Wednesday, 4 February 2004

Richard Cooper 2004


Richard Cooper (left) attempts to 4Qate in Aix-en-Provence with a French Gom Yawncher man, October 2003 (photo by Koy Cooper)

SA4QE 2004 was rather disorientating for me. Due to the extreme nature of my 2003 4Qation (half a London marathon’s worth of walking to drop 35 yellow paper quotes), I’d decided this year to 4Qate more modestly in the southwest suburbs of the city where I live and work, in order both to take it easy and return to Diana’s SA4QE roots, which stress that 4Qation does not have to be location-specific. However, as fate would have it I ended up 4Qating in central London instead, albeit not quite as extensively as before. I had planned to drop a quote or two in and around my workplace (currently, a textile warehouse in suburbs even further out than my own), but I ended up not going to work at all that day. The previous evening I’d received an email from a journalist from Talk of the Town magazine (an excellent arts-based supplement that comes free with the UK’s Independent on Sunday) who wanted to talk to me about SA4QE, and we’d arranged to meet at three o’clock at the Hobanesque location of Tower Hill and the Cheshire Cheese. After making a quick phone call to work to excuse myself (I told them I was suffering from bull nose rash), I spent the morning helping my pal Gombert update the SA4QE site and preparing myself to be grilled over a slow Hoban. The meeting was positive, interesting and enjoyable, although modesty, journalistic integrity and good old-fashioned superstition (i.e. the more you talk about something, the less likely it is to happen) prevents me from going into any more detail about it at the time of writing. Suffice to say that all being well, an article will appear about SA4QE in TOTT on 15/02/04, so watch this space. [Gombert notes: The article did indeed appear on 15th February - click here to read it.]

On my way up the District Line to Tower Hill I’d rummaged about my person for a business card to give the journalist, in the vain belief that it makes me seem more efficient, writerly and webmasterly. I didn’t have one, and although business cards are probably always bad news in identity terms (saying at most very little about you, and at very least that you're a prat with a business card), I resolved to go to one of those machines you see on train stations everywhere to get some printed out for a few pounds at the next opportunity. (Something else I didn't have was my camera, which was in for repair. I've felt since starting this site that no matter the power of the words on it, illustrations really help these pages to hang together, so this made me feel even more naked and vulnerable. I've tried to cover up the picture-gaps here meanwhile with a few photos from different Hobanesque situations from the past year.)


I’d chosen Tower Hill tube station and the Cheshire Cheese pub for the atmospheric chapter of that name from The Medusa Frequency, long my favourite of Russ’s novels. The journalist and I were looking for cappuccinos rather than the more Hobanesque boilermakers, which (probably appropriately) it turned out the Cheshire Cheese didn’t serve, so we went across Crutched Friars to the Pitcher & Piano instead – somewhat less atmospheric, but certainly caffeine-friendly. After a very interesting conversation (I thought so, anyway - God knows what he made of it), we wandered back to the Tower Hill tube and went our separate ways... me to 4Qate, and the journalist to write up his piece. It was a lovely, clear, mild afternoon and I didn’t fancy going straight home to 4Qate domestically, although whereabouts I actually would drop my yellow paper I had still to work out. There I was, all forked up and nowhere to go. One thing was clear, though: before I decided on my movements, I had to return to the Pitcher & Piano to use the facilities.

On my way out of said convenience I noticed a postcard rack on the wall, and this struck me as a good place to 4Qate. I wasn’t sure if any of the quotes I had with me would make much of an impression on the average Pitcher & Piano punter, which I have to say I’m generally not, but I looked through the quotes and decided the following might be the best for this location, although I can’t really say why it should be so:

I’d said that I’d never lose the idea of Medusa but I wasn’t at all sure that I knew what the idea was. The head of Orpheus had said, ‘Behind Medusa lie wisdom and the dark womb hidden like a secret cave behind a waterfall. Behind Medusa lies Eurydice unlost.’ ‘Let it be,’ I’d said, ‘you’re wording it to death.’ It was a mystery and I hadn’t wanted it explained to me. Now I needed to know where I was with it.

