Month: Apr 2019

Ideas…. Too odd. Too many. Too few.

A week ago I started watching ‘Stranger Things’ and have now reached the end of what’s currently available on Netflix. I resisted the show for what seemed like forever, but then the urge to indulge overtook me. I needed to see what all the fuss was about, but it wasn’t just that. My thirteen year old daughter drew a picture of Eleven (a focal character) when the first series came out, and the drawing has haunted me ever since. I’ve never understood why it drew me in, but it did, despite my reticence, and even before I’d watched a single episode of the show.

That’s how it is with ideas. They drift into your mind unseen and unexpected. Some anchor themselves and refuse to let go. Others leave a trace of something amazing, like the morningtime memories of the most vivid dreams. Sadly, those ideas fade unless you’re able to record them in a way that makes sense to you – write them down, paint them, or turn them into dots on the musical staves. Whatever you do the best.

I believe in writing about dreams. I’m a fan of them, good and bad. Why wouldn’t it be appropriate to utilise the most abstract and genuine experiences that most of us will ever encounter? They emerge from flickering memories, or out of the depths of deep-seated anxieties.

Some of my best ideas have been borne of my worst dreams, and I’m sure the same is true for other writers. Some of those most terrible nightmares have remained with me over the decades, in times of both light and dark. Is that why I don’t always sleep?

Many creative souls have trouble sleeping at night. This isn’t due to the cries of conscience, it’s our brains overanalysing every part of life, and pushing far too many ideas into our consciousness.

We are overrun with them. Overwhelmed with their undisciplined persistence. Their influx may not herald creative genius, but, no matter what, they keep coming in their millions. Creatives can’t always use or understand their ideas, but for most of us they are always there.

But then come those times when we have the opposite problem. When ideas don’t appear when we need them. This isn’t the most extreme writer’s block, when the words won’t come and the motivation is low. This is an enthusiasm for writing, a keenness to progress, and perhaps even a deadline to meet. But the tiny little spark that will set light to the amazing creation is just not there.

Aside from following tips to help you out with writer’s block – and they may well help – what else can you do? Dream. Take notes. And take ideas from wherever you can find them. There are plenty of idea generation sites on the internet. This is one at the top of Google’s current search – https://www.plot-generator.org.uk/. On it you can find those spark-ideas for scripts, opening lines, blurbs, and so much more. OK, so things like this can’t replace the flames of genuine personal inspiration, but what they can do is provide the flint. Two stones striking.

As a little example, I provided a few keywords for the Haiku Generator. I basically asked it to write me a haiku about bedtime. I wasn’t expecting to love the resulting poem, but I did!

Taken up bedtime
A single, smooth candle sleeps
enjoying the book.

I know that candles don’t sleep. I also know that candles don’t enjoy books. But I love it all the same.

That’s how words work sometimes. And that’s how ideas work. Unexpectedly. Randomly. And like the sleep of a single, sparkless candle.

Love You, Mummy

‘Love you, mummy,’ he said, and threw his chocolate-covered arms around that most favoured parent. It was snuggle-time – a time they both loved, chocolate arms or not.

Trudie tickled Alex’s feet, sang ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ a couple of times, and gave her son exactly what he needed and what her loving heart happily granted: time, attention, love and cuddles. And Alex spoke back to her as if she were the silliest but most adorable pet – a naughty puppy, perhaps, or a cat that had insisted on scratching the leather sofa. ‘Mummy, silly sausage,’ he gurgled. ‘Lalalala, mummy moo, mummy moo, mummy mummy mummy poo!’

It was mother/child bonding at its best. Trudie knew it. Alex knew it. But somebody else was not so sure. Trudie knew that because of the smashing sound that shocked mother and child out of their reverie. Shocked but not entirely surprised by the noise, Trudie turned and followed the eyes of her son to look towards the source of source of the smash – her husband, and Alex’s dad, Mark.

