Tag Archives: Russell Hoban

Go 4th and 4qate

Today is SA4QE day, or the day on which fans of Russell Hoban select favourite quotes from his books and leave them in public places to ‘spread the word’. I’ve been a participant since the activity started five years ago but I don’t believe I’ve blogged my 4qations before. Here’s what I’ve posted to the Hoban forum The Kraken and what will also be appearing on my page on sa4qe.com at some point in the next few days. Happy birthday Russ!

With a two-week-old baby in the house (just what is it with me and this time of year, eh?), I haven’t had as much time to prepare a 4qation as on previous years, and this has only made my ‘normal work panic’ about choosing a quote from the many thousands of words in Russell Hoban’s many books even worse. However, the problem has happily suggested its own solution. The new arrival, Charlie, has, in the tradition of his Thai side, already been awarded a nickname. His elder brother Joe (born March 2005) being dubbed Squid (Thai: ‘Mg’), we felt something similarly oceanic and possibly Hobanesque was called for, and so Charlie has become Turtle (‘Thou’). Thus I narrowed my search for quotes this year to Hoban’s superb early novel Turtle Diary (tragically out of print at the moment, but some copies are still available from Amazon, and Bloomsbury are promising a reprint at some point). After some searching – punctuated by assorted changes, baths, feeds, plays, tellings-off, naps, and even a bit of attention to my children – I settled on the following three quotes. They’re from chapter 3, narrated by William G., and from adjacent pages, so not strictly separate quotes, but can be read that way.

“There are green turtles whose feeding grounds are along the coast of Brazil, and they swim 1,400 miles to breed and lay their eggs on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, half way to Africa. Ascension Island is only five miles long. Nobody knows how they find it. Two of the turtles at the aquarium are green turtles, a large one and a small one. The sign said: ‘The Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas, is the source of turtle soup…’ I am the source of William G. soup if it comes to that. Everyone is the source of his or her kind of soup. In a town as big as London that’s a lot of soup walking about.”

I liked this passage firstly because it sets out the turtles’ incredible quest and achievement, which in itself seems to me a metaphor for the human condition – we spend so long working towards something, not always knowing why or how but only knowing we have to do it, and without any guarantee that we’ll succeed or that the turtle-eggs we lay even if we do get there will survive. Secondly I like the way Hoban takes something negative about the turtle experience – the sacrilege of being turned into soup – and makes something both positive and amusing out of it. As a father now for the second time I’ve naturally spent many hours lately contemplating the kind of future I’ll be able to give Charlie, and the kind he’ll have anyway regardless of my influence, so this passage also suggests to me some good advice to him: We’re all our own kinds of soup; be proud of your Charlie soup, and for that matter your London roots, and don’t be put off by the fact that millions of gallons of other-people soup is sloshing around the world at the same time: your variety is unique.

The second passage follows directly on from the last:

“How do the turtles find Ascension Island? There are sharks in the water too. Some of the turtles get eaten by sharks. Do the turtles know about sharks? How do they not think about the sharks when they’re swimming that 1,400 miles? Green turtles must have the kind of mind that doesn’t think about sharks unless a shark is there… I can’t believe they’d swim 1,400 miles thinking about sharks.
“…I think of them swimming through all that golden-green water over the dark, over the chill of the deeps and the jaws of the dark. And I think of the sun over the water, the sun through the water, the eye holding the sun, being held by it with no thought and only the rhythm of the going, the steady wing-strokes of flippers in the water. Then it doesn’t seem hard to believe. It seems the only way to do it, the only way in fact to be: swimming, swimming, the eye held by the sun, no sharks in the mind, nothing in the mind.”

Turtle Diary centres on two people at a crucial point in their lives and confronting their own situations, which, despite being pretty mundane, are nonetheless troubling to them. I can relate to the story and characters partly through being a bit of a worrier myself (and even if I wasn’t, I daresay most parents would admit that having children makes you worry anyway) and this beautifully cadenced passage with its Zen-like idea of ‘swimming, swimming [with] nothing in the mind’ provides me with some reassurance that there is, in fact, a way through, a way forward.

My last selection also follows on directly from the last paragraph, in fact is the final sentence of that paragraph, but I feel deserves separate consideration:

“And when they can’t see the sun, what then? Their vision isn’t good enough for star sights. Do they go by smell, taste, faith?”

I’m not a religious person and I despise the way that some people use religions and ‘faiths’ to mess up the world. Nonetheless I do retain a great deal of respect for people who manage to have faith (in spite, indeed, of the way faith is regularly abused and misused) and put it to good use, and one of those good uses is simply, as Bob Dylan put it, keeping on keeping on. I believe – or I’d like to believe – in a turtle-god, in turtle-faith, something that keeps you going despite the darkness, the sharks, the chances of getting lost.

Riddley would be proud

“John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, has spent £645 updating the sign on the front of his office,” reports today’s Times. “To ensure that visitors don’t get confused, the old sign, ‘Office of the Deputy Prime Mininster’, has been replaced by one saying ‘Deputy Prime Minister’s Office’.” While I sympathise with the Times’s outrage at this waste of money (and that’s just Prescott’s lunch), its spelling of “minister” doesn’t help its case – why, it’s almost verging on the reasonable to correct a typo in a sign on the door of an MP, no matter how dubious his claim to office may be. More layers of irony suggest themselves, indeed, as it becomes clear that this typo couldn’t have been associated with a more appropriate “mincer” of the language, as my old friend Riddley Walker – whose literacy skills incidentally trounce Prescott’s – would no doubt have described him.

