Friday, May 02, 2008

Idle Curiosity

Top: Star of the Show.
Bottom: John and Tom check out my forthcoming book and spot the author photo.

What do you get if you cross The Idler magazine, that paean to the good life and champion of anti-capitalism ... with QI, that ever-curious, challenging, questioning gang of knowledge-hungry elves and their ever so popular TV show and books?

You get The Idler #41 (mentioned a couple of posts back), guest-edited by the chaps from Quite Interesting Ltd. And you get one of the strangest book launches you're ever likely to see. Let me elucidate.

Clerkenwell Green isn't.

There is not a blade, let alone a sod, turf or sward, of grass to be seen. The Green is now little more than a chunky traffic island deep in the heart of the London Borough of Islington. However, it does retain a strangely village-like feel with restaurants and pubs and private houses and the nearby church of St James all clustered around and enclosing it like a cuddle. In mediaeval times, it was significantly greener and the site of Spring Fairs, which were held on May 1st. Later, it housed a bustling street market (incidentally, it's where Fagin teaches Oliver to pick a pocket or two in Oliver Twist). And it has always had a magnetic pull for radical thinkers, like the Lollards, the Chartists and the Communist movement. Vladimir Lenin worked in the square and is said to have once bought the young Stalin a pint or two in The Crown pub. And many of the so-called 'left-wing' newspapers and magazines all once had their offices nearby. So, as a place that has historically combined a dislike of convention with a love of May Day festivity, could there be a better venue in which to stage an entirely open and free impromptu hog roast?

John and Tom broach the first cask and make many new friends.

I turned up at 5pm to find John Mitchinson, one of the co-founders of QI, already on site. The pig - from his own piggery incidentally - was already strapped into what looked like some Dark Ages torture device and the air was thick with wood smoke and the fabulous smell of roasting pork. The pig wouldn't be ready until 8.30pm, however. It takes a good few hours to cook a whole pig over what is, essentially, a couple of small bonfires, and the whole business had already been pushed back an hour due to a relocation. Apparently, the vicar of St James had expressed some concern over the original site of the roast. John and his mate Anda had set the apparatus up in the churchyard, thinking that this was an obvious and appropriate public area at the heart of the community. However, the church hadn't agreed and the entire kit and kaboodle - a whole pig and a cast-iron roasting rack - had had to be carried down the steps, across the road and started from scratch on the traffic island. Apparently I'd missed all the fun. The vicar, however, was keen to show that he supported community-spirited ventures such as this and kindly provided the trestle tables. Similarly community-spirited was the local Fullers pub that supplied three barrels of London Pride.

The Ebury crew multi-tasking.

Tom Hodgkinson appeared. Tom's the guy who wrote the classic How to be Idle and is the editor of The Idler. He'd actually been on site for as long as John but had been sorting out other aspects of the event. In fact, armed only with a small black notebook and a big smile, he'd done a great job of smoothing over things with the council and blagging loads of free goodies and cooking utensils. He can organise my parties any time.

Me and John before the pints got into double figures.

Occasionally, people would drift in from nearby offices to ask what was going on. Despatch riders and black cab drivers did the same. And when they were told that it was a May Day celebration and book launch with free pork and beer they universally applauded it. History boffin Justin Pollard (author of The Interesting Bits) reckoned there hadn't been a hog roast on this site for at least a couple of centuries. The locals agreed. "There's not enough of this sort of thing goes on," said one lady whose studio was nearby, "Great to see someone doing something to bring the community together like this. What time will the pig be ready?"

Dan Kieran arrives just in time to avoid any heavy lifting. Or, indeed, work of any kind.

Time passed. A bunch of guys and gals from Ebury Publishing turned up laden with wine and bread rolls and copies of the new hardback - The Book of Idle Pleasures. Dan Kieran, deputy editor of the magazine, also turned up with copies of The Idler #41. Dan is a terrific writer too. I thoroughly enjoyed his book I fought the law, in which he decries our ever-diminishing personal freedom. The Green now became a hive of activity; there were Bramleys to peel, bread rolls to cut, beer barrels to broach and tap. People were starting to arrive and I found myself taking on the role of barkeep, dispensing the free beer and wine, which everyone agreed tasted like Ambrosia ... because it was free. Tom got up on a bench and announced through a bullhorn that the event was open and what its purpose was. As he did so, an ominous boom of thunder cracked overhead. Were the Gods not pleased with our piggy sacrifice?

Tom has a shouting match with Thor.

John has a knife fight with Porky.

Soon, the Green was packed to bursting. And everything that had been hoped for came to be. People who normally didn't speak to each other - even though they worked in adjoining buildings - chatted happily. Celebrity and community mucked in together. I spoke to Sean Hughes and David Quantick, Tom's mum Liz (herself a hugely successful writer), a guy from a pizza place, a tube driver and the lovely Claire Broughton, Jimmy Mulville's PA at Hat Trick. My good friend Huw Williams turned up and immediately found himself discussing dog ownership with a lady who owns the offspring of a Cruft's champion. Like the African waterhole, everyone was an equal; all bound together by pork and beer and good spirits. Fantastic. The books quickly disappeared from the sales table and good thing too as the threatened rain came down suddenly and violently. But did the downpour quench our spirits? Hell no. A mediaeval band donned their sackbutts and gitterns and serenaded our gluttony. And a troop of increasingly moist mummers and singers acted out a variety of plays and dances.

The mediaeval band arrives. Tom meets them in ye olde moshe pitte.

I had to leave earlier than I'd have liked but I do live some way out from London and I didn't have the luxury of a London apartment or a nice hotel room. But I came away feeling slightly squiffy and enormously gratified to have been part of something like this.

Chasing ye dragon.

This is surely how book signings should be. This is the kind of event that brings people together and creates community spirit. All you need is some food, some drink and a welcoming handshake and the world becomes a better place.

This, it seems, is the Idle way. I rather like it.

All photographs (c) me.


Michele said...

How fun! I love events where the community comes together like this. And if there's roasted pig...All the better.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Thanks Michele! It was tremendous fun ... and, as a writer, a great opportunity for networking too. Nothing gets people talking like free booze and piggy bits. And they had to talk to me ... I controlled the beer taps!

Anonymous said...

Sounds lovely, but oh alas I am vegetarian! I would love to join in a non-pig-eating event. Any future ones coming up?

Anonymous said...

Thanks to all concerned with laying on this event . Iwas just walking past and ended up having one of the best nights ever ! It would be great if you could make this an annual event , a fitting tribute to the worker's continued struggle !

Stevyn Colgan said...

Thanks Greg - It was a laugh wasn't it? However, I was nothing to do with the event organisation ... I just helped them set up and then ran the bar. But I will pass on your comments to John and Tom. Who knows? May see you there again next year!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Thanks Greg - It was a laugh wasn't it? However, I was nothing to do with the event organisation ... I just helped them set up and then ran the bar. But I will pass on your comments to John and Tom. Who knows? May see you there again next year!