‘What’s going on?’ Trudie shouted. The vase he’d smashed against the sideboard was scattered in sharp and dangerous pieces all over the floor, and Alex had already jumped off his mum’s lap and was making his way curiously towards the mess. Trudie began to rise to retrieve the brush and dustpan, but Mark pushed her back down.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll do it. I was just… shocked.’ Mark scratched his beard and looked down at the mess, shaking his head.

‘Shocked? Why? Nobody was doing anything wrong.’

Why could this man never talk to her about anything?

Mark said nothing, just pointed to little Alex who toddled over to his daddy with arms outstretched.

‘What’s Alex done that’s so bad? What on earth could a little boy of two years old do that was so bad? I know I’ve not done anything wrong… so it’s obvious,’ said Trudie. ‘You just can’t bear to see us happy.’

He shook his head. ‘No. No, it’s not that. It’s just… inappropriate.’

You snowflake, Trudie thought. In what way was it EVER inappropriate to hug your baby, specially if he was gurgling happily in his loving mum’s arms, as Alex had been?

Mark was just so different. So irritable. So annoying and so incredibly annoyable – and a victim of his own restrictive thoughts. Nobody could get anything right. Not ever.

He didn’t like Alex’s bedtime routine. Apparently, it was wrong to give and receive kisses and hugs between parent and child. It was also not right to hold that child’s hand in public, or to affectionately ruffle his light brown curls.  

‘Why are you like this, Mark? It’s got worse every month since we got together. Is there something I should know?’

‘What do you mean?’ Mark turned his back to her.

‘Well, you know, some reason why everything about me and Alex irritates you?’ It was a question often asked and never answered, not even in part.

‘It isn’t you. It isn’t him. It’s just…’

‘Just? Just..? Come on man, look at him. He’s just a little boy. He needs his daddy to hug him sometimes. To play games. To laugh a bit. To tickle him. Why don’t you? Why can’t you?’

Mark walked back into the kitchen. Trudie glanced at their son who was transfixed by Cbeebies on the television, and made the decision that he would be safe from the broken vase for a moment.

She followed Mark and stood in the doorway, leaning against the raw, unpolished wood marked with the growth record of their home’s previous residents.

Her hand automatically went to her hip in a ridiculous representation of her own mother. ‘Well. Why can’t you? Why won’t you?’

Her husband stood, clearly shielding himself from her inquisitions with the fridge door. Nothing. Just a deep, agonised sigh.

‘Come on, Mark. Why? Please…’

The door was slammed, and for the second time that evening, Trudie jumped.  ‘Mark, stop slamming, and just talk to me. Talk to me. Tell me.’

And that’s when it all came out. After all their years together. Her big, tough man. Her sheltered, physically hung-up man. Her man without positive loving feelings towards either her or their child.

Mark cried. Trudy cried. Alex rushed to comfort them, and fell, cutting his knee, just a little on the shattered vase.

‘Mummy moo,’ he cried, and his mum scooped him from the floor, placing him straight into the arms of his daddy.

‘Do it,’ she said. ‘Feel it… Be the dad you know you should be.’

Mark’s body, overtaken by tremors caused by thirty years of backed-up tears, shook and near-collapsed, but Trudy gently guided him up to the wall, supporting the weight of her two loved ones.

‘Go on,’ she said. ‘Comfort him… your past isn’t your future.’

Mark looked at his ever-patient wife and then to his beautiful son. The pair of them slid to sitting position on the floor of the kitchen, and Mark’s arms wrapped round his little boy for the first time ever. Both sobbed quietly till the sobs transformed to giggles and tickles.

‘Love you, daddy,’ said Alex. Another first.

And somehow, something was healed.

‘Love you, mummy,’ he said, and threw his chocolate-covered arms around that most favoured parent. It was snuggle-time – a time they both loved, chocolate arms or not.

Trudie tickled Alex’s feet, sang ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ a couple of times, and gave her son exactly what he needed and what her loving heart happily granted: time, attention, love and cuddles. And Alex spoke back to her as if she were the silliest but most adorable pet – a naughty puppy, perhaps, or a cat that had insisted on scratching the leather sofa. ‘Mummy, silly sausage,’ he gurgled. ‘Lalalala, mummy moo, mummy moo, mummy mummy mummy poo!’

