Jonathan Rendall: 1964-2013
Author of three books, and countless newspaper columns for The Times and the Observer, Jonathan Rendall detailed the lives of bookmakers, gamblers, snooker players, boxers, trainers, and dedicated drinkers. Rendall was cut from the same chaotic cloth as writers like Jeffrey Bernard and Hunter S Thomson; editors nightmares but also alternative heroes, or confidantes, for readers who can relate to the complexly pathetic and wantonly wild moments that define certain lifestyles.
Jonathan David Rendall was born in Oxford, 1964 and was taken into care 38 days after being born. Weeks later Jon and Jay Rendall adopted him, and he was brought up in Ashstead, Surrey, where he attended Downsend Prepatory School, until the age of 14, when the family moved to Greece, and his adoptive father was a bookseller who rather improbably switched from selling academic books to Mills & Boons.
In later life, Rendall, aged 34, eventually tracked down his real mother, then living in Devon. The experience of this search formed the loose spine of his last published book in 2006, the powerfully sad ‘Garden Hopping’. As with all of Rendall’s work, it may not be a completely truthful account of events, but he was very much a man and law unto himself in this respect.
Rendall’s writing here displayed his customary honesty showing a grief that doesn’t speak, that severs ties, and burns bridges, and yet was deeply tender and painfully heartfelt. It showed a compelling form of confusion, that was neither fully confessional, nor guarded, but something closer to a slippery witness to his own self-mythology.
His parents suffered from money problems in Greece – financial worries would plague Rendall for the rest of his life. But they still found the money to send him to boarding school at St Johns School, Leatherhead. It was ‘a terrible place’, he said, but it was where he began his drinking career and met his lifelong friend, and partner in shenanigans Chris Reilly.
Making friends was never a problem for Rendall; but he could not master, or even understand, the behaviour expected in an english boarding school.
Unsurprisingly, he did not last long at St Johns, and at 15 the headmaster had had enough of his stubborn ill-discipline and he was sent back to his parents in Greece.
He would later return to England and complete a history degree at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he also met his future wife Susie. They married in 1988 when Rendall was 24, and she, a year younger. Together, they bore three children, but seperated in 2000. Already a keen cricket and rugby fan, it was at Oxford, where his deep-rooted love affair with boxing blossomed. An instant pummelling by a much bigger, more experienced opponent in his one and only fight punctured any idle dreams of actually making it inside the ring.
But he went on to manage the WBO Featherweight champion, Colin McMillan and write the wonderfully titled, ‘This Blood Mary is the Last Thing I Own’ in 1998, which won a Somerset Maughan Award. A sad odyssey, it explored the world of boxing from the unique viewpoint of a man who’d not quite seen it all, but just enough to paint a vivid picture of fighters soured dreams. It was praised to the hilt by both Tom Stoppard and Tom Wolfe, who said it: ‘…puts you inside the battered head of boxing better than anything else I’ve ever read. It’s brilliant, and it’s touching and by the time you’ve reached the end, you know exactly what the title means’.
As debuts go, it was a dark diamond of a read and you need not have been a boxing fan to appreciate it’s obvious qualities. The overall effect was pitch-perfect. He wrote with both a highly-defined sense of the absurd and a hard-iron edge.
In his second book, Twelve Grand (2000) the dark ante is upped. Given £12,000 by the publishers Yellow Jersey Press, over a period of three months, at four grand a month, he could gamble it on whatever took his fancy: horses, dogs, boxing. Falling somewhere between Frederick Exley’s raw masterpiece ‘A Fan’s Note’ and a British version of John O’Briens’ swansong, ‘Leaving Las Vegas’, there are times when it felt like you were reading – or even seeing – a man fall apart on the page.
Rendall was always an enemy of cliche in his writing, and towards the final third, with the Jon character gripped in the clench of a decline, actual words became distorted and abbreviated, and it was like reading a text message from Finnegans Wake-era James Joyce: ‘Woke up late, as desird: already used up chunk of day till eve. Cld do w. having someone around to use it up with. Don’t want inne life until eve.’
Unfortunately, like the very best, or very worst form of method writing, Twelve Grand took a lot out of Rendall. The Jon on the page appeared a lot like the Jon in real life: a man who burned the candle at both ends whilst holding a blowtorch to the middle.
Years later he’d tell friends, with a stoic sense of gallows humour, that he was planning on writing a sequel called Twelve Quid. Then, later, as things got worse for him, and his health weakened, 12p. And in typical Rendall fashion, the enthralling drama of Twelve Grand didn’t quite end on page 250.
Inspired by the obvious brilliance of the book, Channel 4 swiftly commissioned an excellent three-part series. Up or down, ecstatic or just plain depressed, Rendall seemed made for TV, even if his personality made that unlikely.
He found another platform with a series of columns aptly entitled ‘The Last Chance Saloon’, written for the Observer Food Monthly.