“Please sir, I want some more.”
Angel-faced, tousle-haired, the young boy holds out his bowl in innocent appeal and asks for a second helping to fill his empty stomach.
The simple plea has tugged at countless hearts through the years, as it has been made on the stage and the screen, in song and cartoon animation. Charles Dickens’ classic story of the workhouse boy who runs away to London only to fall into the wrong hands, Oliver Twist, is known and loved the world over.
At least, superficially. For the popular versions actually do Oliver—and his many, real-life “descendants” on the streets of cities around the world today—a great injustice.
The chances are that the adaptation you remember brings back warm, fluffy feelings of angels with dirty faces. Victorian predecessors of Dennis the Menace, all innocent mischief and harmless pranks.
But Dickens’ original work, for all its happy-ever-after naiveté, is much darker, a different matter to the average twenty-first-century interpretation. Read back-lit by shadowy 1800s London streetlights rather than glossy present-day neon, the likes of Fagin, Bill Sykes and the Artful Dodger take on a much more sinister countenance.
For this is no fairy tale. Rather it is a graphic account of some of the world’s first street children—complete with violence and abuse, if only you dare to glimpse between the lines. As such, flickers of the familiar figure of Oliver Twist can be seen on the streets of hundreds, even thousands of cities around the world today.
They sleep in the graveyards of Khartoum, Sudan. On top of bus shelters in Sao Paolo, Brazil. In the sewers of Bogota, Colombia. Behind cardboard in London, England. In abandoned cars in New York, USA. They clean shoes in Manila, the Philippines. Steal purses in Milan, Italy. Guard parked cars in Nairobi, Kenya. Sell their bodies in Sydney, Australia. Anything to make enough for something to eat.
And their lives echo Oliver ’s plea for rather more than he has been served with.
“Please sir, I want some more.”
More than the meager portions that leave them constantly hungry, that recruit for sex, drugs, robbery—anything that will kill the pangs or fill the plate. More than the indifference of adults who only express interest when they get in the way. More than the prospect of early death from injury or illness. More than the fear of ending up in jail after tangling with the police, or in the local morgue after running foul of one of the death squads.
Closer reading of Oliver ’s original story reveals that his request was not simply a matter of youthful greed, or even childish need. It was also a question of justice. For as his would-be benefactor investigates, he discovers that Oliver is not just a workhouse orphan. Although Oliver is illegitimate, it turns out that his father is a wealthy businessman—and that the villain Fagin and his cronies are determined to prevent him from receiving his due inheritance.
For Oliver, there was a happy conclusion. But a century and a half later, for many of his modern-day “offspring,” the future does not seem so good. No neat conclusions.
In bus shelters and derelict buildings, on pavements and railway stations, they, too, are being denied an inheritance that is rightly theirs. The right to nurture and nourishment, help and hope, a family and a future.
These modern-day Olivers (and Olivias) are being educationally disadvantaged. Emotionally wounded. Financially defrauded. Physically abused. Nutritionally starved. Sexually used. Environmentally deprived. Socially rejected. Spiritually scarred.
It’s a huge problem, but there is hope. You can read more about the challenge, what is being done, and what needs to be done, in my book, Street Children: The Tragedy and Challenge of the World’s Modern-Day Oliver Twists, available online and in-store, in e-book (iTunes, Kindle) and print formats.
All author proceeds will go to support street kid projects.