You Bet Your Life
Jonathan Rendall was given pounds 12,000 to write a book on condition that he gambled every penny. Not only did he lose the money - he very nearly lost his mind
Sunday 14 February 1999
The strings were that I had to gamble the money and write an 80,000-word book about it. Rachel was the editor of a new publishing list. There was no advance for the writing part, but I could keep any bet winnings as I went along. If I lost it all, she still wanted her book. I'd get royalties, but only once my share had passed pounds 12,000 (about pounds 120,000 in sales - outer- fringe bestsellerdom, or about pounds 100,000 more than my last book had made). Rachel clearly thought this idea was a cracker and wanted me to be as excited about it as she was.
I wasn't but I pretended to be. In truth, I had a strange, instant danger vibe about this offer, but, as I said, I'd already decided to say yes. Gambling was not one of my upper-echelon compulsions but I'd done enough to know I'd be odds-on to lose it all and end up writing a book for nothing, especially since Rachel was proposing to issue the pounds 12,000 at a grand a month: slow death.
Plus, from the vainglory artiste point of view, what kind of bookwriter did she think I was? This was a gimmick-book idea; a good one, but still one. There's no money in books unless you're lucky or dead, and there are probably only four worthwhile books, maximum, in any one person. Given this, my own - undoubtedly pretentious - view is that you have to treat each one of the four as an exercise in truth-seeking. Whatever the dimensions of the world you're bookwriting about - big, small, yours or someone else's - you have a duty to try to hunt truth down, however incompe- tently, and to be committed and compulsed to go through serial agony. Going through the agony doesn't make your stuff good, but it's admirable none the less.
Thus, merely on the grounds of artistic integrity, Rachel's idea should have been a non-runner. "When do I start?" I asked her eagerly.
Well, we're all human, and I fancied the respite. As well as my law-student wife, Susie, I've got three young children, an au pair and two cats to take care of. Overheads come into it. I'd lose the 12 grand in the end but I reckoned if I lost it shrewdly, converting enough into winnings as I went along, we'd all survive for a while without my having to do any overhead work at all. I did a bit of fake reconnaissance about the book among the number-crunching fraternity: Derek, my agent; Susie, of course. I could tell they were both dead against. They weren't to know it was too late. I negotiated Rachel down from the year slow-death to three monthly installments and off I went.
It was nice walking around with the gambling wads - thin, elegant wads in the new red fifties, or sometimes fat rolls of twenties and tens. I put the stake wads in my left pocket and any winnings in my right one. I felt like a proper working man for the first time in my life, coming back from the racecourse or the bookies, dipping into the right pocket and putting pounds 30 or pounds 40 on the table. One noble beast won me more than pounds 900. I went straight down to Ipswich and bought three bikes - a sit-up-and-beg for Susie (her choice), a customised green monster for me and a mountain one for the au pair. Just like that. Right-pocket cash. Great. I could see us riding them together on sunny days. They're still in the shed, those bikes. Never used them.
I was quite happy with the bookies/Newmarket/TV-racing routine, but Rachel said she wanted varied material so I had to branch out - football, snooker, blackjack, cricket, anything. Shrewd losses, mind. Derek tipped me one of his other authors for the Booker Prize: Mick Jackson at 6-1, outsider of the field. I'm suspicious of book-prize bets, what with the volatility of the judges, but with Derek's impeccable literary-mafia credentials, you had to take note. I went in with pounds 100. Unfortunately, they gave it to the favourite - Arundhati Roy, nice filly. For all I know, Mick Jackson was a neck second but they don't pay out each-way on the Booker.
I went to the city of the living dead, Las Vegas, and pulled off a big score: a $5,800 win on a Lennox Lewis fight. Strange, that. I thought I'd be elated, but it was the opposite: a tremendous surge of self-loathing at my complicity in the sheer, banal vulgarity of that trembling stack of dollar bills. I was into the third month by then and turning my dread thoughts towards the book-writing. I realised it wasn't just a case of my "going to" lose the money; I had to. Imagine gambling it into huge profits, setting yourself up for life, then crowing about it for 250 pages. The readers - they'd bloody hate you.