Kraken, I typed, can you tell me anything about this mystery?

THIS MYSTERY, said the Kraken, SHOWS ITS MEDUSA FACE TO COMPEL RECOGNITION, TO WARN THAT UNDERSTANDING STOPS BEFORE IT AND GOES NO FURTHER. THIS IS THE FACE OF MEDUSA WHO CANNOT BE IGNORED, CANNOT BE INTRUDED UPON, CANNOT BE POSSESSED. YOU HAVE NEVER GIVEN YOURSELF TO THIS ONE WHO WILL NOT GIVE HERSELF TO YOU, YOU HAVE WANTED ONLY THE SWEETNESS OF EURYDICE TO LOVE AND BETRAY. THIS IS THE FACE OF WHAT CANNOT BE BETRAYED. LOVE CAN BE LOST AND BEAUTY, BUT NOT THIS FACE OF DARKNESS MADE BRIGHT. THIS IS THE ONE TO WHOM YOU CAN BE FAITHFUL.

- from The Medusa Frequency

I folded up the quote and inserted it into one of the perspex pockets, in front of a Virgin Mobile postcard showing a rear-view of a woman whose tracksuit trousers had slipped down a couple of inches and the slogan CRACKING!!! I must admit that the main reason I chose the quote in the first place was that I was afraid the journalist would ask me “What exactly is 'the Medusa frequency'?” and I’d find myself tongue-twisted over this most crucial of Hoban questions. Despite reading the book several times, the concept has in fact always proved elusive to me (the fact that it seemed similarly so to Herman Orff providing little reassurance), so although the journalist didn’t ask me about it after all, it didn’t matter because copying it down gave me the chance to really think about it properly and in isolation for once. And, er, still not completely understand it, but there you go.

 Richard with fellow 4Qationist Graeme Wend-Walker, The Cheshire Cheese, April 2003 (photo by a Beefeater from the Tower of London)

I left the pub and went back to Tower Hill tube, wondering if I could 4Qate discreetly anywhere inside. Tower Hill station is half in the open air, and a great gust of wind whipped up as I approached, so it seemed an impractical place to try to leave a sheet of paper. Instead, noticing a BT internet terminal alongside a normal phone booth, I inserted a pound coin and negotiated with a half-dead keyboard to type the SA4QE website address. It’s always strange to see a website you’ve designed on someone else’s computer, but it was especially surreal to see the site hovering on a screen in the middle of a London tube station. My pound had bought me a few minutes of surftime, so I left the home page where it was and crossed to the other side of the foyer to watch the incoming crowds of commuters as they passed it to see if the site would catch anyone’s attention. Three crowds passed in as many minutes and nobody so much as batted an eyelid that they were even alive. Trying not to take it personally I went out and caught another tube in the direction of the South Bank Centre, not only one of my favourite places in London but also a great 4Qation spot.

The Circle Line tube took me to Embankment, where I got off and crossed the beautiful new Hungerford footbridge for the South Bank. (The new bridge was actually finished about two years ago, but it’ll always be the “new” one to an old Hungerford hand like me.) Half way across the bridge a young girl with long blonde hair and a long black overcoat was playing a speeded-up version of Autumn Leaves. It was hard to tell if she was racing through it from nerves or because she was cold, or if she’d deliberately arranged the tune that way. Either way I put 50p in her case and she bowed to thank me without missing a note. On the other side of the bridge I bought a Big Issue from a vendor with a bald head, and a copy of Private Eye from a kiosk. The kiosk-keeper thought the Big Issue was one of her magazines and there followed a tense moment while I convinced her not to charge me for it. The Eye cover had the headline HUTTON REPORT IN FULL, with a picture of the now notorious Lord Hutton and a speech bubble saying, I FIND DR SHIPMAN INNOCENT OF ALL CHARGES.

