IN A LAND OF PAPER GODS at Pages of Hackney

March 29, 2016

Last Thursday night saw Rebecca Mackenzie read from her book, In a Land of Paper Gods – a debut which, if you’ve been within five feet of me over the last nine months you will know is something of a favourite. The event took place at the warm and welcoming Pages of Hackney bookshop, happily indoors, away from the Easter weekend’s annual promise of rain.

I was looking forward to the evening, confident of how well Rebecca reads from her book (if you don’t believe me, then do listen to this interview, including a reading, over on the World Service [from 12.18]). Thursday night’s event, however, carried the additional intrigue that she was to be accompanied by her friend, the musician and composer Reynaldo Young. I had little idea of what was to be in store for us all, though was sure it was going to reward its sell-out audience: Rebecca is always pushing boundaries with her creativity – her performances, her writing, her poetry – and each jump into the creative breach is a pleasure to witness. This night was a prime example of this, where Rebecca spellbound the audience, in happy communion with Reynaldo’s musical delights.


‘“The bathroom was filled with it’s very own steam cloud and the green tiled floor was slippery underfoot…”,’ Rebecca began, as Reynaldo matched the scene-setting by playing – wait for it – some sort of cups, on top of an upturned cymbal, on top of a bongo-type-drum, all with a bow. These instruments may actually go by other names, but for the sake of this post these details are obfuscated by the mists atop a Chinese mountain. Aha! Now you can balk at my pretention, not my deficient descriptive skills (both?!).

‘“It was Saturday night, and Saturday night…”,’ pause for effect, ‘“…was bath night.”’ You know when music heralds forthcoming mischief and humour? A playful tune, no less, emanated from Reynaldo’s recently donned guitar, and Rebecca continued her reading, in which our protagonist Henrietta S. Robertson, voices her frustration at having to share a bath with Big Bum Eileen (‘“Big Bum Eileen settled into the bath first and took the tapless end.”’). For my part, I sat on the stairs and listened in with happy familiarity at this acutely observed boarding school scene. But wait! It was the same scene, but not as I know it. Rebecca and Reynaldo veered off the book’s printed page and gave the shop’s audience something surprising and special: a song! To a rock’n’roll bluesy melody Rebecca sang, in character, Etta’s lament at ‘Big Bum Eileen… Big Bum Eileen… She’s the biggest bum I’ve ever seen… Big Bum Eileen’, and so it went on, making mention of Eileen’s big kneecaps (‘bigger than a baby’s skull!’). The seriousness of Rebecca’s performance, and the levity of her song’s subject was cause for much laughter in the audience, no less because Rebecca was joined on stage by a very small audience member – Laleh – who entered stage left, teddy bear in hand, and lorded over the scene with the youthful defiance that would have been found in the very bathroom scene Rebecca was describing.


Rebecca had us captivated: she’s a bewitching presence on stage, and if we shut our eyes, we might have thought we were listening to a Radio 4 dramatisation, such was the quality of the spoken word and its accompanying score.

That the performance played around with the book’s form wasn’t the only happy surprise of the evening. It turned out that several of Rebecca’s old school friends from her time in Malaysia had conspired together to surprise her at the event and, on top of this, two alumni from Chefoo Missionary School – a photo from which was one of Rebecca’s inspirations from the book – came along, too.

@ SOAS Library, China Inland Mission, Chefoo School Papers

© SOAS Library, China Inland Mission, Chefoo School Papers


So, a lovely evening in all, for which Tinder Press would like to extend a very many thanks to Jo and the team at Pages of Hackney; to Reynaldo Young for playing so princely; and of course to Rebecca, whose creativity we feel so lucky to be able to enjoy. More of this please. And more of Etta*.


Want to learn more about Rebecca’s portfolio? Proof that Rebecca’s star is ascending can be found here.


*When quizzed on whether Rebecca was planning on writing more on Etta and her life beyond the end of In a Land of Paper Gods, Rebecca admitted that she still has questions herself about the goings-on of Etta’s life, ‘which is a good place to start.’ Without Etta’s ability for prophecy, the Tinder Press team will simply have to nod emphatically in agreement.


By Ella Bowman


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