Last week a curious gathering graced the Canal Room in downtown NYC. Writers of fables (Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers), makers and stars of moving pictures (Spike Jonze, Catherine Keener, Kristin Schaal AKA Mel from Flight of the Conchords) and owners of incredibly attractive radio voices (Ira Glass of This American Life) gathered alongside mere mortals, and upon a flag-draped stage straight out of a middle-school, they did spell.
Aye, spell, in The Spelling Beast, a cheerfully corrupt and wilfully impossible contest conjured by the writers of The Putnam County Spelling Bee. The event was a fundraiser for Mr Eggers’ charity 826 National, which uses creative writing workshops to reach out to underprivileged kids. (Aside: the name comes from the address of the project’s San Francisco headquarters, 826 Valencia in the Mission, which also, awesomely, is a shop that sells pirate stuff. EG you can buy treasure maps, different sized miniature planks to execute your treacherous cat or hamster, or in my case a T-shirt that says “Cannons don’t sink ships; pirates with cannons sink ships”).
For a spelling bee neophyte like yours truly, the conventions of this strange sporting arena were quaint and charming. Spellers were allowed to request a definition of their allocated word, a repeat pronunciation, the language of origin and a sentence demonstrating the word in context. The adjudicator – tight-wound in knee-socks and high-belted shorts, impenetrable behind heavy-framed spectacles – emerged as the true star of the show, delivering droll, deadpan context sentences… the likes of which I would love to regale you with at this juncture, but a gin or two seems to have clouded my recall.