Obituary: David Holden
Saturday 07 May 1994
LAST OCTOBER, David Holden and I were planning a journey to the mountains of Papua New Guinea to find an animal everyone else was convinced is extinct: the thylacine, or marsupial wolf. No one but David could have persuaded me to embark on what was clearly a hare- brained expedition with no hope of success, but no one else had the irrepressible enthusiasm, the garrulous good-humour and plain human decency that pervaded everything David Holden did.
Holden was struck down before this and so many other wonderful plans came to fruition. Nothing could have been crueller than the brain tumours which killed him, yet he bore the pain and debilitation without rancour, retaining his kindness and warmth to the last day of his life.
At 34, Holden, who came to Britain from the United States in 1981, was on the verge of receiving the recognition he deserved. His collection of short stories This Is What Happens When You Don't Pay Attention (1991) demonstrated an extraordinary linguistic versatility: they were pithy, beautifully written and often hilarious. A novel, OK Guy, was completed soon before he died, too soon to have found the good publisher he was seeking. He began broadcasting on Radio 4 just over a year ago, yet he made such a mark in this short period that a recent Food Programme ended with a tribute of clips from his work.
But Holden's career was allowed to occupy only part of his life. Astonishingly, he never failed to put his concern for other people ahead of his own needs: even in his last weeks, when there was so much of his own work to complete, he spent precious time helping other writers to get introductions to publishers and monitoring air
For four years he poured his energy into campaigning and writing for Index on Censorship, the magazine which defends the right of free speech for people all over the world. With local campaigning groups he worked to protect the open spaces and small shops of his corner of London and to lobby the Government for improvements in air quality. Never content to stand by while injustice was done, he was a campaigner for the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka.
Yet his greatest enthusiasm was reserved for turtles. In his living- room are framed not photographs of his family but of his three American Box Turtles. Slow, phlegmatic, they were the perfect counterpoint to his own irrepressible energy and optimism. From his childhood in New Jersey right up to the time of his death he studied, enthused about and helped to conserve turtles and other reptiles and amphibians, achieving a knowledge of herpetology which matched that of many professionals. The improbable thylacine was just an excuse for what he really wanted to do in Papua New Guinea: to return to the places where he had watched leatherbacks nesting or tracked down the Pig- Nosed Fly River Turtle on his expedition in 1992. The David Holden Turtle Fund was established last week, to continue the conservation work he began.
David Holden will be remembered as a man who embodied the traditions of another age: consideration, honour, compassion and the wonder of a great amateur. Yet the world needs his talents now as never before.
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