"That was Russell Hoban on the phone…"

Linda Whitebread

I can’t remember how I found Riddley Walker, but I have been a fan ever since I read it. I belong to a book group, and in 1992 selected, as my choice, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz. I somehow suspected that Russ might be an approachable sort of chap, so I wrote to him via his publishers, hoping for some authorly insight into the novel with which to wow my friends. But I didn’t hold out too much hope of a reply.

A couple of weeks later, I was busy being Mum, cooking dinner, feeding cats and so on, when my husband came in and said, “That was Russell Hoban on the phone. I told him you were busy and would call back.”

So there I was, a) excited that he’d rung up; b) terrified that I’d have to ring back and sound intelligent; c) mortified (should you really tell a great author who’s done you this great honour that you actually haven’t time for him right now?); and d) not a little amused at c), all at once.

Anyway, I did ring back, and we ended up talking for about half an hour. Afterwards Russell sent me a tape of the conversation, which I still have. At the subsequent book group meeting, I played the tape. Everyone said how interesting it was, and what a fascinating, wise and unassuming person Russell seemed to be. Well, yes. We all know that! Thanks, Russ. 

My other recollection concerns the children’s books. I am very fond of many, especially the Frances books, which I still buy when I see them, even though my daughters are long since grown up. But in my view, his absolute best children’s story is How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen. This is because not only is it supremely funny, but also it gets to the heart of what education (and, more portentously, life?) should be about: not sitting down doing meaningless things and denying ourselves the pleasures of our senses, but extending ourselves, using our imagination, having fun. My husband is a lecturer in psychology and education, and he has used the book to illustrate points in his lectures. Of course, Quentin Blake helps too!

Linda Whitebread has reached the age where she has to consider how much to dye her hair. She and her husband live in Cambridge, UK, where they work for the university. Linda has introduced her book group to several Hoban novels, but also enjoys singing, listening to BBC Radio 4, and not doing the housework.

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