Luckily, the Prix De L'Arc De Triomphe horse-race was being beamed from Paris into Caesars Palace lounge the next morning, and I managed to back virtually every runner except the first three in the frame. I lost the fight winnings, and more. I developed a kamikaze roulette system where you put 10 consecutive $100 bets on 13 Black. I lost $1,000 in three minutes doing that in Caesars, just after the Arc. I'd never treated money like that before. I didn't get an exhilarating kick out of the irresponsibility, either. I also soon forgot I was supposed to be losing for the sake of the readers. Rather, an odd neutrality seemed to be guiding my actions, the doomed, expert neutrality of the proper gambler who can accept wins, losses and draws with the same equanimity.
Only when I was down to the last pounds 500 of the whole 12-grand wad, back in England, did my amateurishness resurface. I put the whole pounds 500 on one horse, mainly because I liked its name. You just don't do that. But, my God, standing there by the windswept Newmarket rails, how I wanted that noble exploited beast to re- deem me. It didn't, of course. They never do when you really want them to. Why should they? I retreated wadless to the study and began struggling with the gimmick book.
It was then that John came into my life and said he wasn't having any. John was my narrator. He slid into my head one day wearing his trademark lounge-lizard green suit and took over. I'd heard of narrators taking over authors' brains before but, to be honest, I'd never believed it. I'd thought: nutters. In Vegas, if you go into any of the hotels and casinos, your every thought and action is offset by the same soundtrack, the massive, deadening roar of slot machines. It seems to reach into every pore. I suppose that's what having a narrator is like, except John could be both louder and quieter, as he chose.
In retrospect, it's an interesting neurological experience, having a narrator. But at the time, it was simply a bewildering and inescapable reality. I would try to go for a walk, read a paper, watch television, but find myself unable to: all I could hear was John. I knew he was a truth-seeker and, unlike me, he seemed to get quite close sometimes, so I didn't try to repel him. He told me about a whole new world that had surrounded my vulgar bets, and that really it had been him putting them on anyway, sort of unseen. I couldn't get his story down fast enough.
The problem was, John was also an alcohol-crazed psychotic. His demands were relentless. He demanded that to keep hearing his voice I had to get almost as wrecked as he was. I'd only reached Chapter Four when I was being carted through Casualty at Ipswich hospital for emergency detox. When I came round, Susie was there telling me the book had to stop. There's no arguing with her in those moods, so I knew that I had to escape. I did a lightning series of overhead assignments, borrowed another pounds 1,000 from Rachel (that's pounds 130,000 before I get paid) and legged it out to Greece, to the Peloponnese where my sister and parents live. My parents were away, so it was perfect.
There, John and I got down to the messy business. Weeks went by and I was up to Chapter 12 out of the planned 19. John kept upping the ante but I suspected he would so I was ready. He didn't like me eating because it interrupted his flow. I had to drink two litres of the barrelled pink hyma wine, just getting his love story down. When I say "love" I don't mean the specific object of his love (Carol, a New Orleans table-dancer; coincidentally, I had once known a New Orleans table-dancer myself, though a different one to John's, so at least I could empathise to an extent in certain scenes). No, I mean that was his general message: love. Corny I know it sounds, but I believed him. I saw it.
Of course, John then tossed in a real one-eyed Jack. He said he wanted an extra chapter. I had all the daily wordages worked out, up to Ch 19, and I was at breaking point even then. When I knew there were going to be 20, I must admit I was thrown. My weight had dropped to skeletal and my teeth had turned black. And John was really pouring it on. He was trying to muscle in on the punctuation, and putting in abbreviations as well. My mind was ringing up different combinations of John's sentences so quickly that it felt like a smoking slot machine about to explode.
