By Jim Burns
35 – maybe 36 years ago. One of the legendary Christmas parties my agent at the time, John Spencer at Young Artists, threw every year. My wife, Sue and I were in one corner making pleasant conversation – but in the opposite corner of that big studio space in St Pancras Way, there was a lot of boisterous fun-making going on. Sue said quietly in my ear – I want to be over there with those people!
It was one of the mad, somewhat physical games that seemed to erupt spontaneously at those do’s … mostly involving heavy furniture being used for abnormal purposes, or perhaps a beer-drinking contest. Towering above the other participants was an over-excited rather boyish fellow of maybe 6’ 4”. A very big boy actually … with a beard. It was my first sight of Rob Holdstock.
36 years ago.
My most recent meeting with Rob was one year ago, in London after I’d spent a frustrating day trying to make sense of what was on offer at the annual Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park – now to be relieved by a most pleasant meal shared with Rob and Sarah, Sue and my agent, Alison Eldred, in a Turkish restaurant, The Istanbul in Cleveland Street. And whilst time takes its toll on us all – Rob’s beard a little greyer, his health perhaps not quite so extraordinarily robust as that first time – he was essentially still the same big, boyish fellow. Something that never left him in all the years I knew him.
I didn’t see enough of him over the last 30 and more years. Something I cannot now rectify. But on those occasions when, after a couple more years had passed, we happened upon each other again, it was always as if no time had passed.
There was no-one it was easier to be with than Rob. Conversations picked up where they had left off months or even years before. He was a serious writer, a man with dark visions I always thought. But Rob the man, the social animal, the fellow drinker over a good pint of ale, was anything but heavy company. Always the beginning of a laugh playing around the corners of his mouth, that slightly confused manner – often slightly missing the point – which added to his singular charm. He was I thought, in the nicest sense, old-fashioned, quintessentially English.
One of the kindest men I ever knew. Warm and open, always happy to talk to fans about his books, their interests. Whatever the opposite to ‘aloof’ is, that’s what Rob was.
Professionally I didn’t do a huge amount with Rob the writer. My strengths, such as they were, found employment more at the mainstream SF end of things rather than fantasy. Although in the earlier days, when I first got to know Rob along with Malcolm Edwards, in the days before Ryhope Wood loomed huge in Rob’s imagination, they jointly wrote and edited big, colourful illustrated science fiction books such as Alien Landscapes, Tour of the Universe and Realms of Fantasy, and had the good sense to come to the agency to which I belonged – Young Artists – for the picture side of things. Those books helped all of us artists who contributed to them to build our different careers. So we owe in some part the establishment of our careers to both Malcolm and Rob.
Into the late 1980s, I once again found myself in a series of book projects with Rob, teamed editorially this time with Chris Evans, for the three books of the Other Edens compilations. And then again in 1990 when I was invited to participate in an unpaid charitable project called ‘The Tree’, a lushly produced book of paintings, photographs and the written word, from which the proceeds would pass to The Woodland Trust. On being asked if I knew anyone else who might like to participate my first and immediate thought was, inevitably, Rob Holdstock. For by then I was of course familiar with that marvellous book, the book which amongst so many brilliant books is the one that most people associate with Rob’s name. The book called Mythago Wood. Of the over 100 contributions to ‘The Tree’, Rob’s, occupying four full pages was the most generous of them all. But then the subject of ‘The Tree’ was probably, of all the contributors, closest to Rob’s heart.
And I would in time get to put a cover on that book – Mythago Wood – for the 2006 SFBC edition in the States, one of a series of eight books picked out as the most significant in its decade of publication. It gave me the chance to read the book a second time, and to wonder again at Rob’s extraordinary, vivid and I would say unique imagination, forging out completely new territory for himself and re-invigorating a perhaps slightly tired literary form.
It was Rob himself who suggested I use as the subject matter for the rather small panel I was allotted on the cover, my take on the magical Guiwenneth, perhaps his own favourite character, certainly his favourite female character. It was hardly a surprise suggestion from Rob, and I eagerly grasped it.
The other cover I produced for a Rob Holdstock novel was back in 1991 for that haunting novel The Fetch. Writers to different degrees summon imagery in the mind of the reader and particularly in the mind of the artist with different degrees of vividness. Rob’s descriptive powers lent such convincing credibility to people and places and things that never were, and so it was with this book, spoiled as always for choice of subject matter, but I eventually found myself mesmerised by his detailed description of the Mocking Cross, its appearance, its history, its whole provenance. It was so convincing and real that I assumed it must be a genuine artifact. ‘No,’ Rob told me, ‘made it all up.’ That deep, multi-layered conviction was always there in Rob’s books, adding to their enormous power as works of fantasy literature.
I shall end with a couple of quotes from a fellow artist – the superb John Howe, familiar to most as the artist, who along with Alan Lee recreated so faithfully on screen Tolkien’s massive achievement. A man who definitely knows his stuff when it comes to this material and a man who in all honesty was thematically more aligned with Rob’s vision and who could, more faithfully than I, tap into that neo-Celtic mythos that Rob made uniquely his own. John has written a beautiful appreciation of Rob on his own website and he has given me permission to quote from it. He has summoned up the words better than I ever could in respect of the appreciation an artist can have for a writer who so fortuitously is treading similar strange territory.
So – much paraphrased I’m afraid – from:
THE WOOD OF LOST STORIES by John Howe
So, you’re to blame for a spiriting-away, of making my imagination a bright patchwork tattercoat caught on the thorns and brambles of your bewildering woodscapes: too many pictures, it would take a lifetime to paint them all. So why did it take your words to make them come to life so vividly? I can only put it down to coincidence, when you suddenly find yourself with a deep-felt resonance, and something strikes that chord that nothing else stirs. I felt that with your work, and I’ve only felt it a handful of times. So thank you for that. I should have said that long ago, but that’s how it is isn’t it? There’s always next time until there’s no time.
I’ve often read modern writers who revisit myth, and over the years, have ultimately found them profoundly unsatisfying. We can’t believe in myth any more. We’ve grown up to another view of the world, so we not only no longer truly understand myth; we think we don’t need it any longer. People like you remind us we are wrong, because you are telling stories for those reasons that escape the rest of us, but are likely closer to whatever truth they once held upon a time. We can study myth all we like, intellectualize, analyze, scrutinize, but only storytellers can help us grasp at that truth that only comes without thinking about it. Like myth-images, on the edge of vision, just out of reach. Thank you for doing your best to help us see.