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Tuesday 22 February 2011

Russell Hoban in conversation with Will Self at the British Library, 15 February 2011

Will Self and Russell Hoban
On the evening of this special event, SA4QE fetches up in the main foyer of the British Library, which is a very civilised place – “Good evening,” says the security guy at the door, checking our bag, “how are you today?” Having assured him we are very well, SA4QE proceeds to the information desk for directions and is despatched back into the night across the forecourt to the Auditorium, where we are joined by Roland Clare and friend Louise Sheffield, and Jake Hoban, Russ’s son. After a brief chat we head inside, meet some other Hoban fans including Deena Omar, spot a guy wearing an Arga Warga t-shirt and mill about for a few moments before being ushered into the modern, woody hall decked with comfy seating.

Russ takes the stage with help from his wife Gundela, with Will Self taking a seat opposite. While Russ is short and stocky, Self is approximately 12 feet tall, yet hunched, giving the distinct impression of a rheumy-eyed vulture, or as AliB68 tweets, “a stork interviewing a robin”. Thankfully these metaphors are only visual, as the conversation goes on to be anything but predatory - as Martin Eve says, “Self [is] the most gracious of ‘interviewers’.”

The British Library host introduces Russ at some length with critical epithets including “the strangest writer in Britain”. Riddley Walker “keeps astounding everyone who encounters it ... its vision of a possible future English takes the story of a future English language as documented over in the BL’s exhibition Evolving English – One Language, Many Voices into a far, far, far possible future.” Self meanwhile was chosen for his “love of and bravery with language and his willingness to embrace the barely possible in his novels” which in turn made him an “ideal choice” to write the introduction to the 2002 edition of Riddley Walker.

Will Self thanks Russ and says it’s a great honour to share a stage with him, although “it probably bores him endlessly to have people say they grew up reading his books, yet I did grow up reading his books in those fine Picador paperback editions of the 1980s.” He says he can’t imagine anyone else writing the books that he did; “Russell doesn’t take the novel as a given. Some writers write novels like you might make a table – there’s nothing wrong with that, but they all have to have four legs and be level, whereas Russell approaches it as if there are no rules – the legs can all be of a different length, and you don’t necessarily have to eat off it – you might want to lie down under it.” He adds that he’s read RW four times and finds it “stunning and emotionally disturbing”.

Self then goes to the lectern and reads the Hart of the Wud passage from early in the book. Before he starts he says Russ had asked him backstage to be sure to do the readings “in the Kentish accent some two thousand years in the future.” The reading is superb: despite seeing Self many times on TV including in unlikely contexts such as Shooting Stars, SA4QE had never really considered him a performer, but he assumes a persona and reads the passage with magnificent menace (and a good accent). Above the applause afterwards Russ can be heard to tell Self the reading was “beautiful”.

Self asks whether the story of how the book came to Russ at Canterbury as told many times is true. Russ says it is true and that he will indeed be repeating himself to retell the story, but tells it anyway, citing a series of articles by Edmund Wilson about Punch and Judy puppeteers he had read in The New Yorker magazine coming to him at the same moment in 1974 that he first looked up at the vaulted ceiling of the cathedral.

Self says this genesis surprises people and asks whether, given the period in which the novel was written, there was no element of wanting to warn people of the follies of nuclear war in his planning of the book. “Writing novels with a message, I dare to say – although I’m sure there are examples to prove me wrong – is a sure road to disaster,” says Russ. “I think the best writing is done with what enters you and takes possession of you and doesn’t let go of you until you get the job done.”

Self says he understands the book started in normal English and the Riddleyspeak came later. Russ says it shifted into Riddleyspeak quite quickly and he kept lists of the words he’d invented to keep everything consistent. He also says he didn’t calculate it this way but realised that the language has the effect of slowing down the action to Riddley’s speed of perception. Self adds that the language seems simultaneously of the distant future and of the distant past; Russ agrees, saying some people had compared it to Middle English, but that this was due to inspiration rather than research. He summarises a half-remembered Ralph Waldo Emerson quote about “a channel of public energy that a man can tune into”, saying that he was able to tap into various channels of ideas during the writing that he hadn’t formerly known existed.

