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Destines of rustI came across this while archiving: an epigram to an unpublished work of the late Russell Hoban.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

Happy birthday, Russell Hoban

I am part of a group called The Kraken, who are fans of novelist Russell Hoban (1925-2011). Every year on his birthday, February 4, the Kraken a great thing:

Each of us writes a Hoban quotation on yellow paper (yellow A4 paper figures in his books). Then we leave the paper in a public place—a bar, a bookstore, anywhere—and take a picture of it. The photos and quotations get posted to blogs, websites, and social media outlets.

As far as I know we are the only fans in the world who honor a writer this way.

This  is my 2014 quotation:

Dr Jim Long was born in Pennsylvania, and sometimes when his mind is pedalling in busy circles he recalls a thing from his youth. He recalls a drink of water from a mountain spring in the Appalachians. He was hot and sweaty and tired when he came upon a stone trough with water flowing into it from an iron pipe. Cold sparkling mountain water filling the trough from an iron pipe that was beaded with droplets of condensation. There were leaves and sand and tiny crayfish in the bottom of the trough. He plunged his face into the water and drank the best drink he would ever have in his life. The leaves of the trees were stirring in the summer breeze. Everything was more than itself.

—Russell Hoban, Angelica Lost and Found, 2010

To find out more about this celebration and the man who is the reason for it, go to

“A room that so achingly missed its owner”

Paul Cooper is the archivist with the job of curating the work of writer Russell Hoban (1925-2011). He writes brilliantly about the process in Archiving Russell Hoban’s Work.

Almost in passing, he provides this excellent description of what it is like to read Hoban’s books:

I found Hoban’s novels hard going at first, but it didn’t take long for him to win me over with his weird and idiosyncratic style. I found his writing to have more in common with music than with other prose: more than mere mimicry of life, his work is a symphonic arrangement of signs and symbols, so that the more you read, the richer your engagement becomes.

Every author should be so lucky as to have Paul Cooper as a curator.

(Note: You don’t need to have read Hoban to appreciate this article.)

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)

Songs that get stuck in my head

“The things that matter don’t necessarily make sense.”

That is a line from Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban. It has stayed with me because I meet its truth over and over again.

Especially with music.

All my life, songs have been getting stuck in my head. With the exception of the unwelcome ear worms that get stuck in everybody’s head, they mean something. They have the power of dreams.

When I heard the latest song float by at someone else’s house on Sirius, I was tired—almost always a requirement for songs to stick. I had heard it before, but not until that night did it decide to move in and stay.

It wanted to be played. It demanded to be played. The next day it nagged and kicked at me until I bought it on iTunes. Then it hung around, insistently, while I tried to work. In the evening, it disturbed my rest.

So what was that song, anyway?

It was “Broadway, Here I Come!” from the second season of SMASH.

I had the wrong idea about it, though. I thought it was an either/or song: either the singer is about to become a star on Broadway or jump from a ledge to his/her death. To me, it tracked both ways. The outcome is uncertain.

But when I looked up the musical HIT LIST — it is the big song in HIT LIST — I found out that the singer is quite definitely thinking about suicide.

This was a little depressing, as it is such a spirited song. It is full of life. A buoyant song about suicide? Apparently so. That melody both floats and falls.

My take on “Broadway, Here I Come!” is that change can feel terrifying, like leaping off a ledge. You realize your dreams and your old life is smashed to smithereens. The dark undertow of the song fits the pain of change.

It is a good song. So here is a shoutout for Jeremy Jordan, who sings it; Joe Iconis, who wrote it; and the excellent series SMASH, which enabled me to hear it.

Music reaches around reason.


What songs have stayed with you? Do you have any idea why?

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.

Lines here and there

I will never be guilty of unconscious plagiarism, not because of my ethics but because of my memory. Never in this world could I steal from another writer without knowing what I am doing.

From the beginning, I have had this weird total recall for turns of phrase.

What do I remember?

Examples from books:

Which fairly famous writer was fond of the adverb “obscurely” in dialogue? As in: “Not yet,” Ben said obscurely.

Answer: Shirley Jackson. She liked that construction  and I don’t know of any other writer who does. I kind of like it myself.

Another example: Who wrote “It seemed to want to happen”?

Answer: Russell Hoban in Turtle Diary. This is a line I would love to steal, but I won’t.

Examples from movies:

“Is that clear?
“No, but it’s consistent.”
—What’s Up Doc

“Does salt work against the supernatural?”
“The Montusi bush men thought so. But they’re extinct.”
—The Haunting

“And you really are a gardener, aren’t you?”
—Being There

Even more to the point, why do I remember?

I am a writer, so recalling things I have read is not so unusual. The lines usually reflect some quality of the writing that I admire.

On the other hand, the lines I remember from movies tend to be from outer space. Such as the following:

“You tell municipal lighting we’re going to candlepower in fifteen minutes.”

That line is from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Not long ago I saw the movie and was slightly pleased to hear that line again, because I remembered it right down to the inflections in the actor’s voice.

I’m really sure I’ll never want to steal that one though.

Why did it stick? “Candlepower” is a good strong word, but that doesn’t explain it.

Please share some lines that you can’t forget. They couldn’t be nuttier than mine.

“You know you’ve got the brain of a four-year old child, and I bet he was glad to get rid of it.”
Groucho to Chico, Horsefeathers