Getting the blues

I suppose I hardly need add to the column inches (or digital equivalent) laying into the US government’s pathetic response to the Katrina tragedy, but it surely can’t be said often enough that the way the refugees of Louisiana have been treated beggars belief. Yesterday George Bush denied the response was slow or that being black (the affected people, that is, not Bush of course) had anything to do with it. Like Tony Blair denying that the bombings in London on what we must now call 7/7 had anything to do with the war in Iraq, it makes you wonder how it is that the only people who believe the bullshit are the very people we trust to tell us the truth.

Anyway, I’ve been following the series of letters in the Guardian in recent days about the old blues songs about the Louisiana floods of 1927, which documented the same effects of the same sort of disaster on the same poor, black people of the same area. Correspondents have also highlighted Bob Dylan’s “uncanny prescience” in his 2001 song High Water. Although this song was inspired by the work and experiences of Charley Patton, one of the original bluesmen in question, the fact that Dylan had now been brought into the discussion prompted me to look up an old Aaron Neville album called Warm Your Heart (which I was just about to get rid of, oddly enough) which features a cover of Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927. In honesty I didn’t know who was US president at the time of the original floods until I read the lyrics and found there the reference to Coolidge. Doubting that an ultra-literate songwriter like Randy Newman would have got such a fact wrong, I nonetheless double-checked the reference in Wikipedia before sending the letter above. As my initial link to the Guardian letters of 12th September attests, the reference by the original correspondent to Hoover has now become a matter for the Guardian’s Corrections & Clarifications department. (I also didn’t know what “crackers land” meant, and therefore felt a bit uneasy quoting it, but it was taken from the official Randy Newman site, so should have been correct, and in fact the Guardian, when printing my letter, added an apostrophe – i.e. “crackers’ land” – indicating that “crackers” were the residents of the area in question.) Altogether therefore I feel a bit embarrassed about all this, but this whole story seems to prove that, with the internet as powerful as it is, we’re all experts now.

All of which brings me to the image of my letter at the top of this post. As part of its recent relaunch in “Berliner” format, The Guardian is offering its excellent digital edition of the paper free until 26th September. It’s really just a very trendy version of the website, as all Guardian stories can be read for free on the main site anyway (the standard text version of my letter is on this page for instance), but the digital edition allows you to click on a story and read a PDF or JPG version of the actual paper as printed, from which the above is a clipping. Like a great many things these days I think a digital Guardian is a bit of a luxury (if you’re going to ordinarily pay through the nose for such a service you might as well read the paper and be done with it) but it’s nice nonetheless.

The Berliner Guardian incidentally is very cool but the smaller size feels weird, as if something’s missing. When I went to buy the launch edition at the paper stands in WH Smith I couldn’t find it to begin with – I thought it must have sold out already, until finally it turned up looking a bit sorry for itself in a compartment designed for a normal-sized broadsheet. And it’s still too big not to fold in half when you’re carrying it or laying it down somewhere, but because of the dimensions it feels wrong being folded either horizontally or vertically… but I feel I’ve strayed from the point somewhat. To round off therefore and return to my original topic, here’s a link to a withering attack on the US Federal Emergency Management Agency’s handling of the Katrina disaster, with a mention in it of Russell Hoban‘s Riddley Walker no less. As one of my Hoban friends commented when she saw this, “‘Riddley Walker’ and FEMA on common ground — this is eerie.” Or maybe just scary.

Learning from the past (or not)

A recent article by Ian Jack in the Guardian stated the case for Iraq being the “cradle of civilisation”, with the British Museum‘s Mesopotamian section – ironically, rarely more popular than now – providing a home to tens of thousands of clay tablets telling the world’s first written epic, Gilgamesh, in cuneiform script, as well as the beautiful stone reliefs from Nineveh, all of it dating back to the Iraq of up to 3,000 years before Christ. I posted a link to this article to The Kraken, the newsgroup for the work of my favourite living novelist Russell Hoban (and, while we’re at it, my erstwhile virtual home-away-from-home), on the basis that the Nineveh bas-reliefs play an essential part in Hoban’s great 1970s novel The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz – not to mention the disturbing resonances the article has of his post-apocalyptic masterpiece Riddley Walker. Fellow Krakenite, artist and curator of the latter site Eli Bishop responded with a shrewd cartoon and commentary by New York political cartoonist Tim Krieder, who, while with a group of artists sketching Mesopotamian artefacts at the Metropolitan Museum, realised that “[what] we were all dutifully sketching in order to honor and celebrate the ancient and glorious heritage of the people our government was about to bomb … were bas-relief steles immortalizing the rulers of the first military empires in human history — bearded, barrel-chested deity-kings with eagles’ wings and cannonball calf muscles straight out of ‘How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way!’, accompanied by lengthy fine-print cuneiform inscriptions that I happen to know, from art history classes, consist entirely of grandiloquent and dubious boasting about their bloody conquests …” Sound familiar, George?