Ansible 270 Supplement
Remembering Rob Holdstock
A substantial crowd attended Rob's funeral on 17 December at the (Unitarian) Rosslyn Hill Chapel in Hampstead, London. Malcolm Edwards, acting as MC, and a strong team of Rob's friends and family made the event a highly memorable send-off for our man. There was music – including of course Vaughan Williams – but no hymns; the minister, Rev. James Robinson, spoke only briefly. Chris Holdstock (Rob's brother), Paul Kincaid (reading a message from Christian Lehmann), Roy Kettle, Chris Evans, Malcolm Edwards, Jim Burns, Wendy Froud, Chris Priest, Lisa Tuttle, Garry Kilworth, Matilda Verrells (Rob's niece) and Jo Fletcher all remembered Rob aloud and/or read from his work. Exhilarating, funny, moving, emotionally draining. Afterwards, it snowed.
The official website, Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood, has a page of tributes from the funeral (some of which also appear below) and a long memorial thread. By kind permission of Malcolm Edwards, here are links to PDF copies of the order of service – including prose and verse by Rob himself – and the keepsake booklet of photographs and memories which was distributed after the ceremony. Anyone wishing to make a charitable donation in Rob's memory is encouraged to support his beloved trees via the Rob Holdstock Memorial Fund at The Woodland Trust.
Stephen Baxter Sandra Bond Graham Charnock Pat Charnock John Clute Jonathan Cowie Ellen Datlow Malcolm Edwards Stephen Gallagher David Garnett Steve Green Jon Courtenay Grimwood John Nielsen Hall Rob Jackson Gwyneth Jones Sheila Kavanagh Tony Keen Roy Kettle Ursula Kiausch Garry Kilworth Paul Kincaid Maureen Kincaid Speller David Langford Christian Lehmann Michael Moorcock Donald Morse Rog Peyton Andrew I. Porter Chris Priest David Redd Adam Roberts Andrew Stephenson Lisa Tuttle
Keepsake booklet cover (art by Geoff Taylor from Mythago Wood/Lavondyss diptych)
It was Rob who, I think at a Mexicon circa 1988, suggested I should send my first tentative novel outline (for Raft) to Malcolm Edwards, thus sending me on my way. So I had a lot to thank him for. But I suppose I'm glad the last time I saw him was at the Gollancz autumn party, when he was on good form.
The time was April 1987. I was seventeen, and having heard that the London SF fans met in the Wellington pub by Waterloo station, I screwed my courage up and along I went on the train from my home in Bagshot, Surrey.
As anyone who went in those days will remember, the Wellington was heaving with bodies. I came very close to running away in a panic; in those days I was even less good with crowds of people than I am now. But this was fandom, my first meeting with it. Fandom. Fandom! The means by which Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg and Michael Moorcock had made the leap from shy reticent teenagers like me to world-famous names leaping out from the paperback racks in W.H. Smith's. If I wanted to be like them, I had to stay. I had to make contact.
I picked someone at random and said something like 'Are you a science fiction fan?'
'Yes,' said Rob Holdstock. 'I'm Rob Holdstock.'
I had hit the jackpot. All those people in the room, some of them probably mere Trekkies or Whovians, and I'd hit an author with my first bullet! I burbled something about how I'd always wanted to meet authors and how I'd loved Where Time Winds Blow (though truth to tell I'd found it rather hard going; it had a really nice cover, though) and ... and ... and.
Rob looked at me. With hindsight I can understand all too well what was going through his head. I was a lunatic or a fanatic and I knew his name. Perhaps I was going to demand that he autographed my underwear or something.
'Actually,' he said, 'I didn't write that.'
'I don't really write any of those books. They just have my name on it. She writes them for me.' He indicated a smiling, beautiful woman standing at his side, who beamed at me.
'You wrote all those books?' I exclaimed. Oh, I was in very heaven now. I knew something about science fiction that ordinary people didn't know! Anyone could know that Brett Sterling was really Edmond Hamilton or Lewis Padgett was Kuttner and Moore by looking them up in a reference book, but only a select few knew that Robert P. Holdstock's books were written by ... um, who? I introduced myself to the woman with many a compliment about Rob's writing.
'Hello,' said Linda Krawecke. 'Yeah, I don't like being famous so I write books and let Rob put his name on them.'
I think they kept the pretence up for about twenty minutes until Vince Clarke came past and they managed to offload me onto him, explaining that I was the rankest of neofans and high on enthusiasm if low on common sense, and begged him to look after me. Which of course he did, and I lived happily ever after in fandom, even if I still haven't become the next Robert Silverberg. Or even the next Linda Krawecke.
Some photographs from the funeral.
I've just got back from the funeral/reception and it was a bit too much of an experience for me to comment on it in depth here, save to say that it all 'went off' very well. It was very well managed by Malcolm and I think Sarah and the others of his close family appreciated it, and the obvious outpouring of warmth and affection from all his friends. It was nice to see fellow baristas Uncle Johnny, Brian Parker and Dr Rob turning out as well. A few of us went to the pub next door afterwards, and the last people standing were Roy Kettle, Kathleen, myself, our friend Lesley and Rob's ex, Sheila, so we stayed and each had a pizza (medium). Someone had told Sheila that I wasn't drinking so, since she always seemed to be the one buying all the drinks, all she would let me have was tonic waters. It was especially galling when Roy spilt a glass of red wine over me, as if to rub it in. It was snowing when we left the pub, huge regular snowy flakes which were settling. It seemed sort of seasonal but it reminded me it presaged a Christmas Rob wouldn't be there to see and celebrate in his inimitable style, which was sad.
Adapted from post to email list, 17 December 2009
I think Rob Holdstock's funeral went very well today.
It was held in a Unitarian chapel in Hampstead, and the chapel felt very welcoming. The minister explained that they believed in one god, and were happy to welcome believers of all persuasions to services, including humanists. Certainly there were all sorts of people there. As we've all said before, Rob had a great talent for friendship, and he had lots of friends.
The coffin was of wickerwork, decorated with two wreaths on top, and holly with berries round the sides. It was perfect for Rob. It creaked as they brought it in, and placed it at the front of the chapel.
The minister started the service, but it was led by Malcolm. And there were speakers, and music, and readings and memories. Some of the speakers had difficulty finishing, and Malcolm himself sometimes had to pause before he could go on. Family were represented, and friends. We sang 'So Long It's Been Good To Know You' and the coffin left to a trumpet voluntary.
Around the chapel were copies of the covers of Rob's books, and a lovely collection of photos. There was also a special little booklet to take away of photos and tributes, as well as the Order of Service.
Was I crying? Yes. Particularly when they came to take him away for ever. But that's what funerals are about, isn't it? and if you can't cry at a funeral, when can you cry?
And then the chairs were moved back, and we mingled, and we ate, and we drank, and we said Hello to friends we hadn't seen for years and friends we'd seen last week. If I try and list everyone, I'll leave someone out and give offence, so I'm not going to try.
Then Graham joined the party heading for the pub, and I went home with the young 'uns.
Adapted from post to email list, 17/18 December 2009
There is a great poem by William Empson about waste. It is called 'Missing Dates'. I don't know if Rob Holdstock was familiar with it. I know he never quoted aloud from this poem, in his husky, charged, adherent voice, not in any conversation with me. But over the past hours, trying to remember the end of 'Missing Dates', because its chivalric refusal to beg off from what it really meant made me think of Rob and his work, somewhere inside my head I could hear his voice still, as though it existed. This may not be arbitrary. Surely the end of the poem does articulate something that Rob pitted his art against, as did Empson; because surely it does describe the enemy:
... The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
On the other hand, any piece of poetry or prose Rob read aloud would sound like Rob....