It was mother/child bonding at its best. Trudie knew it. Alex knew it. But somebody else was not so sure. Trudie knew that because of the smashing sound that shocked mother and child out of their reverie. Shocked but not entirely surprised by the noise, Trudie turned and followed the eyes of her son to look towards the source of source of the smash – her husband, and Alex’s dad, Mark.

‘What’s going on?’ Trudie shouted. The vase he’d smashed against the sideboard was scattered in sharp and dangerous pieces all over the floor, and Alex had already jumped off his mum’s lap and was making his way curiously towards the mess. Trudie began to rise to retrieve the brush and dustpan, but Mark pushed her back down.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll do it. I was just… shocked.’ Mark scratched his beard and looked down at the mess, shaking his head.

‘Shocked? Why? Nobody was doing anything wrong.’

Why could this man never talk to her about anything?

Mark said nothing, just pointed to little Alex who toddled over to his daddy with arms outstretched.

‘What’s Alex done that’s so bad? What on earth could a little boy of two years old do that was so bad? I know I’ve not done anything wrong… so it’s obvious,’ said Trudie. ‘You just can’t bear to see us happy.’

He shook his head. ‘No. No, it’s not that. It’s just… inappropriate.’

You snowflake, Trudie thought. In what way was it EVER inappropriate to hug your baby, specially if he was gurgling happily in his loving mum’s arms, as Alex had been?

Mark was just so different. So irritable. So annoying and so incredibly annoyable – and a victim of his own restrictive thoughts. Nobody could get anything right. Not ever.

He didn’t like Alex’s bedtime routine. Apparently, it was wrong to give and receive kisses and hugs between parent and child. It was also not right to hold that child’s hand in public, or to affectionately ruffle his light brown curls.  

‘Why are you like this, Mark? It’s got worse every month since we got together. Is there something I should know?’

‘What do you mean?’ Mark turned his back to her.

‘Well, you know, some reason why everything about me and Alex irritates you?’ It was a question often asked and never answered, not even in part.

‘It isn’t you. It isn’t him. It’s just…’

‘Just? Just..? Come on man, look at him. He’s just a little boy. He needs his daddy to hug him sometimes. To play games. To laugh a bit. To tickle him. Why don’t you? Why can’t you?’

Mark walked back into the kitchen. Trudie glanced at their son who was transfixed by Cbeebies on the television, and made the decision that he would be safe from the broken vase for a moment.

She followed Mark and stood in the doorway, leaning against the raw, unpolished wood marked with the growth record of their home’s previous residents.

Her hand automatically went to her hip in a ridiculous representation of her own mother. ‘Well. Why can’t you? Why won’t you?’

Her husband stood, clearly shielding himself from her inquisitions with the fridge door. Nothing. Just a deep, agonised sigh.

‘Come on, Mark. Why? Please…’

The door was slammed, and for the second time that evening, Trudie jumped.  ‘Mark, stop slamming, and just talk to me. Talk to me. Tell me.’

And that’s when it all came out. After all their years together. Her big, tough man. Her sheltered, physically hung-up man. Her man without positive loving feelings towards either her or their child.

Mark cried. Trudy cried. Alex rushed to comfort them, and fell, cutting his knee, just a little on the shattered vase.

‘Mummy moo,’ he cried, and his mum scooped him from the floor, placing him straight into the arms of his daddy.

‘Do it,’ she said. ‘Feel it… Be the dad you know you should be.’

Mark’s body, overtaken by tremors caused by thirty years of backed-up tears, shook and near-collapsed, but Trudy gently guided him up to the wall, supporting the weight of her two loved ones.

‘Go on,’ she said. ‘Comfort him… your past isn’t your future.’

Mark looked at his ever-patient wife and then to his beautiful son. The pair of them slid to sitting position on the floor of the kitchen, and Mark’s arms wrapped round his little boy for the first time ever. Both sobbed quietly till the sobs transformed to giggles and tickles.

