picture by Rory Carnegie for the BBC
The National Theatre, London. I’ve come backstage to meet Mark Haddon, arguably Britain’s most versatile writer and artist, amid last minute preparations for a new play. I’m looking forward to meeting an an all-round genius who is also down to earth – Haddon once described himself as “a nice, easy-going person with a straightforward exterior” – but when I sit down with him he looks defensive.
I can only imagine he’s worried about being pigeonholed – wrongly pigeonholed. Because regardless of his many achievements – prizewinning writer of books for adults and for children, poetry, stage and TV dramas, and illustrator, abstract painter and portraitist – Haddon has frequently, since the publication a decade ago of his first book for adults, been mistaken for an expert on autism.
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time tells the story of a young man with something like Asperger’s, confident in maths but struggling to make sense of his parents’ relationship, and mysterious events in his street. The book swept up 17 awards in 2004, including the Whitbread and the Commonwealth Prizes, and was translated into innumerable languages. It’s on the school curriculum, and now the National Theatre has created a version for the stage, from the co-director of the award-winning, money-spinning franchise War Horse. Hailed as, miraculously, both unsentimental and heartfelt, the play (adapted by somebody else) will be broadcast live to cinemas worldwide in September. And an entirely separate film is being planned by Brad Pitt, whose company bought the rights to the book.
Haddon can expect to make oodles of money out of all this – of which more shortly – but also to be asked an awful lot of questions, all over again, about autism. Every so often, he’s approached for comment and insights – as for instance whenever there’s a new development in the case of Gary McKinnon, the British man with autism fighting extradition to the US. “It’s very tempting,” Haddon tells me, “when you are seen as an expert, and someone offers you two minutes to sound off on national TV.” But he always declines. “To become a spokesperson for people with Asperger’s or autism, or to present myself as some kind of expert in the field, would make me look like a fool.”
The truth is that he knows little about the condition, he says, having carried out only minimal research and relied instead on his imagination.
“Curious Incident is not a book about Asperger’s,” he insists, in a disclaimer on his website. “It’s a novel whose central character describes himself as ‘a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties’. Indeed he never uses the words ‘Asperger’s’ or ‘autism’ (I slightly regret that fact that the word ‘Asperger’s’ was used on the cover).”
Approaching 50, and despite greying hair, Haddon still looks boyish. For years, he struggled to make ends meet as a writer and illustrator of children’s books. Curious Incident was published in two different editions – as a children’s book, and for adults. Its extraordinary success gave him the opportunity to spend longer on his next novel, A Spot of Bother, which dramatised the onset of dementia, gay sex and self harm. His latest, The Red House, looks at the dark side of family life. He particularly enjoys seeing the world through the eyes of people unlike himself: an “autistic” boy, a gay man, teenaged girls. “There is no character so strange that you haven’t shared their experience in some small way.”
But apart from the opportunity it has given him to write what he wants – and more money to buy CDs – Haddon seems mostly to be fed up about the effects of his success. After winning the Commonwealth Prize, for instance, he refused to meet the Queen.
“If you write a book saying that no one is worth less than anyone else,” he explained afterwards, “then it makes you a great hypocrite to get involved in this institution saying that one family is superior to everyone else. I don’t like bowing and scraping and pretending to be something you’re not, but if she came round for a cup of tea and a flapjack that would be fine.”
As this suggests, Haddon can be grouch. (Even his friends say so. Simon Stephens, who adapted Curious Incident for the stage, says they first hit it off together as a pair of “grumpy men talking about music”.) He’s also got strong political opinions. For instance, it’s unlikely that Haddon would extend even tea and flapjacks to David Cameron or his coalition colleagues. “We have the government with the weakest mandate in history, pushing through the most radical changes in history, with no relation to their election promises, which mostly involve removing services from people of whose lives they know nothing.
“They’re a cabal of very wealthy people playing to a gallery of other wealthy people. I went to boarding school and then I went to Oxford, and I know how easy it is for certain groups of people to become wholly insulated from ordinary life.”
In February, Haddon wrote a letter to his MP. “I’m a wealthy person,” he said. “Austerity measures introduced by the coalition have caused real suffering to many people, but my comfortable life hasn’t changed in the slightest. Why have I, and people like me, been asked to contribute nothing?
To put the matter at its simplest, Haddon tells me: “I should be paying more tax.”
The idea was partly inspired by the example of Warren Buffett, the billionaire American investor, who requested that he pay more tax after discovering that his cleaner paid a higher rate than him. “But I don’t see many other people saying that,” Haddon tells me. “There seem to be more Bob Diamonds than Warren Buffetts.”
Certainly, Haddon’s request to pay more tax stands in stark contrast with the example of Jimmy Carr, the multimillionaire comedian who was recently found to pay just one per cent on his earnings.
He wrote to his MP, the Conservative Nicola Blackwood, in February. He had meant to write several times earlier, he said, about cuts in HEFCE funding, student fees, the EMA, library cuts, cuts to the DLA, and changes to the NHS. “But the sheer number and speed of these events have left me, like many people, with a weary sense of their inevitability and my own impotence.”
She replied offering general sympathy for his view, and forwarded his letter to the Treasury, which subsequently sent a more detailed response. Haddon was unsatisfied.
“I’m not asking just an economic question but a moral one, too. Many people have pointed out that if everybody paid taxes properly we wouldn’t have an austerity problem at all. I think there is a wave of revulsion over this, and I think that transparency is at the root of the problem.”
Perhaps he could he help to fix that by revealing his income and tax payments?
No, because that kind of disclosure must also involve disclosing tax relief on gifts to charity, and might therefore come across as either smug (if he gives lots to charity) or (if very little) as greedy and selfish. “Tax transparency is like nudism,” he says. “You have to do it in a group. But I will says this, I annoy my accountant by insisting on paying all of my 50% tax.”
A version of this story appeared in The Sunday Times, 12 Aug 2012
Mark Haddon posted a response here