I met him some time ago, maybe as early as the late 1970s, certainly at some point in the early 1980s, but remember mainly the sotto voce gusto of his voice, though he could shout. Many of us have already spoken about his large appetite for food, adventure, sunburns, late nights, drink, every sort of session under the sun. In his pomp – certainly during his early sojourns at ICFA in Fort Lauderdale – he could not seem to say no to his friends, or to the next thing. He was Cortez, he gave us all a chance to be new worlds.
He did fight some illnesses in his later years, and his reluctance to leave his house (and his always-overdue new novel) seemed almost agoraphobic. But you would telephone him, and he would answer, and in a voice that promised never to be forgotten he would ask you what was next in the world. Surprise me! was the sound he made. Make it joy!
Adapted from a longer piece written for Locus
Of course we of the first generation of Hatfield PSIFA knew Rob well as he used to live just down the road at London Colney. He was therefore our local author and came to the group on several occasions, as well as some of us to visit him, and of course he was GoH at one of our early Shoestringcons. Always an interesting guy to be with and he taught us much about what it is like to have a life as an author. Yes, he will be known for novels such as Mythago Wood but he did other stuff to keep a roof over his head such as novelizations of The Professionals TV series. He told us these were dead easy to churn out as you left most of the work to the reader. 'Bodie turned to Doyle and smiled as usual'. Though once he was disappointed as they were filming a couple of miles away and never let him know. Such insights into the mysterious world of the writer were to our young eyes wonderful.
The news of his death came as a tragic surprise. Have we really returned to the nineteenth century on the bacterial front?
We all know that Rob was a fantastic writer. I adored him for his kindness, charm, wit, sweetness and – his legs.
I occasionally stayed with him and Sarah when I've been in London over the past years. And he often served me a delicious English breakfast in short pants – showing off his gorgeous legs. That was a treat even more impressive than his breakfasts.
The best recent memory I have of him was when he and Sarah were taking me back to Camden Town after dinner one evening. I was in the front, Sarah in the back seat and Rob was driving – he refused to listen to us or stop and ask for directions, and we got sooo lost that Sarah and I were left laughing hysterically as we drove back and forth, back and forth – somehow missing Camden High Street at least three times.
I was so looking forward to hanging out with you again during my yearly sojourn to London.
Rob, I'll miss you.
Some extracts (including material not used) from his words at the funeral:
In the next hour or so we are all going to say farewell to Rob – words which I still find unbelievable. This is not a burial service in the conventional sense because that isn't what he wanted. Instead, some of Rob's family and friends are going to share some of their memories of him. There will be a couple of readings from his work, a couple of songs, and – at the end – a chance for you all to get up and sing. Rob would have hated this to be too solemn an occasion, so I hope there will be one or two laughs along the way, though honestly it's difficult to summon a smile. Rob was a very funny man to be around, and I'm sure he made everyone here laugh – often intentionally.
I'm sure that almost everyone in the audience has memories which are every bit as vivid and worth recounting as anything that is going to be said this morning, so I hope you will take what is said in the spirit in which it is offered – a selection of impressions of a man who all of us will always remember with enormous love and respect.
Another thing Rob loved was, of course, food. Whenever he came round for lunch or supper, within five minutes of arrival he would be poking around the fridge to see what there was to eat – and more importantly, how much there was to eat. It was as if he couldn't settle down and enjoy himself properly until he was reassured that the inner Rob was going be cared for. In his novels people were always roasting whole pigs, even the vegetarians, and if you don't know about Rob and the suckling pig, I suggest you corner Garry or Annette Kilworth later on!
It worked both ways, mind you. An invitation from Rob for Sunday lunch would always be accompanied by the assurance that he was going to roast a leg of lamb – no, two legs of lamb. He was an enthusiastic cook, though not invariably successful, particularly when experimenting for his own benefit. Roy forwarded me an email from Rob in which he describes a recipe in typical style:
Swedish meatball paella
Fry twelve Swedish meatballs.
Fry risotto rice in olive oil.
Add one sachet paella spice (mostly saffron).
Add water (quite a lot).
Insert Swedish meatballs.
Stir around a bit.
Put on The Best of The Who and open the Observer.
Forget what you're doing for some time.
Rush to kitchen and rescue paella just in time!
Allow to rest (flavour incorporation – important)
Continue to play The Best of the Who. (Dire Straits optional, but do try to avoid Pink Floyd.)
Start to eat aforementioned Swedish Meatball Paella.
Shout very loudly: this is HORRIBLE.
Never do it again.
(Cook's tip: Sweden and Spain have one thing in common: the first letter of their names. Apart from that, they have NOTHING in common.)
In the early 1980s, Rob and I spent some time in Toronto, where one of our books was being adapted into a theme ride. It was an odd experience, but it did entail us being put up in hotels rather better than we were accustomed to, and it was Rob's first experience of North American restaurants, and of the idea of being presented with more food than he could sensibly eat. But he rose to the challenge. I remember his awestruck reaction on discovering surf'n'turf on a steakhouse menu. Big steak! Lobster! On the same plate! Steak stuffed with lobster!! One other evening we were eating in the hotel, with the meal charged to the room. We both munched our way through a fairly enormous steak, but the pudding menu didn't have anything that appealed particularly. We looked at one another, seeing that we were thinking the same thing ... and for pudding we munched our way through two more fairly enormous steaks.
In Toronto we were working for a man called Moses Znaimer, who once made us eat fish lips in a Chinese restaurant in London – but that's another story. Moses owned a TV station in Toronto, and was a hustler. The scenario for the book that was being adapted into a simulated spaceship ride, Tour Of The Universe, was being cut back to a rather more mundane Tour of the Solar System, or the even more mundane Tour of Those Bits of the Solar System which could be replicated in the two or three Douglas Trumbull models that the budget would stretch to. Rob and I came up with various plausible and – to us – exciting possibilities, such as a near miss of Olympus Mons, the giant mountain on Mars, and a bumpy rise through the meteor belt. But Moses wanted more.
He said: 'Couldn't the spaceship just miss a star?'
We said, 'Not really.'
He said, 'Whaddaya mean, aren't there any stars in the solar system?'
We said, 'Well, there is one ...'
He said, 'Only one? Okay, we'll make do. Where is it?'
We told him.
His jaw did actually drop. It would be inappropriate here for me to repeat exactly what he said, but approximately it was. 'The sun? A star? Are you trying to tell me the xxxxx sun is a xxxxxx star?'
We confirmed that it was so.
'Well, whaddaya know?' he said.
This is an appropriate moment to say a little about Rob's work, and how it should be remembered, and why it will be remembered. Rob started off, as we've heard, with the ambition of being an sf writer, not least because when he started there was no such beast as fantasy in our world: there was Tolkien on the one hand and Conan the barbarian on the other, but no tradition that a new writer could attach themselves to and work within. So Rob became an sf writer, and a very promising one, published by the great house of Faber & Faber, alongside William Golding, Ted Hughes and Brian Aldiss. But his head was always partly somewhere else, so that in Earthwind, let's say, humans exploring another world encounter mysterious Celtic symbols for the very good reason that Celtic symbols were what the author really wanted to write about.
Everything came together in the early 1980s when he started taking to writers' workshops drafts of a new story, 'Mythago Wood', exploring the deep roots of our collective unconscious. There are ways it could have been written as an sf story, but by then it was possible to forget his genre roots, and write it the way it needed to be written. The image of a patch of English woodland, small on the outside but infinitely large inside, was powerful and immediate, and as the characters travelled deeper and deeper inside it, allowed Rob to explore his ideas about how folktales and myths evolve from much more ancient archetypes.
By this time I had abandoned my puny attempts to be a writer in favour of editing, partly because of the experience of writing with Rob. Some of our work involved fictional scenarios, and we would agree the general outline of a character – name, gender, age and so forth – but while I was painfully groping towards some kind of mental image of them, Rob suddenly knew everything about them – their personalities, their backgrounds, their family and friends, their likes and dislikes, their sexual predilections, their favourite cut of meat. It was as if they had sprung to life inside his head, and as I wrote this I realised that one of the many reasons Mythago Wood works so powerfully is that in describing the process whereby the mythagos come into existence he was in one sense describing his own creative process.
