interesting that Dickens's birth is commemorated in this way. He not only gave the world engaging fiction, insightful journalism, poignant public speeches and powerful public readings (three times in Belfast), but he was the embodiment of compassion and charity.

There is also a certain religious significance to Dickens. This was certainly emphasised 100 years ago, in 1912, as the world celebrated the author's centenary.

There were impressive church services in Portsmouth (his birthplace), Rochester (near the country mansion where he died) and, of course, Westminster Abbey. There was also a commemoration at Belfast's St Anne's Cathedral, where the Rev W S Kerr spoke of Dickens as a "benefactor", an interpreter of humankind, and a "guide to the practice of Christianity".

Big anniversaries are, of course, occasions for honorific sentiments; but for us in the 21st century it's striking how, in the Ireland of 100 years ago, religious language could be used to move people to division, aggression and even violence.

We are entering a whole decade of commemorations which have shaped our identities. Prominent among them are the centenaries of the Ulster Covenant (2012) and Easter Proclamation (2016).

As the comments about Dickens have shown, Christianity had a high profile in the decade 1912-1922, in both Britain and Ireland. Here, in particular, the clergy and their institutions had prominent roles in public and political life.

The covenant and proclamation are, for many, central texts. Each played its part in shaping relationships on this island for the rest of the 20th century.

Bicentenaries and centenaries are opportunities for re-evaluating and re-imagining. Our world has changed beyond all recognition in the last 100 years; the past, as they say, is a foreign country.

This doesn't mean that we should abandon history, forget suffering, or let bygones be bygones. But in our blueprint for a shared future, we do need to develop strategies for memorialising that are open, inclusive and ethical.

Perhaps there is something than can we can learn about our own situation from this year's Dickens' bicentenary celebrations. Whereas 100 years ago, the commemoration carried rather exclusive resonances of religion, class, and even language, this time around it attempts to be inclusive, multicultural, non-political, largely secular, imaginative, educational, and fun.

We can apply many of these principles to our own decade of commemoration. We need to agree on an inclusive and shared framework, to set common values and goals and we need to be guided by compassion, companionship, justice and sharing.

In this spirit, we may achieve 'comfort' - one of Dickens's favourite words and a state to which we could all usefully aspire.

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