Nathan Ariss - Rowena MacDonald on Russell Hoban

Too Much Clevverness

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For a brief time in 2003 I knew the writer Daren King, whose first novel, Boxy an Star, was shortlisted for the 1999 Guardian First Book Award. Boxy an Star is set in the near future and tells the story of two teenage ‘sieveheads’ who have fried their brains on so many ‘spangles’ that even simple things such as a duvet fill them with awed confusion.

We me an Star are under the pill bag. The pill bag is a jumbo big bag an is massive an full up of pills. We like it loads. It feels nice on us. On me an my girl she is called Star an we are in love. I love her. She is mine an we are called Star an me.

The novel is entirely written in this broken language which has echoes of Estuary English, Cockney rhyming slang, Peter and Jane Ladybird books and Nineties rave culture.

When I asked Daren what had inspired Boxy an Star, he said he had read the first few pages of Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. That he hadn’t bothered to read the whole novel seemed impressively casual. In my typically uncool, autodidactic way, I bought Riddley Walker and was transfixed.

To give you a flavour of the novel, here are the opening lines:

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt been none for a long time befor
him nor I aint looking to see none agen.

Hoban started writing Riddley Walker in 1974 and finished it five years later. It is a masterpiece. Those who know it love it, and whole websites are devoted to it, with chapter-by-chapter annotations deciphering the language, and online chat rooms discussing its themes. In 2005 a Russell Hoban Some-Poasyum (a symposium in Riddleyspeak) was held in London, with readings, quizzes and a pilgrimage to Kent to visit locations in the novel. Every 4 February, Russell Hoban’s birthday, die-hard fans leave typed quotations from his novels in random places for strangers to find.

Riddley Walker is set several thousand years in the future following a nuclear apocalypse referred to as the Bad Time. The future, instead of being more sophisticated, has reverted to Iron Age simplicity. Riddley’s people are hunter-gatherers and live in a fenced encampment near Bernt Arse (known to us as Ashford in Kent). Beyond the ‘fents’ are dark forests where packs of vicious black dogs roam. Most of England – ‘Inland’ – is now, for all Riddley and we know, a radioactive wasteland. Only Kent exists on the Swallows and Amazons style map drawn by Riddley at the start of the book. The head of Government is at the Ram (Ramsgate), now a small island cut off from the rest of Kent. Government policies are disseminated through Eusa shows, rather like Punch and Judy shows, performed by the Pry Mincer himself, Abel Goodparley, and his

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About the contributor

Rowena Macdonald works at the House of Commons but writes the rest of the time. She has recently completed a novel entitled Swoon and her next will be set in the Palace of Westminster.

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