I had the great good fortune to be in the right place to acquire and publish Mythago Wood, when Faber seemed not to recognize its qualities. It was clear that inside Ryhope Wood, Rob had found his home as a writer. I remember sending a proof off to a writer we both admired – Alan Garner – more in hope than expectation, and then the day when I received a phone call from the famously difficult and reclusive Garner, who spent half an hour telling me how deeply it had spoken to him.
Mythago Wood made Rob's career, and over the next twenty five years he returned to it again and again, always finding new ground to explore. He published other books as well, of course, notably the three novels of The Merlin Codex – Celtika, The Iron Grail and The Broken Kings – and standalones such as The Fetch and Ancient Echoes, some of which won awards, particularly in France where his reputation was immense. Reading through the messages posted in the last few weeks on his website and others, there are dozens of messages from readers, testifying to the profound effect Mythago Wood had on them, and on how they looked at the world. Many writers produce stories which have a strong effect on readers; very few produce stories which profoundly change the way readers experience the world. This is one of the reasons why I say with confidence that in a hundred years' time Rob's key works will still be read, studied, discovered and admired.
I first corresponded with Rob when he and Chris Morgan were co-editing Focus, a magazine on writing for writers and would-be writers, for the BSFA. We met at the next Eastercon, I believe it was. Strongly-built and bearded, back then he seemed indestructible. Despite his health issues in recent years, he remained a presence who could light up any company by being a part of it. I remember him telling that one of his reasons for giving up zoology for writing was that he hadn't anticipated having to deal with the animal suffering that was involved in the science.
Mythago Wood made a huge and lasting impression on me. A beautiful and sure-footed conflation of English myth and grounded wonder.
Despite this world-class talent, he was without artistic airs and graces; he saw himself as a working pro. But he was the kind of working pro we should all aspire to be; ready to share, ready to teach, and incapable of giving less than his best. When he conceived and sold the Night Hunter series under the pseudonym of Robert Faulcon, what could have been a piece of hasty exploitation turned out to be a textured, gripping six-book cycle of genuine emotional power.
When I heard that he was ill, I didn't imagine that he wouldn't pull through. I know well enough what can happen. It's just a prospect that you don't want to entertain. I'm deeply upset that he didn't make it. So many of the memories that people are expressing are the same as my own – complex writer, straight-arrow human being.
Adapted from blog post, 30 November 2009
Here's a True Story, and I know because I Was There.
At the end of a Clarke Award bash, Rob was saying farewell to a few people he knew, and with them was someone he didn't recognise. But, being Rob, he didn't want to exclude the stranger, so he shook his hand and said: 'Goodbye . . . whoever you are.' To which the man replied: 'We had lunch together last month. I'm the editorial director at your publisher.' Rob immediately went into faux pas mode, which was almost second nature, but he quickly shrugged it off as the man walked away. 'Those blokes in suits,' he said, 'they all look the same.'
He was the focus around which so much revolved. His default setting was a smile, always welcoming, always enthusiastic. My notebook is full of references to 'rendezvous with Rob' and 'drink with Rob' because whenever I was going to London, I'd usually give him a call. And whenever I had to leave to catch the last train home, he'd almost always say, 'Go back tomorrow, come and stay overnight.'
Rob was a great bloke, and we all knew it. And, in the end, that's the best any of us can hope to be.
Last time I saw him was just after the Gollancz party. He'd seemed a bit down earlier, and said he'd have 'only one' in the pub. I bought him a pint, we talked, then suddenly he had another drink in his hand, and with us were Paul McAuley and Steve Baxter and Peter Hamilton and Ian MacDonald, there was a terrific buzz, and he was in really good form.
The next time we talked after that, he berated me for referring to us both as 'old codgers' in an email. (Mirror in the Sky being 40 years old, while 'Pauper's Plot' was a year older.) 'I'm never going to be an old codger,' said Rob. And now, alas, he never will be.
Email plus contribution to keepsake booklet
Steve Green: 'Another Farewell'
I wouldnt claim to have been a close friend of Rob Holdstock, but we had known each other for at least five years before I approached him in 1983 to be guest of honour at Novacon 14. To my relief and delight, Rob not only agreed but became an active participant in the conventions evolution, even driving up to attend the first committee meeting and joining us for a meal at a local Indian restaurant. Robs engagement with the convention itself was similarly enthusiastic and full-on, and I was so pleased it coincided with the release of Mythago Wood, his breakthrough fantasy novel.
Robs death, aged just 61, is a tragedy, and learning hed been struggling with diabetes in recent years gave it a personal dimension I need not elaborate upon here.
In an exchange on LiveJournal last week, Pat Cadigan suggested I understood loss. I replied that no, I comprehended the nature of loss, but understood the importance of friends and family, and the legacy you leave. From the outpouring of honest sorrow since the news broke, Id say the depth of Robs legacy is beyond doubt.
The Fortnightly Fix, 7 December 2009
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Guardian obituary, 2 December 2009.
John Nielsen Hall
Robert Holdstock, a wonderful human being, died on 29 November.He was a founding Ratfan, a huge presence, full of talent and will be sorely missed by his devoted readership and fan base, his friends, his partner Sarah and his surviving family.
I always had a difficult relationship with Rob. His earnestness and unshakeable faith in his writing in that laid back super-cool time of the early 1970's was irritating. I think John Brosnan called him a Big Puppy – he was. Because I was self absorbed and arrogant, too often in those days I dismissed those who irritated me, and a big gulf opened between myself and Rob.
When Mythago Wood came out, I tried to read it, but could not get into it. When, at last, I met Rob again, after John Brosnan died, I didn't recognize him at first. He wasn't the person that he had become in my mind after all those years of hostile indifference and negative critical opinion. When I realized it was him, I felt very foolish – how could I have missed the Big Puppy? We met just the once after that, but were in contact fairly frequently by e-mail. Rob never did concise and to-the-point letters. One thing led to another, and though you had started out discussing poetry or fandom, you found yourself engaged in frequent missives back and forth about paganism, politics and the iniquities of local government. We were, I think, getting on.
I am very sorry indeed about the tone of the last issue of my fanzine, Motorway Dreamer. Although Rob laughed and approved its publication, I don't think I should have run Roy Kettle's piece about Rob's uselessness with a mobile, I definitely shouldn't have made the remarks I did about his dilatory attendance to his profession, (after all, Rob took his writing very seriously and always had, and I should never have suggested otherwise) and I'm very sorry now that I just didn't give him the respect he deserved either in the last issue or during his whole life. I am, indeed, bitterly sorry.
Rob cannot now forgive me for my stupidity, but I hope his large circle of friends, can – at least, in time.
Facebook, 1 December 2009
Rob Jackson: 'Rob Holdstock in Memory'
It was an extremely fond memorial for Rob – there was absolutely universal affection for how lively and likeable (and at times unpredictable!) he was as a person. He was definitely his nieces' and nephews' favourite uncle. Chris Priest's tale of phone calls beginning 'just a quickie' which would of course last an hour, was lovely and very recognisable – not that I would know that myself about Rob, as I wasn't in that close contact with him; but we have similar family friends whose enthusiasms make them lose track of time somewhat. As Chris also said and as Graham Charnock has confirmed elsewhere, it is remarkable just how many people thought he was their best friend. Shows what a naturally friendly bloke he was.
His love of woods and wilderness, and his facility for visual description in his writing shone through all that people said too, as did the sense that the Ryhope Wood series in particular will (or at least should) last into the future as major contributions to fantasy literature.
Everybody did a superb job with the whole event, in particular Malcolm Edwards as MC – it must be a particularly difficult job keeping it all together when you are (as Malcolm evidently was) just as cut up as anyone else who was really close to him. A lot of people giving talks or eulogies choked up a little as they talked. Certainly Malcolm did, once or twice. Especially understandable when the person you are remembering has died shockingly unexpectedly and early. After all, many writers go on and do more excellent work in their 60s and 70s, and people whatever their call of life go on enjoying life and being productive. Losing someone at age 61 is much less fair than losing someone at age 86 or 90.
