In the footsteps of Twain

In the footsteps of Twain

An invite to speak at a prestigious club sends Michael Jackson in search of a literary giant

Musings with Michael Jackson | 14 Apr 2006 | Issue 55 | By Michael Jackson

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Did the letter really say: “Our club’s past speakers have included Mark Twain.” Yes it did. Would I now accept their invitation to speak? I can imagine no request less resistible.Before I had reached the end of the sentence, I was saying yes. I was talking to myself. My assent fell from my lips and whisked itself into the opened envelope on my desk. I took it out again. It was a real letter, typed on paper. I read it again.I must remain cool, keep my fingers away from the keyboard. Twain did not have to deal with email, a means of communication so instant that it invites hasty judgment. Except that the judgment was already made. Why hesitate?Why worry about seeming too eager? Because, as a Yorkshireman, I have an innate sense of pessimism. I am afraid, even as an atheist, to tempt the gods. If I do, something will go wrong.The gracefully written letter came from the Lotos Club of New York. Would I care to visit them next time I was in the city. Of course I would. The club occupies a brownstone formerly owned by the Vanderbilts, on East 66th and 5th, alongside Central Park.It is, self-evidently, long established, and has a literary flavour. Its invitation would have been given serious consideration without Twain. No doubt the writer of the letter felt that, having Twain as an endorsement, the club might as well benefit.I could, at least for a moment of self-indulgence, pretend otherwise. I could collude with my own vanity, look in the bathroom mirror (to rehearse my speech, of course) and tell myself that I was considered a catch worthy of Twain. There was the further reflected glory of doing a job that had previously done by Twain. I could climb in to his shoes, though I certainly would not be able to fill them.Lest I think that its better days were behind, the club had also cited Tom Wolfe. The Bonfire of Vanities seemed an apt rubric for the burning behind my brow. Wolfe’s ‘New Journalism’ was often cited when I wrote for Oui magazine in the 1970s, but I don’t think I ever hacked the style. Back then, I was writing about drugs, sex and rock’n’roll. Today, as you may have noticed, I write about beer and whisk(e)y. Before I discovered either of them, I had lost myself in the pleasures of Twain, his imagination and the simple human warmth of his writing. Now, seeking insoles to pad his shoes, I racked my memory for references to whiskey, and found none.Twain was erudite without the internet, but that was no reason for me to abstain. I Googled ‘Twain Whiskey’ in search of apposite quotes.A link took me to TastyBrew.com. The first quote from Twain was a striking metaphor, albeit about beer: “The house was as empty as a beer closet in premises where painters have been at work.” The very next quote was attributed to one ‘Michael Jackson, The Beer Hunter’.It said: “They didn’t trademark everything back then. Now someone farts and they put a TM after it. Even Miller Lite says ‘AFine Pilsner Beer’ on the label. It is a crime.” Not so much reflected glory as immediate proximity: but simply because the writers were listed alphabetically by forename.Further Googling revealed Twain taking a walk-on part in an ad for Old Crown Bourbon. It also displayed a label for a Mark Twain Bourbon, made in Bardstown. In his attempts to simplify spelling, Twain described our alphabet as ‘being drunk on whiskey’. He also suggested that literary property should be ‘as sacred as whiskey’. Whoever thought intellectual rights was a new hot topic?On my night at the Lotos, I found myself in declamatory form, over the smoked salmon marinated in Oban; the duck in Knockando sauce; the lamb shank with Glenfarclas. The audience seem to enjoy themselves, too.Did I say anything worthy of Twain? I Google in vain, but a group of Jewish members told me that they met for a pre- Sabbath drink on Friday nights, and read texts ‘From The Malt Whisky Companion’.
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