The Hit Squad, London, 23-26 May 2015
Honorary and Associate Members
It all started rather well. The delivery man, whose van was loaded with a pallet of 150 books, was somewhat dismayed to find that he had to unload them by hand at Anna’s house in Clapham. But Anna helped him – and then gave him a book. “He must have said ‘Wow!’ about fifteen times. And ‘Thanks for the gift.'” He’d probably never been given anything from his deliveries before.
It carried on like that. Peter is a Greek with a lock-up overflowing with tat at the end of Anna’s road. According to him, he’s a big property owner and secret millionaire but, rather strangely for a property tycoon, he spends every day surrounded by drunks and ne’er-do-wells. One of them is his son, Tom, who has some poetry on a mental health charity website. The title: Diary of a Paranoid Schizophrenic. Another is Roy Peerless. “‘Roy’ means ‘king’, you know.” He’s a musician, and when Anna told him that I knew someone from Pink Floyd, his response was immediate. “That song ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ is about me. I knew the Floyd in the old days. They used to hang out with Antoinette and Michelle Gow.” Anyone with knowledge of these two, please contact me.
Roy reeked of booze. Not so Charles, another musician, whom Anna and Ellie met at the bus stop. “He’d seen better days,” according to Anna. “You know, grey teeth.” But he wanted a book – they all did – so they all got one.
Anna and Ellie then went to Amy Winehouse’s house, where there’s a memorial tree with messages and photos attached to it, and left a book there. “There was an ambulance in permanent attendance in case of sympathetic suicides,” says Anna, “and as we left, I looked back and saw the ambulance man get out and pick up the book.”
The celebrity/memorial theme was pursued, quite independently, by Zac and Mike, who left books outside the houses of Gilbert and George and Bertrand Russell. (Well, they thought they’d found G&G’s house because when they looked through the spy-hole, they could see a line of Greek and Roman statuettes. But G&G never got the book because some German tourists came along and took it. And quite right, too.)
Zac and Mike also placed a book at a memorial to Rik Mayall: a traffic island in Hammersmith, featured in the credits for Bottom. I slipped a copy under the locked gate of Vivienne Westwood’s house in Clapham, with a note that read, ‘Hello, Vivienne. You’re on pp.78,158,178.’ It had disappeared a couple of days later, though we don’t know if it was taken by Vivienne herself, her cleaner, a fan with very long arms or the Bomb Squad. I’d be happy with any of those.
If we look at this set of well-known types, we have
Amy – singer and composer
Bertie – mathematician and philosopher
G&G – ‘artists’
Rik – comedian
Vivienne – fashionista
– all of them subversive. Very hit-like.
And so is Samuel Beckett. There’s a bust of him in the London Irish Centre, which Anna and Ellie passed and went in because there was a Buddhist conference there. So they left a book with Sam (who’s in The Hit).
So far, then, we’ve had a delivery man, assorted drunks and some celebrated subversives. We’ve also got hairdressers: Morena, Lola’s friend, is Albanian and has put a book in her mother’s salon for customers to read. Rupert took ten books for non-dualists he knows – and one of them is a Polish hairdresser. And Lola and Lucy gave one to Carol, who snips locks at Willy Smart’s.
The Hit was left in cafés, pubs, bus stops, parks, music centres, a flower shop and a bakery, as well as a phonebox in Lewisham which acts as a sort of book exchange. Musicians and composers of various sorts – those drunks, plus a Cambridge professor – have also been given a copy. Lola took two for the music department at her school.
Alfie and Vince played Knock Down Ginger – subversive boys knock on doors and then run away and hide – in Grafton Square, leaving a book outside the door. Lola gave a couple of books to neighbours. Not to mention Johnny Fewings.
I visited a number of independent bookshops, some of them crammed with teetering piles, others all laid out and expensive. The owners seemed pleasantly surprised – but not all of them. “Would you like a free gift?” I asked a somewhat hefty lady behind the counter in a shop near Soho. “Nah,” she said without a second’s thought.
When I gave a copy to the café round the corner, I asked the man if he was the owner.
“Well, I pay the bills.”
“Would you like this book?”
“Why you giving it to me?” (Please supply the Eastern European accent.)
“It’s for your customers to read.”
“Well, I don’t know…”
“It’s worth forty pounds.”
“FORTY POUNDS! Thank you very much.”
Hester played it by ear, eye and ‘feel’: ‘They look as if they’d like it.’ ‘That bus stop is just right.’ That sort of thing. In fact, most of the books were left for anyone to find. These anonymous copies had two slips inside. One said THIS IS A GIFT. IF YOU WANT IT, YOU CAN HAVE IT – so that people wouldn’t feel uneasy about taking it. The other was from Anson and said that the event had been filmed, and interested persons could contact his company, Banyak Films, if they had any observations. (And one person already has – see below.)
Alfie and Vince helped me on Saturday. Actually, they did most of the work. We chose tube carriages that were relatively empty, and they left copies at one end while we waited at the other to see if anyone picked the book up. Several did and it was what in common parlance is called a quiet thrill.
On Tuesday evening, someone Anna knows was walking by her house as she opened the door to go out. “Hey, Dermot,” she said, “I’ve got something for you” – and she gave him a book. “Wow!” he said. Remember that delivery man and his fifteen Wow’s, who kicked the whole thing off? Well, Dermot – a property developer who really is a millionaire – brought it to a close.
So there you have it. A large, brightly-coloured book with deranging content suddenly appears and is fed into London’s bloodstream. We know that French, German, Armenian, Polish and Slovenian types have been touched by it. It has been given to musicians, choirmasters, professors and various layabouts. It has been left in a yoga centre, a community centre, a music centre and a recording studio. There are plans to take it to Glastonbury, the City, Bonhams (the posh auctioneers) and the waiting room of a prostate specialist in Harley Street. (“It’s full of men of a certain age and they need something to read apart from Viz and the Economist.”)
The whole project is an instance of what Zac calls ‘guerilla gifting’ (though when he said that, I heard ‘gorilla gifting’ – an easy mistake to make; but if you see a gorilla walking down the street with a copy of The Hit under his arm, do let me know).
The Hit Squad is in the tradition of the 17th- and 18thcentury pamphleteers. It is, of course, a somewhat speculative venture and reminds me of a remark by Ogden Nash: Expecting to make money from poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.
But quality is never small (The Hit, p.115). And this takes us to the person who read Anson’s slip and contacted him:
Dear Author, Thank you for The Hit! In response to your note, I sat down on a bench at Clapham North tube and saw the book there. I was about to take it upstairs to hand it in when I noticed the note…My name is Simmy, I’m 30, work as a doctor and have a passion for music and fashion. I came across your wonderful book in a very hungover state after a little debaucherous evening at the chiltern firehouse. I was on my way to meet friends for breakfast and a Bloody Mary. So the book was very appropriate to how I was feeling. Rock’n’roll! Ha ha! I can’t wait to read it. Thank you. Sincerely, Simmy Kaur
Every book has its own fate, as a wise man once said. I am delighted with everyone’s response, large and small, to the Hit Project. It is a form of love – and that’s what we all want.