To celebrate its 21st anniversary in 1992, the British publisher Picador invited 21 of its best authors to write about one of the years from 1972 to 1992, from their own perspective. Each piece was written especially for the collection, which includes essays by, among others, Tariq Ali, Julian Barnes, Clive James, Tama Janowitz, Ian McEwan, David Profumo and, of course, Russell Hoban. Choosing the year 1975, he contributed this, along with a drawing of Punch, made while he was working on Riddley Walker.
Amazing, how the past doesn't go away. Facing myself in the morning mirror I see the sun through the leaves over roads I'll never drive again, smell the wood-smoke of old autumns, hear the rasp of crows on the winds of departed springs, the whisper of rain and the hiss of tyres on streets long gone. And songs! A chaos, a confusion, an utter tohu bohu of songs from which words and tunes rise up inexplicably:
I took a trip on a train and I thought about you.
It's a big holiday everywhere, for the Jones family
has a brand-new heir.
He's a joy heaven-sent, and we proudly present
Mr Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones!
Where's that coming from and why?
You better get Wildroot Cream Oil, Charlie, to keep
your hair in trim!
Places. How is it that some places were alive in me before I ever saw them? The Judaean desert unrolling mile after mile the dry scrolls of its time and the boat-shaped rock of Masada clamorous with silent voices; the Caspar David Friedrich sunset over the River Aller in the Lower Saxony town of Celle and the flatlands receding in the dusk to Bergen-Belsen and beyond. Yes, I thought, walking by that river with my Celle-born wife, I recognise this very European and not at all American river. My dead parents (the dead, being of the past, never go away) also know this river, not specifically as the Aller but as any dark and sunset river in the Ukraine where they were born. A river shining under the darkening sky and in the dimness the level miles going away to other times - yes, that river is in me and of me, and when in 1975 I married this woman who grew up by the Aller there took place in us a great mingling and amalgamation of geographies, all the times and places lived and inherited by the two of us combining orchestrally their themes and motifs and the coloration of their many voices.
We met in London in 1970. She was employed by Truslove & Hanson in Sloane Street as a book siren; I used to go into the shop looking for one book and come out with seven or eight. In the countries where we were born each of us had felt a stranger so we were both comfortable here where we actually were strangers. Our marriage, following as it did a divorce, divided my life in two and made permanent my strangerhood in Europe; it acknowledged formally all manner of recognitions and resonances. How is it that the unknown is always familiar? When I find myself on a dark road late at night in the middle of nowhere in a pouring rain it seems quite natural. I think that's because strangeness is the essential human condition. My body forgets pain and my mind forgets joy but the strangeness is there always.
Life is continuous; in my memory it doesn't separate itself neatly into numbered years because each year contains all those before it. Trying to recall the taste of London in my eyes in 1975 I see a red telephone box in the rain under the drooping white blossoms of a chestnut tree. Just that at first, fresh and juicy in the memory - the red telephone box in the rain and the white petals scattered on it. As a telephone box it has no significance beyond its ordinary function; I never made or received an important call there. But it stands near the block of flats where we lived for the first two years we were together, the book siren and I. Colour is more so at some times than at others, and the remembered red of that telephone box is for me the concentrated visible essence of a time in my life when I had what I wanted when I wanted it.
With the telephone box come the wet bronze of the female nude on the Embankment near the Albert Bridge, the lights on the bridge against a sky still light on a spring evening, the high-tide Thames lapping against the water steps, the low-tide Thames narrow between its mud beaches. When I went jogging in the mornings my mind sang over and over two lines from Schiller's Sayings of Confucius to the tune of a Haydn symphony the number of which I've forgotten:
Nur die Fülle führt zur Klarheit,
Und im Abgrund wohnt die Wahrheit.
Only fullness leads to clarity,
And truth dwells in the abyss.
The images of the telephone box, the chestnut tree, the bronze nude, the Albert Bridge, the Thames and its tides - they're actually from when we lived in Beaufort Street; we moved to Fulham in 1972 but those mind-pictures are part of the geographical union that was legalised in 1975.
