The Hungry Empire by Lizzie Collingham (Bodley Head)

“Saturday 18 July 1545 was a fish day on the Mary Rose”

I SUSPECT if you went back in time the most difficult thing you would encounter might be the food, an argument given more than a little weight by some of the meals featured here.

Collingham quotes a letter from one travelling bookseller John Dunton in Ireland who is so disgusted by his hare broiled in butter that he asks for a boiled egg instead. There is then a graphic, almost pornographic, description of why Irish butter was so often so filthy.

Her thesis was first articulated by the Greek historian Heroditus. “The use of cookery to transform raw ingredients was the mark of civilised farming populations”.

This is history without kings or treaties, instead snapshots of how people ate at different points starting with the Newfoundland fisheries where the sailors traded salt cod for that very English vice of Mediterranean wines and spices. Better than the actual food bits though here are the mechanics at work at the start of empire, the first stirrings of capitalism, of economics itself, of local versus global, of city versus countryside, all very topical read against a Brexit debate. The French gave the world French, the Spanish swapped gold and silver for religion, but the British gave the world trade.

The realisation came in the Caribbean that an island did not have to be self sufficient at all if supplies could be shipped in. So it was beef from Ireland that was consigned to fill the returning sugar boats and feed the slaves who already outnumbered the settlers of New England 2:1. Later it was the Bengal opium poppy that balanced the books of the East India Company to pay for the new English habit of tea drinking, a trade with China that continued up to 1948. The empire was the drug dealer and we only began to impoverish ourselves when we stopped, albeit Collingham argues that maybe opium was not really the demon it has been made out.

Tea figures prominently. She argues it was a mark of the fading yeoman pastoral farmer being displaced from the countryside. Before that they drank beer – healthier and more nutritious – but the cost of brewing forced people to turn to cheaper tea which they in turn made palatable with sugar. One family account reveals they bought 4lb of sugar to every half pound of tea.

There is much here to jolt the cosy status quo of school history. Plus joyous little snippets such as the role played by the Huntley and Palmer biscuit tin at the battle of Rorke’s Drift and their influence on Nubian art décor homes of the 1940s.

Rather than sailing with her across the Atlantic at times I felt more like I was getting a guided tour of Collingham’s study so frequent and precise are the references, sometimes not even the book, but the actual page number. There are 82 pages out of 367 devoted to references plus another 15 left completely blank, presumably to add your own.

Anyone interested in Brexit could do worse than invest the time to read this and then write an essay on the lines of Errors in British foreign policy post 1945. The hard men and women who forged the empire may get a bad press these days but you feel the empire could not have been built by an EC technocrat.

Advertisements
Posted in 101greatreads, Non fiction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A long and messy business by Rowley Leigh (Unbound)

roleyleigh

“I have been doing this sort of thing for quite a while now.”

I am not sure anyone should write a cookery book until they reach a certain age. It is quite possible to open a food business with a dozen or so recipes, but that does not constitute a book of knowledge. It is down vocabulary and experience. And as a lot, probably most, are ghost written these days, there is no voice.

Rowley Leigh has plenty of voice to go along with his experience. He recalls unloading the first lorry load of produce delivered from the Paris markets at Rungis back in 1979. He has been at the helm of two of west London’s most fashionable restaurants Kensington Place and then Le Café Anglais, so he has built a fine repertoire of trusted post Elizabeth David style classics which he shared in the Financial Times for many years which form the back bone of this collection of monthly highlights.

There is a modesty and honesty to his writing and to his recipes. “Good cooks love a snowy head of cauliflower for the thing of beauty it is…”

And he slips in some technical and historical notes that might appear on a TV quiz like QI. “Classically crème Dubarry would be thickened with a béchamel sauce and a potage Dubarry with potatoes. I prefer to use rice…” Plus there is a little backgrounder on the salacious Comtesse Dubarry herself.

You feel the effort that has gone into the cooking and his frustration when the Times columnist Bernard Levin “spurned the scallops and foie gras, ignored the turbot and the pheasant and contemptuously murmured that he would just have an omelette.”

But then Leigh trained with the Roux brothers who used to audition young chefs by asking them to prepare an omelette, so his technique is worth listening to…”Heat the pan with the merest film of cooking oil with the suspicion of a heat haze. Add the butter and quickly…”

His Bolognese – a ragu in fact – is worth the price of the book as are many other recipes which offer a year’s worth of pleasure as much in the reading and cooking as the eating. There are little instructive tricks like marinating all the ingredients for a fish soup overnight in white wine before the cooking and then thinning the mayonnaise for the rouille with a little of the soup itself.

