People around the world are celebrating the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth on 7 February. Australia’s librarians have named 2012 as National Year of Reading, so we can celebrate the bicentenary with extra enthusiasm.
This plaque features an appropriately vivid but depressing scene in the shop imagined by Dickens as the home of Little Nell and her grandfather. Along with the bucket-loads of Dickens-branded merchandise available today, it is testament to the popularity of his tragicomic novel The Old Curiosity Shop, which has been in print continuously since 1841.
The earthenware transfer-printed hand-tinted plaque was made by William Adams and Sons of Tunstall, England, between 1896 and 1921. In the 1930s or 1940s Waddingtons made a set of playing cards that ironically bore an illustration of the shop, the girl, and her grandfather, who was addicted to gambling on card games. Today’s fans might prefer to buy a t-shirt or bumper sticker asking ‘What would Little Nell do?’
In considering why Dickens’s stories are of interest to Australians today, we can point to his rich array of characters and situations. We can make parallels between the episodic and dramatic nature of his novels and the current popularity of TV serials that share this approach. Or we can reflect on Dickens as a commentator on issues that are still relevant today.
The issue at the core of The Old Curiosity Shop is problem gambling, which amplifies Nell’s poverty and leads to her travels, tribulations, starvation and death. The same issue is important in Australia today, both socially and politically, but the current focus is on poker machines rather than cards. Gambling addicts still borrow and steal to feed their habit, families still lose their homes because of the losses incurred, but poker machines are promoted as fun for players, providers of jobs and a means of raising funds for community projects.
Of course, many players readily control their outlays, but problem gamblers provide an unhealthy share of the profits made by clubs, pubs and State governments. The best solution might be to restrict payouts. I wager not many of today’s gamblers would be tempted to pour streams of cash into this early poker machine just to win a few cigars.
Bold multicolour graphics, coloured symbols on the spinning reels, and the prospect of a cash payout made this 1930s machine more inviting. Although poker machines were illegal in Australia at the time, their use in NSW clubs was tolerated. Today, poker machines are big business in several States, and the lure of huge jackpots makes dazzling video poker machines even more seductive.
In 1956 poker machines were legalised in NSW. This 1950s poker machine, made in Sydney, appears to have paid a maximum of 10 shillings on a bet of sixpence. The player could pull the handle and anticipate the thrill of seeing twenty sixpences clattering into the chrome tray. Above the tray, the lined and curved chrome fascia mimics the cars of its day. Some players imagined they were in the driver’s seat, able to improve their odds by pulling the handle of the ‘one-armed bandit’ in a special way.
The symbols on this machine’s reels are playing cards – which takes us back to Nell’s grandfather, the ruinous risks he took in the hope of winning at cards, and his zealous certainty that the odds would soon turn in his favour. Charles Dickens was indeed a master storyteller, and his stories still speak forcefully to us today.