Tag Archives: racism

Fagin is a problem, isn’t he?

You know, there are times when committing to a blog timetable can be a real bummer. Yr. Humble Chronicler is spending Easter with the folks, meaning that Sunday’s entry has to be written today, Friday. Unfortunately, my Most Diminutive Friend had a party last night in Edgware. And I won’t lie to you (this time), things have been a bit crap lately, the practical result of which is that I had to knock back a ridiculous amount of red just to enjoy myself and not bring everyone else down. I know, alcohol won’t solve your problems, but it’s pretty good in the short term. Red wine is high in congeners, the impurities that contribute to a hangover (hence “red wine headache”). I remember almost nothing of my journey home and this morning I find myself on the receiving end of a hefty dose of alcoholic instant karma.

So, that longwinded and irrelevant introduction over, I thought I’d talk about one of the most well-known characters of London literature – Fagin, the leader of the pickpockets in Charles DickensOliver Twist. He’s a bit of a problematic one, I find. If you’ve not read the book, the version of the character you’re probably most familiar with is Ron Moody’s portrayal in the film Oliver!, which depicts him as a gruff figure with a heart of gold, a lovable, avuncular rogue. Which he isn’t.

In the book, Fagin is a deeply unpleasant character. Although he is described as a “merry old gentleman,” in his first appearance he is also described as “villainous-looking and repulsive.” He is indeed nice to Oliver on their first meeting, but only to love-bomb the boy into joining his gang. He manipulates people (even trying to get Oliver to testify in his favour after his arrest) and doesn’t give a damn about anyone else (he’s responsible, basically, for getting the sympathetic Nancy killed by implying to the vicious Sikes that she’s dobbed him in) and is a coward. Moody himself described Fagin as a “monstrous creation.” More like Alec Guinness’ version in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, above right.

And then there’s the Jewish thing. This makes for particularly uncomfortable reading these days, but Fagin is depicted very much as the clutching, avaricious, filthy, lying, red-haired Jewish stereotype that would find itself plastered across Nazi propaganda a century later. Some portrayals, such as those by Ron Moody and Robert Lindsay, have either toned the Jewish aspect down or attempted to rework it into something more sympathetic.

Dickens’ defence of the character was that such criminals are deeply unpleasant and, like it or not, many such criminals were Jewish. In this, again, uncomfortable though it is in the post-Holocaust world, he was correct. There were a lot of poor Jewish immigrants in the East End in the 19th century, and poverty and desperation breed crime. It wasn’t some sort of Protocols of the Elders of Zion-style cultural or racial motivation, but the result of social circumstances. Dickens appears to have taken a lot of his inspiration for Fagin from a real-life Jewish criminal named Ikey Solomon, a fence, thief and possible recruiter of children, whose life would make for a fine entry in itself. [NOTE TO SELF: You should totally do that.]

Dickens also argued that Fagin is far from the only unlikeable figure in the novel – Monks, Sikes, the Artful Dodger and Bumble are all “baddies,” as it were, but they aren’t Jewish. How do we know they aren’t Jewish? Well, because Dickens doesn’t call them “the Jew.” And there’s another problem. Sikes is Sikes, Dodger is Dodger, but Fagin is largely referred to throughout as “the Jew.” The religion of other characters is almost never raised (although it is fair to say that Dickens isn’t too impressed with the pious hypocrisy of the supposedly Christian gentlemen who run the workhouse in the early chapters).

Even today, Judaism is one of the first things that springs to mind when the character is raised. Will Eisner, legendary comic creator and author of the graphic fictional biography Fagin the Jew, refers to Dickens’ decision to constantly use the term “the Jew” as “an evil thing.” In 2004, Labour MP Ian McCartney caused outrage when he compared Oliver Letwin, who is Jewish himself, to a modern-day Fagin who “will pick the pockets of Scotland’s pensioners.” While perhaps antisemitism is an overreaction (McCartney would appear to have been playing on Letwin’s first name rather than his ethnicity), there’s no denying that it was a bloody stupid thing to say about a Jewish MP.

So, was Dickens an anti-Semite? Well, first and foremost, we should bear in mind that until just a few decades ago, racial stereotyping was fair game. Eisner himself, in the interview cited above, expresses regret at having created a big-lipped, wide-eyed black character named Ebony White in the 1930s. In the pioneering 19th century British comic Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday, the titular character’s best friend is Ikey Mo, a positive character but undeniably a stereotype. And then there’s the notorious Tintin books, Tintin in the Congo and The Shooting Star, guilty in their first editions of horrendous racism and anti-semitism. Even these, though were a great improvement on Jewish characters of early ages – I refer you to Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta to see the Elizabethan take.

Panel from an early edition of Herge's The Shooting Star. "Have you heard, Isaac? The end of the world! If it's true..." "He! He! There'll be one good thing, Solomon. I owe my creditors 50,000 francs - this way I won't have to pay..."

Dickens, in this context, would appear to be simply going with the current of the times. He later befriended a Jewish woman named Eliza Davis (who had purchased Tavistock House in Bloomsbury from Dickens), who forced him to re-evaluate his opinions. Indeed, on this basis of this friendship, Dickens himself toned down a lot of the references to Fagin’s Judaism in later editions of the book (which rather leads one to wonder how awful it was before he made his changes). In later books he would rigorously criticise anti-Semitism.