But if you go on the yardstick of whether the person being celebrated and commemorated would have enjoyed the event, then Rob's funeral definitely passed the test. I particularly liked the way it was mainly commemorations by his friends, writer and artist colleagues and family rather than being just hymns or prayers – the focus was entirely on Rob as a person and writer. (Oh, and it wasn't formally religious at all – absolutely no God-squadding; congrats to the Unitarian chapel and the minister for that.)
Thanks must go to all who did such hard work putting together the catering, the commemorative booklet and the service itself including the music, which was beautifully played, as you would expect from the eminent musicians. These included Lucy Parham, who was BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1984, plus a violinist, Cynthia Fleming, and trumpeter, Kate Moore, who are both leaders of their sections in the BBC Concert Orchestra. The commemorative booklet is beautiful – some lovely art as well as super photos. Even the one I took at Pat Charnock's 60th birthday party is good, as Rob, as so often, had a broad grin on his face. (A higher-res version of that would have been available off my hard drive, but I guess there wasn't time to chase up the original – the booklet was done with remarkable speed.) Delighted to be a part of it, anyway!
For myself, it was great to see people I'd not seen for ages who were there, including Andrew Stephenson, Kevin and Diana Smith and Martin Hoare. It was also the first time I'd met Malcolm since we were both on the Conspiracy concom in 1987.
I find a lot of companionship from friends on the Inthebar e-list, so it was very comforting to sit next to John and Audrey Hall, and only just behind Brian Parker. As well as chatting with Graham, Pat, James, Shell and Dan Charnock plus Roy, Malcolm and Dave, I also met Malcolm's wife Jacks and son Tim for the first time, and had good chats with Chris Priest and his daughter Lizzie – Lizzie is on the same young authors' e-group as my son Hugo (and his American fiancée Madison).
And the members of Rob's family I met were really nice too. (I wonder who I've forgotten....) As so often with funerals, you desperately wish they hadn't happened, but you meet such great people.
Adapted from post to email list, 17/18 December 2009
Rob Holdstock was a lovely person. He always had time for younger writers, friends, fans, and even critics: he was a hard-nosed wordsmith with a penchant for making a living, and yet above all a serious writer of fantasy. An example to us all in both respects. Mythago Wood, in the mid-eighties, was a revelation to me, a raw and pungent voice in a tired chorus of Tolkien-imitators. The many books that followed were always entertaining, romantic and earthy; occasionally (I think of Lavondyss) truly wonderful. It's a sad irony that in his latest novel he had just returned to the world of Ryhope Wood, and clearly had more to say about the mysteries he'd found there. His thinking was original, his life's work the pursuit of something deep inside all myth-making, which he believed, I think, held the secret of what it means to be human. He leaves a legacy everyone who loved him can be proud of, and he'll be missed for a long time.
Sheila Kavanagh: 'Ode to an Ex'
We slept together on our first date. Literally. New Year's Eve 1970, we found each other across a crowded room in an ice-bound Hackney, had our first kiss to the strains of 'Auld Lang Syne' and hours later we slept together, just holding hands, in the same crowded room with 12 other snoring party animals for company. Tall, dark, handsome and hairy, his infectious, hearty laugh echoed then and later through many a party and SF convention.
Rob was a penniless student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and introduced me to the mad world of scientific research. I, then a budding vegetarian, didn't hold with the methodology of using animals. After much discussion, we respectfully agreed to disagree – a quality that stood us in good stead throughout our eleven years together. And anyway, it soon became abundantly evident that his heart just wasn't in it. Shortly after we married in June 1973, Rob became a penniless writer – with my blessing. I brought home the bacon – so to speak, and he slaved over a hot typewriter. Well, sort of. I'd come home from a hard day's work to find Rob sprawled on the sofa, watching England getting trashed at cricket, red wine in hand, remonstrating with the bowler, batsman, captain, umpire, all of whom got christened with the ubiquitous plaudit: 'You useless wanker!'.
He would regale me with his ideas for short stories or his first novel. Just listening to his description helped evoke vivid images of alternate universes, yet strangely earthbound. When his first novel Eye Among the Blind was published, we went around all the shops that stocked it and spread it out as much as we could. We briefly considered framing the meagre cheque to mark the historic occasion but in the end, common sense prevailed and we kept our ancient Austin A40 car – complete with wooden frame – on the road instead.
Living with Rob was never boring. If he wasn't writing, he'd be talking plot and characters. His eyes would then glaze over, as he disappeared into the vision, sitting with his right ankle over his left knee, his ankle generating electricity as he explored ancient woodlands and discovered his mythagos. A lunch date with a publisher or editor would induce a flurry of frenzied productivity, and later a rather inebriated Rob would recount the – mostly liquid – lunch gossip.
One glorious benefit of having a stay-at-home writer, especially a culinary wizard like Rob, is that he could cook up a storm and present you with a scrumptious meal on return from work, as I'm sure Sarah can attest. The man sure knew his cumin from his coriander, and could just conjure up a banquet out of practically nothing. Dinner parties were typically great fun, occasionally raucous and always delicious, with Rob's laughter as the magic condiment.
As an Englishman, a man of Kent, he was initially a little wary at visiting my native Ireland. He had envisaged tommy guns at every corner and our English-registered car being set alight. I assured him it was quite safe, and sure enough, he loved every aspect of it, immersing himself in Celtic folklore and exploring ancient megalithic sites. We drove over many a mountain pass. While driving over the Connor Pass in the Dingle Peninsula, Rob stopped to admire the view. We got out and looked over the cliff at a breath-taking panorama. Seconds later, to the sounds of metal crunching and people shouting, we looked on in horror as our car slid backwards down the summit, only coming to a halt as it crashed into another parked car. Rob had forgotten the handbrake. The English owner was not amused. To add insult to injury, Rob offered them half a case of wine from our trunk to help compensate them. They turned out to be teetotal. 'Bloody hell, why couldn't we have crashed into a Paddy?' Rob bemoaned. Another Paddy from Dublin drove a round-trip of 36 miles to replace one of our tires that had blown in the incident. Rob had forgotten to have the spare repaired. A suitably chastened Rob gave away our entire fortune in alcohol by way of embarrassed but unnecessary thanks.
Apart from his laughter and delectable faux-pas and of course his writing, Rob's best legacy was one of enduring friendship. Not only to me, but to many people, both couples and singles, over 40 years. It is a true measure of the man that he still had many of the same friends who I had known during my time with him: Roy Kettle and Kathleen Mitchell, Chris Evans, Garry and Annette Kilworth, Malcolm Edwards, Chris Priest, Graham and Pat Charnock et al.
He was authentic, real, loyal. No matter what. During the IRA bombing campaign on mainland Britain in the 70s, when it was very uncomfortable to be Irish, Rob actually broke off his long-standing friendship with the guy who had been his best man at our wedding when he insulted me about my nationality. It hadn't bothered me so much, but it was simply unacceptable to Rob.
It was a true mark of his generosity of spirit that we remained friends after our split-up. As we were separating, we walked around the house we had shared, he with a glass of red wine, me with a glass of white, and divvied up our possessions. The only thing we disagreed about was our cat, Mr. Finnegan. Rob got custody, as I was leaving for Amsterdam to live with my Dutchman, Jo Thomas. And our Irish albums, which I got.
And who could forget the first SF convention that Jo and I attended later back in England? Jo and I were just finished checking in to the convention hotel. The lobby and foyer were packed with drinking and carousing fans from all over the world. The noise was deafening. The main elevator door opened. Out stepped Rob. And froze. Raised his right arm to point. At Jo. And shouted at the top of his voice:
'THAT MAN STOLE MY WIFE!'