It was good to get out of the gale and into the South Bank Centre with its warm and laid-back 1960s interior. Here my remaining four quotes for 4Qation would not only not be blown away but actually stood a chance of being read by sensitive souls as they bought CDs and books, drank at the bar, looked at exhibitions of images, listened to the opera currently playing, went to a concert or stood looking out of the window across the Thames and a deepening winter sky. I first of all sat down with my magazines at a table by the window, the dusk settling over the river and the Charing Cross skyline, and when I’d caught up with the satirical view of the Hutton Report (not that the original wasn’t satirical enough) I got up and left the following quote on my chair:

Why should a blank piece of paper be frightening? Well, you never know what’s going to find its way on to it, do you. H.P. Lovecraft said, in the very first line of his story The Call of Cthulhu:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.

Even scattered bits of the mind’s contents are scary enough; consider the piece of paper that was blank until there appeared on it:

E = mc²

What mind generated that equation? Einstein got it on to paper but was Einstein’s mind his alone? Is there an individual mind for each one of us? Is the blankness of the paper an individual blankness for every writer or is there one blankness that waits to swallow everybody? I think that mind is a consciousness not confined to the individual but shared by all of us; the brain is the organ that limits that consciousness so that we can carry on the business of every day in the consensual state we call reality.

I know that the mind is ancient. We are descended from the dust of stars, and the mind is more ancient than the stars: the whole history of the universe is in it, and more. The limited-reality consensus ignores the strangeness of our being and the strangeness of the consciousness that lives in us; it maintains a pretence of reasonable thought and action for reasonable objectives. With those thoughts and actions we have achieved the world we find ourselves in now. Goya in his etchings showed us the monsters let loose by the dream of Reason: but Reason, in our time, wide awake and staring, has gone a good way beyond anything that Goya or even Goya and Lovecraft together ever could have imagined.
- from Blighter’s Rock
(an essay from The Moment under The Moment)

I’d chosen this passage partly because its reference to pieces of paper and “the scattered bits of the mind’s contents” called to mind SA4QE, but mainly because it neatly contained several of Hoban’s main concerns, themes and influences, as well as his oft-quoted coinage “the limited-reality consensus”. The table by the window looking out over the Thames seemed a great place to leave a long, thought-provoking quote like this.

Cooper: Now you see him...
...now you don't
(Photos by Olaf Schneider)

On my way to the other side of the centre I walked through Books Etc, where a few weeks before I’d found a large display of Bloomsbury paperback reprints of Hoban classics together with a glowing “staff picks” report that ran as follows:

These long-overdue reprints afford the perfect excuse to sample/celebrate the glorious work of one of the most inventive, bizarre and exuberant of modern British novelists. In Hoban's books the forces of myth, symbol and dream, let off the leash, work exquisite havoc with prose that sparkles - or darkles - with humour, intelligence and surreal beauty. A wonderful writer, not to be missed.

Today there was another staff selection, this time of books by a variety of authors, and among them was Amaryllis Night and Day, accompanied by a card describing the novel as “mysterious, beautifully written and unerringly left-field” and quoting another line that has become a favourite among Hoban fans: “Happiness can be unsettling, like catching a baby someone has thrown out of a window.” Among other staff selections in the display was Casting the Runes and other Ghost Stories by M.R. James, another of Hoban’s original influences. I bought a copy, and after checking that the other display of Russ’s catalogue was still there with its excellent staff report (it was), I went out and looked for somewhere else to 4Qate.

Outside Books Etc., as part of a BBC Radio 3 promotion, was a wallful of headphones against a warm yellow and orange background. I sat down, put on a pair of phones and selected the option labelled ELVIS COSTELLO. As Costello launched into the old classic She (“She may be the face I can’t forget, the trace of pleasure or regret...”), I flicked through my remaining quotes and selected the following to leave on the perspex ledge underneath the headphones on the yellow backdrop:

“The world-child has been told that this is a world,” said the head, “and it believes it; it is the energy of this belief that binds the world together. The world-child holds in its mind the idea of every single thing: root and stone, tree and mountain, river and ocean and every living thing. The world-child holds in its mind the idea of woman and man, the idea of love.”

