Destinies of rust – Gordon Bottomley and the early days of eco-poetry

Lindsay Edmunds:

A striking epigraph, a very early example of eco-poetry, and a memory of the great writer Russell Hoban.

Originally posted on what a lot of birds:

Destines of rustI came across this while archiving: an epigram to an unpublished work of the late Russell Hoban. It’s beautiful, and makes me want to read more of Bottomley’s work.

O, you are busied in the night,

Preparing destinies of rust;

Iron misused must turn to blight,

And dwindle to a tetter’d crust. 

It’s part of the poem “To Iron-Founders and Others”, an amazingly early piece of eco-poetry. I think it deserves posting in full. 

Can we also bring back the word tetter’d? Please?

View original 242 more words

TURTLE DIARY is back in print

TURTLE DIARY is a 1975 novel by Russell Hoban about two 40-something Londoners who want to steal three sea turtles from the London turtle diaryZoo and put them in the sea. These Londoners, William G and Neaera H, tell the story in alternating chapters: his thoughts, her thoughts, and so on.

William reflects that “it was the sort of situation that would be ever so charming and warmly human in a film with Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith but that sort of film is only charming because they leave out so many details, and real life is all the details they leave out.”

If TURTLE DIARY were charming in a wan, safe sort of way (two lonely people do this oh-so-English eccentric thing of freeing the turtles, and life is affirmed, etc),  it likely would have sold better when it came out.

However, it would not be back in print four decades later as part of The New York Review Books Classics series.

Ed Park, author of the novel PERSONAL DAYS and literary editor at Amazon, would not have written in the Introduction that Hoban’s novel “is like a lot of things you already like, while being so much its own stupendous thing that it’s become one of my literary yardsticks.”

Stupendous? Yes it is. It delivers over and over.

Park says that the novel is about loneliness, which surprised me a little. I read TURTLE DIARY for the first time in the 1980s, after I found it in a Bethesda used book store and it passed the random read test (first paragraph + one other paragraph from middle). I’ve returned to it several times since, and I never thought it was mainly about loneliness. William and Neaera are lonely—heck, most of the characters who populate the novel are lonely, as are the sea turtles, and the water beetle Neaera keeps in an aquarium, hoping in vain that it will give her an idea for another children’s book.

But WHY are they lonely? That question leads to a deeper theme.

Which is  . . .

At three o’clock in the morning I sat in the dark looking out of the window down at the square where the fountain is not and I thought about the turtles. The essence of it is that they can find something and they are not being allowed to do it. What more can you do to a creature, short of killing it, than prevent it from finding what it can find? How must they feel? Is there a sense in them of green ocean, white surf and hot sand? Probably not. But there is a drive in them to find it. . . .

—Neaera H

Life rebooted

William is an ex-ad man. He is divorced, and his wife and children have left the country. (“I don’t know where they are.”) He wanted to quit the advertising business; he wanted the divorce. But now he works in a bookshop, lives in a rooming house, and is obsessed with setting the turtles free.

Neaera is a writer and illustrator of best-selling children’s books (as Hoban himself was). She is a success. But she can’t sleep, she can’t write, and she too is obsessed with setting the turtles free.

They make me think of the lines from Aimee Mann’s song “Wise Up”:

You’ve got what you want / You can hardly stand it though.


High-definition descriptions

As Ed Park observes, “Hoban’s prose is elegant even at its most brooding, loaded with enough precision-cut lines to fuel your Twitter feed for a month.”  Hoban achieves this effect without wasting a single word, a sign of how talented he really was.

The turtle tank in the London Zoo:

Sea turtles. Two or three hundred pounds the big ones must have weighed. Looping and swinging, flying in golden-green silty water in a grotty little tank no bigger than my room. Soaring, dipping, and curving with flippers like wings in a glass box of second-hand ocean.

Another border in William’s rooming house:

Miss Neap’s lavender scent marches up and down the walls like a skeleton in armour.

A state of mind:

I’m always afraid of being lost, the secret navigational art of the turtles seems a sacred thing to me.

How it ends

A simpler writer would have had William and Neaera fall in love. They would get together in classic romance style, just as the novel faded out.

The ending is happy. But it is not the happy ending you expect.


“Maybe the best book I’ve read this year.” —The Mookse and the Gripes.  (One reason I like this reviewer is because he didn’t like the movie; neither did I.)

“The book starts off funny, and, while never losing its charm, winds up being moving, earning its place as ‘one of the great novels of middle age.'” —I’ve been reading lately.

“Thankfully, Hoban spurns the pat ending and wallops the reader with the kind of intensity that asks more questions than it answers.” —Rebecca Park, Barnes & Noble review

On July 8, 2013, in New York, NYRB Classics and McMally Jackson Books are organizing a tribute to Russell Hoban.