Dead silence. All heads turned. I could see some fans beginning to nudge each other and whisper 'fight, fight'. Time stood still. After what seemed like an eternity of limbo, Rob suddenly beamed his full smile, and ran over and promptly gave us both a bear hug. We had a great reunion.
Later on, Sarah and Rob joined us for a visit to Amsterdam and a Dutch SF convention. We made an interesting foursome. Rob and Jo on the panel. Rob hyper and generating more electricity. Jo calmness itself. Sarah and I comparing notes in the audience.
True to form, Rob kept in touch over the years, by email or phone. He and Sarah supported me when Jo died of cancer in 2002, aged 59, which touched me deeply. During our irregular chats, Rob would tell me how happy he was with his Sarah. Indeed, it was great to see that he loved her truly, madly, deeply. They were inseparable, kindred spirits. He spoke of her tenderly and with great respect, admiration and love.
About a month before he died, during one such long call, typically very late at night, he told me of his aversion to retirement. Not for him the idea of doing nothing all day. He would write till he dropped. It was one a.m. on Sunday when I put down the phone. At the crack of dawn, the phone rang again. I imagined all manner of emergencies and answered anxiously. Rob again. Bleary-eyed, I checked my alarm clock. 8am Dutch time. That's 7am UK time. Had he told me about the poetry he was writing? He had, at length. 'Rob, don't you ever sleep?' I wondered. 'Sleep?' he asked, affronted. 'Sleep! Plenty of time to sleep when I'm dead,' he retorted.
How eerily prophetic. And impossibly premature.
My heart goes out to Sarah, Rob's Mum and brothers Pete, Chris and James and all the Holdstock family and his close friends. Rob, you're a hard act to follow.
After a day visiting various relatives, I came home to the news that Rob Holdstock had died.
I didn't really know Rob, having only met him a couple of times. And I haven't read all his novels – I've read neither Mythago Wood or Lavondyss, though the latter has sat on my shelves for a long time.
But Rob was my first guest when I officially took over as London Meetings Officer of the British Science Fiction Association. He was an excellent guest, interviewed by Paul Kincaid. We had a packed room, and everyone enjoyed it.
In preparation for this meeting, I had read Rob's then most recent series, The Merlin Codex. In this series, he mixes up two distinct legendary stories, those of Jason and Merlin. This brings a brilliant new twist to the often overly familiar Arthurian mythos, though Rob told me that this wasn't why he wrote the series – his original intention was to explore Jason and Medea, and Merlin was added later.
One should also mention Rob's non-fiction writing and his fan activity. Back in the 1970s he was a regular fixture at sf conventions. And one of my prize finds in my local bookshop was a copy of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, for the princely sum of 50p. Rob was consulting editor, which essentially meant he edited it. Overshadowed nowadays by the more famous Nicholls/Clute Encyclopedia, it's worth getting hold of, if you can. There's some excellent contributors, including Brian Stableford, Chris Priest, Harry Harrison and Malcolm Edwards.
I should have got Rob to sign it.
Blog post, 30 November
Like a few of us here today, Rob was a fairly obsessive reader and collector of science fiction. In the 1960s, before the internet made it much easier, he used to buy 20 year old American science fiction magazines from an English book dealer in Singapore. So did I. In 1967, a batch of magazines meant for Rob was sent to me by mistake but with his address included as well. One of the best decisions of my life was resisting the temptation to keep those magazines and instead send them to Rob. We made contact, him at Bangor University and me at Warwick.
We both became friends with other science fiction fans, went to conventions, and wrote for fanzines – Rob even published his own. At the same time he was making a living by churning out hack novels – books that he could produce quickly and frequently, often based on second-rate movies or TV series. And, in Rob's case, they were often much better than that sounds.
He combined these two parts of his life – the professional writer and the fan – when he wrote an article in 1976 for a fanzine about how he was doing as a hack writer. The article was called 'Eight Days a Week' and here, some years before Rob met Sarah, is how he described two of those days.
TUESDAY Delivery day for Shadow of the Wolf, first of a great historical fantasy hack series. Awake at seven-thirty with the sun, the birds, and the fire alarm in the Flour Mill across the road. Ah, this is country life. Lie peacefully and happily staring at the ceiling, then remember with a great surge of sickness that I haven't yet finished the bloody book. Leap out of bed and begin typing in considerable panic; the book has gone on ten days over my private schedule already. Ten pages still to do and a full three hours to do them in. Ought to be a cinch. I promise myself that I shall never again be so lazy as to leave the completion of a book until the morning of Delivery Day. Sheila slams the bedroom door pointedly. Feeling guilty about typing so early, but the thought of being dragged through the courts in front of my buddies adds life to my fingers.
The book is finished at eleven o'clock, and a two minute dash to the station gets me to London on time. Deliver book to Rosemary Daughton at Sphere, feeling proud, wanting everyone to know that this is my first novel. Deflated as mine is bunged on big pile of other commissioned manuscripts. Aren't you even going to glance at it, I wheedle. Once started, I know, she'll be hooked, she won't be able to put it down. She picks it up and leafs quickly through it, and manages to find the one dirty bit. The page looks greyer than the rest and I realize that repeated reading of my own pornography has marked the manuscript for ever as being the work of a mental juvenile.
WEDNESDAY Beginning of new book. Clear away all the crap involved with Shadow of the Wolf and look contentedly at empty desk. Check diary casually, and feel horrendous surge of nausea as I notice that the great new work has to be delivered in eight days time. Surely this is a mistake! Count the days, over and over, lips moving as I frantically flip the diary pages, but sure enough it has to be in one week tomorrow. I can't believe it, but the extra time on Shadow of the Wolf has buggered my schedule all to hell. Do sums. 180 pages in eight days means 23 pages a day. Ought to be a cinch.
Heartened I draw a film script from the pile and read it through. The book is The Satanists, a novelization of the film of the same name from Tyburn Films, the group who gave us such memorable classics of the cinema as The Ghoul, starring Peter Cushing, The Legend of the Werewolf, starring Peter Cushing, Persecution, starring Peter Cushing ... Who's the star of The Satanists, I wonder. Good grief, what a surprise, Peter Cushing. Baddy to be played by Telly Savalas. Must remember to ask Kojak fans for a few Kojak jokes.
I sketch the characters quickly. Lesley Anne Down is playing the girl. Who the hell's she? No matter. Auburn hair, big breasts, slim legs, and ginger pubic hair that will be revealed in the last chapter. Well, that's the characterization over, now to work, reading the script. By midday I feel queasy. I have to write a novel based on this? I rant around the flat. I throw the script around. Then I remember eight days. I run whimpering to the typewriter and begin to churn.
And that's a side of Rob that people who read his novels rarely saw. But all of us who were lucky enough to know him as family or friend also know what a great sense of humour he had and how he could get everyone laughing with wild exaggerations about his misfortunes as a writer or gleeful stories of how he had embarrassed himself and everyone around him by committing some dreadful faux pas. We all loved him for it. He never had any misplaced sense of his own dignity and was as happy behaving with very few inhibitions as he was joking about it afterwards. He was someone who could literally be the life and soul of any party, with no side to him and just a desire to be with his friends and family and to help us all enjoy life as much as he did.
Rob was a lovely man, a great friend, a terrific writer and very special for all of us.
Spoken at the funeral
Ursula Kiausch: 'Chardonnay Nights'
Our last phone talk was in early October 2009. When he called me in Germany, Rob would always start by saying: I just want to know how you are, and then we would chat for thirty minutes or more – about his new book projects, the situation of publishing houses in Germany, professional struggles we had fought in recent months (always connected with lots of giggles on both sides), mutual friends and personal things. In our last phone talk we also discussed the strange experience of aging. 'Can you believe it,' said Rob, 'there is a new young couple in our neighbourhood, and I overheard them talking about a nice elderly man living nearby. And guess what: It was me they were talking about!' And I told him that I will always see him as a very young man open to all kinds of new knowledge and experiences, he should not worry.