“Who told the world-child all this that it now believes?” I said.

“Each thing told itself to the world-child: the tree; the mountain; the ocean; the woman; the man. You and I, we have told ourselves to it.”

“And the idea of love? Who told that to the world-child?”

“It didn’t have to be told,” said the head. “This idea arises of itself from that energy of belief that keeps the mountains from exploding and the seas from going up in steam. It’s only a kind of cohesion that binds together possibilities that have spun together out of the blackness.”

- from The Medusa Frequency

I’ve always loved this passage. While this idea of the world-child being told about the world and believing it in all its innocence might seem over-optimistic or even sentimental, elsewhere in the book you learn the other side of the equation, which is classic Hoban, that the world-child will ultimately be betrayed along with everything else – and despite the fact that the betrayal only happens when Orpheus kills the tortoise to make the lyre, and therefore make music, and therefore attract Eurydice... and therefore lose her and get her back and then lose her forever, and so it goes on.

I hung up the headphones, still buzzing with Elvis Costello and an apparently out-of-date advert for a jazz festival happening in October, and wandered upstairs to the Poetry Library. I hadn’t been there for years: it’s as quiet and peaceful and (personally speaking) as vaguely depressing as any ordinary local authority library, but it has a special air about it from being devoted solely to poetry and of course being on the South Bank rather than Neasden high street or wherever. A woman sitting at a computer at the front of the library said hello to me as I came in, taking me unawares (walking around as I generally do in a kind of bubble of silence), and I mumbled a greeting of my own in return. The library has a LOAN section and a REFERENCE section, both containing the same titles and therefore guaranteeing to always have the book you want. I went to the LOAN section, deciding to use the opportunity to seek out some Hoban poetry, which (surprisingly perhaps) I’d never read, and after some searching found a very old green hardback copy of The Pedalling Man, which had a purple stamp inside the front cover saying REJECTED FROM ISLINGTON LIBRARIES. Why? I thought, reading through the charming poems about a tin frog, a crow, a seagull, and the pedalling-man weathervane of the title. The book was illustrated in simple black ink by Lillian Hoban, the little drawings seeming slightly sad there on the sparse pages. “Not everybody will need all of these poems,” Hoban had written in the foreword, “but if some of you need some of them then I’m satisfied.” My favourite poems were Typo, in which the narrator mistypes “nothing” as “nitgub” and engages in a dialogue with the typewriter about this new word, concluding “nitgub ventured, nitgub gained”, and Solu the Barber, about a gents’ haircutter who when alone in his salon picks up “a guitar he made himself” and sings old songs while the narrator hovers outside listening. There was also an appropriate poem whose title was (I think) London Town, about the US narrator’s London snowdome and its simple landmarks of Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge, a testament perhaps to Russ’s anticipation of arrival in the city where (although he didn’t know it then) he would spend the rest of his life. Rather than put the book back, I left it open at this poem on a spare section of shelf and wandered over to the magazine racks, where beside a quiet window giving onto an increasingly dusky South Bank and the flickering coloured neon tubes of the Hayward Gallery, I 4Qated the following amidst magazine titles like THE YELLOW CRANE, IOTA and SCRATCH:
It is not love that moves the world from night to morning, it is not love that makes the new day dawn. It is the longing for what cannot be. The world needs the power of your yearning, the world needs the power of your love that cannot be fulfilled.
- from The Second Mrs Kong

These lines leapt out at me when I first read Hoban’s libretto for his opera collaboration with Harrison Birtwistle. Being both a variation on an eternal classic (Beauty and the Beast in this case) as well as highly original and funny, the opera is quintessential Hoban: timeless icon King Kong (or the idea of him anyway), having loved Fay Wray and lost her, now falls for another timeless icon in the form of the girl from Vermeer’s Head of a Young Girl painting, only to find himself in a second impossible situation. I feel sure we can all relate to these lines, and I can’t be the only person to have noticed the delicious irony that the intensity of feeling generated by an unrequited love or of anything in life you can’t have (or at least know you shouldn’t have) can be vastly more life-affirming and exciting than actually having it... but maybe that’s cynical. Anyway, given that I was in the Poetry Library, I felt this would be the most appropriate of my selected quotes to drop here.