They talk about the book’s long gestation, Russ saying that after the first two years he had 500 pages which “weren’t it” because they weren’t concentrated enough and were spread over too much geography. Self asks how much moving to England inspired the book, and whether he could have written it in the US. Russ says he couldn’t have, then “tracks back” to the time period, recounting the familiar story of how he came to England as a fan of British ghost stories. “I opened myself to the ethos of... English storytelling? I don’t know, I’ve never said this before, I don’t know if it rings true or not, but anyhow that’s what I’m saying now ... I finished Turtle Diary in 1974 and around that time read a story by Gerald Kersh called Voices in the Dust of Annan, in which an explorer from the future falls through the ruins of what used to be London and finds himself living with some very small people who dress in rat-skins and hunt rats, and sing corrupted versions of songs like ‘Oo Kill Carobbin’, and I felt like fooling around with language that way.”

Russ goes on to relate his original discovery of the legend of St Eustace on the wall of Canterbury Cathedral, and Self talks about how Riddley’s people conflate the half-remembered and corrupted stories of Christianity with the “cultural memory” of science. Was there an intellectual element to this or was it inspiration? “I plead innocent to the charge of intellectuality,” says Russ, to laughter and a smattering of applause. “You have many supporters!” says Self.

Self talks about Riddley himself and says one of the surprising things about him is how many miles he covers during his “roading”, anything up to “50 miles a night”. “Charles Dickens was a hell of a walker, you know,” Russ shoots back. “He’d go for 25-mile walks and come home and write 50 letters. Riddley’s walking is consonant with his culture. As Goodparley says, ‘Riddley youre a mover.’”

Self wonders whether Russ’s army service in the last years of WW2 informed any of the grimness of the book. “I never fired a shot in anger, but I was shot at,” says Russ, “and I saw a lot of dead bodies turn various colours and bloating, so that comes into the consciousness.” Is Riddley’s world a war zone? “Yes it is, it’s full of danger from all sides.”

Self says that on one level he would have expected Riddley’s culture not to be literate, yet Riddley and other characters such as the officials at The Ram can read and write. At the same time, he says that it is one of the wonderful things about the book that it is an “entirely believable world entire” in which literacy can exist – it’s not as if Russ simply reproduced an iron-age culture. Did Russ research history prior to writing? “In the first drafts which were in standard English, Riddley was a kind of anthropologist studying his culture. That got tossed out fairly early on and I did what I had done in Kleinzeit, where instead of reading medical dictionaries I made up my own names for things.” Self says he remembers very well the language of Kleinzeit, and they talk tantalisingly briefly about this pre-Riddley book. (The two books aren't quite analagous though, as in Kleinzeit Russ uses real words such as stretto and hypotenuse in place of medical terms, whereas in Riddley the words are either entirely fabricated or corrupted versions of our own.)

Self says he found Riddley Walker very intense and emotional; was this Russ’s experience too? “Yes, I did live that book as I wrote it... the point where Riddley and I both wept when I was writing the book was after Goodparley and Granser have blown themselves up, and the Black Leader of the Bernt Arse Pack, who ‘looks like death on four legs’, shoves his nose into Riddley’s hand and wants to be petted, and Riddley says ‘That’s when I cried for the dead’ and that’s when I cried too.”

At the start of the book Riddley doesn’t allow himself to respond to his father’s death, but as the action progresses he changes allegiance to various men, such as Goodparley, Belnot Phist and Lissener. Is this about Riddley coming to terms with his father’s death? “The death of Brooder Walker has a profound effect on Riddley – he’s seething inside and is just about ready to go, when he digs up the Punch puppet and hauls Belnot Phist over the fence.” Self gets up to read this passage in his “absolutely immaculate” future Kentish accent:

Returning to his seat, Self invites Russ to open the “little bag” he has with him, and Russ opens his rucksack and brings out his Punch puppet, as made by Bob Wade. Russ summarises Punch’s notorious dark character and murderous acts: “Percy Press once said to me ‘Punch is so old he can’t die,’” and then, with a slip of the tongue into Riddleyspeak, “‘he’s a law unto hisself.’ ... There’s something in him that doesn’t care about him, that he is simply the vehicle for. And I always remember the ‘broken seagull’ – do you want to read that bit?” The two try to find the passage in question but can’t locate it; a Google search brings up the reference on the Riddley Walker Annotations website: “they myndit me of gulls eyes. Eyes so fearce they cudnt even be sorry for the naminal they wer in”. Russ summarises the passage and Self comments that it echoes what Lorna says early on in the book about “something looking out through our eye-hoals”: Riddley’s people have a sense of an elemental force that is refracted back to them through the Punch story. Russ: “Riddley looks back in time to us as the people who made the 1Big1 – this thing is in us, but it didn’t care for us.”

There then follows a very slapstick exchange. Self: “There’s a tension, isn’t there, in the perception of the people of the past – he both thinks that they’re kind of ‘before the fall’, they’re prelapsarian figures who are integrated psychically, and he feels the weight of dualism, doesn’t he – he’s always worried about the two being made into one, he feels his own reflected self-consciousness as a burden. And yet in the mythology, the Punch story that comes round, Mr Clevver is responsible for the destruction of all that’s good, so it’s almost as if enshrined in the people from the past is their own destruction at the same time.” Russ: “Yes. I’ve never had the opportunity to use the word prelapsarian.” (Much laughter.) “I myself feel postlapsarian but it eases up later in the day.” Self: “I never feel the day is done without feeling prelapsarian. [In fact] Let the day begin!” Russ: “Anyhow, my answer was yes.” (Even more laughter.)

They talk a little more about Punch and how old the myth is and the fact that there’s a Punch in every country including ancient Greece “where there were characters with large phalluses and did strange things”. Puppets “will always get a laugh and a gut response from the audience.”

What inspired Lissener and the Power Ring? Russ says the latter was inspired by the CERN particle accelerator, but there was no particular reason for having a blind Ardship of Cambry, except for his part in the story of the Other Voyce Owl of the Worl. Self “goes out on a limb” and wonders whether Russ’s having been trained as a radio operator during the war had anything to do with this “listening”: “No – I was trained as a radio operator, but that availed me nothing – I was a foot-messenger, and in fact I had such a bad sense of direction that I had to tear up bits of K-ration boxes to leave a trail so that I could find my way back... One time, I passed and re-passed a hill so many times that the Germans thought I was a troop movement.”

Self says it must have been very emotional finishing Riddley Walker, but as if that weren’t enough Russ then “goes and has another epiphany in Galilee” and writes Pilgermann. “How did it feel to move from Riddleyworld to Pilgermann-world, which is by no means that jolly?” “That was in my high-energy period,” says Russ, summarising the inception of Pilgermann during a trip to Israel. “I like that book a lot... I had a good time writing it. I did a good Pope, Uncwit the Seventh or something, who had some pretty good dreams!” He laughs cryptically.

Self scoffs at this so-called high-energy period when Russ has been “remarkably prolific over the last decade”, turning out almost a book a year. Russ: “Well yes, I do what I can.” Self: “You continue to move into different areas – some of the work has been very erotic, for instance.” “Yes,” says Russ matter-of-factly, “well, I mean, life is, isn’t it?” Self agrees and Russ describes his next “big one”, Soonchild: “It’s about an eskimo shaman, whose daughter doesn’t want to be born because she refuses to come out into the world until he brings her the world-songs, so he brews up a big dream brew and goes on a dream trip through many changes. I have to hang on in there until 2012 as it won’t be published until then.” Self: “Well, I hope you’ll hang in there a little bit longer than that, if it’s all the same with you.”

Self then opens the conversation out to the audience.

The first questioner asks “Was it the case when you were writing Riddley Walker that you were in analysis and you would take along chapters to read aloud?”
Russ: “Would you repeat that for me, Will?”
Self: “He’s saying he’s heard you were in psychoanalysis and you would take the novel in MS to your analyst – which if true does beg the question of why your analyst didn’t pay you.” (Much laughter and applause.)
Russ: “It wasn’t psychoanalysis, it was psychotherapy, and I used to have sessions with Leon Redler, and I used to read him what I was writing. I’m trying to think of my reason – maybe I just wanted a private audience!” (laughter) “Maybe I wanted to test the validity of it, whether the characters would ring true.”
Self: “Do you remember any of what he said about the book?”
Russ: “No, I don’t.”
Self: “You definitely need your money back.”