The city - any city - is a construct of the collective mind, a labyrinth of mirrors, some bright, some dark. The city is an arrangement of boxes and passageways and ups and downs thought into place. In the country the boxes and mirrors of the self are in a different conjunction of time and space. In 1975 I was often in Kent for Riddley Walker research. I remember a place not far from the town of Wye: we drove up a very steep dirt track and stopped on the high ground overlooking a little valley and the house, sheds, and outbuildings of a snug farm. Crows were soaring below us and the air seemed alive with the long-ago vibrations from prey to hunter that the roaming raider must have felt looking down from where we stood. Maybe there never was a raider looking down from that spot - that doesn't matter; in that place there lives the recurrent quantum wave of what might have happened. That overlook, like the telephone box, signifies a time in my life, the strangeness of the five and a half years when I was working on that novel.
I open my 1975 diary to today's date, December 14th, and I find: Riddley Walker on 411. By the time I finished it on Guy Fawkes Day, 1979, it was down to 220 pages. The beginning of it was on March 14th, 1974, when I saw Canterbury Cathedral for the first time. The look of the soaring fan vaulting was like that great burst of sound in Haydn's Die Schöpfung: 'und es ward Licht!' I remember the vaulting as being so full of lift that the columns, rather than supporting it, seemed to be tethering it to the floor. And about the echoing murmurs and footsteps I felt all around me in the layered fullness of the air the silent hum of centuries.
Walking slowly, I saw many things of which I remember only the Pilgrims' Steps and the place where Thomas Becket was murdered. After a time I found myself in the North Aisle standing before a faint tracery of earth-green lines on a white wall, all that remained of the fifteenth-century wall painting, The Legend of Saint Eustace. On the other side of the aisle, in sections, was the reconstruction by E. W. Tristram with a text describing the episodes leading to Eustace's martyrdom.
The story begins with Eustace hunting. He sees 'a stag, between whose antlers appears the figure of the crucified Saviour'. Eustace embarks on a pilgrimage with his wife and two little sons. His wife is taken off by pirates. Eustace and his sons reach a river. He swims across with one boy, then returns for the other. When in the middle of the river he sees a wolf carrying off the first child and a lion the second. 'We see St Eustace praying in the midst of the river,' says the text. I looked at Eustace treading water and hoping for better times and I knew how it was with him. That was where Riddley Walker began.
Something else came into that beginning. There are certain ideas that I consider elemental: Orpheus and Eurydice, Miranda and Caliban, Fay Wray and King Kong are among them. There are endless variants of these stories of love and loss, of rage and desire and death; the ideas are always cruising around looking for people who will keep them going in one form and another. Punch and Judy are of this class of idea. 'Punch is so old he can't die,' the great puppeteer Percy Press once told me. 'He's a law unto himself.' This ancient anarch lurking in the dark corridors of my brain jumped into the front of my mind while I was looking at Eustace treading water and there came to me the post-apocalyptic Inland of Riddley Walker, a desolate England regressed to a mostly Iron Age culture, the inhabitants living in fenced-in settlements while packs of killer dogs roam the land and such government as there is makes its policies known through shows performed by itinerant puppeteers.
Never before and never since have I been lucky enough to have so much come to me for the start of a novel. But my workroom is littered with unfinished starts and I dared not take anything for granted in 1974. There are two reasons for choosing 1975 to write about; one was that by then the thing had taken me firmly in its jaws and didn't look like letting go: Riddley Walker, digging for old iron at Widders Dump, had come up with a blackened Punch figure and was over the fence, off with the dogs, and into his story. In 1975 Riddley's journey permanently established a particular kind of connection between this place and me. The other reason for my choice of year is that as some doors closed, others opened, and the book siren and I legalised the putting together of our two geographies as one history. A memorable year.
Born in 1925 in Pennsylvania, Russell Hoban was an illustrator before becoming a writer. He has written many books for children and his adult novels are The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, Kleinzeit, Turtle Diary, Riddley Walker, Pilgermann and The Medusa Frequency. He has lived in London since 1969 and is currently collaborating with Harrison Birtwistle on an opera.
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