10 of Fire - the Circumlocution Office


Tite Barnacle; Clarence Barnacle;

Lord Lancaster StiltStalking;

William Barnacle, M.P.;

Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle.


Little Dorrit

      The stultifying stratification of the class system is to English society what The Circumlocution Office is to British governance. As a parody of the Treasury Department, nothing in government can happen without the Circumlocution Office's sanction, which is to say, in short, nothing can happen. Dickens himself, in full tirade, says it best:


 The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office... Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving — HOW NOT TO DO IT... It is true that from the moment when a general election was over, every returned man who had been raving on hustings because it hadn't been done, and who had been asking the friends of the honourable gentleman in the opposite interest on pain of impeachment to tell him why it hadn't been done, and who had been asserting that it must be done, and who had been pledging himself that it should be done, began to devise, How it was not to be done... All this is true, but the Circumlocution Office went beyond it... Because the Circumlocution Office was down upon any ill-advised public servant who was going to do it, or who appeared to be by any surprising accident in remote danger of doing it, with a minute, and a memorandum, and a letter of instructions that extinguished him. It was this spirit of national efficiency in the Circumlocution Office that had gradually led to its having something to do with everything. Mechanicians, natural philosophers, soldiers, sailors, petitioners, memorialists, people with grievances, people who wanted to prevent grievances, people who wanted to redress grievances, jobbing people, jobbed people, people who couldn't get rewarded for merit, and people who couldn't get punished for demerit, were all indiscriminately tucked up under the foolscap paper of the Circumlocution Office...Numbers of people were lost in the Circumlocution Office. Unfortunates with wrongs, or with projects for the general welfare, who in slow lapse of time and agony had passed safely through other public departments; who, according to rule, had been bullied in this, over-reached by that, and evaded by the other; got referred at last to the Circumlocution Office, and never reappeared in the light of day. Boards sat upon them, secretaries minuted upon them, commissioners gabbled about them, clerks registered, entered, checked, and ticked them off, and they melted away. In short, all the business of the country went through the Circumlocution Office, except the business that never came out of it; and its name was Legion.

 Sometimes, angry spirits attacked the Circumlocution Office. Sometimes, parliamentary questions were asked about it, and even parliamentary motions made or threatened about it by demagogues so low and ignorant as to hold that the real recipe of government was, How to do it. Then would the noble lord, or right honourable gentleman, in whose department it was to defend the Circumlocution Office, put an orange in his pocket, and make a regular field-day of the occasion... And although one of two things always happened; namely, either that the Circumlocution Office had nothing to say and said it, or that it had something to say of which the noble lord, or right honourable gentleman, blundered one half and forgot the other; the Circumlocution Office was always voted immaculate by an accommodating majority.


 While many influences for the fictitious Circumlocution Office can be seen in governments throughout history, its primary inspiration came from the British mismanagement and maladministration of the Crimean War. Governmental insensitivity, irresponsibility, and ineptitude resulted in suffering and death for thousands of British troops in the Crimea. Little Dorrit's original title had been Nobody's Fault, which Forster objected to, but Dickens nevertheless went on to attack the government for its handling of Crimea in an article entitled Nobody, Somebody, and Everybody in Household Words:

 …it was Nobody who made the hospitals more horrible than language can describe, it was Nobody who occasioned all the dire confusion of Balaklava harbor, it was even Nobody who ordered the fatal Balaklava charge…Yet, the nature of the last tribunal expressly appointed for the detection and punishment of Nobody may, as a part of his stupendous history, be glanced at without winking…Surely, this is a rather wonderful state of things to be realizing itself so long after the Flood, in such a country as England. Surely, it suggests to us with some force, that wherever this Nobody is, there mischief is and there danger is…. But, it is the great feature of the present epoch that all public disaster in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland is assuredly, and to a dead certainty, Nobody’s work.


 These issues are no less germane today than in Dickens' day, and perhaps even more so in a global economy. Individuals must take responsibility, not bureaucracies or 3rd party corporations, if society and industry are to function in earnest and good health - otherwise, we all fall down together.


 The Barnacle family which runs the Circumlocution Office signifies the creeping malaise of nepotism in government. The Barnacles also suggest the obstruction which occurs when too much power accumulates in the hands of just a few. Similarly, the 10 of Fire card may indicate a certain irony, insofar as Dickens himself became something of an institution. In the words of George Orwell, a writer who knew a thing or two about institutionalized terror, Dickens "happened to be one of those 'great authors' who are ladled down everyone's throat as a child", whose characters many children learned to recognize by sight before they could read, and a few of whose novels were kicking around every household in England. 

 The Crimean War saw the first tactical use of many modern inventions, such as the telegraph, and it was the first war reported from “live”. The ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade led to the abolition of the practice of the sale of commissions, and the war itself was a deciding factor in the Tsar's abolition of serfdom. Hard-won as it was, the Crimean War also introduced medical advancements in surgery, the use of anesthetics, and triage.



Shorthand : the irresistible object and the immovable force - oppression - suppression - obstinacy - obdurateness - ideas fixed and made unfixable - power for its own sake - lies and deceit - obscurantism - too big to fail - red tape - passing the buck - ineptitude - slow and steady misplaces the race - the centre will not hold.