Lunch at the Picadilly by Clyde Edgerton

Valerie MacEwan

Clyde Edgerton, a combination of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, is the quintessential southern storyteller.

Lunch At the Picadilly

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Length: 252
Price: $22.95
Author: Clyde Edgerton
US publication date: 2003-09
He is as entertaining as Reynolds Price isn't.
— Comment overheard after listening to Clyde Edgerton read from his new book, Lunch at the Piccadilly in Greenville, North Carolina

Few writers are able to create outstanding fiction and do a great road show. Clyde Edgerton can. He brings everything he's got to his performances -- both literary and on stage. Those who are fortunate enough to attend a "reading" by Edgerton frequently find themselves doubled over in laughter and wiping tears from their eyes at his quick wit, and tapping their feet to his singing and guitar playing. His band, the Rank Strangers, plays classic Edgerton-composed tunes like "The Safety Patrol Song" and "Fat From Shame" while he reads excerpts from his novels. It's truly a sight to behold. Those who get the chance often come early and stay late when Edgerton's in town.

Edgerton is a southern constant. In 1985, when he published his first novel, Raney, the story of a Free Will Baptist woman married to a liberal Episcopalian, Edgerton created, according to the Atlanta Journal, ". . . one of those rare volumes that causes uncontrollable fits of laughter and makes normally quiet, shy people read passages aloud." Some of us have been appreciating Edgerton's amazing wit and style ever since, in books like Redeye, The Floatplane Notebooks, Walking Across Egypt and others. Edgerton, a combination of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, is the quintessential southern storyteller.

His books and stories aren't without controversy. Maybe Edgerton has always had the ability to turn a situation inside out and present it differently. Maybe he's just tough and funny. Maybe some of that came from being an Air Force pilot in Vietnam and then going on to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Whatever it was, it gave him the edge over other a lot of other southern writers.

Clyde Edgerton

The plot of Raney got Edgerton dismissed from his teaching position at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina (a Baptist institution). You don't screw with or poke fun at Baptists in North Carolina. Edgerton survived and lived to teach another day. He now spends most of his days in Wilmington, NC, teaching creative writing at the UNC branch. And he's writing more of his here-is-the-South -- take it or leave it -- fiction.

Edgerton explains his writing:

I would say life is petty, and I would say that life is at times sublime. It's certainly fun to write about petty things, and it's fun to write about the sublime, if you don't do it too directly. You hope, again, that you're doing something on the page that a reader will respond to. While you can't predict exactly how a reader will respond, you can hope for a kind of response. And the main response I hope for is pleasure. After that, it gets complicated.

In his latest novel, Lunch at the Picadilly, Edgerton sets his characters at the Rosehaven Convalescence Center in the North Carolina town of Listre. These are folks like L. Ray Flowers, a freelance evangelist who wants to start a national movement to unite nursing homes and churches (because of all the empty rooms during the week in churches), or -- as L. Ray would call them -- Nurches of America or Chursing Homes of the United States. There's Beatrice, "the three-wheeled-walker woman," and Lil, who has suffered a bad fall and must live in the convalescence center. Lil is cared for by her bachelor nephew Carl, who has "a heart of gold and the patience of a saint." The story is centered on Lil, who gets bored and causes all hell to break lose in the convalescent center. Yes, folks, Edgerton is at it again.

When Edgerton came to town last month, we knew to arrive early. Rumors of standing room-only crowds had reached our ears. The rumors were right. We knew we were in for a treat as he started to read from Lunch at the Picadilly in a falsetto voice to mimic the main characters, a group of septuagenarian-plus southern women. He even got the facial expressions down pat. As the woman next to me exclaimed in my ear, "I 'bout die when he does that. God, he's funny." Then Edgerton grabbed his guitar and began to sing "The Safety Patrol Song" which is written by two of the book's main characters:

I'd like to be on the safety patrol,
Wear a clean white strap,
Shine my shoes and stand up straight,
And wear a sailor's cap.

I saw Joe at recess.
He told me about his plan
To drop a cherry bomb down the boy's commode.
He wants to be a dynamite man.
But I can't be a dynamite man
Because, as I've been told,
If you drop a cherry bomb down the boys' commode
You can't be on the safety patrol.

Okay, it might lose something written out. Imagine pregnant pauses and a strumming guitar, a southern accent, and a smiling, congenial man, laughing along with the audience as he sings. Imagine, after the reading, elderly men and women, the focus of Lunch at the Picadilly, cutting in line in front of me to get Edgerton's autograph. To talk to him, to tell him he had "Melba to a T" and "I swan, you just knew my mama, I know you did, that story you told about telling Lil she couldn't drive any more, that was my Mama's reaction." Edgerton took it all in stride, said he didn't want to offend anyone by writing a book about the humorous side of growing old, and he was reassured, many times over, that he didn't bother anyone in the least bit.

Edgerton won't provide readers seeking spiritual enlightenment with the light and the way. He's much too flip for that. But, then again, reading Lunch at the Picadilly might just make you think about your Aunt Lizzie or Great Uncle Sam, or even your own parents. You might just see life a little differently. Maybe looking at life through Edgerton's lens will provide insight and wisdom.

As Edgerton's Beatrice says:

I love everybody. I think the whole world needs to change. I think there are too many companies. There's too much business. And on the television, there's too much interference with life. It's like they turned loose a silly sideshow in every house in America. And besides all that, what you say you believe has nothing to do with how you live your life, and how you live your life is what Jesus watches. It's the same with our country. We say one thing, but look at what all these businesses do. And it's no telling what they do overseas where can't nobody see . . ."

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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