Roland's friend Louise asks: “Did you have to tone the book down at all to make it more accessible?”
Self: “Were you calibrating it as you wrote it to see how difficult it was against standard English?”
Russ: “No, again I just wrote it as it came to me – ‘I done it how it come’.”
Self: “There’s a mini-glossary and notes in the new edition. I confess I found those very helpful... personally I find the book is very different each time I read it. I can’t help finding this is a function of the book that it reminds you that English is a very variable and flexible language.”
Russ: “I was very pleased with some of my inventions, such as ‘I had to vote no kynd of fents’, which is a breakdown of ‘vote of no confidence’.”
Self: “I think that Ed Miliband, the current Shadder Mincer, would be well advised to read Riddley Walker.”

Female questioner: “Do you have any academic experience of linguistics or pidgins and creoles?”
Self repeats.
Russ: “No.”
Self: “I knew he was going to say that.”
Russ: “There are things that spring naturally to the tongue, such as ‘great’ becoming ‘girt’. Also when I was growing up in Pennsylvania the auxiliary verb was often thrown over the side, so you’d say ‘I done this’ or ‘I gone there’.”
Self: “We do that here too.” (to questioner) “Is that called glottal drift or something?”
Woman: “I can’t remember.”
Self: “You studied it once though, didn’t you?” (laughter) “That was certainly worth our tax dollar.” (hilarity) “Sorry, that came out harsher than it should have.”
[Roland Clare later advises SA4QE that the term Self was reaching for is 'metathesis': "I told him {Self} afterwards (he was v. nice!)."]

Self: “The bearded man up there – oh right, sorry, you’ve got a beard too, it’s not as big as his...”
Questioner with beard: “How much time did you spend in Kent researching the geography?”
Russ: “A lot of time. At that time we had a Bedford camper, and with my wife Gundel and our two sons we’d go up hill and down dale in the Wye Valley.”

Male questioner: “I have to read the book out loud rather than internally in order to understand it. I wondered whether reading it aloud to yourself was involved in the creation of it?”
Russ: “All of my books, not just Riddley Walker, are written for the ear, so that they will bear up under reading aloud. I sound them out in my head and go over them aloud until it works.”
Self: “Where does that come from? Were you read to a lot as a child?”
Russ: “Hm, I’m trying to remember... certainly I was read to a bit as a child, enough to instil it in me, and I was given plenty of books as a child, and I still remember my father - who was a socialist, but I guess he would have to be called a communist sympathiser at the time – used to bring me books – I remember one called Fairytales for Workers’ Children, a collection of hard-luck stories. There was a little black guy, and a yellow dog who had a terrible time. Left its mark on me, I can tell you.”
Self: “So presumably if your father was a fellow-traveller, you weren’t an observant family?”
Russ: “No, and apropos of his fellow-travelling, the first two rules of etiquette that I learnt were always to eat the label on the pumpernickel for good luck, and never to cross a picket-line.” (audience applause) “My father was put in jail for marching in a picket-line at the hosiery mill, which was the local industry in Lansdale.”

