Karen Maitland, ‘Company of Liars’ Review

I think it’s best to start with the parts of Company of Liars – Karen Maitland’s ‘novel of the plague’ – that I enjoyed. Set in England in 1348, it follows nine uneasy and incompatible strangers who band together and travel northwards in a desperate bid to outrace the Black Death. The novel plods along without any real pace, but the reader is treated to some evocative period settings along the way, including an unfinished chantry chapel, a Hermit’s island in the Fens and a Shepherd’s hut.

Hellbent on avoiding infected villages, the characters stick to the road and are almost constantly on the move. As such, the plague is more of a peripheral presence – none of the party are infected – and its effects are best highlighted by empty homes ominously decorated with black crosses. More pressing is the need to find food, shelter and suitable passage (poor weather has decimated crops, burst river banks and offset the mental health-related benefits of camping outside). Doom and gloom are everywhere, and the stark realities of medieval travel, particularly in the colder months, are captured well.

Blurring the boundary between the real and supernatural is a common trope in fiction set in the Middle Ages. This stems, in part, from the medieval world-view – belief in ghosts, angels, devils etc. Throughout Company of Liars events that at first seem ‘magical’ are, in time, shown to be quite the opposite. Rational thought and reason repeatedly triumph over mysticism. That is, until the final 50-pages. During the novel, the group are followed on their travels by a lone wolf who howls every few nights. It transpires that one of the party – Zophiel – used to be a priest in Lincoln, but after being accused of a grave transgression he is forced to flee, and steals holy relics from the church in retaliation. He claims the wolf is actually a ‘bishop’s wolf’ – a kind of hitman who has been sent to carefully recapture the stolen goods and murder him at the bishop’s command. Yet in the closing chapters *spoiler* we find out that Narigorm – a youthful, although sinister girl, who interprets runes – is responsible for conjuring the noises. The sudden occultist revelation feels forced and upsets the novel’s entire ideological framework. Rather than shock, it actually confuses the reader.

Aside from characters spouting painfully anachronistic views, clunky writing and a repetitive middle section, the narrator, a relic-seller named Camelot, encourages little sympathy. Published in 2008, I can’t help thinking this is the kind of entry-level medieval escapism that would have sold well in the wake of the Global Recession. And despite my criticism, something impelled me to plough on for 550-pages and reach the rather odd conclusion. Perhaps I was inspired by the stoic efforts of the characters.


Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

I’m currently reading Byzantium by Judith Herrin and moving onto Ravenna, her newest book, after.


Judith Herrin, ‘Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire’

There’s a great anecdote at the start of Byzantium. The author – a Professor of Byzantine History at King’s College London – is approached by two builders and asked, “What is Byzantine History?” This book is her response to the question posed by the workmen: an attempt to illuminate the world of Byzantium for ‘non-specialists’. … Continue reading Judith Herrin, ‘Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire’

Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde, ‘Cricket 2.0’ Review


Cricket 2.0 is a book that’s got the cricket community talking in the last year. Wisden, the sport’s bible-like handbook, awarded it their book of the year in 2020, and it also scooped up prizes from The Telegraph and The Cricketer. It’s been on my list for a few months, so I was excited to receive it for Christmas. 

Front cover of the book Cricket 2.0

Although I’m clearly generalising, cricket writing as a genre is somewhat repetitive and inelastic. What little cricket literature that makes it into major high-street booksellers often falls into a few rigid categories; former and current players releasing heavily ghost-written autobiographies is one, commentaries on iconic Test tours is another. Sentimental memoirs by authors with a conservative outlook on the game – ‘purists’ – also spring to mind. 

Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde – two youthful, enthusiastic cricket writers – tear up the rulebook in Cricket 2.0, bringing fresh impetus to the genre. Their analytical and holistic approach to cricket’s newest format – T20 – is highly absorbing, relying less on elaborate narrative and more calculated study. Another reason why the text has such a ‘revolutionary’ feel is that, as the co-authors point out, barely any literature exists on the subject of T20.  

The book contains 16 essays (‘Survival of the Fittest’ and ‘Up is Down’ are memorable standouts) that act both as individual units and part of a larger, cohesive whole. As such, at times they do overlap, and there are a few instances of repetition (the editing is suspect). There’s also a prologue and an epilogue which makes 31 predictions for the future of T20. The prospect of a T20 World Cup being played in the US during the 2020s, cricket in the Olympics and ‘super-fast’ bowlers are some of the more interesting forecasts. 

As specified in the prologue, the book is designed with both the hardcore fan and curious beginner in mind. The writing is digestible and unfussy – on occasion, simplistic to the point where the cricket connoisseur might become impatient. Yet, these instances of the co-authors tending to beginners are offset altogether by passages of rare insight. 

