I sometimes wonder if my distrust of public institutions comes from reading Oliver Twist at too early an age.
My great aunt and uncle in Wealdstone had a complete set of Dickens. When we visited them after I had seen Oliver! at the cinema, I asked if I could borrow the book. Whether because of the film or the book, the story has been part of my mental furniture ever since.
I am not alone of this. Oliver Twist and its characters are so powerful that the story has become part of our folklore.
This is not to say that it is a perfectly formed novel. As I once wrote of it:
The plot of Oliver Twist is such a mess (there is a late chapter where Dickens tries to tie up all the loose ends and fails) that you have to hack the novel about to adapt it.The result of this repeated retelling of the story is that Dickens' version has become just one among many.
And Oliver! is a remarkable retelling of the tale - almost a subversion of it.
Whatever the book's virtues - and they are many - it draws upon ancient stereotypes of the Jew as the stealer of Christian children. In the Middle Ages such accusations were often the pretext for pogroms.
Yet above all Oliver! is a Jewish story. Written by Lionel Bart (born Lionel Begleiter), brought to life above all by Ron Moody (born Ronald Moodnick) and featuring wonderful schmaltzy music like Reviewing the Situation.
Fagin was the villain of the original novel (there Bill Sikes becomes almost a sympathetic figure in his final hours), but when Ron Moody danced off arm-in-arm with the Dodger to find new adventures, the story had been rewritten with him as the hero.
So this evening I am mourning Ron Moody and wondering again at the way Dickens' novels remain alive to us so long after they were written.
And, after all, Fagin did feed Oliver far better than the workhouse authorities did.