Nina Simone’s Gum by Warren Ellis

When I was a boy, my mother declared chewing gum to be a filthy habit. I dutifully took up smoking. Dr Nina Simone chose to do both, right up to the end. And why not. She was a god. Tempestuous and magnificent.

In 1999, Nick Cave curated the Meltdown festival in London. Simone was the headlining act. Among the witnesses that evening was Warren Ellis, who noticed Simone planting her expired chewie under the Steinway just before the concert began. At the set’s close, the wide-eyed and awe-struck disciple launched himself stage-ward and pocketed the gum.

In Nina Simone’s Gum, Ellis rationalises what might be dismissed as an impulsive act of mindless fanaticism through numerous anecdotes and what are effectively exhibition catalogues from his museum of discarded and forgotten things (Simone’s gum being the penultimate of such things). Over the course of Ellis’ recollections and anecdotes, this hardened glob of minty resin, seasoned with Simone’s spit and venom, and imbued with her irrepressible spirit, acquires talismanic properties for its caretaker, who could henceforth never disassociate its presence from the rising tide of his own creative achievements.

Ellis presents charming snapshots of his childhood in Ballarat and a potted travelogue of his bohemian adulthood, all in the interests of illustrating the magnitude of importance that such a tiny, banal, even vulgar thing can have for its beholder, by virtue of its association to a singular moment of spiritual transcendence. In Ellis’ writing, this item is forever both totemic and substantive, worthy of its place on marble plinth, spot lit and garlanded with velvet, shielded by bulletproof glass.

Roland Bisshop is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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Nina Simone's Gum: A Memoir of Things Lost and Found

Nina Simone’s Gum: A Memoir of Things Lost and Found

Warren Ellis

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