In praise of older books: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban (1980)
Week 33: Julie Parsons on a year of her favourite books
The writer Russell Hoban with a selection of the children’s books he has written, 1979. (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)
It begins thus: “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs”. This is the language of Riddley Walker, the reason why this book is such a wonder.
Riddley lives in what we would call Kent. It is many years into the future. “Since we startit counting its come to 2347 o.c. which means Our Count.” Our world has been destroyed, probably by a nuclear war: “so much barms thay kilt as menne uv thear own as they kilt enemes. They wun the Warr but the lan wuz poyzen frum it the ayr & water as wel.”
Packs of dogs roam the poisoned land. The people scatter, sick, terrified. Hiding in holes, fighting, dying and some of them trying to make sense of their malevolent world.
Riddley is a chronicler. He “ben lernt to read and write and all ways thinking on things.” There are stories from the past. A foundation myth, the Eusa story. Eusa, possibly St Eustace from Canterbury Cathedral. Cambry now. “You know Cambry ben Canterbury in moufs long gone”. A dead town like so many. “Dead towns they smel wet and dry boath even in a rain. . . Crumbelt birks and broak stoans all a jumbl and a parcht smel unner neath a smel of old berning.” Stories of the “Little Shynin Man” and “the Addom” and the days before the “Bad Time” when they “got boats in the air and picters on the wind.”
There’s no future for Riddley. But Hoban has made a marvel, a work of true imagination. Through Riddley’s voice we burrow deep into his consciousness and his “memberment”. As he says, “Putting your groan up foot where your chyld foot run”. Hoban does what every writer should do. He creates a world. He peoples it. He gives it a language. And he gives it to us, his lucky readers.