‘Love you, daddy,’ said Alex. Another first.

And somehow, something was healed.

Ten Tips to Rub Out Writers’ Block

http://www.scottmartinproductions.com

Do other professions have similar issues to writers’ block? Is there such a thing as Doctors’ Dread? Opticians’ Obstruction?  Grocers’ Groan?

And how should it be written? Is it a block applying potentially to all writers, therefore “Writers’ Block” or does this debilitating condition specifically refer to the struggles of solitary individual writers, therefore “Writer’s Block”?

Or should it even be “Bloc”? As in a collective, alliance or coalition? Doesn’t that put a different slant on the concept? It truly is a unifying condition because, whatever it means, and however it is written, I know one thing for certain. Pretty much all writers, often at unexpected points in their writing lives, will suffer from writers’ block.

Fundamentally though, it doesn’t matter as to the whys and wherefores of the name. What does matter is what it does to us. It can be truly paralysing. Time-wasting.  Annoying.  And frustrating enough to make you want to pack it all in and find yourself a far less demanding pastime or career.

It isn’t necessarily a short-term problem either – or something that happens when you’re sleepy or can’t concentrate because you’re attempting to write on a busy train. It can creep up in an environment of perfect calm. It can pounce when you’re well-rested and have set time to one side for the purpose of writing. It seems to relish planting buckets of self-doubt into your usually fertile and industrious mind.

It can hit before you’ve even set pen to paper, part way through a paragraph, or even when you’re speeding to a piece’s conclusion. One of my most frustrating moments involved my feeble attempts to name a character in a chapter’s final paragraph. It took more than three days to get it right. The silver lining to this particular cloud is that this particular occurrence of block forced me to change my writing technique and routines for the better.

(Incidentally, if you’re the type of writer who needs to complete sentence one to perfection before allowing yourself to move on to sentence two… and if you’re struggling to get something right, just try leaving a gap and moving on. I often make a note and highlight it, for example – ‘This is where they walk across the beach and end up at the Neolithic site’. I almost always come back the following day and shake my head in puzzlement at my previously frozen state.)

The great thing about the universality of this terrible condition is that almost every hobbyist or career writer can identify with how it makes us feel, and how crippling it can be. That means empathy, and it also means community.

So, here are a few bits of advice that all of us could potentially find useful. Some/all may be obvious, but there’s no harm in re-stating the obvious. We’re only human. We forget. And sometimes it is the block itself that loves to sabotage our creativity – by forcing that forgetfulness.

  1. If you always write on your laptop at the kitchen table, try moving the laptop to your bed, or to the sofa, or try attaching a keyboard and monitor and sitting at the desk. Or if you always write on the laptop, get yourself a little notebook, write in longhand and type up later.
  2. With whatever writing tool/s you prefer, get yourself comfortable. Put on the radio and just write down a few lyrics, or make notes of the DJ’s inane drivel. Or put the TV on and extract what you can from whatever you find. I also go through songs inside my head and write alternative lyrics. Often by the end of all this copying and daft wordplay, I’m ready for the more serious stuff.
  3. Take a break, even if you don’t think you need one. It’s a very obvious suggestion, but it does work. Twenty minutes is long enough to get yourself a drink, and to wander round your home giving your eyes and your body a change of scene.
  4. Eat something. Preferably something juicy – like an orange. There’s a good chance that as soon as you get those fingers mucky, your brain will suddenly rebel and switch itself back on again. Pesky things, these brains of ours.
  5. In preparation for potential bouts of block, keep notepads and pencils in every room and jot down abstract thoughts that jump into your head. That way, when you’re struggling for ideas in the future, you can just gather up your notepads and see what you can find. The chances are that if an idea connected with you in the past, it may also mean something in the future.
  6. I’ve had great results from opening a reference book at random and taking some words from that page. Perhaps pretend your character is speaking those words. Not so long ago I used this technique and had my character saying ‘Fear and Loathing in Birmingham? More like Lustful Loathing in Liverpool’. In the end, I didn’t use it in the piece, but it made me smile and was enough to get me going again.
  7. Do some physical exercise. Preferably something that gets the body and soul tingling, and out of breath.
  8. Spend some time with animals or children. I don’t know the proper term for this, but it certainly isn’t a form of ‘dumbing down’. To me it just encourages more of a non-intellectual response to life. It can help simplify what’s going on in your head and in your writing. Perhaps you could put yourself into the same position as the creature? How might two cats converse? What goes on in the mind of a toddler?
  9. Just write – even if it is complete rubbish. You will probably produce unreadable trash for the first few paragraphs or so because your mind isn’t yet in the right place. But it isn’t impossible that some of it may be useable, or even be pure gold. But the important thing is to write without demanding anything of yourself. No perfectionism and no preparation.
  10. Ask a fellow writer to read your work. Supportive writers are the best writers. This isn’t a competition. There’s room for us all, and the more we give, the more we get back. I’m not ashamed to say that some of my best ideas began their lives in the comments of my writing buddies.