You might presume that such a work would have been snapped up by a mainstream UK publisher with a healthy advance – after all, to anyone in the know – many of whom are listed in the back as supporters – this is probably going to sit alongside Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories, which was nominated as the Waitrose food book of the decade. No such antecedents, as it comes from the crowd sourcing Internet start-up Unbound.

The evocative still life photograpy by Andy Sewell is equally awe-struck by the thing of beauty that it is.

Posted in 101greatreads, Non fiction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lincoln in the bardo by George Sanders (Bloomsbury)

“On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen.”

The Bardo of the title is a Buddhist idea of a transitional state between life and death, a purgatory. I mention it because no one else bothers.

There is a line in Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, also listed for the Booker of Bookers, written 40 years earlier, which sort of captures the essence of George Sanders task in this inflated tome:

“I shall use many voices, in this history…”

She goes on to explain a few pages later:

“In my head Jasper is fragmented: there are many Jaspers, disordered without chronology. As there are many Gordons. Many Claudias.”

I wonder if Sanders read those lines as inspiration? In essence these are the voices at the birth of a nation – 160 voices all told, I am told, sacrilegious, bawdy, defamatory, vernacular. Fine “fragmented” voices they are too crackling along like Dickens moving along without the worry of a plot or narrative or description or much of what we usually associate with the elements of story telling.

We have two books lashed on top of each other. Book one is the cleverly conceived saga of the president angsting over his son dying of typhoid while sending 10s or should that be 100s of thousands to their deaths in the civil war, told in snatches from newspapers, memoires, journals, some real, some imagined. Here there is a smart contrast between the descriptions of the society ball and later characters. There are even four pages of quotes as to what Lincoln himself looked like.

The second book is a dreamed up purgatory – the bardo of the title – where dead people or nearly dead people turn up for a chat under the auspices of the the dubious Vollman, Bevins and the reverend Everley Thomas.

The redeeming part of the first book is to catch the idiom of the time and sounds of the era, of a key moment in revolutionary history, we are there with them, but that is undone by the bogus hokus pokus of the underworld chitter chatter of the second book which laces through it.

There are any number – so many as to be clichés really – of literary references to grab on to – the Greek chorus of the dead, the second coming, Dante’s Inferno revised, Hamlet’s gravediggers etc. The undertones are perhaps supposed to suggest freshness and frankness but re-occurring visions of rape and latent homosexuality don’t read that way to me. It is macabre, telling dirty stories about the dead and when it is clever it is often sly, so when we are told that Abe has some difficulty making love to his new wife on their wedding night, it is because, we later appreciate, how moved and important their son might become to them. Subtelties like that are few and far between.

In fact this is not so much a novel as a prose poem that might seek to inhabit the same territory as T.S. Elliott, Ted Hughes or even more recently Max Porter’s Crow or Aimeer McBride. It is not an easy read across 340 pages, although to make things easier the publisher Bloomsbury has inserted plenty of white space so you might be reading verse. Lively’s book by contrast in my edition is 204 pages but is probably longer but she does not use much punctuation. Full stops and capital letters are about it. She also uses words like “shards” correctly where Sanders bends it to another purpose.

Bloombsury gives us a little pompous aside at the back of the book about how the type is in fact Fournier designed originally by one Pierre-Simon Fournier who lived from 1712 to 1768, so a century before the action here. I am all for publishers explaining the types they use and why but this just reads like so much aggrandizement.

It is not so much as what to make of the book – which is sort of interesting, clever, a diversion if you like this kind of thing, fragments of good writing, snatches really, odd spots of clarity, but plotless, guileless, devoid of a narrative engine, un-edited, overblown and corpulent – rather what to make it of it winning the Booker prize let alone being nominated for the Booker of Bookers. Elliott, Hughes, even Dylan Thomas brought people to the book, to reading, to enjoyment of reading, to the revelations of literature, to great visions of human consciousness and understanding, to visions of intelligence. This will put people off reading altogether. It aspires to be the Great American Novel but it is the Great American Un-Novel. This Booker emperor has, for me, no clothes on.

Posted in fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (Gallic)

“Mama often talked of this house when I was a child, and of its squirrels with particular fondness.”