Data, data, data

Interest in sports data and the work of analysts is a relatively recent phenomenon in cricket. This stands in contrast to traditional American sports – baseball, basketball and American Football – where a data-driven approach is viewed as the best way to understand and appreciate each sport. Sure, cricket has always been concerned with averages and strike rates, but until recently few had delved deeper into the illuminating world of data. Wigmore and Wilde are firm converts when it comes to the power of analytics – and it is an analytical approach that defines their work. 

Take the chapter ‘Spin Kings’, which makes a convincing case for there being three separate eras of spin bowling within the 18-years of professional T20. The first era (2003-07) was led by wily finger spinners who generally bowled slow and stump-to-stump, forcing batsmen to generate all the power when facing their deliveries. Throwback County Cricket names like Gareth Breese and Jeremy Snape are quintessential examples. The game’s evolution has led to the dominance of mystery spinners – who generally bowl flatter and quicker, with a repertoire of deliveries in their locker – in the current era. Not only that, but the role of spinners has been redefined over time. They bowled 6% of deliveries in the Powerplay during 2006 and 25% in 2018, a process instigated by mavericks like the West Indian leg-spinner, Samuel Badree. 

‘Why CSK Win and Why RCB Lose’ is another engaging case study on two Indian Premier League (IPL) teams with contrasting fortunes. Using data, the co-authors highlight that Chennai has exploited their home advantage (by stacking their line-up with spinners on receptive pitches), given players specific roles and mastered the art of the IPL auction. All of which has contributed to their success. In contrast, RCB is prone to changes in their line-up and approach the auction poorly, splurging on elite overseas batsman and neglecting the acquisition of star bowlers (that great bowlers not batsmen, on balance, win more T20 Games is one of the book’s proverbial truths). 

The IPL’s Enduring Influence

Although T20 is Cricket 2.0’s overriding focus, the IPL is the leading sub-theme. The co-authors do an excellent job of explaining how India’s domestic, franchise competition has shaken-up cricket’s power dynamics. And it all boils down to a matter of economics. 

The launch of the IPL in 2008 saw broadcasters bid enormous sums – the likes of which cricket has never seen before – for broadcasting rights to televise games. India’s large and cricket-mad population would show an immediate interest in the competition – an enduring fascination that has kept the price of broadcasting rights on the up (Star India paid $1.97 billion to show live fixtures from 2018-2022). 

For the first time ever, cricket players could match the wages of footballers. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in a 6-8-week period – a staggering rise in earning potential. For many, a domestic tournament now promised more financial reward than playing for one’s country. Given that England’s home Test summer clashed with the start of the IPL, elite players now faced a decision: sacrifice playing Test cricket – the pinnacle in the eyes of traditionalists – and join the IPL, or turn down potentially the biggest pay cheque of their lives. As Wilde and Wigmore highlight, a desire to play franchise cricket was the ‘beginning of the end’ for Kevin Pietersen’s relationship with the English Cricket Board (ECB). He was signed to RCB for £1.15 million in the 2009 auction.

The IPL has had other far-reaching implications, such as providing India and it’s cricket board, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), with newfound financial clout and superiority on cricket’s global stage, usurping England and the ECB. There have been a number of spin-off franchise leagues (BBL, PSL, BPL etc) where players stand to benefit from similarly fruitful contracts. But fundamentally, the IPL prompted world cricket to invest in T20 as a format. Certain nations – like the West Indies – began to specialise in the shortest format, targeting and achieving T20 World Cup victories. And now T20 receives undoubtedly more attention than ODI and Test cricket: a role-reversal of the climate in 2003. 

A democratising force?

Cricket, a sport traditionally regarded as elitist and hierarchical, has encountered the full liberalising force of T20 in the last twenty-or-so-years. One result has been that Nepalese and Afghani players, like Sandeep Lamichhane and Rashid Khan, now ply their trade across global T20 leagues, competing against star players from Test-playing nations. This would not have been possible without the inception of professional T20, Wigmore and Wilde explain. 

As a format, T20 values uniqueness and unorthodoxy in a way that Test cricket, fixated on ‘proper’ techniques, does not. Players from associate nations are often under-coached and self-taught, using whatever resources are available to them. Rashid Khan, the leading men’s T20 bowler, practiced using a tape-ball on a cement-based floor (he now finds it easier using an actual cricket ball). Within this environment, he developed an unusual bowling technique and an elaborate array of deliveries that are integral to his recent success. Should he have grown up in say, Australia, traditional coaching and better resources may have inhibited his progress. 

