By Malcolm Edwards
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.