Bristol Grammar School students have a Russell Hoban day

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to join a group of students from Bristol Grammar School on a day out in London to explore themes from Russell Hoban's books.

The group was led by Roland Clare, an inspired English teacher who has been using Hoban's books in his classes for many years and whom I was fortunate to have as a co-organiser of the Russell Hoban Some-Poasyum, the 2005 convention.

Roland had prepared an itinerary for his eight students which could be described as intense. They had three days in the capital, taking in three plays, five "lectures" from assorted Hobanic enthusiasts (one of them myself) and many intervening sessions of reading from novels including Kleinzeit, Linger Awhile, The Medusa Frequency and Amaryllis Night and Day. Together with the serendipitous experience of London itself, all of this was to be brought to bear upon a piece of original writing to be completed in late-night stints after days chock-full of culture.

Regrettably I couldn't attend the first day, which included talks by Dr Hugh Bowden on Hoban's use of the Orpheus myth in his work and Peter Christian (who created the Riddley Walker Concordance) on Russ's love of word-play. I joined in on Day 2, meeting the group at the Science Museum. We got there just as it opened - it was lovely and quiet. We clustered around the display of Alan Bennett's amazing Klein bottles and tried to get our heads around them, then sat on the floor and took turns reading aloud from Amaryllis Night and Day, where Peter and Amaryllis meet in this exact location, and also from Russ's posthumous Message in a Klein Bottle, which revisits (in fact almost reproduces) the scene. 

Gathering round the Klein bottles
Gathering around the Klein bottles (photo by Roland Clare)

From the Science Museum we went across the road (through the "sunlight, crazed with detail, exploring every wrinkle") and into the V&A. Here we grouped around an 18th-century Chinese bowl which inspired Hoban's 2002 novel The Bat Tattoo. I was delighted the bowl was still in situ: the first time I'd seen it was at the Some-Poasyum when during my research I found the original bowl wasn't on public display, but the curator - the beautifully-named Ming Wilson - agreed to take it out of storage especially for Hoban fans to view. Either it must never have been put back (perhaps because Ming realised it would attract a steady flow of eccentrics) or all of these exhibits are rotated regularly and its appearance was a happy coincidence.

Gathering around the bat bowl
(photo by Richard Cooper)

Having looked at the bowl, and in particular at the different bats, and read aloud some passages from the book, the students were despatched in random directions around the museum to locate an artefact of their choice to include in their own writing.

Chinese bat bowl from the V&A
The bat bowl
(photo by Richard Cooper)

By now it was lunchtime and we gathered to eat in the frankly ridiculous opulence of the V&A caff. The food was very good. After lunch we proceeded into the underground walkway of South Kensington where Roland unpacked the mysterious large holdall he'd been dragging around all morning and removed - as you do - an orchestral glockenspiel, a small stool and some yellow paper. Sheets of the paper were distributed generously (and temporarily) across the floor and various of us took turns in busking. This was all in homage to a scene in Hoban's 1974 novel Kleinzeit in which the eponymous hero sits in an Underground tunnel with his muse, the delightful Sister, writing little poems and making up shimmery tunes.

I even had a go myself - how could I not? - and although I was by far the least talented glockenspieler in the group I still somehow managed to earn a couple of coins.

Richard's Kleinzeit impression
Richard's Kleinzeit impression (photo by Roland Clare)

As I was doing this, Roland was handing out sheets of the yellow paper to passers-by. "Yellow paper, blank both sides," he called out, like a kind of existentialist greengrocer. And people were taking them. It was excellent.

When we were all glockenspieled-out we tidied up the untaken sheets of paper and took the Circle Line to Embankment, where we gathered at the foot of some mossy steps beneath Cleopatra's Needle and read aloud from Hoban's 2006 novel Linger Awhile. There was no particular reason for the location, but it was superbly sensual, with the rich smell and surprising noise of the Thames lapping a few feet away.

From the riverbank we headed over Blackfriars Bridge - stopping briefly for a windy appreciation of London architecture - and into the National Theatre, for a wonderful hour with Dr Martin Paul Eve, variously a lecturer at the University of Sussex, expert on 20th-century fiction specialising in Thomas Pynchon, and more important than any of that the host of the website. Martin's opening gambit quoted from The Medusa Frequency: "'Don't come the deconstructionist with me, you ponce.' Who knows what deconstructionism is?" Martin circumnavigated a sore throat to broach further subjects including postmodernism and ontological instability; I think there was an agreement that while Hoban wasn't one for describing his own work in terms of such concepts, his writing could certainly be interpreted in that context.

L-R Richard, Roland, Martin (photo by A. Student)

Having explored some of the central philosophical concepts of the 20th century, Martin, Roland and I took some questions from the students about how we first discovered Russell Hoban's work, what it meant to us personally and our friendships with him. Then we disbanded again ahead of a backstage tour of the National and a performance of The Last of the Haussmans.

At this point I had to take my leave of this wonderful group of people and head home, but it was a privilege as well as a pleasure to take part in the day.

Bristol students with Richard (the bearded one)
Richard with the BGS students (photo by Roland Clare)

What brilliancy! Those are lucky students and they seem to know it.

hehe Smile thanks Lindsay!

Wish all teaching were like this...thanks for sharing such a terrific day!

Roland has asked me to point out that this was a proper glockenspiel, not one of these: Laughing