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Friday, 6 January 2012

Saying goodbye to Russ

SA4QE was honoured to be invited to the funeral of Russell Hoban in London last Wednesday, along with a number of Russ's associates, fans from the online community The Kraken and of course family and friends.

The service took place at Mortlake Crematorium, right on the banks of the River Thames. The weather was appropriate, turning Russ's favourite grey and rainy as the mourners gathered.

The chapel was light and peaceful. Among the mourners was celebrated writer and broadcaster Will Self, who had recently conducted a wonderful conversation with Russ at the British Library and described him as "my hero" in a Guardian tribute. The order of service was printed on folded sheets of yellow A4 paper, with a lovely photo of Russ on the front, dressed - one must say atypically - in a shirt and tie, with a Panama hat and cane, looking very happy. Underneath the photo it read:

Russell Conwell Hoban
4 February 1925 - 13 December 2011
I tell you what I have paid years to learn: everything that is found is always lost again, and nothing that is found is ever lost again. Can you understand that?

This most appropriate quote is from The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz and has been chosen by SA4QE contributors a number of times.

Mortlake Crematorium

Inside the order of service were three quotes from other writers:

I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more -- the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort -- to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust...
- Joseph Conrad, Youth

Though it will die soon
The voice of the cicada
Shows no sign of this
- Basho

The lofty shade advances,
I fetch my flute and play:
Come, lads, and learn the dances
And praise the tune to-day.
To-morrow, more's the pity,
Away we both must hie,
To air the ditty,
And to earth I.
- AE Housman, Fancy's Knell

On the back of the service was this illustration by Caspar David Friedrich:

Landschaft mit Grab Sarg und Eule (borrowed from here)
Russ's coffin, made in wickerwork and laden with pink roses, iris and small yellow flowers, was borne into the chapel and the service started with a period of silence followed by Haydn's Die Schöpfung: Im Anfange schuf Gott Himmel und Erde, a piece which starts off quietly and suddenly blasts into life:

There was no minister. The eulogy was given by Dominic Power, an old friend of Russ's who has a walk-on part in several of his later books as "Seamus Flannery". Delivered in hushed tones, the speech paid tribute to Russ's many achievements as a writer but also to his friendship: "I don't think I laughed so much or for so long when I went out for lunch with Russell... If you were feeling depressed about something before you met up with him, by the end of your time with him you would be feeling that life was worthwhile."

Russ's son Jake Hoban then took the stand. "This was written by my dad in 1989," he said by way of introduction to a short piece called North from The Moment under The Moment. The vivid, wintry piece is not about the north of England but

the north where one goes in fear, the north that the compass cannot find, the north that is the cold and implacable truth from which one doesn't always return.

Later Jake said he chose it partly because it includes some themes developed in Russ's new book Soonchild due to be published in March.

Russ's eldest daughter from his first marriage Phoebe Hoban then read an appreciation of her father and his work. Her brother Brom then produced two sheets of yellow A4 and recited the Kaddish (echoing his and his father's Jewish upbringing), which Brom described as "a request for peace", and a poem of his own composition inspired by watching, when a child, his father paint a canvas called The Boxer. (Russell Hoban was a professional graphic artist at the time of Brom's childhood; there is more information on this period of his career in Chris Bell's excellent blog post from July 2011.)

The service closed with another piece from Haydn's Die Schöpfung, Holde Gattin, dir du Seite - both pieces were chosen by Russ himself:

The family members then paid their last respects at the coffin and the congregation filed out.

The family greeted the mourners outside the chapel and we walked the short distance along the Thames towpath to The Ship, a lovely old pub also overlooking the river. 

The wake was very pleasant and the family endlessly hospitable and it was great to be able to chat to old Kraken friends, SA4QE contributors and other people who knew and loved Russ. 

Phoebe Hoban with SA4QE contributors Eli Bishop (right) and Richard Cooper

The Kraken were among the last to leave; we stayed about three hours. It was a great privilege to be there and see Russ off and we would like to take this opportunity again to thank the family for inviting us. All of us at SA4QE and The Kraken will miss Russ terribly, while of course remembering the many, many hours of pleasure he and his writing gave us all.

Photos by Roland Clare and Richard Cooper


  1. What a very lovely send off. I'm glad some of the Kraken could represent those of us who could not attend. It is a wonderful goal to hope to have so much to be remembered for and with such feeling. To leave so many wonderful books behind is never to be gone altogether.

  2. I can only aspire to write someday a line that makes chills go up the reader's spine, as Russ's writings routinely made chills go up mine.

  3. gosh! - how lovely!... thank you so much for covering it in such detail (right down to the musics, ye gods!)... wondrous!

    (wipes a teary eye)

  4. "Thank you" does not say well enough how moved I am by this post. It is beautiful. You extended the privilege of being there to those of us who were not. --Lindsay

  5. I can only faintly echo the comments that have already been left here. Thank you, Richard, for being there on behalf of SA4QE, The Kraken and Russ's growing legion of readers, as well as for writing this beautiful account. It's moving and to the point - and who but Russ could invoke an owl, Haydn, a cicada, Caspar David Friedrich and Joseph Conrad in departing? Farewell, Russ.

  6. Thank you, SA4QE and Kraken for representing those of us who couldn't attend.

  7. Thank you Richard for making it possible for us scatterlings of Hoban-heartedness to share this.


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