Books England

Bright Lights, Big City

Yesterday afternoon I made good on my commitment to book a vacation somewhere new, and in September husband and I will ride bikes around Provence for a week. It is neither exotic nor adventurous —to a middle class Brit it might be the American equivalent of a visit to Napa —but I have read all those Peter Mayle books and it’s one of those places I would regret not having seen if we move back to the states. It turns out there was a much cheaper alternative to making me feel a little less staid and stuck. All it took was a trip to London and an £8 admission ticket to Book Slam, where I got to spend a few hours in spitting distance of a disgusting amount of talent and creativity, enough to leave me basking in its reflected glory.

It was a chore convincing husband to stay in London on a Thursday night, traditionally reserved for his weekly exodus from the city, but Zadie Smith was reading and I prevailed. Ms. Smith would have been quite enough talent for one evening. Preceding her, however, was the lovely singer songwriter Obenewa who looked exactly like a black version of my friend Samantha, also a singer songwriter. Obenewa’s mother was sitting in front of husband and seemed pleased at his whooping for her talented daughter. She even helped him spell Obenewa’s name when husband posted a photo of her on Facebook. Next up was Akala, a young MC accompanied only by a pianist, which made me think why hasn’t anyone else thought of that? He was 26 and charmingly self-possessed, and half way through his first number a woman in the audience wailed a marriage proposal at him from across the room, giving voice to what I suspect much of the femaled dominated audience (single men of London take note) was thinking.

And then there was Ms. Smith, reading an essay from her new book about her father and British comedy and death and her brother. I was glad it featured Basil Fawlty and Monty Python, which made it feel custom tailored for husband. I had been worried he’d be bored out of his mind at this kind of thing, even though by the time Zadie Smith got up to read he had long been won over. Book Slam had him at Obenewa. Ms. Smith’s brother, the former rapper turned stand-up Doc Brown, closed the show with a full-length routine. We thought about leaving before he started because we were hungry and I assumed he would be, well, not very good. I mean surely he was only there because he was Zadie Smith’s brother. I was fully prepared to cringe, and I did for all the right reasons when he told the story of how he couldn’t take himself seriously as a rapper anymore after he sucked snot out of his baby girl’s nose because she didn’t know how to blow it yet. That and a rap song about how he wished David Attenborough — the British equivalent of Marlin Perkins on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom — was his grandfather were enough to convince me there is just way too much talent in the family Smith.

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