Self identifies the next questioner as “The woman in a hat just there.”
Woman in a hat: “Woman in a hat!”
Self: “Well, it’s an easy way of identifying you. I don’t know your secret hopes and desires.” (audience laughter)
Woman in a hat: “And you’re not going to, Will.”
Self: “Well if she objected to me typifying her as a woman in a hat, what can I do?”
Woman in a hat: “You didn’t start off by saying ‘Here is Russell Hoban in a hat’! Anyway, let’s stop arguing. Here is my question...”
Self: “What is your question?”
Woman in a hat: “Russell, in 1970, you gave a writing workshop at a conference on children’s literature in education in Exeter.” [She was probably referring to this.]
Russ: “Yes.”
WIAH: “At that writing workshop, which I wasn’t lucky enough to be born to be at...”
Russ (to Self): “What was that?”
Self: “SHE WASN’T BORN. Or else she would’ve been there.”
(audience hysteria)
Russ: “All right! You’ve made the effort now...”
WIAH: “ said the most important thing was to describe ‘the thingness of things’. Do you still believe that?”
Russ: “Was describing..?”
Self: “‘The thingness of things’ – what guys with ten-dollar words call quiddity, I believe.”
Russ: (pondering) “The thingness of things... um, yeah, the thing-in-itself...” (ponders some more) “Ding an sich?”
Self: “Ding an sich... I knew you’d get onto Kant and metaphysics, hiding your intellectuality.”
Russ: “I have never read, er, ‘Karnt’.”
Self: “I believe it’s pronounced Kunt actually.”
(audience beside themselves)
Russ: “I’m getting credit for learning I don’t have. I can take a book this thick and riffle through it and come up with one quotation which will convince people I’ve read the whole thing. It’s artful.”
Self: “Maybe what the woman who we must not call the Woman in a Hat is saying is that your novels are about ‘things’ rather than, say, character or the relationships between people.”
Russ: “The writer whom I credit with the Thingness of Things more than anyone is Anton Chekhov, who is my current main squeeze. He just does it, he can talk about the moonlight on the ocean, the smell of the trees and flowers in a garden which transcends mere description – he gets right to the thingness of things. It can’t be learnt. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”

Male questioner: “Riddley Walker is depressing and disturbing and the end is ambiguous. Do you find it optimistic or pessimistic? How do you classify it in terms of a story?”
Russ summarises to Self what he thinks the question was.
Self: “You got it in a nutshell, although the front end was largely a statement. A good statement, mind you...”
Russ: “It’s left that way – we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know what his future is, any more than we know our own.”

Self: “A final question from the man with the beard, glasses, shirt, pullover, trousers and underwear.”
Male questioner: “Hi Will.”
Self: “Hi.”
Male questioner with clothes: “When you were first looking at the painting of St Eustace, it was a life-changing moment, but I was wondering how long you were looking at it for and how you were feeling.”
Russ: “The...?”
Self: “He wants a more visceral description of your epiphany.”
Russ: “The viscera of my epiphany are internal.”
Self: “Well, how about the thingness of your epiphany?”
Russ: “I don’t rightly know that I can say more about it. It just got to me. You don’t have to be a writer to have that experience when an event or something you see or some person suddenly gets to you, and there it is, you suddenly have to do something about it. Can’t say more than that.”

Self: “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think the modern mania for getting writers up on stages and making us trot around like performing dogs, like the dogs in Riddley Walker, when he has the vision at Cambry and they rise up on their hind legs and dance around him, is often not a good thing, but I’m sure you’ll agree that this evening has been an exceptional and rare privilege to hear Russell talking.” (Sustained applause)
Russ: “Can I say that I could not have asked for or imagined a better companion and conversationalist than this gentleman.” (more applause)

Hi-res versions and more photos available as a set on the SA4QE Flickr feed


  1. A marvellous account; and it really was as funny as you represent it!

  2. Thank you for all the work you put into this fabulous transcription of the event.

  3. I'm awfully jealous of you Londoners. But this is the next best thing to being there! Thanks for posting.

  4. This was wonderful; thanks v much. V impressed with WS reading. But who owned the very attentive dog with the white neck on the left of the stage - could it have been a reincarnation of the Black Leader?

  5. An excellent account and very funny. "I laughed aloud" as book jacket blurbs often say; in this case it's true. Was the 'woman in the hat' a plant? If so, she was fed some very good lines.

  6. “I think the best writing is done with what enters you and takes possession of you and doesn’t let go of you until you get the job done.”

    Oh, so wonderful! Thank you so very very much for writing all this down. Remind me to bring you along to all my events so I can have a good record ;-)

    And I have to say the Shooting Stars changed my mind about Self as I had a rather irritable opinion about him before that but anyone who can good around with Vic and Bob is aces with me.


  7. Thank you for this transcription, much appreciated.


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