Book Review: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Published in 2004, this has been on my “to read” list for some time and is well worth the wait. I know little about autism, but the author appears to provide a very credible insight into the mind of an autistic boy. The boy in question, Christopher, narrates the tale. The story opens with him finding a dog skewered by a garden fork. He decides to play detective in order to discover the murderer. So the story is part “who dunnit” but then develops into a vivid depiction of marriage breakdown, single parenthood, the challenges for parents and schools of interacting with autistic children, the challenges of being autistic and of being, at times, overwhelmed by the modern world. This sounds very dark, but there is a lot of wry humour here. Christopher is both lovable and infuriating. The story moves at a good pace, keeping the reader engaged right to the end. There are surprising twists and the occasional illustrations provide a further glimpse into the autistic mind. Recommended.

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Poetry Season #6 – Tyrone Guthrie Artists’ Retreat Centre

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“The Big House”, Tyrone Guthrie Centre

The sixth and final piece of homework for the Andy Jackson course. The prompt for this week, greatly summarised, is to write a poem about poetry. I spent two weeks at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre last year, and when I started this exercise, memories of how hard it is to sit and write all day, every day for two weeks, came flooding back.

Tyrone Guthrie Artists’ Retreat Centre

Co Monaghan, Ireland, April 2018

From this bay window, the black lough,

the banks of bulrushes, the boathouse, 

the silhouetted swans, the scent of pine

are all perfect and …

…and across the stable yard the artists work away in their high-ceilinged, light-filled studios. I envy them, their brushes and canvases, their jars of water, their tubes of paint, their watercolour sets, their space rich with the scent of oils and turps. They have their easels and their palettes. All I have is a blank page and a pen and my thoughts. I’m sitting here in this beautiful room with an idyllic view, in this stately house. But I can’t write about a lough and a boathouse and a forest. That’s too obvious. I have to make the lough a metaphor for something, and the boathouse a metaphor for something else, but not too something else because that would be mixing my metaphors. The artist can just paint the lough and the boathouse and the swans – job done. And if they paint a unicorn on the hillside nobody will accuse them of mixing their metaphors. They can daub paint onto their canvases and they’re away and they can call the painting the first thing that comes into their heads – “Swans on Lough” or “Composition 8”. My first line has to be stunning, my title has to grab attention. They can say “Oh I just go where the brush takes me” and I think “Wonderful”, but when a poet says “Oh I just go where the pen takes me” I think “Wanker”. They can choose from a varied but limited palette. I have the whole fucking English language to choose from plus foreign words. There are over 200,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary and new ones, like “amazeballs” and “omnishambles” being added all the time. Jesus Christ, how to decide? They can mix and smudge and layer and smear. I can only use strictly defined letter shapes in black on white. The most artistic shape on my page is a sodding semi-colon, and poets sneer at them. Nobody says to artists “Show don’t tell” because they are always bloody showing. “A picture paints a thousand words” proclaimed Captain Obvious. I think he/she was vastly underestimating. And you can tell they’re artists, with their dungarees and their paint-blotched fingers, but who can tell you’re a poet unless you go the full Oscar Wilde with black cloak and lily and if you did that down the village pub here you’d get beaten up before you could recite the first stanza of The Ballad of Reading Jail. They have their art exhibitions, where they hang their works on some fancy gallery wall and people come and drink wine and stand back and cock their heads and stare at the paintings and “ooh” and “ah” and eat those little bits of pineapple, cheese and cocktail onions on sticks and handover more money than a poet makes in a lifetime. Us poets, if we’re lucky, might get a reading at a launch in front of a handful of people who are only there to get drunk on the cask wine and scoff the sausage rolls and try to steal a fucking book on their way out. Everybody can name at least a handful of painters – Van Gogh, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Monet, Picasso – but how many can name more than one or two poets eh? Maybe Famous Seamus and Wordsworth and the daughter of that crashing-bore at work who won the school poetry competition and that’s it. And downstairs the artists are sitting round the breakfast table, waving their arms and talking excitedly about perspective and light and tone and symmetry. Over in the poets’ corner they’re arguing about the correct pronunciation of enjambement and what’s the difference between prose and prose poetry (answer “fuck all”). And when you go to any city there’s always an art gallery but do you ever see a poetry gallery? Hell no! You’d have to search out some sticky-carpet dive to uncover a collection of penniless, broken-arsed poets droning into a cheap mic and none of them listening, just shuffling their papers impatiently waiting their turn. And what about all the fucking constraints poets have to adhere to – bloody fourteen line Petrarchan sonnets which are somehow different from Shakespearean sonnets, and villanelles and haiku and ghazals and mind-numbing sestinas. So many bloody rules that some smartarse will accuse you of breaking if you use a single bloody extra syllable. Jesus, all the painter is constrained by is the canvas and they can make that as big or small as they like and paint it all black if they want and it will still sell. And the further you get away from a painting the more sense it makes – the further you get away from a poem the less sense it makes (though this can also happen when you get closer). And everyone wants to own an original artwork to hang on their wall, but offer somebody the framed piece of paper on which you wrote the first draft of your best poem and they’ll think you’re bonkers. No wonder poets turn to drink and end up as bitter, twisted curmudgeons who’ve lost the ability to rhyme and try to pass off prose as poetry.