I would love to hear your views. We’re all different and we all discover our own solutions to our own specific problems.

So, please comment. Who knows? Your comment may be exactly what a struggling writer-to-be is needing to hear.  And on day, you may be that struggling writer.

More on Wednesday. Please follow, and don’t miss any more writing-related revelry in the future!

“Every puffling is precious.”

http://www.scottmartinproductions.com

Review of ‘Letters to Paul’ by Keith Hachtel

I discovered this little book by accident, and that’s often the best way. Immediately I was drawn into the story with the first line:  ‘Its been three weeks since everything happened’ – I wanted to read more.

The story is a one-sided insight into the suffering of Lacie as she communicates with Paul – a young man who is introduced to us while lying comatose in his hospital bed. It was touching to read how the ‘relationship’ between Lacie and Paul developed in its intensity throughout the book, and I was frequently put in mind of ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ in many ways while reading.  I particularly liked the graduation story, and found myself a little tearful at what youngsters will do for each other. 

But the story wasn’t just the tale of Lacie and Paul – it was also the tale of what went before and what went after Paul’s hospitalisation. And it really worked. Undoubtedly, the language was a little coarse at times, but it was nothing inappropriate for these young, intense characters. Anything less, and it wouldn’t have felt real.

This epistolary form isn’t popular nowadays, but those of us who enjoy it, REALLY do. And I do.  Also, ultra-short novels aren’t the most popular art form and don’t usually sell brilliantly, but this is a book that transcends its genre – I believe the reader could return again and again, and get something different out of the story each time. And that ending! I loved it.

Message to author: Have you produced this as an audio book or podcast – or even a radio play? I think it would work so well.

Review of ‘The Loves of a Liverpool Lad’ by Peter McGeehan

This book is the story of Liam Parry, and he is quite a guy! Throughout the course of the book, he enjoys psychiatric nurse training, nursing, management, following round gig tours and lots more, including plenty of steamy and graphic sex. He’s also an accomplished dude, a bit of an opportunist, a product of his generation and birthplace, and an all-round nice guy who certainly seems to attract the girls and the (older) women.

Though Liam was, at times, a rogue, he was also romantic, sweet and a very likeable character – and this is largely to do with the way he has been created by Peter McGeehan. Because the book has been written in the style of an autobiography, the reader gets good insights into the mindset, past and present, of this young and vibrant northern man. Peter M writes a tale of its time, though in many ways young Liam is a man ahead of his time.

This book is endearing and sentimental, yet also practical and basic. There’s not a trace of pretentiousness or literary fumbling in sight, but what the reader does get is a huge big slice of a Liverpool lad’s life from the early 60s to the early 90s – with accompanying characters and mood-setting. I feel like I would have liked Liam, had I met him. And I liked this book too.

