WORD Christchurch: David Mitchell’s Utopia

WORD Christchurch's 2021 festival has been postponed until later in the year due to Covid-19 restrictions. Dates and times mentioned in this post are no longer current.

"Can you sing?"

"Better than Archie Kinnock."

David Mitchell is a lyrical writer. His latest book, Utopia Avenue, is written like a concept album: Utopia Avenue is the name of an imaginary band, and each chapter is a song title in their life and times.

Utopia Avenue

I loved this book. What a rollercoaster! I laughed, cried and hoped for the band's success, surfing the waves of their rise to fame and enjoying the ride.

Utopia Avenue is a real trip - down memory lane. Set in 1967, it reads like a who's who of the Summer of Love - peaking at a music festival in San Francisco; awfully similar to Woodstock. 

At WORD Christchurch this year, Mitchell will be beaming in to the Christchurch Town Hall to collaborate with our very own musical star, Hollie Seabrook, aka Tiny Ruins, who, in my opinion, is in the realm of Joan Baez and Patti Smith.

"Bees perused the clover. Lines of birdsong got tangled up. ...The blossom outside the window is heartbreakingly beautiful. ...A thin sheet of cloud is stretched tight across the sky. The sun shines through, like a torch."

Utopia Avenue is proof that Mitchell is more than capable of writing songs - his knowledge of the process of song-writing and playing instruments is impressive. I could see many examples in this text that could easily be turned into lyrics. 

Similarly, Mitchell's knowledge of the stars of that era, and the way they composed their music is incredibly in depth, which is odd, because Mitchell, like me, was born in 1969. Either he's making it up, or has read a heck of a lot of biographies.

This powerful story is divided into sections labelled like an album sleeve - with the chapters listed as song titles. Each chapter tells the back-story of the songs written by three of the characters: Elf (the only girl in the band), Dean (the heart-throb rhythmic bassist) and Jasper de Zoët, the mysterious and gifted guitarist. Griff, the drummer, who will for forever in my mind look (and sound) like Ringo Starr, also gets to tell his story, though he isn't writing the lyrics.

Elf Holloway, the female keyboard player in Utopia Avenue, is a vehicle for a discourse on sexism and equalism in the music industry, as well as her sexuality. She fights for her voice and ideas to be heard, and the right to love a woman. Her talent proves to the others that she is more than their equal, engaging with the rising emancipation of women in this era.

' I've been here before....Dream-lit snow, or swirling blossom, or filigree moths...a street sign...on a wall...Jasper closes his eyes. Words emerge from memory-hiss. "Utopia Avenue." '

With Jasper, Mitchell brings in his signature themes of spirituality, duality, reincarnation and predestination. It's no coincidence that this character bears the family name of de Zoët; the name of the protagonist in the wonderful The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoët.

Ride this book out long enough and the mysteries of Jasper's sub-plot will be revealed. Mitchell manages to keep the reader on the edge a number of times, messing with your head and emotions - and you still won't guess the outcome.

Along the way, Utopia Avenue meet everyone from David Bowie and Marc Bolan (who is excluded from a party because he isn't cool enough) to Alan Ginsberg, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia. I'm struggling to think of anyone he left out!

David Mitchell appears at WORD Christchurch with Hollie Seabrook in If I Were a Story and You Were a Song on Saturday 28 August, where he will respond to Hollie's music with writing, and Hollie responds to unpublished work of Mitchell's, with music.

Is Mitchell related to Joni? I'm hoping for questions at this session.

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WORD Christchurch 2021

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