Spend the day in a ditch and the night in a pigsty? Luxury!

Hard Times is a bit bloody hard going.

No doubt, Dickens was a master. His characterisation is concise and engaging, his funny is really funny, his bleak painfully bleak, often heartbreaking. I’m only about a quarter of the way through Hard Times, but can see it’s not going to be one of his better books. I had hoped it would have the real-life gritty northern misery of books like George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, but instead it starts like the Monty Python Yorskshireman sketch.

Behold, Mr Bounderby, the most annoying character in the whole thing, which is quite an achievement as everyone in this book is annoying. There is no one to root for. If anyone dies of TB or gets eaten by mill machinery, I won’t care.

‘I hadn’t a shoe to my foot. As to a stocking, I didn’t know such a thing by name. I passed the day in a ditch, and the night in a pigsty. That’s the way I spent my tenth birthday. Not that a ditch was new to me, for I was born in a ditch.’

Mrs Gradgrind, a little, thin, white, pink-eyed bundle of shawls, of surpassing feebleness, mental and bodily; who was always taking physic without any effect, and who, whenever she showed a symptom of coming to life, was invariably stunned by some weighty piece of fact tumbling on her; Mrs Gradgrind hoped it was a dry ditch?

‘No! As wet as a sop. A foot of water in it,’ said Mr Bounderby.

‘Enough to give a baby cold,’ Mrs Gradgrind considered.

‘Cold? I was born with inflammation of the lungs, and of everything else, I believe, that was capable of inflammation,’ returned Mr Bounderby. ‘For years, ma’am, I was one of the most miserable little wretches ever seen. I was so sickly, that I was always moaning and groaning. I was so ragged and dirty, that you wouldn’t have touched me with a pair of tongs.’

He goes on –

‘My mother left me to my grandmother,’ said Bounderby; ‘and, according to the best of my remembrance, my grandmother was the wickedest and the worst old woman that ever lived. If I got a little pair of shoes by any chance, she would take ’em off and sell ’em for drink. Why, I have known that grandmother of mine lie in her bed and drink her four-teen glasses of liquor before breakfast!’

‘She kept a chandler’s shop,’ pursued Bounderby, ‘and kept me in an egg-box. That was the cot of my infancy; an old egg-box. As soon as I was big enough to run away, of course I ran away. Then I became a young vagabond; and instead of one old woman knocking me about and starving me, everybody of all ages knocked me about and starved me. They were right; they had no business to do anything else. I was a nuisance, an incumbrance, and a pest. I know that very well.’

I read the book at home and have the audiobook for when pretending to be doing work. I think I’ll stick with that to get through this thing, as Martin Jarvis’ performance is very entertaining. But really, I think essentially every writer has patchy periods and some works are better than others, and Dickens had such a large output, celebrity, and a rabid audience desperate for his next piece, whatever it happened to be.