“On my naming day … “

Riddley Walker

Russell Hoban


Starting to read Ridley Walker is like starting to learn a new language. Like learning Polish when you already know Hungarian; everything is familiar, but the words are assembled in an apparently nonsensical order. The language is Riddleyspeak: a degraded Pidgin English vernacular; a mishmash of phonetically spelled words, and deconstructed compound phrases. Spoken out loud, it actually sounds a lot like a north-western English accent (which is a great tip for finishing Riddley Walker: read it out loud).

The novel is set some 2000 years after the apocalypse. Little is known, or cared, for what caused the demise of way back, but as the novel unfolds it’s obvious due to nuclear war — the 1 Big 1 and 1 Little 1 — that forced society back into the Iron Age and the world of forms (farmers) and fents (hunter-gathers). The narrative follows the meandering journey of Riddley through Inland’s modern day Kent; from Bernt Arse (Ashford) to Cambry (Canterbury) and back again.

The story begins with the underplayed, almost casual act of Riddley’s father’s death. Whilst working machinery falls on Riddley’s father and Riddley, now a man (aged 12) inherits the key role in the community as a Connextion man within the religious Eusa Shows. These shows are government propaganda to nullify the harsh living conditions of the village caused by the war. They visually resemble Punch and Judy shows and features a modified version of St. Eustace; a figurehead of all Armageddon perpetrators.

Totally out of his level of understanding, Riddley is swayed from his intended future by the discovery of a pre-war Punch doll whilst mining. Despite it being not allowed to keep things found when working, he hides it and is subsequently selected by once domestic dogs in the search of truth.

Since the nuclear war, writing has been lost and communication has become a combination of metaphorical stories and oral tradition. Hoban states that Riddleyspeak is crafted partially because it “slows the reader down to Riddley’s rate of comprehension.” It forces the reader to interpret sentences and meanings just as Riddley—and his father before him—(as Connextion men) translated the meaning of the Eusa Shows. It’s not just a case of translating the pigeon English, but of translating the metaphors that are being visualised. Stories, fables, and tales that are learned from rout for Riddley and his fellows aren’t explained to the reader, adding a layer of complexity and problem solving not usually seen in novels.

Every page of this book has made me reach for the internet to look something up or scribble things in the margin, and this time, not just to note the definition of rampike.

Horny Boy / Herne Bay.

Herne is also the name of a British mythological character; Herne the Hunter, a man with antlers on his head …

Helping the qwirys / Helping the police with their inquiries.

Based on the context of the phrase, it could refer to being tortured for information …