I first met Rob in the early 1990s at one of those legendary conferences of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts at the Fort Lauderdale Hilton Airport Hotel, Florida where our mutual friend Brian Aldiss introduced us to each other. Together with Tom Shippey and my sister Barbara Mabee who teaches German literature at Oakland University, Michigan, the five of us were soon to be known as the 'European outpost' at the Hilton bar. I will never forget the afternoon when Rob and I sneaked out of the very expensive hotel and took a taxi to the next shopping mall to buy several bottles of Chardonnay (which we stored secretly in the huge fridge of my pool apartment for future get-togethers with our friends on the apartment's terrace).
During the IAFA conferences and flights from London to Fort Lauderdale and back, Rob and I became close friends and later, on the occasion of the Oxford Literature Festival, I also had the chance to get to know his beloved partner and true companion Sarah. In March 1996, Rob was 'special guest' at the 17th IAFA conference. (Being a much admired 'public person' at this conference made him slightly nervous). During this conference, I interviewed him for a German publication, because we hoped to get more of his work translated and published in Germany. The books translated and published in Germany include Eye among the Blind (1976), Earthwind (1981), Where the Time Winds Blow (1984), Alien Landscapes (1980), Mythago Wood (1987) and Lavondyss (1990). I am very sorry that it did not work out the way we had hoped for. In this rather informal interview he said: 'I am just as obsessed as George Huxley, although I hope that I am not quite as withdrawn and divorced from reality. But I am obsessed by the forest, and I always want to return to it. It is a writing strategy, but it is also that element which connects my work and keeps it together. It is my personal universe. And through this universe I try to convey how the subconscious is structured and how it works. The subconscious is the source of mythological imagination. I hope you like things like that.'
I loved Rob's imagination, just as I loved him as a dear and always reliable friend through all these years.
Garry Kilworth: 'Robert Holdstock in Malaysia'
Our Rob was never a great traveller, but he loved actually being in foreign places when you could get him there. Spain and France were his main bolt holes, but in 1990 when Annette and I lived in Hong Kong, Sarah and Rob came for a wonderful long holiday. Part of that holiday included backpacking in Malaysia, which turned out to be a big adventure. First a raging river took away a jungle bridge we were supposed to cross in a bus. (We eventually walked over on thin, bendy planks.) Monsoon weather then wiped our air tickets and passports clean of ink. And a slow fishing boat on choppy seas had us hanging over the gunwhales emptying our stomachs on the way to Tioman Island. Now as most of you know, Rob was a red meat and ale man, but when we arrived at Tioman it was Ramadan: there had been no fishing, they had run out of chickens and of course it was a Moslem country, so no alcohol. Rob barely managed to survive four days on only banana porridge and orange Fanta. Only his beloved trees, of cathedral height on Tioman, wrapped in a multitude of creepers and vines, managed to keep him smiling. Back in Hong Kong, when the time came to fly home, the plane was struck by lightning and the pair /of them turned up on our doorstep three hours after we had waved them goodbye, with 'Surprise! Surprise!'
Just back from the funeral service for Rob Holdstock. No, 'funeral service' is the wrong term; it was a memorial ceremony, a celebration. It was moving and hard to take and joyous all at the same time. It took place in a Unitarian Chapel, but it was the most unreligious ceremony you could imagine: the only 'hymn' we sang, right at the end, was Woody Guthrie's 'So Long, It's Been Good To Know You'.
It was bitterly cold, we struggled down Hampstead High Street thinking it might be quite nice if we came on a warmer day, and we'd have walked straight past the chapel if we hadn't run into Steve Jones, who led us to the secret entrance round the side. I had no idea what to expect of a Unitarian Chapel, but it looked like an Anglican Church with stained glass in the windows (and what looked disturbingly like angels in alien space ships high above the altar), but it felt far more relaxed. And in it was a confusion of sf people, several of whom I'd not seen in 20 years or more (Kevin Smith, Andrew Stephenson). At one point I caught sight of Rob's younger brother, Chris, whom I've never laid eyes on before, and thought, 'Oh, that's nice, Rob's turned up', before I did a double take.
We began with a few words from the Minister, and stood as the wickerwork coffin was brought in and laid on trestles at the front of the chapel. Then Malcolm Edwards, who had orchestrated the event, took over, and for the next hour and a quarter we had a succession of family and friends sharing their memories of Rob, starting with Chris who recalled their childhood. I was honoured to be asked to read a message from the French writer, Christian Lehmann, who was unable to attend; after the ceremony I spoke to Sarah and I think they might put all the messages up on the web site, I hope so because it was a wonderful piece and I just hope I did it justice. Other contributions came from Roy Kettle, Chris Evans, Jim Burns, Wendy Froud, Malcolm, Chris Priest (who spoke very simply about how Rob had died, without pain or any awareness of what was happening, which somehow allowed us all to relax after that), Lisa Tuttle, Garry Kilworth, and Matilda Verrells (Rob's god-child and niece, who spoke very eloquently about what Rob meant to his extended family). Everyone spoke well, and there were, inevitably, a lot of comic memories, though it was obvious that several people were really struggling not to break down.
After the ceremony, while a very small group accompanied the coffin to the crematorium, the rest of us found food and wine laid on at the chapel (you've got to love a chapel that serves wine). An army of young family members did a sterling job of pushing sandwiches and pieces of cake on the assembly. Meanwhile the rest of us formed groups and chatted, and it was impossible, as such things always are, to exchange words with more than a very small percentage of the people there. We spent most of our time with Lizzie Priest while Chris and Leigh went to the crematorium, but I also managed to speak with Farah, Garry, Chris Evans, Malcolm, Roy Kettle, Kev Smith, Dave Langford, Andrew Stephenson, Judith Clute, and, in passing, Al Reynolds and Kim Newman, and, of course, with Sarah.
Rob, I think, would have loved it – good people, good food and drink, good conversation, what is there not to like? – except, as Garry remarked, for the black ties.
LiveJournal, 17 December 2009
Maureen Kincaid Speller
Paul and I went to London, to Hampstead, for Rob Holdstock's funeral yesterday, on a bitterly cold day, bright but with dark clouds looming in the background, threatening snow. We looked like two storm-tossed crows as we battled our way to the station through strong winds. It seemed right for the day.
The ceremony, and it was a ceremony, not a service, was held at the Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, a building that, to all intents and purposes, looks like a very small English parish church somewhere out in the wilds of Kent. In fact, as I suspected, it is a Victorian Gothic building, right down to some Burne Jones stained-glass windows. It was only at the end of a ceremony for a man who had written his way so deeply under the skin of the English mythos that I noticed, high up on the chancel arch, a small but unmistakable foliate head staring down at us. It seemed very fitting.
Paul Kincaid has written most eloquently about the ceremony above, but I'd like to add a few thoughts.
Paul notes that Rob's coffin was made of wickerwork; the first we knew of this was a curious creaking sound as something began to move somewhere behind us, and the pall-bearers suddenly appeared in my line of vision with this amazing artefact, decorated with greenery and flowers. After the first startled moment, then the thought of 'yes, of course, what else could it be', I found myself thinking about the funeral of William Morris, whose coffin was taken to Kelmscott church on a farm waggon decorated with flowers, like a Harvest Home. I've read about wickerwork coffins and seen photographs, but nothing prepares one for the extraordinary 'aliveness' of them when they're being moved. Not so much a coffin as a cradle, and the person inside stirring slightly in their sleep as they're carried along. Which perhaps sounds macabre but I found something very comforting about it. And really, that was what the ceremony was all about, about lulling someone into a last sleep and soothing those of us who remain awake. His friends played Rob's favourite music and we sang to him, they read to him and us, his own work, poetry by others, their own thoughts at his passing, told funny stories about him, and it seemed very much as though Rob was still among us all.
