In memory of my friend, Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban, in his home, surrounded by books
Russell Hoban, in his home, surrounded by books
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The venue was perfect for an encounter with Russell Hoban. Strange, yet familiar. Weird because it wasn’t. A Mediterranean restaurant wrapped around a street corner of poshest Fulham, the kind of place you ignore day in, day out, apart from when you wonder how on earth it manages to stay open. It was empty, of course it was, save for me and a farcical number of waiters. And then...

Tap-tap, the noise of his walking stick on terracotta tiles. Squeak, the sound of his shoes. Russell Hoban, 85-year-old author of masterpiece Riddley Walker and so many more, shuffled towards me. He was wearing a baseball cap, thick spectacles that made his eyes owlish, and an amused expression. The wheelchair he came in had already been whisked away by his wife. He was alone. I jumped up and he took my hand, more for balance than to say hello. “Shall we go outside?” he asked, gesturing towards the freezing October day with his cane. And so we did, hand in hand, like lovers or old friends. The waiters eyed us with curiosity. What could someone like him possibly have to say to someone like me? So much, it turned out.

I swaddled Hoban in blankets and he called my dictaphone “a snazzy little device”. The coffees in front of us instantly went cold in the brisk air, but we didn’t notice. I asked him if his house was far away and he said “about a five minute walk. I did it once with a walking frame and it was too tiring for me. I don’t go out, hardly at all.” He told me he was supposed to get a flu shot that morning. “But the nurse never showed up... maybe she got the flu.” His laugh gave way to a cough.

We talked about everything. About whisky and the films he watched every night into the small hours. We talked about his wife, Gundula, their 13 grandchildren, and his upbringing in Pennsylvania as the son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. We talked about motorbikes and how, while researching Riddley Walker, he once rode pillion into the forests of Kent, just to see if he’d be able to see his hand in front of his face in the dark. We talked about his new book Angelica Lost and Found, his 16th novel for adults and, though neither of us knew it, his last completed work. “I like to play with words,” he told me. “My wife is out a lot and I’m often alone in the house. I like to amuse myself by saying words that don’t mean anything... like bligpho and zarp.” He sang me Barry Manilow’s Copacabana and I joined in. “There’s a line,” he said, mid-way. “I say ‘He was escrotted to his chair, he saw Lola dancing there’... Why do I say escrotted? I don’t know. It’s playful.”

We talked about consciousness, his great theme. “I constantly have the feeling,” he said, “that there is something inside me looking out through my eyes.” We talked about illness, which was plaguing him more and more. “I’m almost 86 now and that I’m still here is a triumph of the medical arts. I have been invaded by every kind of scalpel from all kinds of surgery. I used to psych myself up going into surgery by thinking of the little lion inside me. Sometimes it wants to live and sometimes it wants to die. When I was a heavy smoker, it wanted to die. When it wanted to live, I gave up smoking. I’ve always left it to the little lion.” This little lion was such a powerful, unforgettable creation, that in telling me about it, another grew in me.

The day ended long after I switched off my “snazzy device”. We talked all afternoon, until it was our teeth doing the chattering. Hoban recited a 76-line AE Housman poem to me from memory. The whole encounter was extraordinary. My feet never touched the ground on the way home.

And then... he started calling me. Hoban would phone during the day to ask me what kind of whisky I liked. Then one evening to tell me he had just seen Let The Right One In. Then to talk to me about painting, or MR James, or Theodore Dreiser, who he was in the process of rediscovering. I started calling him too, to tell him about what I was reading, or watching on telly, or thinking about, or worrying about. Before either of us knew it, we seemed to be friends.

When my interview with Hoban was published in The Scotsman I stayed on the phone while he read it... very... slowly... and... mostly... out... loud. It took an inordinately long time because his eyes were failing. I kept thinking he had fallen asleep but, no, he was being patient and waiting for the words to find him. He got to the end and then came the awkwardness of not knowing what to do next. Neither of us were ready for an ending. And then... he asked me to lunch.

We met for the second time (and, it turned out, the last) in an Italian restaurant near Euston. It was one of those kitsch Italians with sticky Formica tables and photos of the owner with various obscure, permed celebrities on the walls. It was fantastic. Hoban loved it and had been going for decades. Everyone working there knew him, and took it in turns to help him to the table, to the toilet, and back again. We sat in a booth and drank bottles of Bud and ate bowls of spaghetti. I told him I had never met an interviewee for lunch before. He told me he had never met one of his interviewers either. It was a funny thing. A lovely thing.

Again, we talked for hours. His hearing wasn’t great so eventually we resorted to singing songs from some our favourite musicals: West Side Story and My Fair Lady. We talked about Ella Fitzgerald, Scotland, whisky (again) and always, always books. He gave me a copy of AE Housman’s poems and one of his own: a children’s book called The Twenty-Elephant Restaurant that he loved to read to his grandchildren. I promised I would bring him a bottle of whisky next time. And then... we walked to the door of the restaurant hand in hand. I helped Russell Hoban, a great writer and now my friend, into his taxi. I stood on the pavement with the restaurant owner and we waved him off together. That was the last time I saw him. But somehow I know the little lion was with him to the end.

Russell Hoban, 4 February, 1925 – 13 December, 2011

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