Book Review: “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took me a while to finish this book, and at times it was hard going. Without having read the background to it, I’m assuming it is a non-fiction, autobiographical work. It’s really about grief and obsession. It follows the author’s battle to overcome the death of her father, who was an inspirational figure to her.

She channels this grief into falconry, specifically into the training of a goshawk with the unlikely name of “Mabel”. Her father was obsessive about aircraft, spending long days, as a boy, aircraft spotting, noting down aircraft numbers and types in multiple notebooks. The author’s gaze is similarly drawn skywards, but to birds, especially raptors. She comes across a 1950s book by T.H. White, “The Goshawk”, which chronicles that author’s struggle to train a goshawk. White too was suffering psychologically, battling his homosexual urges. Macdonald’s travails are paralleled throughout the book to the struggles of White.

In many ways it is a fascinating story, though not gripping enough to make it, for me, hard to put down. There is a lot of detail about goshawks, their dietary requirements, their plumage, their weight, which the average reader might not find fascinating.

As a vegetarian, I also had qualms about her use of the goshawk to kill rabbits, pheasants and doves, and was less than persuaded by her glowing account of how Canada is so much more advanced because hunting is ingrained in Canadian life. Of course, Goshawks kill in their natural state, but to me, the confining of a wild animal for much of its life in a suburban home, feeding it on assorted frozen meats, and taking it out to hunt on the city outskirts is of questionable morality. Keen falconers and non-vegetarians of course are likely to disagree.

Macdonald’s writing style is top class. It is a story worth telling and she tells it well.

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Erin Thornback Reviews “Selfish Bastards”

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To be precise, Cordite Poetry Review’s Erin Thornback reviews “Selfish Bastards and Other Poems” by Mike Hopkins and “Jardin du Luxembourg and Other Poems” by Steve Brock (both Garron Publishing, 2016).

The full review is here.

It can be intimidating to have your work reviewed, especially by someone  you’ve never met who writes for a prestigious publication like Cordite. It’s interesting that people often pick out lines that you regarded as ordinary, and (presumably) regard as ordinary, lines that you felt a bit smug about. That happens at readings too – the biggest reaction can sometimes be to lines that you underestimated, and, by turns, lines that you thought were belters produce little reaction. As they say, once you put a poem out there, it’s out of your control.

Here are a few snippets from Erin’s review from 13th December 2016 :

“Displaying an impulse that is communitarian and geographic by turns, Mike Hopkins’s Selfish Bastards and Other Poems, and Steve Brock’s Jardin du Luxembourg and Other Poems address the quotidian of the present under the notion that place-based does not necessarily mean place-bound. ….. Hopkins’ collection … unfolds in a specific place, articulating a contemporary critique of the Australian present. The poems are inflected with the volatility of political lyricism in ‘Selfish Bastards’ and ‘Anzacery’, and Hopkins’ ‘In the Beginning was the Cliché’ terrifically probes and parodies popular culture.

… Mike Hopkins’s Selfish Bastards places his truth within the perception of Australia’s political stage. This truth can compete in the public arena with the ‘truth’ that is portrayed by politicians, such as:

Politicians who tell us we need to tighten our belt, and then
use a helicopter to go to a cocktail party — Selfish Bastards

…. Being free from the same existential competition that obligates politicians to indulge their constituent public, Hopkin’s doesn’t flatter and indulge his audience in the eponymous slam poem:

People in the audience who don’t shout out “SELFISH 
BASTARDS” when politely asked to do so — Selfish Bastards! 

Rather, the poem performs in front of the reader’s eyes, the musicality of the concluding refrains unpacking the realities of our monotone and formulaic reality:

People who like their own posts on Facebook — Selfish Bastards!

Indeed, Selfish Bastards signals a condemnation of contemporary society. Reinforced in ‘The Template’ and ‘In the Beginning was the Cliché’, we are confronted with thick hectic prose, sentence fragments and the hackneyed that has taken ‘the world by storm, though it was a small world, when all is said and done’. These clichés humorously gain momentum in ‘In the Beginning was the Cliché’, as the people ‘did not stay glued / to the one true cliché’ but ‘ took to false clichés like ducks to water’. In ‘The Template’ Hopkins satirises the public treatment of our magazine society and paper-politicians:

Another soldier dead. Pull
out the template and we’ll 
knock off the news story in 
a flash. First the headline: 
“Digger” and “fallen” are
mandatory words. “Brave”
and salute are excellent 
accompaniments.

