80! - The Booklet of the Russell Hoban Some-Poasyum

Encountering Russell Hoban

Listen to this — it’s a conversation between clockwork toys, in a toyshop, very near the beginning of The Mouse and his Child:

The mouse child was still thinking of what the elephant had said before.

“What happens when they buy you?” he asked her.

“That, of course, is outside my experience,” said the elephant, “but I should think that one simply goes out into the world and does whatever one does. One dances or balances a ball, as the case may be.”

The child remembered the bitter wind that had blown in through the door, and the great staring face of the tramp at the window with the grey winter sky behind him. Now that sky was a silent darkness beyond the street lamp and the white flakes falling. The dolls’ house was bright and warm; the teapot gleamed upon the dazzling cloth. “I don’t want to go out into the world,” he said.

“Obviously the child isn’t properly brought up,” said the elephant to the gentleman nearest her. “But then how could he be, poor thing, without a mother’s guidance?”

“PRICES SLASHED,” said the gentleman. “EVERYTHING MUST GO.”

“You’re quite right,” said the elephant. “Everything must, in one way or another, go. One does what one is wound up to do. It is expected of me that I walk up and down in front of my house; it is expected of you that you drink tea. And it is expected of this young mouse that he go out into the world with his father and dance in a circle.”

“But I don’t want to,” said the mouse child, and he began to cry. It was an odd, little, tinny, rasping sound, and father and son both rattled with it.

“There, there,” said the father. “Don’t cry.”

I suppose I must have come across The Mouse and his Child in about 1970, and I was completely bowled over by it. I was teaching in a college of education, and so had a professional interest in children’s fiction; I had two children, and I was writing myself, for both adults and children. But this book was something else again. It haunted me, with its strange feeling of Hans Andersen meets Samuel Beckett. Destiny in a grim struggle with free will in a world of clockwork toys and dirty rats that was still unmistakably our world too. I went round recommending it to everyone I knew. I ransacked the library for other works by Hoban and found, of course, the Frances picture-books, which I thought charming and lovable, but hardly gut-wrenching. Hoban must, it seemed, have taken a huge leap into the dark with The Mouse.

So who was this man? Amazingly (because in those days writers didn’t get out so much to meet their public), I got the chance to find out quite soon, in 1973 I think it must have been. There was a conference on children’s literature at Exeter University (quite a lively one it was, too, with the Old Guard stiff upper-lipping it as the Young Turks snapped and snarled around them, and a gang of feminists hijacked the stage to condemn the way the Big Bold Rabbits were dominating little girls). Anyway, Russell Hoban was to conduct a writers’ workshop there, and I couldn’t believe my luck. I signed up for it with my friend Pat, and looked forward to a week of thrills and insights.

And I got them, though not in the way I was expecting to. To my dismay, I didn’t awfully take to Russ when I met him, and there was no doubt that he didn’t take to me. I don’t know what it was: I think I thought he was over-playing the mystic guru (though I had come to sit at his feet and catch his pearls of wisdom) and I found myself reverting to the role of bad boy, which had always been my favourite stance at school. No doubt he thought, with some reason, that I was a frivolous troublemaker and time-waster. This antipathy was more of a shock to me than to him, of course, because I had come to the workshop as a passionate admirer, and he didn’t know me from shit.

He was stimulating, though. He had ways of making you write — improvisation, introspection, tapes of Dory Previn singing about driving round in the car screaming. He wanted us to write about the stuff that mattered to us deep down inside — he didn’t want us to write descriptions of the goddamn wallpaper. I loved this, of course, and of course wrote pages and pages — about wallpaper. But something was growing inside me — the germs of a novel about a furious nine-year old with homicidal tendencies that eventually became a book called Conrad’s War. I suppose I might have written it if I hadn’t attended Russ’s workshop. But I doubt it.

A couple of years later, he telephoned me out of the blue. He’d obviously taken the trouble to find out my number. He’d seen something I’d written on television: a children’s serial about the legend of King Arthur. “When I met you,” he said, “I didn’t like you at all, so I was really surprised to find that I liked your show very much.” In retrospect, this was a very handsome and charming gesture but, if I remember rightly, I didn’t respond awfully graciously.

Not long after that, I read Riddley Walker, which I think is his masterpiece.

Russell Hoban is a great writer, in my opinion, and we’re lucky to have him.

Andrew Davies began his professional writing career with radio plays and has since written for television, films, theatre, novels and children’s books. His original television work includes two series of A Very Peculiar Practice, A Very Polish Practice, Tipping the Velvet and Pride and Prejudice. He has published two adult novels, Getting Hurt and B Monkey and written screenplays for both. A film of B Monkey is currently in production. He has won an Emmy, two BAFTA awards, three Writers Guild awards, three Broadcasting Press Guild awards and a Monte Carlo Television Festival award.

80 at 80: 80 reasons why we’re celebrating Russell Hoban’s 80th birthday

46. For giving me London.

47. He writes and writes and keeps on writing.

48. The phrase “The Moment Under The Moment”.

49. He is indirectly responsible for my seeing The Princess and the Warrior.

50. The tribute he wrote in memory of Judy Tihany [one of The Kraken] in September 2004.

51. Riddley Walker — a singular masterpiece.

52. Turtle Diary, a book I like so much I once kept a quotation from it taped to the steering wheel of my car.

53. He is from my home state of Pennsylvania.

54. He is the only published author for whom I ever bought a bottle of Scotch.


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