Much oil has flowed under the bridge, and into the hands of Western businessmen, since Rob Newman filled Wembley Stadium with David Baddiel
What a ruddy nice bloke! Nobody has a bad word to say about Rob Newman. He is affable, unassuming and self-deprecating. The only hint of steel beneath his charm offensive comes when he is asked how his flight was.
The temperature drops palpably as he reminds his interlocutor that he arrived by ferry. He italicises the word, frostily. He takes his eco-politics seriously, does Newman, presumably still trying to off-set the carbon skid-marks from his riding a motorised skateboard around the Wembley stage back when comedy was the new rock ‘n’ roll and Newman and erstwhile partner David Baddiel its unlikely 'glimmer twins' (see video below).
In fact, what Newman refers to as 'the Petroleum Interval' is why we’re here in the first place: this Out To Lunch gig at the Black Box is Newman's first public outing in promotion of his new book, The Trade Secret: a rollicking, swashbuckling romp about the discovery of oil, coffee and the efficacy of carrier pigeons in Persia.
It is centred on the true story of the Sherley brothers, Sir Anthony and Thomas: respectively the first ambassador to the court of Shah Abbas the Great and a remarkably inept pirate.
The gestation period of the book was lengthy. Newman has been writing it since 2006, and the research overlapped with his live show of that time, A History of Oil (see video above), often performed in tandem with fellow agit-prop comedian, Mark Thomas.
A mixture of stand-up and an introductory lecture on geopolitics, Newman then argued that 20th century western foreign policy, including the First World War, should be seen as a continuous struggle by the West to control Middle Eastern oil.
These ideas are also central to The Trade Secret, which is in some ways a companion piece: if A History of Oil was about the end of the viable use of oil for energy Newman new book is about the beginning of that journey.
Newman's staccato and slightly lisping delivery will be familiar to fans of his early 1990s character comedy, but what surprises most is that he is not a great reader. He reads the text as if coming across it for the first time and doesn’t recognise the rhythm, cadence or even the plot. He doesn’t seem to know where to put his tongue once it’s out of his cheek.
Admittedly this is his first public reading for the book, but you’d think he would have glanced over the text before taking to the stage: perhaps on the ferry crossing over. He’s far more relaxed and engaging when he appears to be speaking off the cuff, dispensing the fascinating nuggets his research has gleaned. He is, after all, a stand-up comedian: it is his day job and he’s good at it.
And Newman likes to show his working; the marginalia is writ large here. He reveals that before bussing the Pilgrim Fathers to America the Mayflower had already had a lengthy career as a slave ship. And, though I can find no evidence for his claim that Mithraic was the official language of England – or even that it was a language at all – I’ll have to bow to his superior knowledge. I haven’t spent six years in the British Museum.
The Trade Secret culminates in an historical occupation of St Paul’s Cathedral. Newman is at pains to point out that this really happened, and that he wrote it years before Occupy London did the same thing. 'If you’re writing a book set 400 years ago,' he says, dryly, 'you don’t expect to get caught out by topical events.'
He stutters and misreads his way through the text but it works with his bumbling, Englishman abroad schtick. He asks for questions but none are forthcoming, so he ratchets the bafflement right up and plunges back into the book again.
And I’m glad he does. His final sequence, taken from the end of the book (but not right at the end – no spoilers here) finds his young protagonist, Nat Bramble, trapped in a flour mill on the river Thames by the dastardly Thomas Sherley.
It is fast paced and tautly written, and Newman finally finds his rhythm, getting to grips with the accelerated, stripped down prose. This part sounds like a novel and not an accretion of research notes cobbled into a dissertation.
Finally there is a question from the floor – and it’s about oil! Newman is beaming at the prospect of expounding further on his favourite subject – and it couldn’t happen to a nicer chap.
Out To Lunch 2013 continues until January 27.