The ceremony began with a violin and piano version of Ralph Vaughan Williams' 'The Lark Ascending'. It's hard not to feel a little better about things after listening to Vaughan Williams. However, Rob's coffin left the building to a blaze of trumpet and organ, a celebration of a life truly well lived if finished far too soon.
LiveJournal, 18 December 2009
Some 1980 photographs of Rob at the Milford Writers' Conference, Pieria 28 and Novacon 10.
Rob loved to tell wildly funny and exaggerated tales of social gaffes he'd made or thought he'd made (at least one of which was certainly no accident), so it's only fair to mention the day when he triggered my own hideous lapse.
This was at a Pieria writers' workshop, for many years a regular event that had been co-founded by Rob himself. He read out a story – a slightly experimental fantasy which, like some percentage of any innovative author's experiments, didn't quite come off. All I remember of the plot was that the protagonist was in a hurry to get somewhere, and made haste in a weirdly symbolic way. He anointed his shins with the oil of swift running, he greased his ankles with the unguent of rapidity, he waxed his toes with the elixir of endurance. The list went on. I don't think Rob had ever played Dungeons and Dragons, but I had, and all these props seemed hilariously reminiscent of the magic items (bag of holding, sword of pointiness, instrument of bluntness) that littered every D&D scenario. Owing to famous Langford hearing problems I was sitting next to Rob reading the MS over his shoulder, and finding it increasingly hard to control myself as my breathing passages were assailed by the ichor of irresistible giggling. Worse than hiccups, it was. As the hero did more and more improbably symbolic things – sharpening his eyesight with the whetstone of compunction, it might have been, or thoughtfully ejecting the phlegm of Schadenfreude – I was having silent convulsions that were obvious to everyone in the room but Rob. Allan Scott started to break down too. The jockstrap of heroic potency was too much for him. About then Rob caught on, with nervous sidelong glances, obviously wondering whether to stop and let the emergency services deal with this mysterious Langford seizure. But somehow he made it to the final page ... after which a lot of explanation was required, involving frequent reference to Monty Python and the fatal effects of the World's Funniest Joke. My face was laved with the claret of embarrassment. And that, children, is how I once out-gaffed the great Rob Holdstock.
How I wish I could remind him of all the above and hear that wonderful, startled laugh again.
Christian Lehmann: 'Hanging in mid-air'
It's 1977, and my cousin Michael Scott Rohan is getting married in Oxford.
It's 1977, ages ago it seems now, and for the first time in my life, at 19 years of age, I am surrounded by writers, actual writers who write books and even manage to get them published.
It's 1977 and walking back from the meeting hall to the party, I fall in step with this guy, with the wide grin, the surprisingly soft voice and the infectious laugh that sounds as if he was stifling a snort.
The guy is Rob Holdstock, and minutes from our first meeting he saves me from being set upon by two drunken thugs on a rampage. Because not only is this guy tall, dark and handsome, he's also huge, and extremely friendly.
I read his books, send him fan-letters, and over the years we meet at conventions, an endless round of conventions it seems to me now, looking back, Eastercons, Novacons, Worldcons.... It's always the same: the long agonizing trip from Paris to London through Newhaven-Dieppe, the intoxicating days of friendship, SF talk and booze, and the ghastly trip back in the wake of a post-convention depression.
Rob saved me, as did Garry Kilworth and a few others, from the drudgery of being an extremely lonely medical student and virgin trying to survive in a country where, at the time, SF and fantasy were considered as good for retards and Trekkies.
I remember informal writer's workshops at the Langfords' place in 1978, where I sat awed listening to my friends reading their works in progress.
I remember Rob's short story: it's set in a forest (yes, I know ...), and I still have this image of the warrior throwing a spear (yes, I told you I know). I'm not sure what else happens, I'm not sure anything else happens, just this warrior throwing this spear and ... I was transfixed. Rob had taken sword and sorcery fantasy and rewritten it as if he was an existentialist New-Wave French author rediscovering the genre. As far as I am concerned, that spear is still being thrown. In that forest, it's still hanging in mid-air.
Rob saved me because he was serious about his writing but did not treat himself seriously. He showed me, as did my other friends here, that writing could be attempted, that it was worth a try. He also taught me in the ways of manhood, helping me to empty a whole keg of Watney's Red Barrel down somebody's neighbour's fence and sticking to Ruddles Real Ale, the connoisseur's brand. These were the days of high adventure, when we would take dares and write illegible scribblings on Roy Kettle's forehead or Greg Pickersgill's midriff as they lay snoring in the middle of the party. Where Birmingham would suddenly flare into light around midnight because someone had fired mortars from the roof of our convention hotel.
And back here, in France, I saw Rob's books starting to appear, taking more and more shelf-space. We had talked about that once, how, when he goes, an author leaves behind him or her a certain amount of shelf-space, and that, I guess, is in itself a way of life and a eulogy: you hang in there, you write the books, inch by inch you fill that shelf-space. And then sometimes, if you're blessed, if like Rob you are in touch with everything that's churning inside and which he said was like a sieve, an idea will come, something will impose itself on you and you will be blessed with the makings of a masterpiece. I am speaking of the Mythago cycle and what came later. Books that I saw in every bookshop in France, books that earned Rob the Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire (don't you love the way this sounds?). Books that are still on the shelves of bookshops here today, 25 years later, when sell-by-date best-sellers have come and gone.
'This is my friend, see, this is my friend's book.' I was a published author myself by then, a mainstream author if things must be named, and in salons and literary fairs I'd point out Rob's books to colleagues, because I was proud to see them translated in my own language, and because along with a very few others they managed to reverse the tide and give fantasy in France a good name.
In 1989, Rob published 'When the music stopped' in Other Edens III, a short story Garry Kilworth and I had written together. It's about this guy who has an impediment, a psychological disability. When people die, they disappear. Photographs get less and less crowded as people die. Portraits just show backgrounds, curtains, empty spaces. Books turn blank when writers die. Records lose the sound of piano, clarinet, bass, as individual musicians die.
It's the only collaboration I have ever attempted, written because the idea struck us both, Garry and I, at the same time, one evening, listening to an old Louis Armstrong recording. Rob loved that story.
Well, it was just a story, and nothing like real life.
Because in real life, now, Rob ... you're not disappearing from our photographs, you're not disappearing from our shelves, you're not disappearing from our hearts, anytime soon.
As far as I am concerned, that spear is still being thrown. In that forest, it's still hanging in mid-air.
Written for the funeral and read there by Paul Kincaid
This is overwhelming news. Rob was that fairly rare combination of fine writer and immensely likeable person. I had great respect for him and admire his books. As Robert Gould has suggested, nobody had Robs sense of the 'wild wood' and its echoes in our deep consciousness. Jim Cawthorn and I included Mythago Wood in our 100 Best Fantasies all those years ago and I have been pushing it on to people ever since. Not one reader has ever been disappointed. Rob wrote in the tradition of some fine English writers, including Charles Williams and G.K. Chesterton. His sense of place and mystery extended to the city as well as the country, yet he never imposed any theories or 'philosophy' on his friends and the main impression one got from him was of a sweet-natured, interesting man in whose company time was never wasted. Even if you had never read a word of Robs fiction, your life was brightened by knowing him. A man of great substance and a nice, ordinary bloke at the same time.