I’ve started and stopped reading quite a large number of books recently. I don’t know the reason, but I’ve been unable to get into them, and have quickly lost patience. But this book didn’t affect me like that. Though it has almost 300 pages, I didn’t skim. I didn’t rush. I didn’t grudgingly sit through my reading time with a pained expression on my face. Instead I smiled at the happy bits and found myself moved at the sad bits. This is the kind of historical fiction I can really get my teeth into.

I greatly enjoyed this romp into the past, and can’t wait to read any sequels that may be in the pipeline.

Viva Miss Merryweather – Politics Warning

Joanne Merryweather’s speech to the Republican-Democratic Party Conference in Blackpool, 2021, promised to be quite a spectacle. Not only because Joanne had triumphed brilliantly in her most recent commons speeches and had transformed the stubborn British electorate from a fragmented, angry mass into the most weirdly aligned voter-pool this group of countries had ever experienced…

Not only that. But also because it was to be her inauguration as party president (for life). Such was her reward for the reversing of the previous two years’ worth of both pro and anti-Europe decisions, in a way that each and every person on all sides of the argument could nod their head and say. ‘Well, well, well, that’s one hell of a solution. Of course. That Miss Merryweather’s a genius, for sure.’  

And as befitted such a major inauguration event, the like of which had never before been seen, the ceremony promised pomp and ceremony to exceed even the most jingoistic of American electioneering, with accompanying preachy speeches and crowds of overly-enthusiastic supporters. Two weeks before the event and Blackpool was already awash with slogan t-shirts, specially-written conference anthems, flags, posters, and banners. Even more unusually, there were no dissenting voices and no disrespectful slogans. The Indomitable Joanne Merryweather had managed to get her message absorbed by the inner souls of each and every Briton. All now met in the middle, yet nobody lost any ground.

Five days before the scheduled event, gigantic portraits of the dynamic Miss Merryweather appeared on every billboard in the Blackpool area, winning the universal approval of all residents and visitors. And every pole flew a flag of her face, overprinted with the words: Unity through Federalist Independence.

Joanne Merryweather’s speech had been eagerly awaited by politicians on both sides of the house – male and female, youngs and old, and both front and back benchers. The media in all its forms dedicated hours to detailed anticipation of the speech’s content, mainly during radio and television programmes usually more well known for pig-headedness and bigotry.

Historically, and internationally, no speech had been more theoretically dissected, and all political commentators were claiming insider knowledge of its contents. The broadsheets congratulated Miss Merryweather on the speech’s energetic intellectualism and analytical capacity. The tabloids simply stated ‘Jo’s got balls’.

The Republican-Democratic Party Conference was soon in full swing. Blackpool was buzzing, but for Danny Beacon, Miss Merryweather wasn’t just a well-respected party leader with an uncanny ability to entice compromise. She was his life. A long-term Republican-Democrat, Danny had never before allowed himself feelings for a fellow party member before, let alone an MP of such high-standing.

As was his usual practice, Danny had purchased his Party Conference ticket five months earlier, and had also booked his room in the Royal Hotel, where the curtains were referred to as ‘drapes’ and the bed linen wasn’t only  changed daily, but was also hand-sewn organic Egyptian cotton with a thread count of 1200, and was topped off with a high quality duck-down duvet. He’d advance-purchased his train ticket, and had booked a week off work. His boss asked ‘Where you off to, Danny-lad? Canaries again?’ – and Danny had nodded absently. Although the country was buzzing with Merryweather mania, he was reluctant to share his interest with his workmates. Why should he? Every person in the country seemed to have something to say about Joanne Merryweather, but nobody knew her as he did.

Danny had sat next to her at the bar twenty years earlier when she was simply a local party member who was considering taking baby steps towards a political career. And Danny had provided a sympathetic ear for her semi-drunken ramblings. He had walked with her along the sea front, and had even rescued her from being hit by a late-night tram. She became the reason why he retained his party membership card, why he attended each year and why he told all his friends he took a yearly trip to the Mediterranean. Each year they’d meet up, chat and enjoy each other’s company. Always innocent, and always intense. Perhaps she’d been a little busier in recent years, but she always made time for him. He knew she loved him, and this year was to be ‘their year’.