Thanks to T20, cricket is at the onset of a great revolution: of finally becoming a game open to all the talents, regardless of the nationality on their passport.

Undoubtedly the best and most insightful cricket book I’ve read. Cricket 2.0 is all-encompassing in its scope, with chapters on leading lights of the game (Narine McCullum, Gayle, de Villiers), the T20 economy, tactics, doping and match-fixing, and more. I should also mention that the writing is interspersed with interviews from leading analysts, players, cricket writers, broadcasters, coaches and franchise owners – offering the reader a valuable window into the minds of the sport’s most reputed thinkers. 


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Salman Rushdie, ‘Quichotte’ Review

Salman Rushdie’s post-modern take on Miguel de Cervantes’ 16th century classic, Don Quixote, is comic, calculated and poignant in equal measures. It nods to the original but paradoxically remains distinctively modern, with the issues affecting contemporary US society taking centre stage: the opioid crisis, consumerism, pharmaceutical corruption and racism.

It is also a tour-de-force of pop culture, literary allusions and genre. Cultural references adorn nearly every page: from Alice in Wonderland to Oprah, American Idol and Madonna, Sonny Liston and Elvis. Through the main character Quichotte – a fictional creation of failed spy thriller writer, Sam Duchamp – Rushdie satirises America’s infatuation with junk culture and laments its damaging effect on the public psyche. A travelling salesman, Quichotte – formerly Ismail Smile – spends long hours watching reality TV in cheap hotels, falls in love with chat-show host, Salma R, and sets out on a long road-trip quest to purify himself before uniting with his ‘beloved’. Along the way, he dreams up an imaginary son, Sancho, battles mastodons, experiences small-town xenophobia and confronts his forgotten past. 

As aforementioned, Quichotte is a story within a story; a few chapters in the reader is introduced to Sam, who, disillusioned with his literary output, is attempting to write his magnus opus. Yet we are also given the perspective of Sancho, Salma R and Sam’s sister, just to confuse things further. While the layered structure appears quite disjointed in the first half of the novel, the second seems to work considerably better. The clear demarcation between author-character becomes increasingly distorted, and we begin to question what is fact and what is fiction: arguably one of meta-fiction key aims. As Rushdie settles in to his groove the connections between Sam and Quichotte’s worlds appear ever closer. 

“AS I PLAN MY QUEST,” Quichotte said, drinking from a can of ginger ale, “I ponder the contemporary period as well as the classical. And by the contemporary I mean, of course, The Bachelorette”.

For me, the text deliberated effectively on the connection between author and their output, and recalled memories of studying Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ theory in university. Rushdie’s interest in how myth permeates society and the boundary between fiction/non-fiction makes Quichotte a topical work in the post-truth world. 


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Reni Eddo-Lodge, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’


In the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death, there has been a renewed focus on the social obligation we all share to educate ourselves of the ills of systemic racism. Books tackling race relations and racial inequality have dominated best-seller lists across the globe in recent weeks, and information about the Black Lives Matter movement and instances of police brutality have spread across social media like wildfire. The bold front cover page of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race has become instantly recognisable – ‘marketing gold’ in the current climate, according to one literary reviewer from The Times. It was in the spirit of educating myself – with a particular interest in Britain’s problematic racial history – that I began reading. 

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is, in essence, an expose of structural racism in Britain. It contains seven essays – both self-contained and inter-connected – that tackle topics from white privilege, fear of immigrants and the intersectionality between race, gender and class. The first essay – ‘Histories’ – functions as an illuminating synopsis of the struggle faced by black people in Britain over the last half a millennium. It is a tale of slavery, lynchings and police brutality. Eddo-Lodge writes in an angry, passionate and stark manner, from the perspective of an individual who has both experienced and intensely studied her topic. 

As a white, anti-racist reader, I found the book particularly challenging in that it asked me to come to terms with my complicity in a racially unequal social structure. Eddo-Lodge’s argument is that maintaining anti-racist sentiment is not enough, and that white people should first come to terms with their unrealised biases and prejudices, using this moment of realisation as a launching-point for enacting future change. It is uneasy to read something that plainly accuses you (as reader) of wrong, but the bold and accusatory nature of the text is one of its main strengths. 

The author’s explanation of ‘white privilege’ really stood out to me. She describes it as an ‘absence’ – not something to be gained, but something that white people are fortunate to live without.

“White privilege is an absence of the consequences of racism. An absence of structural discrimination, an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost.” 