 


© Mike Hopkins 2019

image of Tyrone Guthrie centre taken by Mike Hopkins

Poetry Season #5 – The Stones in Virginia Woolf’s Coat Pockets

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The fifth piece of homework for the Andy Jackson course. The prompt for this week, greatly summarised, is to have a conversation with another writer, by alternating lines written by that writer with lines of your own in response. I took lines from “Figuring” by Maria Popova and, much to my surprise, came up with a poem that is sort of about Virginia Woolf.

The Stones in Virginia Woolf’s Coat Pockets

All of it, the rings of Saturn and my father’s wedding band

are beyond my figuring. If I had

Einstein’s brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde

might I dissect the circuitry that would cause

A certain forearm I love

to one day author its own destruction?

 

One autumn morning as I read a dead poet’s letter

I saw that too much love can be destructive.

Are the imaginations of women less vivid than of men?

Are the dreams of women less portentous?

Every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets

was lovingly chosen for heft and effect.

 

Where does it live, that place of permission

to choose a life less ordinary?

Does genius suffice for happiness, does distinction, does love?

None of these inoculate against suffering.

There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives

but few beautiful ways to end one.

 


© Mike Hopkins 2019

Italicised lines from “Figuring” by Maria Popova 2019

image: https://pixabay.com/en/users/robinsonk26-6013603/

Poetry Season #4 – Tortoise

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The fourth piece of homework for the Andy Jackson course. The prompt for this week, greatly summarised, is “otherness”, which could mean, for instance, the world of an animal. In my case, a tortoise. Did you know that a tortoise called Harriet, supposedly collected by Charles Darwin in the Galapagos, reached the age of 175 years and died in Steve Irwin (the Crocodile Hunter)’s Australia Zoo in 2006. And the first living creatures to orbit the moon were a pair of tortoises, in the Russian Zond 5 mission. This is the second poem I’ve written about tortoises in recent months. Analyse that.

Tortoise

His clawed feet bear the weight of his world. He cares nothing for the impatience of youth. He is the original testudo. His skeleton is within and without. His scales proclaim his longevity. Breathing out, he retreats into his nerve-rich shell. He draws water from the well of his own waste. Smelling with his mouth, pumping air with his throat, he sifts sensations with nostrils and tongue. He has sub-sonic conversations with his neighbours. He circled the moon in Zond 5. His black eyes are picture pools of dark corners and warm concealments. His thoughts are antique. He knew Darwin and Irwin. He is utterly grounded. He holds the weathered memories of a century of deliberation. He hides his contentment behind a doleful mouth. He craves little – not affection, not food, but sometimes deep, cyclical sleep. I can promise food, water, shelter and warmth. I know his greatest fear is inversion. He disdains my bulk, my neediness, my hasty heart. He will outwait us all. His lines are not from worry. His tortoiseshell is not from vanity.

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© Mike Hopkins 2019

Book Review: “Ordinary People” by Diana Evans

Ordinary PeopleOrdinary People by Diana Evans

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“Selected by the New Yorker, Financial Times and New Statesman as a Book of the Year’. Well this book annoyed me and I ploughed through nine of its fifteen chapters before saying “Oh sod it, I can’t be bothered”.

The book revolves around the relationship issues of two couples living in or near London at the time Obama became U.S.A President. The couples are African / American / West Indian, so the issue of race is a major one in the book. But mostly it’s about their deteriorating marriages. At first I was quite interested in the author’s insights into the things that can cause a long-term relationship to go cold. But my interest was not maintained.

