Book of a lifetime: John Burnside

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Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Like most children, I was given "suitable" books to read at school; like some, I lived in a house with no books at all, other than the Bible and a hand-me-down copy of 'Mrs Beeton'. At the public library in the industrial New Town where I lived, there was a dedicated children's section, with diminutive chairs, discreetly cordoned off from the "main area", where the adults went, and the rules stated that nobody under 14 could borrow from that particular Aladdin's Cave. To begin with, I complied with that regulation but, frustrated with tales about lost dogs and middle-class children running around a suspiciously unspoilt countryside, I decided to lie about my age. The librarian granted me Sesame with only the faintest of knowing smiles.

The first title I borrowed was 'Hard Times' by Charles Dickens. I had heard of him, of course, in a Christmassy context, but I'd never encountered this book. Sensing that someone was about to be a little more honest with me than Arthur Ransome or Frances Hodgson Burnett, I was immediately drawn to its dark yet very funny account of joyless schoolrooms and ruthless self-interest. After the first few pages, I was hooked: this was the world I knew, a world where imagination and sensuality had been rinsed away, to be replaced by the facts and useful knowledge that would ready me to take my place in the lowest bolgia of Capital and even allow me to rise, a little, should I decide to apply myself.

I didn't know, then, that "Gradgrind" had entered common parlance as a by-word for the unrelenting pursuit of dullness, but I recognised the "man of facts and calculations" immediately, just as I recognised, in Bounderby, the typical boss, a "bully of humility" for whom the workers were little more than cogs in a machine.

Most of all, I recognised the system that governed my days: "Time went on in Coketown like its own machinery: so much material wrought up, so much fuel consumed, so many powers worn out, so much money made. But, less inexorable than iron, steel, and brass, it brought its varying seasons even into that wilderness of smoke and brick, and made the only stand that ever was made in the place against its direful uniformity."

Over the next few days, I read 'Hard Times' not once, but twice. Even on a second reading, I felt strangely elated, which may seem odd, given its subject matter. What lifted me, to begin with, was the humour and the sheer panache of Dickens's attack on industrial capitalism, but what brought me back, later, was the sense that this writer was not alone, there were others out there who valued justice, imagination and the varying seasons - and, setting aside the "education" to which I had been treated so far, it had just become my special and private task to find them.

John Burnside's new collection of poetry is 'Black Cat Bone' (Jonathan Cape)