Book Review: “Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart – The Grimmest Novel ever Written?

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maybe not, but it must be up there. Choose a grim city – Glasgow (disclaimer, I’ve never been to Glasgow, and I’ve heard it’s improved a lot, but back in the 70s, 80s it had a terrible reputation e.g. look up the meaning of “A Glasgow Kiss“). Choose a grim period for that city – when Margaret Thatcher was destroying the fabric of British society, because she didn’t believe that society actually existed. Choose the grimmest parts of the city – the tenements and a dead coal mining town. Choose a dysfunctional family – abusive father, alcoholic mother. Choose a troubled child – a boy struggling with his sexual identity in an environment where anything non-standard is met with shaming and violence. This is what Douglas Stuart is writing about. He won the Booker Prize for this, his first novel, in 2020. It’s a hard, hard read and is, perhaps, overly long. I made it to the end, just, but it is deeply depressing.

However, the writing is good. The depiction of Shuggie and his family is based on Stuart’s own experience – his own family and those around him in his Glasgow childhood. The characterisation of Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, is particularly strong. Indeed, the book might be more accurately titled “Agnes Bain”, though that doesn’t have the same ring. Somehow the character of Shuggie was never entirely clear to me, nor that of his brother Leek.

Above all this novel is a condemnation of Thatcher’s policies, of the devastation wreaked on working class communities, especially those dependent on dying industries – their death made sudden and painful by Thatcher. What once were probably close knit, supportive communities became spiteful, poverty stricken, addicted gaggles of people with no jobs, no future, no hope.


© Mike Hopkins 2021

View all my reviews

On Retreat at Glenbarr

I spent the weekend (16-18th April 2021) on a meditation retreat held at a beautiful old homestead in Strathalbyn, about an hour’s drive from Adelaide. I’ve done several retreats over the last ten years or so, including a ten day Vipassana retreat in Battambang, Cambodia, and various 2-5 day retreats in South Australia. This one was run by Anna Markey, of Coast and City Sangha, at Glenbarr homestead. I met Anna before Covid when she and Ken Golding ran a climate change themed retreat in Victor Harbor. I liked her approach and sporadically attended her sessions in Adelaide until Covid forced a halt. Her approach is unlike others I’ve experienced, in that she does not recommend trying to avoid or ignore your thoughts during meditation — rather, she espouses recollective awareness, whereby you allow your thoughts to occur, and briefly journal them at the end of the meditation. In this way, over time, you become aware of your predominant patterns of thinking. The weekend was mostly spent in silence (apart from dharma related discussions), and without any electronic distractions. There were multiple meditations each day, mostly forty-five minutes long plus a short journaling session after each meditation.

I haven’t been writing much since the start of Covid, so this period of quiet isolation was an opportunity to get back to poetry of some kind, however basic. As part of my post meditation journaling I wrote a haiku-like (not all strictly haiku format) poem related to either the meditation or the discussion.

Glenbarr Homestead was built in 1842. It has a huge personality of its own, and is home to a range of very active wildlife. On the first evening, for instance, a bat came into the meditation hall and swooped over our heads for several minutes before being enticed outside by turning all the lights off except for an external lamp. A huge flock of correllas made regular flights over the property, and there were numerous unidentified animals to be heard running around and over the roof.

Meditation One:

what is the sound

of one bat flapping?

The Heritage Wall:

Its sounds are impervious

to our passing thoughts

Meditation Three:

The roof is alive

to the sound of footsteps

Even your own mug

can teach you a life lesson

about attachment

A meat-eater’s tee-shirt:

how can a vegan respond

in a skilful way?

Need a more Buddhist

response to the barking dog

than “Shut the Fuck Up”

Scott Morrison’s path

is less of The Middle Way

more The Muddle Way 

Sounds of the Sangha

Throat clearing, yawns and snoring

test my compassion

He was too far out

all his life, not sleeping

but meditating

The discussion group

wanders off the eightfold path,

falls over a cliff

St. Leonard Cohen

let me burn the fuel

of my agitation

May I witness the

causes and conditions

of my grumpiness

Each chattering thought

is like a corella’s squawk

saying “Look at me”

