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Swellboy on… the Norman Mailer Gala

The tale of the ex-president, the guitarist, and the Indian novelist

Swellboy on… the Norman Mailer Gala

Image: Brijesh Patel

December 17 2011
Nick Foulkes

This year’s Norman Mailer Gala was a triumph, not least because it combined literary seriousness with a sprinkling of glamour and a touch of the pugnacity and audacity that characterised Mailer in life. Among those being honoured was Elie Wiesel, a charming, wise and gentle man who made a quiet, dignified and rather touching speech, which contrasted with his warm-up man, a fiery orator who filled the room with some pretty impassioned rhetoric, the gist of which seemed to be that if one took exception to the actions of the state of Israel, such anti-Zionism was synonymous with anti-Semitism of the sort that was the shame of Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

Then Arundhati Roy got up to receive an award and started laying into America (who knows; maybe she had been given the once-over by the agents of Homeland Security on her way over, as had happened to me) and as far as I recall she said that at the very moment we were sitting tucking into a very pleasant bit of fish, American drones were out bombing children. She then moved on to the iniquities of life in India, its poverty and the fact that there were something like 700,000 troops occupying her neck of the woods in what had once been the jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown.

On the whole she took particular exception to the capitalist system (which I presume in a roundabout way was funding the award she was receiving). She then said how, on her arrival in New York, she had taken herself down to Wall Street to catch the city’s newest attraction, the anti-capitalist protestors. She wound up with one of those brilliant statistics intended to demonstrate that the US was setting a bad example, observing that something like 400 people owned some large percentage of the country’s wealth (among them I think was Mr Wiesel’s warm-up man, although she refrained from mentioning him by name). She then added that India was mimicking the US with 100 people owning some similarly startling percentage of the nation’s riches – I couldn’t help observing to my dinner companions that surely it should be the American capitalists who should be taking their lead from Indian capitalists who, it seemed, were a long way ahead of America when it came to uneven distribution of wealth.

The glamour came from Bill Clinton, who turned up to present an award to Keith Richards for his memoirs. It was, as I believe it is customary to say today, an inspired and brilliant “get”. The former president is a charismatic and self-deprecating speaker, who admitted that his mother-in-law was a great fan of the Rolling Stone and recounted a story of their meeting. Mr Richards balanced gratitude with a rock-and-roll persona and was impressively gracious in inviting his collaborator on the book James Fox on to the stage as well.

And it was the conjunction of president and guitarist that yielded the best lines of the night; the compere of this part of the evening was a witty newscaster who had stood in for Christiane Amanpor who had been called away to cover world events that were taking place elsewhere than the Mandarin Hotel Ballroom overlooking Central Park. He said that both Clinton and Richards’s books were great when read individually but better when read together. He went on to demonstrate, taking the first half of a sentence from Clinton’s book commenting on Condoleezza Rice and finishing with the observation that she went to live in New York with Jimi Hendrix; a sentence about flowers in the White House ended with an observation about the recreational uses of heroin; and so on. It was inspired, and prompted Clinton to observe something along this of, “It made me sound more interesting and him sound more sane.”

And I think that if there is a gala next year, guests will need all the sanity they can lay their hands on as it has been suggested, with some seriousness, that I chair the event with the legendary Taki.

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