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

by Austin Collings
7 February 2013 19 Comments

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

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.

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

jonhotten 2:24 pm, 27-Jun-2011

all true, Twelve Grand is a wonderful book, as is This Bloody Mary. He also wrote a memoir about his adoption called Garden Hopping, which has a brilliant, oedipal scene where he meets his real mother, also a drinker. 'Now you know where you get it from', she tells him... He had a piece in the independent the other day, so hopefully he's writing again.

Paul 3:05 pm, 28-Jun-2011

Good call Austin, Rendall is a great writer. 12 Grand and This Bloody Mary have cult status among some of my friends. It's well worth tracking down the stuff of his that's online, especially the Observer drink columns mentioned above, plus The Times "Bet Your Life" columns, Sweet Science boxing columns, and sports features for Observer Sport Monthly. It was fascinating tracking his life and career through his columns. At one point he was working as a postman. Haven't seen anything new from him for ages. So it was interesting to see from jonhotten that he was in the Independent recently. Love to see him get a regular gig again.

sam 3:09 pm, 28-Jun-2011

Seem to remember a fairly decent sized wedge going on scratch cards in The Gambler, for a return of about 30 quid.

Newfield Chris 8:45 pm, 22-Sep-2011

Just finished reading Twelve Grand and it was outstanding. A tale of a man descending into a personal hell, a comrade. Gonna have to track down his other stuff and force this one on all my mates.

stephen 2:05 pm, 7-Feb-2013

RIP fella. Anybody know where we can watch 'the gambler' again

Bob Dibble 10:42 am, 8-Feb-2013

An unfulfilled talent no doubt. The boy could really write about these themes. There was an obit which appeared in yesterday's Times (7th Feb) but no attention from any of the other papers apparently. It would seem that things slid badly for him in the last 10 years or so. There were hints of that in his columns for the Times and Observer but, as was typical of him, little concrete detail. Apparently he suffered a period of partial blindness and disability after been hit by a car. His last years were spent in relative poverty in Suffolf. In retropect I think his work will be seen as a protracted attempt to articulate and negotiate his own demons. A quest he ultimately failed in.

Fin59 10:43 pm, 8-Feb-2013

If you pursue darkness then it can swallow you into itself

Sue Martin 1:55 pm, 9-Feb-2013

In Jonathan's case...Life held all the Demons...a fragile wine glass became his emotional wheelchair. The Demons grew greater as the years passed by, thus more time was spent in the comfort and support of this wheelchair.

Bob Dibble 5:58 pm, 10-Feb-2013

Numerous appreciations appeared in the papers over the weekend. Been reading his old Last Chance Saloon columns online. An added poetic resonance to those sad words now we know what came to pass.

David Webb 7:34 pm, 20-Feb-2013

RIP Jonathan Rendall

Nathalie Elesia 2:03 am, 3-Mar-2013

How did Johnathan Rendall die? did he kill himself because it said grim circumstances.

Beaumont Goose 6:26 pm, 5-Mar-2013

I was really excited to see 'The Gambler' on More4 on Saturday, as I remembered the original screening with great fondness. I was shocked to hear of his death though, when the announcer was introducing the show. Watching it again 10 years on, I'm not surprised by his demise. He was a bundle of nervous energy, very much on the edge, but totally compelling to watch. I'm sorry he seemed to suffer in recent times, but I'll always think of him when I see the terrible clubs in Great Yarmouth. RIP Fella

frankie b 2:02 am, 11-Mar-2013

rip jonathan rendall

jonny Kane 10:44 am, 13-Mar-2013

Never heard of jonathan rendall untill i seen he gambler recently on more4. Took me a few episodes to see that he had died but only took me one to be intrigued by the man. definitly sort of bloke you would love to have a few drinks with. Going to buy the book today

Beth donnelly 1:17 pm, 18-Mar-2013

RIP Jonathon...

Fi 12:23 am, 25-Mar-2013

If anyone knows where Twelve Grand is, can you email me? So hard to find!

DTK Molise 6:04 am, 19-May-2013

I've just finished Twelve Grand and have been going through his Observer columns. He was a great writer that focused on life's ups and downs through sports, drinking, loving and losing. Yellow Jersey Press are republishing Twelve Grand later this year, which is well worth buying for yourself and friends. Maybe his family and kids might get a few quid as a result.

Howard Cunnell 7:10 pm, 11-Jul-2013

This is a fine tribute to a wonderful writer. I hope you don't mind me leaving a link to an interview with Picador editor Kris Doyle in which I talk a little bit about Rendall's work: http://www.picador.com/Blogs/2013/7/Podcast-Howard-Cunnell-recommends-two-authors-you-should-add-to-your-reading-pile

Ezra 1:10 am, 22-Nov-2013

The Gambler is now available on 4oD. It is truly marvellous.

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