After all, there are millions of disadvantaged, working-class people in Britain who face poverty and deal with social inequality. But they can be confident that their race will not negatively affect them in the same way. The figures are startling and shocking: ‘According to the Department of Education, a black schoolboy in England is three times more likely to be excluded than the rest of the population’; ‘between 2012 and 2013, the highest proportion of UK students to receive the lowest degree-ranking… was among black students, with the lowest proportion being white students; research shows that individuals with white British-sounding names are more likely to be called back for interviews than those with African or Asian-sounding names, despite having similar skill-sets, education and work histories.

Eddo-Lodge’s diatribe against structural racism concludes by suggesting that the burden should not be carried by black people in purging racism from our institutions, but that the white British population should take up the mantle and spread anti-racist ideology, whether in the workplace, the streets or in the home. She contends that rage is more powerful than guilt, and so her final message to readers is: ‘get angry’. 


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Uwe Schütte, ‘Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany’

I have been a fan of techno since university and have read on a few occasions about the genre’s indebtedness to Kraftwerk – the mysterious and pioneering electronic band from the heart of Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr region. It was, then, curiosity that prompted me to read Uwe Schütte’s fantastic new work, Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany. In the text he expands on what he calls the ‘Dusseldorf-Detroit axis’, explaining how the industrial noise of Detroit Techno represented a mutation of the post-war, German electronic sound – best exemplified by Kraftwerk. 

Following a loosely chronological order, Schütte structures the study by considering each of the band’s eight major albums in turn, notwithstanding an introductory chapter on Kraftwerk’s influences and the socio-artistic-historical context that informed their output, and a final chapter considering their legacy (it is at this point that attention turns to the pioneers of Detroit Techno). The story begins in the late 60’s with founding members Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider meeting at a summer music school outside of Dusseldorf, and ends with Kraftwerk’s formidable live shows of the 21st century. In the foreword, Schütte states his intention to look at the group ‘as a cultural phenomenon, as an art project translated into a multimedia combination of sound and image’. It follows that the emphasis is on the band’s representation, guiding concepts and musical oeuvre, not the atypical behind-the-scene stories of revelry and drinking. The unqualified reader (me) learns that Kraftwerk carefully curated a private, self-mythologising image that rejected media attention, or, indeed, any form of penetration into the band’s inner-circle. Schütte stresses (repeatedly) Hütter’s and Schneider’s fascination with cycling, but this is about as close as we get to their private lives.

Karl Whitney’s review in the Guardian, in which he writes that the first half of the book is by far the strongest, is spot on. Schütte’s prose is most absorbing and thought-provoking when discussing the artistic movements that influenced the band and how a particular historical context informed their sound. Kraftwerk, he explains, were intrigued by the potentially revolutionary vision of 1920’s avant-garde modernism (futurism, the Bauhaus school, German expressionism) – a (wasted) potential that was curtailed by the rise of fascism. The group looked back to this period as a fertile epoch brimming with ideas to illuminate a brighter future. This ‘retro-futurism’ was a guiding concept throughout the decades. Part of a post-war German generation facing a crisis of identity, Hütter and Schneider sought to create a new image, one that rejected Nazism, West German conservatism and isolationism. Their music was to be both trans-international and yet paradoxically regional, symbolic of Europeanism as well as pride in their roots. Schütte also cites Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys as key contemporary influences on Kraftwerk, and is engaging and convincing in his analysis. 

A number of key German phrases that crop up throughout the offer further insight into Kraftwerk’s philosophy. Industrielle Volksmusik refers to the band’s style of music: a technological sound stemming from the heart of German industrialism, with a clear nod to the nation’s romantic traditions and folk roots. It is decidedly anti-Anglo-American and popular in its reach. Allagmusik, or ‘everyday music’, captures Kraftwerk’s engagement with the everyday noises of the modern, mechanised world; a great example of this is the song ‘Tour de France’, which features noises made by a rotating bicycle chain. Gesamkuntswerk refers to the notion of ‘a total work of art’ and is associated with Richard Wagner’s attempts to marry music and drama in opera. For Kraftwerk, music is only part of the sum that is their unified artistic project: 3D visuals, album artwork, choreography and a painstakingly constructed group image are other components. In this way, Kraftwerk itself became the concept, or, Gesamkuntswerk. As such, Schütte perceives their main achievement to be: ‘artistic influence extend[ing] beyond the realm of music’.

Schütte comes across as a devoted Kraftwerk fan and writes vividly when considering the structure and emotional resonance of various songs in the band’s oeuvre. Although his use of jargon, at times, can seem quite overwhelming for a musical novice, he has a knack of describing each song in an original and exciting manner, capturing the variations in tone and message throughout Kraftwerk’s body of work. Reading Schütte’s analysis of ‘Tour de France’ I was prompted to place the book down and play the song – his words certainly did it justice. 

