Every time I picked up this book I had ‘Hard Times’ by The Cruel Sea on high rotation in my head. Great song, but a little distracting from the industrial, smog-filled English countryside of one of Dickens’ less-famous novels. Listening to The Cruel Sea makes me feel like sitting on the grass in a friend’s backyard on a summer’s eve, with my mates close by, the barbie sizzling and a pale ale in hand. Reading Hard Times by Charles Dickens made me feel slightly morose, uninspired and asthmatic.
My Great Aunt’s Hat, Pile o’ Books, did you just criticise the great English storyteller, one of your favourite authors?! Well, maybe. There’s nothing wrong with Hard Times, but there’s also nothing particularly stupendous about it apart from a few of the usual Dickens’ gems with names and humour (calling a teacher Mr M’Choakumchild for example – love it). And the reason for the morose, uninspired, lung-capacity difficulties this novel brought upon me was because it is a story about an uninspiring, saddening place, full of mostly undesirable or hopeless (and I mean, without hope) characters, and it all happens in a mill-town when manufacturing was king and the unsightly burkha of thick black smoke loitering over the valley was a sign of progress.
You know how sometimes if the writing is so good or the story being told so captivating, you can get past the slightly mundane or unsympathetic characters and storyline? Well, with this book, I was happy enough to keep reading it and just as happy when I turned the last page to never think too much about it again. It’s a small book in a way, a treatise from Dickens on the industrialisation of England and how it affected People. One of his favourite topics but here there was no hard-done-by orphan to latch on to, no kind-hearted servant, no caricatures to laugh or squirm in horror at. Wait. There were. But I didn’t latch.
For all those who put up with me trying to foist Dickens upon them, don’t start with this one. Read David Copperfield, or Oliver Twist (note Oliver! is the musical – ahhhh Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes…) or A Tale of Two Cities. Read Hard Times once you have been captivated by one of the greatest storytellers ever and you are happy to simply read his words and follow him on his journey as a trustingly novelistic companion. And listen to The Cruel Sea too. They really are rockingly awesome.
Hard Times was started in Lake Louise, wound through Jasper and Vancouver but wasn’t finished until I was back in Sydney.
North Americans revere Dickens. I can’t tell you how gosh-darn impressed any Canadian or American was when they spied my crumpled popular penguin in my hand or lying casually on a table. Even though none of them had heard of Hard Times in particular, and many had never read Dickens at all, they say his name in a hushed tone reserved for dali lamas, and though I am a ginormous fan I find this blind reverence intriguing. Mind you, many North Americans think I speak like the Queen and anyone who has heard me order a ‘Kafay Lahtay’ in my convict tones knows that is far from the truth… so maybe the Dickens-worship is a cultural cliche. I speak clearly and intelligently so I must be well-bred English, Dickens is one of England’s greatest ever storytellers so one must defer to him as royalty.