I left the library and the South Bank Centre and walked to Waterloo Station. I had one more quote to drop and I’d saved it for the train home, for reasons which will be self-explanatory:

Risk-taking was a big thing in my mind at the time. Only a year before I’d left my TV art director job to become a freelance illustrator. That was a risk I’d hesitated to take: I had a wife and three children and a mortgage, I was a responsible citizen with a lot to lose. One evening coming home on the train I’d said to my friend Harvey Cushman, who worked at another advertising agency, “When I have $10,000 in the bank and a couple of steady accounts I’ll do it.”

“You’ll never do it then,” said Harvey. “I’ve heard lots of guys say the same thing and somehow the time never comes. If you’re going to do it you’ll do it without the $10,000 and the steady accounts.”

So I did it and I prospered and I was confirmed in my belief that the human being is a hunting and finding and risk-taking animal.
- from The Bear in Max Ernst’s Bedroom or The Magic Wallet
(an essay from The Moment under The Moment)

This may not be one of Russ’s most poetic passages, but it sounded like poetry to me when I first read it sometime in the mid-90s. I found my copy of The Moment under The Moment on the top shelf of a Richmond second-hand bookshop (tragically, now closed) while browsing for Hoban titles one Saturday afternoon, and the beautiful hardback (long out of print) has become a treasured possession. By the time I got round to reading the book properly (I rarely dive into books upon buying them, preferring to wait until they want me), I was in the latest in a long line of dead-end jobs, yearning to escape and do what I really wanted to do – be a writer. Unlike Russ, I didn’t have a family but I did have a mortgage, and I too had hunkered down for the dreary long haul of 9-to-5 and regular saving to enable myself to fulfil my dream. I remember sitting in my flat eating dinner alone one evening when I read this anecdote (from a long, complex and eclectic essay about risk-taking in art and elsewhere in life) and physically shivering as my mind opened to the simple possibility suggested in it: I didn’t have to wait, I didn’t have to go through the motions for years before I could be that writer – I could do it now, or at very least I could find a better, more immediate way of enabling it to happen. Very shortly afterwards I found a new job which was not only far more interesting but which gave me two weeks off every month, and the writing started to pick up forthwith. That said, the job was a lucky break, short-lived and nothing really to do with Russ’s essay; the important point is how reading the essay made me feel at that moment and how it arrived in my life just when it was needed to change my way of thinking. Quite often a character in a Hoban novel will say they feel much better about something, a relationship or some other situation, and that moreover they also feel that even if the situation doesn’t last, it doesn’t matter because they can now move on, and this was very much how I felt at the time of reading the essay.

I left this quote on the empty seat next to me as I got off the train, partly with reference to the conversation that took place on a train in New York between Russell Hoban and Harvey Cushman in the late 1950s, but mostly in the hope that it would be picked up by someone just as frustrated and hungry for spiritual, emotional and artistic escape as I had been when I first read it, and would inspire them to go out and take a risk and prosper and fulfil their dream.

When I got off the train in Richmond I passed a BUSINESS CARDS machine and remembered my earlier thought about getting some printed up. I inserted £2 and followed the on-screen instructions, filling in my name, address, website URL, email, telephone, fax and mobile numbers and my line of work, and clicked OK. A few moments later a card popped out of the dispenser at the front of the machine. I picked it up: ROGER SMITH, it said, SCREENWRITER AND SCRIPT CONSULTANT. What was it I said before about business cards being bad for the identity? Well, it could have been worse, I suppose...

Happy birthday, Russ, and thanks for the continued inspiration.

Richard and friends (including tee-shirted Russ Hoban and Che Guavara) toast a farewell to the limited-reality consensus, April 2003. (Photo by Koy Cooper)

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