For me the book fails on two levels. One is the excess of detail. Detail is good, detail is fine, but there are parts of this book where the detail adds zero to the story, zero to what you know about the characters and their situation, and just becomes tedious. The extended description of the perfume department in a store, the long sequence around the children’s play gym come to mind. The second is that there is just plain bad writing: excessively long sentences and bad grammar. Some of the descriptions seem like attempts to show off a wide vocabulary, but are just irritating:

“he always felt overly conspicuous yet circumferential in their multitudinous presence”.

“he would accentuate the smallness of her breastplate by laying his head against it” – she uses “breastplate” quite a bit. I kept thinking of Boadicea.

“… her shining teeth, her cream-coloured neck. She was virtually off the hizzle.” WTF is a hizzle? I googled it and the urban dictionary says it means ‘a house’ as in “Fo shizzle, get up out dis hizzle”. Makes sense? Not to me

“I want to make your zoom zoom go boom boom”. That’s one of Michael’s thoughts apparently.

I could go on. There are mixed metaphors aplenty e.g. “along a mental washing line leading towards a final eclipse”.

I’d expect a “book of the year” to be moderately well written. This is not. Very disappointing.

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Poetry Season #3 – Burger

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The third piece of homework for the Andy Jackson course. The prompt for the this week, greatly summarised, is “love / lineage”, for which Andy provided a range of example poems. One of them was “Bread” by Brendan Kennelly, which really appealed to me. (There’s an interesting performance of it here.) I used this to write a parallel poem. I never thought I’d write a poem called “Burger” (I’m vegetarian). It probably needs a better title but that’s the title for now.

Burger

after Brendan Kennelly

Someone blasted a bolt through my skull

in a blood-red shed.

I was bled,

 

disassembled, ground down. This

fakery is more cunning

than a fox gone to ground

 

more tricky than a politician’s

dog whistle

or the patter of a pimp.

 

Even as it flaunts, it is

trickier than anything

in a conjurer’s bag of tricks.

 

My remains,

are mixed with a million others

and rendered as an illusion.

 

The shape I now inhabit

is a succulent mockery.

Willful fools drool

 

as I am flipped and grilled

with sleight of hand

and slipped into a bun.

 

The collusion, the deception is

absolute.

So I am cremated

and reborn

 

in a concoction.

In my way I am their best kind of beast –

processed for profit.

 

I will break their hearts.

 

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© Mike Hopkins 2019

image https://actualite.nouvelle-aquitaine.science/hassen-ferhani-dans-lintimite-de-labattoir-dalger/

 

Poetry Season #2 – “An Thuong 4”

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The second piece of homework for the Andy Jackson course. Not very happy with this one. It’s been a record-breaking, stinking hot week in Adelaide and I haven’t felt much like writing.

The prompt for the second poem, greatly summarised, is “place”. This is my response. The An Thuongs are a set of streets near where I lived in Đà Nẵng, full of bars, cafes, burger joints, street vendors, massage parlors, hostels, expats, drunks, drunken expats, Korean tourists, Thuốc Lào smokers (strong pipe tobacco), weed smokers, dogs, the occasional pig, loud music and all sorts of activity, most of which I could never figure out. But I did love the bars there, and a dull night was a rarity.

An Thuong 4

Each day is a riddle

Night is electric black

obscured by grey plumes

 

A short-circuit cracks the air

Locals make the “I have no fucking idea” sign

The fridge hums with Saigon Specials

 

A pig hoovers up peanuts

The Wifi password is “thankyou”

Police are midnight knocking

 

for permits and bribes

It’s Tet : Chúc mừng năm mới

A tattooed man steals a beer

 

The barman serves enigmas

The hostel is one shipping container

on top of another

 

The security guard is

like your favourite uncle

but answers no questions

 

Two white guys swap punches

Weed smoke hovers over the dog

Russian Roulette was a thing

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© Mike Hopkins 2019

Poetry Season #1 – “Shine”

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The Wavy Path

I’ve just started a course with talented poet and all-round great guy Andy Jackson. Andy is based in Castlemaine, New South Wales, so the course is run via email. I, and nineteen other lucky students, split into two groups of ten, receive a detailed prompt and poems to read on a Monday morning, and respond with our own poems by the Friday.  Then we give feedback on the other poets’ work in our group, and finally Andy gives us his detailed feedback. The course runs for six weeks. This is the end of week 1 and so far it looks like it’s going to be really useful and instructive. Best of all, it forces me to write, and I usually need to be forced.

