I recently received (well, a few months ago, actually) an out of the blue email. Apologies for the delay in posting this.
Remembering One of Cranford’s Great Natives
By Chuck McCutcheon
Twenty years ago this month, a great New Jersey writer, naturalist and free-speech activist died at far too young an age.
His name was David Holden; he was 34 and one of my closest friends. His death came less than six months after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. The Times of London called him “one of the most promising writers of his generation.” Renowned environmentalist George Monbiot wrote that he “embodied the traditions of another age: consideration, honor, compassion … The world needs his talents now as never before.”
Dave made his reputation in London, but grew up in Cranford. We met in 1982 while working a summer job at a Kenilworth factory that produced conveyor and fan belts. Our assignment was to stretch belts deemed too small on a rack and bake them in a giant oven. The mindless task left us ample time to talk while listening to the Clash, J. Geils Band and other groups blaring on WNEW-FM.
But to Dave, Jersey wasn’t about factories; it was about nature. He spent his youth canvassing Union County’s waterways in search of reptiles. Turtles and lizards fascinated him. He recalled in a letter to me his fond memories of bicycling to Kenilworth’s now-closed Sea Shell pet store “to gawp at their matamata, a South American river turtle which looks like a cross between a good ol’ Rahway River snapper and a badly-raked pile of leaves.”
Dave pursued his passion into adulthood. He traveled to Papua New Guinea in 1992 and did a report for BBC Radio in which he couldn’t contain his excitement at encountering a one-ton leatherback sea turtle laying eggs on a beach. (Thankfully, I learned that someone recently posted this on YouTube.) At the time of his death, he had been planning to start a new turtle conservation program.
For the cover of his 1991 short-story collection This Is What Happens When You Don’t Pay Attention he chose an even weirder-looking creature – an axolotl, a salamander that resembles a space alien. But the book’s focus was on human characters trapped in odd and often desperate situations. In one of the best stories, New Jersey figures prominently: Its narrator portrays Steve Van Zandt in a second-rate Springsteen tribute band at the Shore called Backstreets of Fire. They’re less popular than their competitors, Hazy Davy and the Mission Men.
When the narrator learns Van Zandt is leaving the E Street Band (this was before he rejoined years later), he laments that he looks nothing like the guitarist’s replacement. “I can put a bandana around my head, one of my mother’s clip-on hoop earrings on one ear and jump up and down in a dark room and I’m sorta Miami Steve,” he says, “but Nils Lofgren – he’s about four foot nothing, shorter than the Boss even, built like a fire hydrant.”
Re-reading that sentence reminds me how Dave could make me laugh. He was the funniest person I’ve ever known, with an observant comic take on the world that was never malicious. When I once went through a breakup, he valiantly sought to lift my spirits: “Unfortunately, this is one of those areas where everything that could be said, done, suggested or advised was put into circulation sometime just after the invention of the wheel, and not really improved upon since.” He proposed behaving like a tortured blues musician – but within reason: “If casual acquaintances start referring to you as ‘Muddy’ McCutcheon, you know you’ve taken the game too far.”
I have no doubt that Dave would have been a tremendous success. In addition to writing and radio work, he immersed himself in a variety of causes, from stopping a proposed road through his local park to protecting free speech around the world with the group Index on Censorship. Before the end of the Cold War, he gave Index a memorable slogan: “If Samuel Beckett had been born in Czechoslovakia, we’d still be waiting for Godot.”
For all his international exploits, Dave always retained affection for Cranford. He married his wife, Anne, in the house on North Union Avenue in which he grew up. And he wrote and narrated a 1988 public-access cable documentary, “A Cruise Through Cranford’s Architecture,” which provides an appreciative history of the town’s evolution. At one point, he notes that the lot of one 19th century home was far smaller than that of its predecessors and announces: “What we have here is the first instance of suburbia.”
Sadly, the documentary isn’t readily viewable, and This Is What Happens is out of print (a few used copies can be found on Amazon). But apart from listening to the aforementioned BBC broadcast, there’s still a very good way to appreciate Dave. If you drive south of Morristown through the northwest end of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge — a favorite spot of his — you’ll see a wooden gazebo, which his family built as a posthumous tribute. Be sure to stop for a moment — and watch for any turtles.
Chuck McCutcheon, a native of Clark, is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.