I don't know what might have happened if an old Greek crone, Mamma Kapsis, whom I'd never met before, hadn't taken pity and started to deliver food parcels. My mother came back, sized up the scene and cooked more strength into me, with heroic determination. I was on Ch 18, John was firing both truth barrels and I was hitting the hyma through the night with a streetwise stray dog called Molly at my feet for luck. But I had to escape again, because there are certain immutables in life and one is: you don't act like that with your mum around.
I went to Athens and a rambling old hotel called The Ambassador to do 19 and 20. I was a tad delirious by then, crazee mental, even seeing a star at night could make me cry with joy; and, as he spoke them, the final words of John's story fell softly on to the page like love auras. That's how it seemed to me at the time, anyway. When, at 2am one night, the young crone who cleaned my room came and sat on my bed wearing only Ann Summers-style underwear, I thought the hallucinations must be beginning. But when I rang my sister she said The Ambassador was a well-known knocking shop so it had probably been true.
I holed up in London for a few days to do revisions and start cold-turkeying. I was at Victoria Station bringing the manuscript to Rachel when the withdrawal tremens kicked in suddenly. I jerked up platform nine like a puppet on speed. There's a surgery on the concourse where they give you five minutes for about 57 quid. I paid my money and saw a doctor. He gave me seven ultra-strength Valiums to see me through the day and told me to book into a ward that night.
Rachel took the MS and began reading it immediately in her office, while I sat opposite liquifying in the Valiums. At about page 20 she looked up and said, "Oh my God, Jonathan, you've written a bloody novel.
"A novel with non-fiction bets," I offered in mitigation.
"It's good, though," Rachel added. Well, thank God for that.
As I got up to go, Rachel's eyes locked on to the pounds 57 pill bottle that was still stuck to my palm. When she locks on to something, there is no letting go. I told her what they were. "You've got to give me one," Rachel said. "I'm sorry, Rachel," I replied, "but I need them all." She grabbed for the pills and we had a minor tug-of-war.
Why, I was saying, Why? "Because I've got to give this speech to the sales conference and I must have one and I need one and I can't face it otherwise," Rachel said.
This sort of incident could conceivably make you boil over, enrage you about the yawning dislocation between publishers and authors, between their perceived agonies and ours. It could make you think you're just a piece of meat to them. But it didn't in my case, because I knew I'd hijacked her book and it would probably have been a real seller, and I liked Rachel and knew she was righteous at heart, just a bit moody, and anyway if someone, anyone, says they like my stuff I'll be their comrade for life, shameless.
So instead I gave her one Valium-ultra from the bottle and said I'd put her in the acknowledgements, then I took a cab to the ward to dump John, because I'd started speaking like him and everything.
That proved somewhat harder than expected. In place of the red fifties, I've now got a pocket-wad of yellow, green and pink Libriums, Tegratols and Klonopins to stop my Myclonic jerks from escalating. They were John's leaving present. Thanks. I lost two teeth to an Ipswich dentist who put his shoe on my chest for leverage, and as for those gorgeous evening G- and-Ts I used to enjoy - forget it. Forever. I'm not complaining, though. The teeth weren't front ones, and I can still do Lite beers and a few wines. Mad, sad John gave me a glimpse of truth and love, at least I think he did, so it's a more than fair trade- off.I just worry about whether I got his story down correctly.
Anyway, I fully expect sales to reach pounds 130,001 and earn me 100 new pence. I've got the green bike, plus the other ones, and, though at present they may be covered in a film of dust, we - Susie, me and the au pair, with the children in between on their three-wheelers - can take them out on any sunny day we choose. On top of all that, there's the gambling to think of. I'm still doing it, using my expertise and experience, no amateur slip-ups. I've continued to accumulate regular losses - but always shrewdly, properly and with utter equanimity. I can, for instance, tell you that despite his unlucky fall a fortnight ago, a horse called Unsinkable Boxer (20-1) is a cert to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March because ... well, because he's got to, hasn't he, with a brilliant name like that?
'Twelve Grand', a novel, is published by Yellow Jersey Press, price pounds 10
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