This is a great study of Kraftwerk, brimming with genuine insight and moments of laughter. Schütte tackles some potentially difficult concepts in a lucid manner and brings the group’s notoriously shielded identity to light. 

“What the Beatles are to rock music, Kraftwerk is to electronic dance music”

Neil Straus

Rating: 4 out of 5.

‘Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography’


Sourcing my ‘fix’ of sport has been a largely unrewarding and mutating process during lockdown. From re-watching English domestic cricket finals, to playing badminton in the garden and mulling over downloading Football Manager, I’ve sought a number of outlets. Last week I was pleased to stumble across Alex Ferguson’s autobiography, hidden away at the back of my shelves. I’m not the biggest fan of the genre, but the book promised, at the very least, a temporary respite during these sport-barren times. 

A highlight was the focus on the signings Sir Alex made during his tenure as Manchester United manager. A range of vague names from the past crop up: Kleberson, Male Biram Diouf and Alexander Büttner to name but a few. Sir Alex explains his reasons for signing each player, citing their strengths and weaknesses, and commenting on how they could improve his current squad. He emphasises the importance of both rebuilding and forward planning in maintaining a team that could continually challenge for the Premier League title; we are told, for example, that centre backs Jonny Evans and Phil Jones were viewed well in advance as the natural successors to Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. 

Some of the most intimate details are also linked to transfers. United’s troubled dealings with Daniel Levy and Tottenham when signing Micheal Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov defer them from pursuing Luka Modric at a later date: a real shame for a Manchester United fan. Whole chapters are dedicated to Sir Alex’s relationship with high-profile players during his reign: Roy Keane, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Rio Ferdinand. Beckham is painted as a precociously talented and dedicated academy prospect who, influenced by fame and other external factors, fails to live up to expectation and become a club great. Much like Beckham, Van Nistelrooy becomes a destabilising force in the dressing room and is expelled for challenging Sir Alex’s authority. The recurring message is: no player is bigger than the club. 

‘The only aspect he was ever interested in was: how many goals did Ruud van Nistelrooy score”

Intimate details are however at a premium. Reading the autobiography, I had the sense that Sir Alex was barely scratching the surface. Much of the information and events alluded to are already in the public domain. The structure also compromised the flow of the narrative. Within each chapter, Sir Alex would repeatedly go off topic for a few pages, and then sharply return to his original point or story. In fairness, blame surely falls to the editor here. This is an easy read and the content is digestible, but it’s not so much an exposé as a recap, and rarely reaches a level of complexity or insight that makes it a worthwhile venture. 

Yesterday I ordered two new books: Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (another on the bucket list) and Uwe Schutte’s Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany. The reviews I’ve read indicate that Schutte analyses Kraftwerk as a phenomenon permeating and influencing various forms of cultural representation (music, graphic design, cinematography), and so I’m particularly excited to get stuck in.


Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Julian Barnes, ‘The Sense of an Ending’

‘“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed”’ – that’s the fundamental idea informing Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winning work The Sense of an Ending. In one sense, the whole text is a meditation on memory and its shortcomings. Memories are subjective, they get remoulded and repurposed over time, Barnes contends. 

I spent a lot of time trying to summarise the plot in a short and concise manner, but really struggled – apologies for the elongated synopsis below. The text is divided into two sections (1 & 2) and told from the (unreliable) first-person perspective of Tony Webster. In the first section, Tony recounts his formative years. We are introduced to his friends (Colin, Alex and most importantly, Adrian) and their shared years at secondary school, as well as Veronica, his girlfriend at the University of Bristol, whose family house he visits during a summer break. After breaking up with Veronica, Tony soon finds out that she has become romantically interested with his school friend, Adrian. He sends an angry letter to her and breaks contact. The section ends with Tony returning home from travelling in America after university, where he finds out that Adrian has committed suicide. In the second section Tony, now in old age, is prompted to look back into his past and re-examine his imperfect memories. 

Although I found the pacing of the novel quite slow at times in the second section, the climax was absorbing and tense. The final revelations force the reader to reconsider Tony’s narrative in a whole new light, become a literary detective and piece together the various clues amongst the faded memories. I’m trying to comment without revealing any major spoilers, but a quote from a review by The iIndependent captures the mood well: ‘the concluding scenes grip like a thriller – a whodunnit of memory and morality’. It is to Barnes credit that we initially read Tony as a genuine, average – if not emotional protagonist, with Veronica the unstable and calculating antithesis. But memories are subjective, and once the repressed past surfaces, we draw closer to the causes of Adrian’s suicide and Veronica’s anxieties – Tony has a part to play in both. 