Structured like a traditional newspaper spread in two columns side by side, such portrayals are confrontational to the say the least, but there is also a sense of warning that is conspicuous here. Hopkins, in similar tonality to Brock’s ‘Hollywood Hotel’, takes an itinerary of the cookie-cutter Australian media and divisive political scene:

Get a shot or two of 
the politicians in the pews, 
and the comforting the next 
of kin outside the church. 
After all they’ve sacrificed 
their precious time to
attend the service, and 
they like to see that we’ve 
stuck to the template.

The words ‘cliché’ and ‘template’ are key here. The tired terminology is fixed in repetition, an endless ventriloquy hovering over texts, criticising and energising in turn. The geographic impulses that these texts address is one of renewal, the language resonating with a precise duplicity that recognises regardless of the place, we encounter distance, we are always a tourist on the outskirts of a template, political, humorous or based in the explorative:

This rule is our rule: 
THIS DAY IS NOT FOR YOU

(‘Anzacery’, by Hopkins).

---------------

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017 except content from Cordite Poetry Review 2016

 

How a comedian had over 1,000 paedophiles indicted

Barry Crimmins is a comedian. His aims in life are to overthrow the Government of the United States and to close down the Catholic Church. So you can see he thinks big. After establishing himself as the edgiest comedian in the U.S.A in the ’80s, especially in terms of political satire, Crimmins turned his attention to waging war on paedophiles.

He was called as an expert witness to a Senate Judiciary Committee in 1995 and provided evidence that resulted in over 1,000 indictments against people trafficking paedophile images and online stalking of children. He exposed the then leading American internet provider, AOL, as being complicit in, and profiting from, online chat rooms for paedophiles.

Crimmins is still active as a performer and campaigner. He was raised a Catholic, but now regularly tweets the Pope, asking to be excommunicated.

His amazing story is told in the documentary “Call Me Lucky”. It is, at turns, hilarious, heartbreaking and inspirational.

Songs that Benny Hill could have written -1

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I wrote a poem once called “The bands you’ve never heard of”, which describes my habit of losing interest in bands once they become famous. A classic example is Fleetwood Mac, who, before they became a chart busting pop band, were a great British blues band. They were led by the brilliant but tragic figure of Peter Green. Peter was a great guitarist and singer, and had significant success with Fleetwood Mac (initially known as Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac) with big selling tracks such as “Man of the World” and “Green Manalishi”. But he couldn’t handle fame and money, and especially drugs. A fascinating documentary tells the sad tale of his fall.

Which is an off-topic introduction to what I think will be a series of posts about songs I’ve heard that could have been written by Benny Hill. The first is an early Fleetwood Mac track, “Lazy Poker Blues”. Great blues shuffle, with lyrics that Benny would approve of, and typical Peter Green vocals and lead guitar. I bought the vinyl album “Mr. Wonderful” in South Harrow market in about  1968. Why might Benny Hill have written the lyrics? Bleedin’ obvious innit.

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017

Titles (probably a bad title for a blog post)

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Interesting judge’s comments from the 2016 “Over the Edge” literary competition in Galway. Niamh Boyce writes:

A word on titles, in general they were awful. Weak, with a last minute feel about them. The title allows you to direct a reader through your work. In a poem in particular, it allows you to say something that you have not said ‘in’ the poem. This does not apply to some of the winning and commended – but in general the titles were horrific. With such a high quality of writing, and such strong various voices in the entries, weak titles were a constant. They should not be an afterthought, the work deserves better, have fun, work on them. It didn’t affect my judging I might add, it’s just a general observation. “

I feel a New Year’s resolution coming on: take more time thinking about titles.

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2016

 

 

December 3rd at SPIN in McLaren Vale

Along with a number of talented performers, I am guest poet at the SPIN gig in McLaren Vale on December 3rd 2016. I’ll be reading from my recent chapbook, “Selfish Bastards”, plus other work. Thanks to Julia Wakefield-Houghton for inviting me. She’s given me a 20 minute slot, which is long by poetry reading standards. Perhaps an opportunity to respond to world events of 2016!

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