So I thought I’d post my weekly poem here. They will all be first draft, though not quite as first draft and instantaneous as the poem a day napowrimo poems. And I’ll likely be concentrating on prose poems, which I want to write more of this year.

The prompt for the first poem, greatly summarised, is “summer”. This is my response:

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Image:COP Biodiversity and Landscape https://www.flickr.com/photos/copbiodiversityandlandscape/35687633296

TV Review: “A Very English Scandal”

If you lived in the U.K. in the ’70s, you would have been enthralled by the “Jeremy Thorpe Affair”. Thorpe was leader of the Liberal Party, a party which was truly liberal and not hard right-wing like the Australian party of the same name. Thorpe was, I think, generally regarded as a good guy by progressive people. If there was preferential voting in the U.K. I might have voted Labour 1, Liberals 2. He was anti-hanging, pro-immigrant, pro-Europe and critical of oppressive regimes such as South Africa and Rhodesia.

This three-part series starts at the time when Thorpe was doing well, and close to gaining significant power. The scandal that brought him down was his affair with Norman Scott, which developed into a serious relationship, but later turned ugly.

Thorpe is played by Hugh Grant and Scott by Ben Whishaw. It is based on a “true-life novel” by John Preston. I’m no fan of Hugh Grant but he makes a great Thorpe. Grant has an uncanny facial likeness to Thorpe (see below), although at times his English upper-class mannerisms kept reminding me of Hugh Laurie’s Prince George in “Blackadder”.

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Whishaw also does well as Scott. It’s impossible to know if Scott really was as effeminate as portrayed, and again, at times, the mannerisms were very “Ooh Betty” / “Some Mothers do ‘Ave ‘Em”. Nevertheless, it is a performance of great sensitivity, and I emerged having a great deal of sympathy for both Scott and Thorpe.

This is a gripping series, worth watching as a thriller even if you don’t know the background to the events.


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Image: https://www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/2019-01-15/the-real-history-behind-a-very-english-scandal-and-the-jeremy-thorpe-affair/

Book Review: “Milkman” by Anna Burns

MilkmanMilkman by Anna Burns

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Milkman” was a Christmas present from my sister, who lives in Northern Ireland. It’s a perhaps contentious winner of the 2018 Booker Prize. It’s drawn a mixed critical reception and at least one friend has told me it’s “terrible”. Well, in one sense it is “terrible” in that it ingeniously gets inside the head of a young woman living through terrible times: The Troubles. I think I’m right in saying that no place names, and only one character name (Peggy) are used in the whole the book. We never learn the name of the main character. She is referred to as “third sister”. Other family members are Ma, Da, Wee Sisters, Eldest sister, third brother-in-law, Somebody McSomebody, maybe-boyfriend etc. Her persecutor, “Milkman” is not a real milkman, but there is another character called “real milkman”, also referred to under other names such as “the man who didn’t love anybody”. Belfast is not mentioned, but I’m assuming the action takes place in that city, where Anna Burns’ grew up. Places are referred to obtusely: top-end reservoir, the ten-minute area, most-popular-drinking club, the hutment.

What Burns does brilliantly is to capture the insularity, the suspicion, the distrust, the incestuousness of that city at that time. She shows how people shut down, conform, deny and are prepared to believe the worst of other people. In particular she shows how a woman can be intimidated by a stalker with little effort by the stalker himself. The menacing figure of the Milkman appears only a handful of times in the book, and yet looms over her as an ever-present threat, reinforced by the gossip and mean-spiritedness of the community. A woman who reads a book in public, a man who is interested in cooking, another man who collects pieces of British cars are all regarded with suspicion, as “beyond the pale”. Intimidation by armed men, whether Army or paramilitaries also pervades the community. Violent deaths and suicides are everyday events. Men believe they can bully women into submission. Women are drawn to violent men.

This is not necessarily an easy read, although there is a great deal of humour throughout. Perhaps it requires some knowledge of The Troubles to appreciate the achievement of portraying those times. But I think she has done it brilliantly.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019




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