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2021

Book Review: The Application of Pressure by Rachael Mead

53658069. sy475

The application of pressure by Rachael Mead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is, in equal parts, an insightful, jaw-dropping, hilarious, horrifying novel about the lives of two paramedics in Adelaide, South Australia. Mead leads us through the careers of two paramedics, Joel and Tash, from their initial training through to their becoming veterans of the profession. She does this using fairly self-contained chapters, each recounting part of a day in the life of the heroes of the book. And heroes they are. After reading this book, you will have a new-found respect for this profession, because Mead pulls no punches in describing the blood, gore, faeces and other bodily fluids they deal with on a day-to-day basis. She also sheds light on the vast range of people treated by paramedics, from the innocent victims of car crashes to the druggies and domestic abusers. But she does this by placing front and centre the humanity of the paramedics, the toll on their personal lives and the mental strain on them and their partners. She also leavens it with a healthy dose of humour – at times a wry humour, at other times outright belly laughs.

This is Mead’s first novel, and all the more impressive for that. But she is already an experienced and highly-respected poet and reviewer. This experience is evident in the quality of the writing, the depth of characterisation and the easy flow of her story-telling. You can count on the authenticity of the stories because her husband is himself a paramedic, so she has an unparalleled level of insight into the life of what Australians simplistically refer to as “ambos”.

Above all this is a rollicking good read which you will not want to put down.

Tip: never again refer to a paramedic as an ambulance driver. But read this book and if you ever need to call emergency services, you will hopefully be in the capable hands of a Joel or a Tash.

View all my reviews

What did you do in the …?

Number 6 in the weekly poems written with the “Poetry in a time of Pestilence” group.

What did you do in the …?

A Golden Shovel using part of “Speech To The Young : Speech To The Progress-Toward” by Gwendolyn Brooks


We wrote for distraction and we’d say

“let’s meet for wine and gossip”, to

drink in words, to laugh at them

and to bless us, to crush sour grapes, to say

“another bottle”, to walk the city dark, to

find the last bar, the last resort, the

place for desperates and down-keepers,

to string out the night like Christmas lights, to coax the

right words, to praise the sun-slappers,

to empty ourselves and our souls, to overshare the

daily drama, berate the self-soilers,

the donkey-men, the lairs and pikers, to sift the

possibilities, drown out the harmony-hushers

decant our thoughts and Lord knows we even

hugged and held hands and danced, as if

that would be enough to save the world for you.

© Mike Hopkins 2020

In Which I Confess To Plagiarising Many Poems (PiatoP#5)


In Which I Confess To

Plagiarising Many Poems

Plagiarising Ross Sutherland

On my way home from the poetry reading,

I call into The Austral for a steadying drink

and marvel at the fact that I, Michael J Hopkins,

have not yet been exposed as a plagiarist.


Even though my bio states that I have been heavily influenced

by certain other poets, that I’ve read widely, that I may be channeling

Gertrude Stein and Kenneth Koch, that I attend séances

where my pen is possessed by the spirits of dead poets,


the critics still praise me as an original talent. In my early period

I would make at least some effort to cover my tracks. Lifting whole slabs

of works by obscure Canadian poets was my favourite gambit. Thankfully,

not many people have a copy of Best Manitoban Poetry 1997.


I just replaced snow with red dirt, Douglas firs

with Blue gums, grizzlies with kangaroos, Pierre Trudeau

with Paul Keating and was careful to remove

all references to Mounties. Over time I became bolder.


I incorporated well-known lines unchanged: I wandered lonely

Shall I compare thee …, It was the man from Ironbark …  But my audiences

smiled at my cleverness and applauded. These days I steal poems

wholesale. I can hardly be bothered to change the title. I won the T.S. Eliot


with a clone of The Waste Land, (opening line: August is the shittest month)

the Blake Prize with a knock-off of And did those feet in ancient time,

set to a mix of cockney rhyming slang and ocker (And ya reckon those plates back in the day…?),

the Montreal Prize with a sonnet commencing Shall I compare thee to a winter’s night?


My proudest achievement is putting a third-century Chinese classic through

Google Translate and publishing it as my own original homage to Tao Yuanming.

SQuadrant described it as poetry of ennui, shifting towards sustained

transcendental inclination. It’s great they can find jobs for these critics.


When people ask me to autograph books of my poetry, I sign

with someone else’s name: Keats, Collins, Armitage, even Heaney.

Think of a poet, I’ve copied them. But people don’t bother to read

the scrawled inscription: All their own work or the badly forged signature.


Ira Lightman will track me down eventually,

but I’ll transfer the prize money to the Cayman Islands and decamp

to a south-east Asian country where poetry is valued more than the poet who claims

to have written it and where they appreciate a genuine charlatan.