Sexuality is another major theme in the novel. Tony describes his clique of friends as ‘sex-hungry’, and the metaphor of the ‘holding-pen’, from which they are ‘waiting to be released’, denotes their desire for sexual, as well as social, liberation. Throughout the first section, Tony’s disdain towards Veronica is centred around her rejection of sex. Later, it is implied that Sarah’s (Veronica’s mother) sexual transgressions have stunted her daughter’s psychological growth. Issues in the private, sexual sphere repeatedly spill out into the public world and cause great pain, affecting both filial and romantic relationships. 

The Sense of an Ending is dramatically different in tone, style and register to England, England, the only other Barnes novel I’ve read – this attests to authorial scope and imagination. The real achievement of The Sense of an Ending is that it offers no concrete ending. Upon completion, it demands to be re-read and analysed further. This process mimics the text’s plot, in which Tony must confront and scrutinise his murky past from a new perspective, peeling away the layers of artificiality he has constructed in his head. 

Competition and Co-operation in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’

Today I stumbled across a few of my old essays from university and thought I’d share one. The essay in question felt pertinent in the current climate given its focus on competition and co-operation. It explores the contrasting value systems in Charles Dickens’ great satirical novel, Hard Times

Discuss Competition and Co-operation in Hard Times

Much of the narrative tension in Hard Times revolves around the ‘opposition of two value systems’. The circus, espousing co-operation and empathy, is a site where counter-cultural ideas are expressed and practiced. In contrast, the prevailing ideology is one that permits conflict, promoting self-interest at the expense of others. Mr Bounderby and Bitzer come to embody this hegemonic world-view, and Sissy Jupe the former. Competition is ubiquitous throughout Coketown, and is embedded into institutions like the school; it is the circus-folk’s marginalised existence that shields them from this destructive force. Dickens mistrusted the ‘reductive but compelling account of laissez-faire capitalism’ offered by political economy. His depiction of a hyper-competitive environment, where social relations are warped and ethical development is shackled, speculates on the potential damage to a society built on the mantra of self-interest.

Centred around the fundamental value of Fancy, the circus purports an ethical code in opposition to the prevailing ideology of the novel. Analysing the meaning of Fancy in Hard Times, Sonstroem concludes that one aspect relates to ‘fellow feeling: compassion, sentiment’. The human ‘pyramid’ that the circus men enact highlights these ideals in practice; based on mutual experience and interdependence, the pyramid requires each man to respect and trust his fellow showman. The circus folk’s commitment to forming co-operative relations is apparent throughout, particularly in their treatment of Sissy Jupe following her father’s disappearance. Indeed, Sleary proposes the formation of a surrogate family, promising the girl that ‘Emma Gordon… would be a mother to you, and Joth’phine would be a thither’ (p. 41). In attempting to alleviate the burden on Sissy and replace the familial ties she has lost, Sleary demonstrates an instinctive desire to provide for the girl, altruistic behaviour that is commonplace in the troupe. Further, the narrator implies that it is Mr Childers’ manners and craft that prompt Gradgrind’s compassionate proposal: ‘he had sought to conciliate that gentleman, for the sake of the deserted girl’ (p. 37). Childers, in part, secures Sissy the right to an education, allowing her the opportunity to fulfil her father’s will. 

If the circus is the main site of co-operation in the novel, then Sissy is its agent. Her presence ensures that the doctrine of compassion reverberates around the narrative despite Dickens’ limited engagement with the circus. In the wake of Louisa’s emotional breakdown, Sissy offers her companionship: ‘‘‘I would be something to you, if I might”’ (p. 209). Laid bare is Sissy’s genuine desire to form intimate relations. Although shunned by Louisa following Bounderby’s proposal, she retains no ill-feeling, and her honesty and warmth suffuse through Stone Lodge. Jane’s ‘beaming face’ (p. 204) is attributed to the humanising influence of her adopted sister, and contrasts with the ‘doubtful flashes’ (p. 17) evident in a young Louisa, schooled instead in Gradgrind’s repressive theories on human nature. The major triumph of Sissy – and indeed the values she symbolises – is her confrontation with the James Harthouse, who antithetically epitomises rugged individualism. Spurred by the ‘commission of.. [her].. love’ (p. 215), Sissy pressures Harthouse into leaving Coketown, temporarily renouncing his self-interest in a complete subversion of character. The use of the noun ‘commission’ implies that she cannot but submit to a deep-rooted impulse to protect those around her. Harthouse’s departure is, then, a victory for solicitousness over egocentrism. 

