Mark Haddon is the author of the best-selling novels A Spot of Bother, The Red House, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was recently adapted into a Tony Award-winning play. He lives in Oxford, England, and spoke to me by phone.
Mark Haddon: Growing up, I should have been listening to the Sex Pistols and The Clash like everyone else under 18 in the U.K. But I was sent away to a boarding school as a teenager, so I was pretty cut off from the mainstream youth culture. It was a pretty unpleasant place, and I never felt at home, which is one of the reasons why I’ve never been a joiner, a belonger. In that strange, hermetically sealed little world in the middle of the English countryside, I think I was seeking out a music of my own—something I could like that no one else liked. Outsider’s music.
Having heard very little music beyond my father’s mild jazz collection and “Top of the Pops” every Thursday night, I hadn’t had too many formative listening experiences, but on two occasions, I heard a piece of music that changed the way I saw the world. The first was Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn to St. Cecilia,” which was performed at school by the choir. And the second was hearing Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew.
Now, I know Miles Davis is hugely popular, but he wasn’t popular in the English shires of the late 1980s. I think I understood at the time that I was listening to something absolutely extraordinary: the sound of someone inventing a completely new language, one that was nevertheless totally whole and articulate.
It wasn’t just the music that struck me; it was also Ralph J. Gleason’s liner notes. The music and the liner notes together were a guide to an entirely new world. There’s a passage at the end that moved me then and still moves me now:
it’s not more beautiful, just different. a new beauty. a different beauty. the other beauty is still beauty. this is new and right now it has the edge of newness and that snapping fire you sense when you go out there from the spaceship where nobody has ever been before.
This is the definition of art that has always most excited me: the feeling of being taken to the boundary of the universe, then beyond that boundary into the surrounding darkness, and you’re the first person to ever be there. It’s not an experience that happens very often, but I’m willing to wait. I’ve never been someone who’s enjoyed music in general, or contemporary fiction in general, or films in general, or theater in general. I feel I’m standing on the runway waiting for the next big one to come in, carrying some of that outer darkness with it.
Just reading the liner notes lines again, I realize there was something else that was clearly important for me about this passage. I was born in ’62 and, like a lot of kids of that generation, the space program was hugely important in our imaginations. I wanted to be an astronaut—we all did. Of course, it rapidly dawned on me that I was too anxious and oversensitive to be an astronaut. Besides, you had to become a military pilot, and I had a lazy eye and wasn’t that keen on learning how to kill people. But reading this passage is a reminder that there are other ways to get to far-flung places at the edge of the universe.