Er… © 2020 Mike Hopkins. Image from here

Listen to Ross Sutherland’s poem here

Crackertown (PiatoP#4)


No photo description available.

I’ve started, with a group of friends, writing a poem a week during these strange Covid-19 days. I’ll share mine here, regardless of quality. This is the fourth. 


I’m drinking in Crackertown

because teaching a class of bored, phone-fixated teenagers makes me thirsty

because riding home on my motorbike takes me through Crackertown

because Crackertown is full of cheap bars and cafes and reprobates, lots of reprobates

because of the waft of dope, the construction dust, the security guard who looks like my favourite uncle, the fairy lights around the doors

because the bar staff remember me from when I was here ten days ago and might be the only ones all week to ask “how are you?”

because of the brown-snouted, hairy-backed pig trotting from bar to bar, snuffling nuts dropped on the floor

because of the sense that something outrageous has just happened or is about to happen and I want to be there, to witness

because of the low purr of the fridge full of Saigon Specials and Hudas and the sound of the cash drawer clicking out and in and the shuffling of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese dong

because the fellow teacher, who is a dick, walks in and says “Got any spliff man”

because the bar owner went upstairs and got some

because his wife has the shortest shorts I’ve ever seen

because the amateur singers are really, really good

because I can Shazam the music all night

because the two wasted old expats, skinny as rakes, tattooed on every limb, are throwing roundhouse punches in the street but soon will be hugging each other like lovers

because not once in nine months have I ever seen police in the street but rats every night, rats as big as cats, dozens of them, and most weeks motorbike crashes at the crossroads and still no police

because of more old expat guys gazing through an alcohol haze at half-their-age Vietnamese girlfriends

because I meet N and G at Taco Ngon, just a shack by the side of the road, and we choose from the menu of only four types of taco and four types of sauce and beer at $1 a can which we help ourselves to from an ice-filled esky and line up the empties on the low table on the pavement to show how many we’ve drunk

because the waitress counts our empties and paper plates at the end of the night and pencils up a bill for us and on a quiet night the owner invites me to play some incomprehensible board game which I always lose

because everybody in Crackertown is waiting for something, even the pig and the rats and the security guard who looks like my uncle.


“Crackertown” is a name given to the area around the An Thuong streets near where I lived in Danang.


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2020 except photo from here

I Can’t Swear There Wasn’t Love (PiatoP#3)


This is the third of the weekly poems written during the Covid-19 social distancing. The prompt this week was to write a poem which might be entered into one of several competitions. The subjects included place, water, mysticism and love. I don’t write many (serious) love poems, so this is a rarity. Its also a Golden Shovel, a form invented by Terrance Hayes in tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks. It takes lines from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem and uses each word as the last word in each line of the new poem. So if you read down the last word of my poem it will reveal part of the Brooks poem. And of course, the voice in the poem is not necessarily the voice of the poet.

I Can’t Swear There Wasn’t Love

(A Golden Shovel – using part of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story”)

We undressed

our childhood wounds and

bared the stripes whipped

into our skins and held out

our scarred wrists. I can’t swear there wasn’t love at the

start, or even in the middle. I confess to conjuring a light

in her eyes, to loving the lilt in her voice and

being charmed by the way we flowed

across the dancefloor. It turned into

love of a kind, a shared bed,

a sense of being different and

being outsiders as we lay

in a tight-knit town, clinging, loose-limbed

to each other, mistaking alliance for

something deeper. I took on a

co-star role, but could not sustain the moment

-um or remember my lines. Outcasts in

a city of priests and zealots, we scorned the

wafer-thin piety, the schizophrenic week-end

binges of alcohol and devotion. In the bright

light of Sunday, the mothball aroma of bedclothes

and best suits was suffocating then.


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2020 except image which is from here



What You Missed That Day You Were Absent From Meditation Class (PiatoP#2)


I’ve started, with a group of friends, writing a poem a week during these strange Covid-19 days. I’ll share mine here, regardless of quality. The second is a response to, or inspired by, or in parallel to the poem “What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade” by Brad Aaron Modlin here.

What You Missed That Day You Were Absent From Meditation Class

after Brad Aaron Modlin

Rinpoché explained how to breathe, to notice the space between inbreath and outbreath,

and how to locate the part of the mind that sends a shiver down your spine when listening


to Sibelius. He spoke of the wisdom of doing nothing and about waking in a panic at four

every morning. He suggested you think about who you were before you were somebody.