Of course, the key note speech was a rip-roaring success. Danny had been there to congratulate her, but was just one face amongst the crowd of acolytes. She scanned the crowds, but failed to notice his face. He watched her stand on tiptoes and saw her talk, knowing her lips formed the words, ‘Danny, where are you?’ He watched her brows twitch. He saw her shoulders hunch and noticed how she scratched her scalp. A nervous twitch that nobody else would interpret as he would. He knew more clearly than he ever had before – she needed him, and him alone.

‘Joanne, Joanne,’ he called, his voice lost in the melee of glib shouted questions and sycophancy.

That night was to be their first night together, and a fitting celebration of her untouchable victory against all she despised. And only Danny knew that night was to mark the end of her political career. He’d purchased tickets – one way to Tasmania. He’d found them a home and had arranged their marriage licence.

It therefore came as a shock when Danny found himself escorted roughly from the conference centre by a battalion of eight soldiers. He was forced to the ground in the delivery area of the converence centre, and whined at the large man who sat on his back. As the man brutally rummaged in Danny’s pockets, Danny moaned.

‘Mr Danny Beacon?’ came the man on top’s voice. ‘We know all about the tickets and the marriage licence. Oh yes, Danny. Miss Merryweather told us all about your stalking, your letters and your internet messages. Now perhaps you could tell us who you really are.’

The flattened man shivered. ‘Never,’ he whispered. ‘Long live the revolution.’

And the pistol held to the back of his skull was activated. The danger of Danny was no more.

‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens. A Review

What is the point in writing yet another review of a classic? None. Other than for personal satisfaction and as a reminder of what I managed to finish. Just.

This isn’t one of my favourites, even though I feel as though it should be. Written in 1854, ‘Hard Times’ was originally serialised in 20 parts, and explores the world of fact and a simultaneous neglect of the world of the imagination – and does so in a way that is clearly a satire on the society of the day. ‘Hard Times’ (originally called ‘Hard Times – For These Times’) was Charles Dickens’ tenth novel and the world it explores is a fictional northern England town, Coketown. So far so good. But yet not good at all.

I have little time and even less inclination to read books I don’t find compelling, just for the heck of it. Unfortunately, I became impatient quite early on in my reading of this book, my inclination being very much reduced.

Because of this I went onto YouTube and decided to listen to an audio version first – just to get me in the mood, and to see if I could better connect with the story and the characters. But even this didn’t help.

‘Hard Times’ is a terrifying voyeuristic tromp through the realms of good old-fashioned Victorian misery. The fear and stifling practicality of Mr Gradgrind’s school destroys the joy of many of its children. The foul-smelling canal accompanies Josiah Bounderby’s rise from the gutter and his proposal of marriage to the much-much-younger and ground-down Louisa. I’ve read elsewhere that strong-yet-pathetic yet likeable Louisa is a fictionalisation of John Stuart Mill. But I just found her incredibly sad and depressing, and not in a way that I could extract inspiration from her.

Ok yes, this is an intricate and complex story. Sub-plots abound.  Personally, I wonder if it might be a better book if the sub-plots (such as Sissy’s story) were to remain in the foreground and not be side-lined.

My reading group were irritated by the dialect writing, and so was I. I was even more annoyed by the writing of Sleary’s lisp. Stephen Blackpool with his alcoholic wife and his sweetheart Rachael were a good and endearing story, but the way the dialogue was written removed any softness and identification by me. It is as if Dickens uses dialect as a substitute for deep characterisation. And it grates.  

To me, ‘Hard Times’ is a essentially the constant and predictable moaning of opinionated middle-aged, middle-class, annoying old men: shallow characters who go over the same ground over and over and over and over again.  The book could have been reduced by about a third and not have lost anything substance-wise.

There is enough morality and politics in this book to satisfy anyone who enjoys that kind of social commentary, but perhaps not enough story and humanity to satisfy those of us who enjoy psychological depth and complexity.