Contribution to keepsake booklet
Donald Morse: 'Rob Holdstock and the Ride of Terror'
Rob and the automobile were not terribly compatible unlike Rob and good conversation and good ale. At one of the International Conferences on the Fantastic in the Arts held then in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Rob of a leisurely Saturday – his reading over – was happily esconced at the pool bar enjoying good talk and good friends when a sneak thief brazenly stole his British style wallet containing passport, plane tickets, and money. When he did discover his loss this created a bit of a crisis as the tickets were for the next day but without a passport he could not board the plane. I called the airline and they rebooked him for Tuesday but that still left the more difficult problem of the passport. The British consulate was closed for the weekend and its automatic voice message could not have been clearer: 'for lost passports contact the office during normal business hours.' Perhaps British passports went missing too frequently to be more than a passing concern of the consulate, especially since the nearest consulate was not in Miami, as I would expect, but in Orlando since Disneyworld was a major British destination. First thing Monday we called the consulate who assured us that if we could get there by 4pm they would issue a passport. We rented a car but leaving the rental car lot we faced a choice of not 2 or 3 but 5 different exits. Rob as navigator chose one and off we roared. A half hour later I began to have doubts and then came the sign 'Alligator Alley'! Instead of going north and east we were heading south and west across Florida and far away from Orlando. The next turnaround was a mere 10 miles distant. We took it having no other choice. But now instead of having a surplus of time we had a shortage. 'Check your seatbelt and hold on,' I admonished and then, as the Country Western song says: I 'put the pedal to the metal' and off we roared heading north at last! First, we had to retrace the miles back to Lauderdale and then re-begin the trip at speeds not remotely legal. Poor Rob almost acquired a permanent pallor from this white-knuckle trip but we did make it arriving in Orlando with less than 15 minutes before the consulate closed. Rob got the passport, flew out the next day and all ended well. But memories of that Ride of Terror lingered on to be recalled over good ale and perhaps to appear in future novels barely hidden behind some of the more harrowing scenes.
I clearly remember my last two meetings with Rob. In February 2007 he was due to speak to the Brum Group, but appalling weather conditions resulted in only three members turning up. Rob and his partner Sarah had started out from London early so that they made it to Birmingham with little trouble. But from mid-afternoon the weather got far worse – it took me four and a half hours in a taxi to travel the seven miles into the city centre. No meeting was held but the five of us sat in the bar of the Britannia drinking. Rob and I lasted until about 1am after drinking several bottles of red wine. A year later he returned to talk to us and after the meeting Rob and I once again sat in the bar drinking red wine until the early hours.
He had a wonderful outgoing personality and a huge appetite for life. After 35 years of friendship with Rob, I am still finding it difficult to believe that he has gone. I know that we'll all miss him. I certainly will.
From obituary in Brum Group News 460, January 2010
Andrew I. Porter
A photo of Rob at the 1988 World Fantasy Convention.
I wrote these words within a day or two of Rob's death. Everything that is being said today is inadequate for the moment, this moment that we are all now facing. I have known Rob for thirty-five years.
I saw Rob as my closest friend, but because he had so many other friends I was never sure if he felt the same way about me. It didn't matter. Look at the personal tributes on his website! We now realize he was at the centre of a vast network of closest friends. At least two or three times a week the phone would ring and Rob would say, 'Chris, mate ... just a quickie.' That was usually an hour of the day used up. Othe times he would say, 'Chris, mate ... just a REAL quickie.' That was about half an hour. The phone has been very quiet recently.
Like most of his friends I have hundreds of vivid memories of him. All of them are about funny incidents involving Rob, or sudden surreal comments, or weird or insightful things that Rob would abruptly say. Or, many times, they were odd or touching or charming insights into his gentle side. Any gathering with Rob was a gathering of writers. We almost never talked directly about writing. Indirectly, we talked about nothing else. We always laughed with Rob. He was the best company imaginable.
I believe that death itself holds no terrors, but that what we really fear is the process of dying, knowing that we are coming to the end of our lives. I want to describe the comfort I take from the special way that Rob died, and hope this gives the same comfort to others.
While Rob was still aware of the world and conscious he did not know he was mortally ill. He did not have to fear death, he did not have to undergo dying. For most of his final illness he was sleeping or sedated. He suffered no pain. He did not have to regret anything, there was nothing to frighten him, he did not have to worry about the people close to him. His passing was peaceful. His death was as unusual as his life.
I want to end with some of Rob's own words on death. This is from an interview he gave a few years ago. It's the sort of thing writers say off the cuff, not meaning it, not really believing that death will indeed finally get them. Rob's words are beautiful and surprising, but they end with a moment of pure bathos, the quintessential Rob:
Everything we know now is destined to die except for the forest and the earth. Earth is the eternal survivor, and homo sapiens is not part of its mindless and inexorable plan. There are many forests to come. There will be flashes of intelligence. The last thing to burn will not be a man, but a leaf.
So eat pizza and drink beer. And cheer up. It'll soon be over.
Spoken at the funeral
How sad. I know we hadn't been in contact much lately but in person (mostly at the Milford conferences) and in letters Rob was a great guy, full of enthusiasm for everything and everybody. If it hadn't been for him my short story 'Eternity-Magic' would never have been finished let alone published. And he wrote my single favourite-ever fanzine article, 'Eight Days a Week'. But as far as I know he never got to use Surviving Forces as a story collection title as he once hoped. He's gone too young.
I was rather caved-in by the news of Rob's death, and I only knew him a very little – met him at Gollancz parties, mostly. I wish I had something substantive to contribute to the memorial supplement, because the impression he left, forcibly, upon me was a deeply heartening one: that it is possible to be a great writer and a genuine, humane, lovely human being (there are many counter examples to that statement, of course). Conversation with him was wholly unforced; he was genuinely interested in other people, saw new writers – as I was, when I first met him – not as potential rivals to be put in their place, but as people to be engaged with and encouraged. Wonderful man; and the author of many great books, not just Mythago Wood (great though that book is).
Andrew Stephenson: 'Two Words'
Rob was always wholehearted about whatever he got involved in, or so it seems from memory.
I had been going to monthly SF meetings at The Globe pub in central London since early 1969, attended four conventions (back then UK cons were few: precious and easily countable) and sold my first story to Analog as a result. Somewhere during that anxious time between first sale and first publication, Rob's path crossed mine, dating our first encounter to early 1971.
The Globe was packed as usual with a gossiping mob. Joyous to hear of my success, Rob mentioned his own 'Pauper's Plot' sale to New Worlds (published with a curious illo that caused much head scratching), then bounced me over to a group lurking in a corner. Ignoring a thought that one or two looked as if their usual gatherings might concern plotting the overthrow of tyrannical regimes, I soon found they were friendly. Thanks to Rob, I was now involved in the zany world of north London fandom (of whom, more has been written elsewhere by other hands).
Rob was a writer by nature. And a publisher. And an editor. He even tried illustrating.... His fanzines focussed on the craft of being a writer, or gave a voice to new writers. He loved to work with narratives, dream of possibilities, plan collaborations to bring out talents of all involved, infuse prose with poetry.
Which makes it strange he and I clicked so well. Maybe Rob just got on with everyone? He was a romantic, while I was yer classic Analog Hard SF geek. Early on, 1971-72, we were part of a postal criticism circle: stories would be passed from writer to writer, MSS and crits being added and removed as they went around. Thus we gained clues to each others' tastes. Rob was already a fan of the dark ages and their myths, I of hardware and science. How weird, then, that we began co-plotting an action SF story, vibrant with good stuff, that surely won us a Hugo in some alternate universe.
On Saturday mornings we met at the SF+Fantasy bookshop in Berwick Street. 'Dark They Were And Golden Eyed' was small and cramped but stocked a useful range. After raiding it for reading matter, we would cross to The King of Corsica, a faded corner pub from another age stranded in a slowly modernising neighbourhood. Quiet at that time of day, its mix of dinginess and comfy seating encouraged us to set up beers and discuss mad plans for an hour.
From there, life sort of unfolded, down along the years.
At least some of those 1972 plans worked out for Rob. But he and Sarah and I had another scheme, involving a bathroom shower (no, don't ask, it's vastly too silly) which now can never come true. Life's like that: one must seize the moment, keep moving. As Rob did, dotting about and (I hope) enjoying an interesting life.
Jim Blish, another open hearted soul who became a Big Name of SF yet never put on airs and graces, once told me: 'The two saddest words in the world are if only ...'
If only this tragedy had not occurred ... But it did.
As did the good stuff, which we can look back on happily.
Uncredited Times obituary, 8 December 2009.
Order of Service booklet cover