The morning dharma talk was about how combing your hair can be a meditation on loss

or even on grief. After a long sit in silence, he gave instruction on how to study a picture


of yourself as a child – to focus on the area around your eyes and forehead where you may see

your life compressed. There was a question and answer session on how to manage self-esteem


when ‘self’ and ‘esteem’ are delusions, and how to reorganise your mental filing cabinet

(hint: not alphabetically). This prompted him to draw a rough schematic of Shakespeare’s mind


at the time he was writing sonnets. The group discussed how not to scream when sending

loving kindness to world leaders and could the Buddha have been wrong about rage


being impermanent? Before sounding the gong, Rinpoché set the task for the coming week:

to find a good home for the people living rent-free in your head.


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2020 except image which is from here

Poems in a time of Pestilence #1

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) - United States Department of ...

I’ve started, with a group of friends, writing a poem a week during these strange Covid-19 days. I’ll share mine here, regardless of quality. The first was a response to, or inspired by, or in parallel to a poem about Covid-19 written by Simon Armitage here.

Let Me Count the Ways of My Virus …

… it causes men in pubs to speak at less than eighty decibels,

dogs to squeak like mice after three barks,

Americans to stop saying “reach out” (unless singing The Four Tops),

Australians to stop saying “that’s unAustralian”,

and shockjocks to receive a shock

every time they broadcast bullshit.

It turns politicians’ lies into pig grunts,

small children’s squeals into flute concerti,

football crowds’ racist chants into hymns,

sermons into words Jesus might have said,

suicide bombers into peaceniks,

soldiers’ rifle sights into pictures of their families,

dirty water into freshly squeezed orange juice,

cheap plonk into organic tempranillo,

dog shit into buttercups,

homelessness into homecoming,

cheeseburgers into vegan Bánh mì.

It causes bad poets to go hoarse,

spoken word poets to stop rhyming,

poker machines to pay out more than they take.

It amplifies choirs,

cools the Antarctic icecap,

gives pollen back to bees,

skims everything above a million dollars

from millionaires’ bank accounts

and spreads it like fertiliser

amongst the homeless.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2020 except image which is U.S. Department of State

Book Review: “Don’t Skip out on Me” by Willy Vlautin, plus a few others

「Don't Skip Out on Me」(Willy Vlautin - 9780062799463)| 楽天Kobo

Don’t Skip Out on Me by Willy Vlautin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A book with it’s own soundtrack by the author! I heard Willy Vlautin speak at Adelaide Writers Week a few years ago. He is an engaging speaker, I think a Vietnam Vet, and a band musician. That’s quite a combination of experiences for a still relatively young man. His book “The Free” was about a Vietnam vet, but I reviewed it as three stars “… I struggled at times to follow the narrative, which switches between reality and anaesthetic induced dreams.”

This book is really, really good. The arc of the story is straightforward – young man, Horace, who is part American Indian, part Irish, part Nevadan has been abandoned by his parents when young, and rescued by working on a remote sheep farm for a couple who we only ever know as Mr. and Mrs. Reece. He has a dream to be a boxing champion and, for some reason, be thought of as Mexican, because he is ashamed of his Indian heritage. The Reeces love him as their own son, but must let him go to follow his boxing dream. He is a good boxer, but is he a champion? The rest of the book follows his trajectory towards his goal.

Vlautin now writes clear, concise and deceptively simple prose. It is a gripping story and the relationship between Horace and the Reeces is heartbreaking.

Vlautin’s band, Richmond Fontaine, have a lovely alt-country album with the same title as the book, on which each track depicts a section of the book. Tailor made to be the soundtrack of a film of the book.

Highly recommended.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good read, but impossible to match “The Handmaid’s Tale”. I thought the ending was a touch “Harry Potter”-ish as if it was rushed to meet a deadline.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found it a hard read. The story of a family (or are they) who have escaped a male dominated apocalyptic land to live alone on a remote island or peninsula. Interesting premise but, for me, not engaging, although I stayed with it to the end

Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting insight into the mind of a grieving man, centred around his journey from Belfast to Sunderland at Christmas, to retrieve his (probably) mentally disturbed son and bring him home. Not that engaging for me, but engaging enough for me to finish it.

View all my reviews