Jonathan Rendall: The Greatest Gonzo Writer You've Never Heard Of

Jonathan Rendall recently passed away after a hedonistic life, and if you've never read his work then you're in for a treat...
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Jonathan Rendall recently passed away after a hedonistic life, and if you've never read his work then you're in for a treat...

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Opening up with an ominously choice quote by Jimmy White, ‘That is a complete liberty. That is rubbish. I never done 30 grand at cards in my life. My downfall was horses.’, Jonathan Rendall’s overlooked, and – let’s be honest – forgotten, and likely never touched, thumbed, read, perused, or victimised by lax spillage/s, ‘Twelve Grand’, is a book of brutal truths and wild lies. And, on occasion, it’s hard to tell the difference. But that doesn’t matter. Not when you can write as well as Rendall.

Published in 2000, it was swiftly followed by a 3-part Channel 4 TV series called ‘The Gambler’, that is still unavailable on-or-off-line. This, in it’s own unique, warped way makes it all the more exciting in these barmy times of the readily available; now it’s left to my memory to re-conjure it’s touching brilliance.

As with the publishers of the book (Yellow Jersey Press), Rendall – who was by no means a professional gambler, but a jobbing journalist with one (very good) book (‘This Bloody Mary is the Last Thing I Own’) to his name - was handed an ‘advance’ of twelve grand, over a period of twelve months – at a grand a month. And he could flunk it, or profit from it, on whatever took his fancy: horses, dogs, fights, football etc. After that, it was up to him to tell the story both on the page and on TV.

The book is a lost great along the same despairing lines as Frederick Exley’s, ‘A Fan’s Note’. The second-half of which is written in a style that falls somewhere between modern text-speak, and the modernist James Joyce circa ‘Potrait of the Artist as a Young Man’:

“Not going tonight. Go tomorrow. Drank too much on flight. Be too wrecked and felt no poss. of exud. skin...Had quick glance around room for unvarnished wood in case of jitters and poss. Vonze attack. Plenty unvarn. round edge of window frames. Won’t be needing it anyway due to slow-drip.”

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It’s relentless and compelling; as if he’s seeing everything for the first time, or for the very last time. You’re in deep with a man in the clench of a decline. These are the drinkers nightmares, and daymares. Too many things – disparate things at that – start going wrong. It becomes accumulative. One trainwreck mimics another. He’s making his way down the swanny, on his uppers; journeying to the end of himself.

This wounded tone of his continued in a short monthly column he once wrote for The Observer Food Monthly supplement (before it became ridiculous and small-minded, like the actual newspaper). It was a must for me; bearing titles like ‘The Man who looked like Richard Gere’. Some of them are still available online. But as with all-too-many pieces of work born from such reckless charm, it was never going to be a main-stay, because it was never meant to live that long; not with a name like ‘Last Chance Saloon’. And so it was canned, for unknown reasons.

One piece, entitled ‘Time, gentleman please...’ stands tall in my memory. He returns to his (temporary) local pub (in Lowestoft) after Christmas, orders an ale, plots up at his usual seat, acclimatises to the fire and lull of the mid-day pub, and then finds himself engaged in null-talk, that soon leads to him hearing double-news of the landlord’s bereavement and the impending closure of the pub. He tries to take it in; scans the interior, in a futile, mawkish attempt to tattoo it’s memory in his head before its days are numbered. And then, seeing sense, he leaves.

Back in his car, mulling over the news, he switches on the radio and the plaintive, melancholic strains of David Bowie’s ‘Quicksand’ take hold. He wells up; fleetingly unconsolable, until he knows he must crack-on and drive away. This to me is the beauty of Rendall – and it is a form of beauty, the world in which he inhabits and documents. And not because it’s overlooked (which it is), or romantic (which it is again at times), but simply because it exists, right there, in front of our mushes.

Similar to Jeffrey Bernard’s ‘Spectator’ and ‘Sporting Life’ columns, you’re reading somebodies bruises in print. And it borders on self-pity at times – make no mistake Rendall and Bernard can wallowbut it’s executed with consummate style and a doomed drinkers wit that rescues their best work from the debilitating trappings of a bog-standard misery memoir. The evident grimness is elevated. Style is the difference. Those two had/have it in spades.

The TV series was much the same: Rendall at the track, veins bulging in his neck like old thick ropes; nothing doing; no dice; one more loser; and then back in the pub, studying the form (in the truest sense of that misleading and darkly ironic phrase).

In one scene, he wakes up in America after a long, long day and night, only to find he’s missing a shoe. The pain on his face is a moment of sickening gallows-humour that resonated with me back then, ten years ago, even though I was only 20 – and the memory of it still resonates. The eyes have it; and it that one scene his seem to weaken, and wear the sad signs of life’s battering. The stupidity of truth is hard to overcome.

Last I heard of Rendall came in the form of an aborted book for Harper Collins. The subject: Mike Tyson. I’d like to think it would have been every bit as stunning as ‘Twelve Grand’; because a talent like Rendall’s deserve’s protecting; even if that means weathering his, at times, shambolic behaviour; and that goes for countless other people (friends of mine even), who have recently found themselves on the dole dung-heap due to their thirst or uncompromising attitudes or general bad luck. They should be looked-out for.