The Literary Cabaret

Once again, the Bloomsbury Festival rolled around and brightened my life. The highlight this time was The Literary Cabaret last night at Senate House, hosted by Helen Smith (who, you may recall, I wrote about for The Writers’ Guild.) We were treated to an evening of song, wine, and superb reading, which I think you will agree should be enough to fill anyone’s cup of happiness.

First came Karen McLeod, who read excerpts from her blog The View from the Thirteenth Floor. Reminding me of a dazzling Grace Kelly in her green Dior ‘New Look’-ish dress and 1950s-slick hairstyle, I felt instantly envious because her blog is so engaging, so full of life, so able to conjure richness from minute details. But as so many authors advise you should read work that you want your writing to be like, I imagine I shall be spending a great deal of time on the The Thirteenth Floor.

Helen read excerpts from two books, The Miracle Inspector, set in a dystopian London future, and Invitation to Die, a forthcoming murder mystery about romance novelists. I’d heard the second at the Off the Shelf event previously but it lost no humor in the retelling.

Following this was Craig Taylor, writer of The Londoners and (though I’d mentally set this aside until Helen mentioned it whilst introducing him) One Million Tiny Plays About Britain. Both books were gifts from my mother, both cherished. I’m still in the early part of The Londoners, finding that much of it strikes very close to home for me. In the introduction Craig says, “I didn’t want London as an accoutrement, to be the guy who used to live there…” This sentence for me brings back every time I am faced with the seemingly endless, dreary, grey-faced problem of visas, the Border Agency, immigration law and such things, because this is exactly what I fear becoming at their hands.

I’d carried my heavy hardback copy of The Londoners around all day with me to get signed, and when I pulled it from my bag with a flourish Craig’s eyes widened. “Wow!” There was a general sense from the crowd of “I didn’t even know people bought hardbacks anymore.” Not so, for I also have One Million Tiny Plays in hardback, which probably would have been the wiser choice to carry as it is much lighter. It really is one of my favorites, so much so that as soon as I was home for the evening it had to be dug from the shelf while I reminded myself of a particularly striking passage in one of the plays, the second one as it turns out. But once started I couldn’t stop and this morning I found I’d worked through all one million (or 95, if we’re being accurate). How is it possible to use so few words to mean so much?

Helen warned us that during the interval we should be sure to buy the book for our third reader, Will Wiles, because if we didn’t we would surely regret it. Being busy obtaining a signature on The Londoners, I heeded not her warning and was duly disappointed, for Will Wiles’s excerpts from Care of Wooden Floors were indeed brilliantly humorous, like precise little jewels. I shall be sure to examine them further with the requisite assiduity.

It was, all in all, a very enjoyable evening, made even merrier by the free wine. However, it was all colored by The Mad Guy sitting beside me and my friend. You will think that when I say we met a mad guy, we are just being a little bit callous and non-PC about mental health, and we just mean one of those people who is very awkward in social situations and a little bit irritating to talk to. But it turned out that he was actually properly disjointed in the head, and without the proper term to hand, the best I can come up with is: madder than a hatter.

When he sat down I noticed he was wearing three watches. “Ah,” I thought. “An eccentric.” Then we noticed him making very detailed writings on a tiny bit of paper and at first I thought he was taking notes in some sort of numerical shorthand. But no. It turns out what he was doing was timing each part of the show, the starts and stops of each speaker and the musicians, to the hundredth of a second, and writing these down on his tiny bit of paper. Then he showed us the big piece of paper: he wasn’t just doing this for the duration of the show, oh no. He was doing it for everything, everything in his whole day. He’d timed to the hundredth of a second every interval between stops on the public transportation he took to get there, noted every licence number of every taxi he saw. He keeps them, you see, in a database. The purpose of the database is to get a full sequence of numbers from 1/100th of a second to 99/100ths of a second. (We had some debate afterwards about whether his intention was to get them sequentially, or just to get one of each.) For which he is going to get a ‘remote driving licence’ which apparently is some sort of Microsoft certification (though not one I can claim ever to have heard of), which will allow him to…in some way deal with his database. The watches, by the way, kept beeping at odd intervals during the readings. They did not contribute in a positive way to the atmosphere.

And. (Oh yes, there is more). And, he asked me if I was coming to the festival the next day. I said I wasn’t sure. He said he wasn’t either, because of the replacement bus service. “Oh, yes,” I said. “That can be very difficult.”

“No, no,” he said. “It’s not because it takes a long time.” No. What he meant was that he felt it was necessary to ride the replacement bus services in order to time them. Because, you see, he was getting “unique data”. And then he told me a convoluted story about being on a replacement bus one time that took a wrong turning and ended up having to go all the way over Tower Bridge and then all the way back over London Bridge. But: “I never say anything, you know. I never say anything unless I know for certain that something’s gone wrong. Because of the timings, you see. And I didn’t complain, of course, to TFL. I don’t think any of the passengers did either. But I knew. It’s a good thing I was there, remote driving — writing the timing, as you see here. But I stayed with that bus driver all day after that, just to make sure. And it’s a good thing I was there.”

This encounter was so all-encompassing that trying to digest the evening in the pub afterwards, mostly what we talked about was how utterly, properly and truly mad the guy was, instead of the readings. It is just so rare that you meet people whose motives are so entirely obscured to you, whose reasoning is so entirely without relation to your own (or indeed, to most of the world.) People who believe they are ‘remote driving’ the bus.

Unless we all are, that is.