Antithetical to the circus is the school, a space in which co-operation is limited. The Coketown school is under the influence of the caricatured utilitarian dogmatist, Mr Gradgrind, and his Philosophy of Fact. Singled out in front of the class, Sissy is noted to have ‘blushed’ (p. 8, 10, 11) multiple times in the chapter ‘Murdering the Innocents’, a telling indicator of her shame. As the chapter title suggests, the school is a hostile environment in which relations are governed by fear and students are ridiculed into conformity. If, as Humphrey contends, the novel bemoans the lack of  ‘moral virtues.. in personal relations but also the work-place and government’, it looks towards educational institutions also. As later in Hard Times, Sissy represents an incongruous force; quizzed on the basic tenet of political economy, she replies to Mr M’Choakumchild ‘To do unto others as I would that they should do unto me’ (p. 57). Paraphrasing Matthew’s ‘Golden Rule’, Sissy’s answer reads as a satirical riposte to the cold-hearted self-interest at the basis of Gradgrind’s philosophy. Her misplaced allusion to Christian ethics is Dickens’ affirmation of a world-view that promotes mutual respect and and affection. 

Stephen Blackpool’s rescue in ‘The Starlight’ is one example of co-operation that is not spearheaded by Sleary or his company. Inter-class synergy is vital to the effort, as representative members of the middle-class like the ‘surgeon’ (p. 248) unite forces with working-class men counting a ‘pitman’ (p. 250), to achieve a shared goal. There is an organic quality to Dickens’ description of the community: ‘Every one waited with his grasp set, … ready to reverse and wind in’. (p. 250). Uniformity of action turns the individual members of the rescue party into a collective force for good. When Stephen is raised from the Old Hell Shaft ‘A low murmur of pity went round the throng, and the women wept aloud’ (p. 251). The capacity for empathy amongst the community is highlighted, closely mimicking the allusions to crying noted earlier in the novel when Stephen is ostracised for refusing to join the Union. In the absence of Slackbridge’s divisive discourse, the people rally together, a nod to the potential inherent in society for co-operation.

Returning again to Sleary’s troupe, the ending demonstrates their ability to co-operate with wider society – namely the Gradgrinds – despite apparent ideological differences. Their willingness to help those outside of their peripheral existence is not reflected by Coketown’s inhabitants, who largely perceive the circus-folk as ‘useless vagabonds at best, and at worst as evil seducers of the ignorant and unwary’. The narrow-minded, prejudicial attitude is epitomised by Gradgrind, who initially comes to tell Sissy that ‘her connexions made her not an object for the school’ (38). Bigotry is thus an integral part of the hegemonic culture. Sleary, however, challenges this notion by preventing Bitzer from incarcerating Tom and risking Bounderby’s wrath. He tells Sissy ‘The Thquire stood by you, Thethilia, and I’ll thtand by the Thquire’ (266), invoking the spirit of solidarity synonymous with the circus. In allying with Gradgrind, Sleary looks beyond their philosophical differences and rewards empathy with empathy. The closing scene functions as a reverse of the second chapter, with Gradgrind becoming student, not teacher. Here a new philosophy is preached, built around ‘a love in the world, not all Thelf-intheretht after all’ (p. 269); it is a message of inclusivity and acceptance that serves to complete Gradgrind’s metamorphosis. 

Having analysed ‘co-operation’ in some detail, the remainder of this essay considers ‘competition’ in Hard Times. As Hilary Schor asserts, Dickens sought to ‘represent the systems of thought that both produced and sustain[ed]’ the miseries of industrialism. The ideology of laissez-faire capitalism, one such thought, is epitomised by Mr Bounderby, the self-centred and cold-hearted industrialist. Recalling those who exploited him in his mythologized childhood, Bounderby claims ‘‘They were right; they had no business to do anything else’ (p. 21). Exposed is a world-view that naturalises competition and equates ruthless individualism with what is morally sound. Bounderby’s belief that struggle is a fundamental part of society distorts his perception of industrial relations. He identifies a chasm between man and master, policing his workers, whose sole aim is ‘to be fed on turtle-soup and venison, with a gold spoon’ (p. 120). This anxiety centres around a fantasy that Coketown’s employees are seeking to profit at his expense. The implication that the workers are somehow work-shy and hedonistic is grossly misinformed, but the discourse of antagonism at the core of Bounderby’s attitude skewers his view of reality. He is, on a symbolic level, the product of a socio-economic system that validates conflict in the name of individual gain. 