If I might finish with my own opinions (not that I haven’t been putting those in, but you know), I think the anti-Semitism in the Fagin character is a great pity. Were he not so portrayed, he would no doubt be regarded as another of Dickens’ great monsters. As it is, a fine villain is ruined by Dickens’ personal ignorance.

Further Reading

https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2009/09/01/piracy-with-a-twist/ – Previous entry on Oliver Twist.

http://www.time.com/time/columnist/arnold/article/0,9565,488263,00.html – Will Eisner talks about Fagin the Jew.

http://www.fpp.co.uk/online/04/02/Letwin1_2920204.html – Ian McCartney is a fool.

https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/well-at-least-he-didnt-die-poor/ – More of Dickens’ inspiration.



Filed under 19th century, Crime, East End and Docklands, Film and TV, Geography, History, Literature, London, Notable Londoners, Politics, Theatre

Electile dysfunction

Welp, it’s another election this Thursday. I’m not going to patronise you by telling you who to vote for, because frankly I’m having trouble deciding myself. I long for the days when the person you voted for actually mattered. These days, the parties that are likely to actually win are utterly indistinguishable. It’s all publicity and populism. If Labour win, can the workers expect a better deal? If the Conservatives win, can the rich start singing “Happy Days Are Here Again”? Of course not. Also, I hear the Pope is a Catholic. So what sort of alternatives do we have?


Whoa! Hold on! Who’s that guy? Why, it’s Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party! Any relation of Peter Griffin? Who knows. Anyway, fuck this guy.

I’ll be honest, since the death of Screaming Lord Sutch, the British political landscape has been sorely lacking in humour, and until such a time as a worthy successor arises, the BNP fills that gap nicely. I have yet to meet a BNP member who wasn’t a small-minded inadequate. Let’s cut to the chase with the BNP policy on immigration:

“On current demographic trends, we, the native British people, will be an ethnic minority in our own country within sixty years.

To ensure that this does not happen, and that the British people retain their homeland and identity, we call for an immediate halt to all further immigration, the immediate deportation of criminal and illegal immigrants, and the introduction of a system of voluntary resettlement whereby those immigrants who are legally here will be afforded the opportunity to return to their lands of ethnic origin assisted by a generous financial incentives both for individuals and for the countries in question.

We will abolish the ‘positive discrimination’ schemes that have made white Britons second-class citizens. We will also clamp down on the flood of ‘asylum seekers’, all of whom are either bogus or can find refuge much nearer their home countries.”

Yeah, I really feel like a second-class citizen. I mean, Christ, white Britons only make up 87% of the population of England. What are the other 13% planning? 

Also, “all of whom are bogus”? What the fuck? Are they saying these people just, I don’t know, faked a war? Like, you know, maybe things are actually okay in Kosovo? Speaking as someone who’s actually worked with asylum seekers – that is to say, face-to-face in situations relating directly to their applications for asylum, not just having read what the Daily Mail heard about them – that’s one of the most offensive things I’ve ever read. And I’ve read Fu Manchu.

And all this bullshit about immigration – here’s a little economic breakdown. People want quality goods and services. People don’t want to pay much for these goods and services. How can the supplier afford to supply cheap goods and services? By paying lower wages. Who’s willing to do a crap job for crap pay? Immigrant workers.

Then there’s the fact that a lot of British workers work overseas, and a lot of major foreign companies operate here. If we started telling immigrants here to sod off, do the BNP honestly think other countries would be all, “Good job!” Of course not. They’d respond in kind. British companies operating overseas could almost certainly expect a metaphorical knee in the groin.

So, hey, if you’re willing to seriously mess up the economy because you don’t like foreigners, and if you’re willing to pay extra for menial labour, then by all means ban immigrants. Except… there’s another point…

Britain is founded on immigration. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re a fucking island (which is also why I take issue with the use of the word “borders” elsewhere on the BNP site). If we’d said no to immigration in the past, we’d have said no to George Frideric Handel, the Duke of Wellington, Oscar Wilde, Marc Isambard Brunel and many, many kings among others.  Which highlights another point – Britain, historically, has always had a large immigrant population. Elizabethan workshops were staffed by French and Dutch workers. Nineteenth century Limehouse was a Chinatown. In 1936, the Battle of Cable Street saw the East End’s various ethnic groups uniting in peace and harmony to kick the shit out of the British Union of Fascists.

This, in turn, brings up another point. What actually is an indigenous Briton? How could I prove that I’m not a mudblood, or whatever the BNP calls them? Fortunately, the BNP website offers us this handy definition.

“We use the term indigenous to describe the people whose ancestors were the earliest settlers here after the last great Ice Age and which have been complemented by the historic migrations from mainland Europe.

The migrations of the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Norse and closely related kindred peoples have been, over the past few thousands years, instrumental in defining the character of our family of nations.”

What? So basically you’re a native Brit if your ancestors came over in the Ice Age, plus something about how immigration used to be okay back when it was centuries ago but it’s not okay now. Something like that.

In conclusion, don’t vote BNP because Christ imagine putting these people in charge of something important.

The BNP, as they view themselves.

The BNP, as they view themselves.The BNP, as everyone else views them.


Filed under Current events, History, Only loosely about London