Sunday, 28 March 2010

An encounter with a Booker Prize winner?

Last night I had a sureal encounter. The kind of encounter that one can only have on a London street. And because it happened there, I still am not sure whether it was real or not. After a night's girly frivololity with an Accidental Schoolfriend at Piano in High Street Kensington, bellowing out keyboard classics such as "Tiny Dancer" and "Piano Man", I had headed home around 1am. By half one I was pounding home down the Kings Road. Ahead of me a middle-aged man in wellies and a jacket more suited to hunting and fishing than central London plunged towards the road then back on to the pavement, several times. He was clutching something and lurching around in the manner of one who was pretty intoxicated but not yet anticipating how awful he would feel the next morning.

I drew level with him, concerned slightly that he might be about to be crushed beneath the wheels of a speeding car, passing not so far from his fumbling feet. His eyes fixed on me and he lurched towards me. He slurred a greeting and I slowed. "Hello," he said, then something unintelligible about "a lovely young lady". I paused (the man was smashed), "Are you doing alright?" I asked cautiously. We spoke together "I'm totally drunk!" said he. "You do seem a little the worse for wear" I countered. "You're so kind' he responded, to my slightly more delicate allusion to his state.

He clutched my arm and slurred (still grasping whatever it was he was grasping) "I'm trying to get to Putney". Now being a recent Putney emigrant I realised he was going the wrong way. I pointed this out. "I know" he told a spot approximately 6 inches to my left, although I wasn't convinced. "Shall we get you a cab?" I asked. He nodded, thanking me profusely and I began the London taxi cab eye scan, over his tweedy shoulder.

My iPod blared out from around my neck. "What are you listening to?" he asked, gesturing to the dangling ear-buds. I answered truthfully, "Something awful; it's on shuffle at the moment." This seemed to satisfy him. Out of nowhere, "I won the Booker Prize you know" he said. I raised both eyebrows. "Really?". "Yes, really." came back the sozzled reply. "1994...." and then what I remember as "James Kay". I mummured a reply which I hoped was impressed, yet at the same time (given his evidently totally inebriated state), slightly unconvinced. I promised to Google him tomorrow. My eye scan located a free cab. Despite my arm aloft it sailed by. (Although I wondered if its potential plastered passenger had served as a major deterrent.)

Another cab swiftly emerged in the correct direction ("I'm going to Putney, the Lower Richmond Road" - not so far from my own former residence), and I hailed it and gently pushed the gentleman towards it. "1994, Booker Prize...a book called The Life and Times of Michael K was appalling. South African". As he gave his destination to the driver I deemed it safe to head off down my road. I turned halfway down, to check he was safely ensconced, but he had reappeared. Chinos tucked into wellies, jacket flapping, lurching somewhat. Seeing me looking back he yelled something, but Girls Aloud were blaring through my headphones and I didn't hear it. I raised a hand to my head in a military salute to this self-proclaimed literary genius, and he matched my movement, as much as a completely drunk man can.

I got home and Googled the 1994 Booker Prize, which was won by a James Kelman (not so different from "James Kay"). J.M. Coetzee won the prize in 1983 for "The Life and Times of Michael K". The book was indeed South African, but evidently that year's judges did not think the novel appalling. The man I had met on the Kings Road looked nothing like the author's image in that book jacket. But my mystery man looked not entirely dissimilar to James Kelman. Just who had I encountered in the early hours of this morning? And was he truly a Booker Prize winner? Anywhere else I would have been sceptical, and written him off as a drunken wannabe...but here in London, you can never be sure just who you may have bumped into.

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