It is also Bounderby who Dickens employs to critique the organic vision of society at the heart of political economy. Hard Times is particularly conscious that ‘industrialising, commercial society featured economic losers as well as winners, have-nots as well as haves’. This reality is apparent in the Stephen-Bounderby dynamic. For, it is Bounderby’s fear of insubordination amongst his workers (‘chaps who have always got a grievance’ (p. 143)) that prompts him to cruelly dismiss Stephen Blackpool, whose subsequent fall into an old mining shaft completes a metaphorical descent into hell. The presence of ‘economic losers’ like Stephen and fundamental power imbalances in the novel problematises the view that free competition might create ‘a rational, mutually beneficial and dynamic way of connecting people’. More broadly, the hardship of the workers is a reminder that in such a system for one to prosper many must suffer. The Hands live in a ‘labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts’ (p. 64) where the macabre motif of the ‘black-ladder’ (p. 67) is a stark reminder that death looms ever present. This claustrophobic, hellish evocation of Coketown contrasts patently with Bounderby’s arcadian country grounds: ‘a rustic landscape, golden with heath’ (p. 157). 

The fractious nature of Coketown is further attributed to a flawed educational system. Bitzer, the austere bourgeois aspirant, is shown to be a product of his schooling. Likened to a vampire, Bitzer’s ‘cold eyes’ and skin ‘so unwholesomely deficient in… natural tinge’ (p. 9) hint at both his future parasitic behaviour, and also his emotional detachment: common traits within an ideological apparatus that ‘consciously institutes division’. During the scene in the school Gradgrind sets up a paradigm of competition that the impressionable Bitzer will follow throughout the novel. In an act of public shaming, Gradgrind shouts “Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!”’ (p. 9), humiliating Sissy for placing imagination above fact. A repeat incident occurs some two chapters laters, whereby Bitzer imitates his pedagogue, asking Sissy ‘‘if she would know how to define a horse to-morrow’ (p. 29). Evidently Bitzer’s propensity to expose those who are vulnerable or unconventional is formed in Coketown’s educational academy; a failure to properly cultivate his youthful ‘imagination leads to egocentrism and a lack of understanding for others’ as the narrative continues. 

Bitzer, then, develops into a competitive and exploitative individual in the mould of Bounderby. He comes to hold the ironically ‘respectable office of general spy and informer’ (p. 109) in the bank, claiming a small bonus at christmas. Espionage is an apt service for the light porter, who is willing to sever relations in the name of material gain. Bitzer believes rational behaviour is that which benefits the self, and is consequently troubled because the Hands do not betray their Union, relinquishing the opportunity to ‘earn a trifle now and then, … and improve their livelihood’ (p. 112). In his view betrayal is a means to an end – and the underlying motive, social elevation, always justifies the means. Burdened by his stunted moral development, Bitzer retains a calculated and removed outlook that is sub-human in nature. Despite the tension in penultimate chapter, he calmly foresees his future prosperity: ‘I have no doubt that Mr Bounderby will then promote me to young Mr Tom’s situation’ (p. 264). The dialogue is bereft of emotion, and Dickens details no hint of hesitation on the part of Bitzer, even though Tom is sure to be imprisoned as a result. He has become robotic in his ways: an example of the danger to one’s humanity posed by Gradgrind’s marrying of utilitarian ethics and political economy. 

If Hard Times can, and should, be read as a critique of rampant individualism and conflict in society, the ending somewhat problematises this interpretation. In ‘Final’ the omniscient narrator relays the future prospects of the characters; Bounderby, who will soon ‘die of a fit in the Coketown street’ (p. 272-73), is clearly punished for his belligerence. Nevertheless, it is Bitzer who escapes repercussions, described as ‘the rising young man… who had won young Tom’s place’ (p. 272). He has ascended from relative poverty into the aspiring middle-class, usurping Tom at the Bank. Immoral behaviour notwithstanding, this ranks as a success for the philosophy of self-interest. Dickens is not however endorsing Bitzer’s actions, instead, his victory functions as a caution that the ‘self-interested, materialist emphasis of political economy.. [could].. dominate and thus diminish humanity’s potential’. The narrator’s final comment: ‘Dear reader! It rests with you and me’ (p. 274) stresses the reader and writer as agents alike in countering the ethical rot that Dickens had delineated in the novel.

Although Hard Times is sceptical about the systems of thought informing conceptions of social relations, there is a sense of optimism in the organic model offered by the circus. Incidents like the removal of Stephen Blackpool from the Old Hell Shaft also signal co-operative and sympathetic behaviour in practice. As aforementioned, this is offset by the desire to compete that is so ingrained into the psyche of many characters, and has disastrous implications for, amongst other things, industrial relations and human potential. A social apparatus founded on a belief in individual self-interest is thus shown to inevitably lead to conflict. Most worrying is the notion that in striving for success one must invariably trample upon others: Bitzer and Bounderby even equate this notion with what is rational, or morally sound. Considering that Hard Times celebrates moments of co-operative behaviour, for additional research it would be apt to consider Dickens’ negative portrayal of the Union, as this has not been considered in this essay.