Where to buy it

Turtle Diary (paperback)

Turtle Diary (Kindle)

Russell Hoban, a memory

Yesterday, February 4, 2013, was Russell Hoban’s birthday; he would have been 88.  He began as a successful children’s author in his native USA, then moved to London and reinvented himself as a novelist for adults. His books have lingering effects.

This is what he has to say about his own work:

The real reality, the flickering of seen and unseen actualities, the moment under the moment, can’t be put into words; the most that a writer can do—and this is only rarely achieved—is to write in such a way that the reader finds himself in a place where the unwordable happens off the page.

In January 2011, I published my first Huffington Post piece, titled “Russell Hoban: A Great American Writer.”  That was an audition blog—the one that determined whether I would get blogging privileges.

About two months later he contacted me via a Yahoo newsgroup I belong to called the Kraken, who are fans of Hoban’s work. His daughter in Connecticut had read the Huff Post piece. He wanted to talk to me, he said. Would I call him at his London home?

I thought it would be a short conversation, but it was a long one. We talked about writing and books; he gave me title after title, and author after author. I scrawled the names on scrap paper, which I still have.

He was 86 and had a number of health problems (he would die in December of that year). On the phone, however, he sounded  like a man of thirty—both in his tone of voice and in his enthusiasm. That is how I will remember him.

In the words of blogger Christine Bissonnette: “Screw time and all its rules.”

Since 2002, fans around the world have celebrated Russell Hoban’s birthday by writing lines from his novels on yellow paper and leaving the paper in various places to be found by strangers. (Yellow writing paper figures in his first novel Kleinzeit.)

Coming upon a Hoban line unexpectedly is in my opinion the best way to discover him. You can see some striking examples here.

Lewis Carroll on social media

Lewis Carroll wrote Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There in 1871.

Naturally, Carroll had no knowledge of social media, but he had wit, intelligence, and imagination. So it is not too surprising he came up with a scene in Looking Glass that prefigures the ethereal interactions that now are our daily bread.

The scene is from chapter 3,  titled “Looking Glass Insects.” It floats in out of nowhere and disappears less than 400 words later, never to be referred to again.

She was rambling on in this way when she reached the wood: it looked very cool and shady. “Well, at any rate  it”s a great comfort,” she said as she stepped under the trees, “after being so hot, to get into the–into WHAT?”she went on, rather surprised at not being able to think of the word. “I mean to get under the–under the–under THIS, you know!” putting her hand on the trunk of the tree. “What DOES it call itself, I wonder? I do believe it”s got no name–why, to be sure it hasn”t!”

She stood silent for a minute, thinking: then she suddenly began again. “Then it really HAS happened, after all! And now, who am I? I WILL remember, if I can! I”m determined to do it!” But being determined didn”t help much, and all she could say, after a great deal of puzzling, was, “L, I KNOW it begins with L!”

Just then a Fawn came wandering by: it looked at Alice with its large gentle eyes, but didn’t seem at all frightened. “Here then! Here then!” Alice said, as she held out her hand and tried to stroke it; but it only started back a little, and then stood looking at her again.

“What do you call yourself?” the Fawn said at last. Such a soft sweet voice it had!

“I wish I knew!” thought poor Alice. She answered, rather sadly, “Nothing, just now.”

“Think again,” it said: “that won’t do.”

Alice thought, but nothing came of it. “Please, would you tell me what YOU call yourself?” she said timidly. “I think that might help a little.”

“I”ll tell you, if you”ll move a little further on,” the Fawn said. “I can”t remember here.”

So they walked on together though the wood, Alice with her arms clasped lovingly round the soft neck of the Fawn, till they came out into another open field, and here the Fawn gave a sudden bound into the air, and shook itself free from Alice”s arms. “I”m a Fawn!” it cried out in a voice of delight, “and, dear me! you”re a human child!” A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes, and in another moment it had darted away at full speed.

Into the woods

What has Carroll’s wood of forgetting got in common with cyberspace? It isn’t the bittersweet emotional connection. Internet encounters come in all  flavors, many not sweet at all. It is the “floating in space” feeling. Alice and the fawn have been stripped of their identities and all the baggage they carry.

In space you can  forget anything you want, including but not limited to your name.

Out of the woods

I remember the early days of social media. When you did social media in the mid-1990s, you were basically a voice in space, talking to other voices in space. Your thoughts were you. That enabled connections—for better or worse—that would have been impossible/unlikely in the world where everyone has faces and bodies, and histories.

Have you ever known someone only via an internet connection and then met them in life? Most everyone has. There is a little shock—the transition from zero gravity to earthbound. (Before the day of Facebook et al, a common thought was “this person looks nothing like I imagined.”) Then you shrug it off and move on. Or not, depending on how disorienting the transition is. It is easier to make the transition these days, because it is so commonly made.

Futurists who believe perfection will be achieved when we leave our bodies behind (and some DO believe this) are imagining a more sophisticated version of Carroll’s wood of forgetting. I think they must be. You go into that wood and it goes on forever.