WE are in the grand manner of the novel as literary artifice, a swell of sentences, characters in the rough, an anchored sense of place, a moving perspective, the kind of parameters for which the format is uniquely designed and at its finest. It is a family history spanning 1834 to 1864 in south Australia. Mr Finch has managed to lose a fortune or two but his resolve to bring empire to the outback and to his children and suffering wife is undimmed.

Jane Austen gets a passing mention, as does Charles Darwin which seems appropriate as contemporaries of the narrator Hester who tells her story through a hubbub of brothers and sisters. The older boys Hugh and Stanton are rumbustious helpers on the farm, Hester has to fill in with the chores when mama is not well which is often and looking after baby Mary. Her willful sister Addie is never there when wanted, Fred is bookish and Albert always curious making the most of the outback. And we have Tull the clever adopted Aborgine boy who looks on at these strange people and their odd projects with skin so white like dead people. And Hester herself whose subject is maths. It pains her to watch papa going over the books when he is not (good at maths). He loves his God, his pipe and his principles, all of which test the family. As will his business escapades.

Sentences are long and rambling, Victorian frilly but the focus is sharp from the opening image of a squirrel trying to crack open a nut, the allusions are tightly controlled – the grasshopper trapped in cupped hands, whittling a piece of wood into a sharp end, a playful shot from a sling, all very pointed,  blades twisted in a wound.

Every few pages Treloar drops in an old word we don’t often use these days like rumination, demureness, almanac, strictures, emcumbrances, plush, a mizzle etc to remind us of when and where we are. “Stanton was eating with the greatest efficiency”. Her vocabulary is sterling.

The ideas are timely, a revision of empire, of immigrants, of race, a story that brings a texture to an era that persuaded men like Mr Finch to sail a young family across the world and then out of the city of Adelaide in a dray to a half built wooden shanty house. “The journey…was like moving knowingly, dutifully, towards death” . The suffering and mishaps are offset at least in part by Hester’s youth and regard for all around her. Plus the knowledge from the outset that she is destined to survive, even prosper.

You feel the sweat of ambitions. Different ideas. Same sweat. Hester’s evolving relationships with those around her have their own charms as each of them grow up and their emotions are charted by way of an intimate, as yet untold constellation, a universal family. The finale is as heart-felt as it is heartbreaking, the loose ends are deftly tied up like Hester’s own sewing.

Lucy Treloar is Malaysian by birth and brings a neutrality perhaps to vexed contemporary clichés and real sense of the hardships and pleasures enjoyed on one of the frontiers of civilization. My imprint says the original was published by Picador in Australia in 2015 but here it was picked up by Gallic in 2017, another coup for them. I am told they were tipped off by a blogger :).

 

Posted in 101greatreads, Biography, fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Nagasaki by Eric Faye (Gallic)

nagasaki

“Imagine a man in his fifties disappointed to have reached middle age so quickly…”

SCANT as a haiku, we open with all the usual everyday details of life scrubbed out by the obsession. S reads a magazine to which he subscribes but has no title, he has work colleagues but only later do we discover he is, symbolically, the weatherman and only after that his name, Shimura. We know from the out that it is a true story or one that appeared in the newspapers in Japan in 2008, the middle aged, bachelor salaryman living alone in a neighbourhood so safe he leaves his front door unlocked. He is so shy he avoids going drinking with his colleagues. Strange things start to happen…

“At times like this the brain investigates, reconstructs, corroborates, deduces, unpicks, juxtaposes, supposes, calculates, suspects.”

He is being stalked? The story will take a decisive fork which allows for an explosive, political finale asking questions about the inheritance of modern Japan. “She knew better than to leave memories knocking about in a hall of mirrors where they would go mad, like a seagull trapped inside a room”.

Short, tight and thought-provoking.

Faye has been widely recognized in France – this is another translation from the excellent Emily Boyce at Gallic Books – and won the Academie Francaise Big Prize for a novel in 2010.

 

Posted in 101greatreads, fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Black Sugar by Miguel Bonnefoy (Gallic)

blacksugar“The dawn light revealed a ship marooned in the canopy of a vast forest”.

I IMAGINE a publisher might throw a party for Miguel Bonnefoy’s lesser characters who only get a walk on part in the novels, somewhere Miss Venezuela can meet up with the pirate Captain Henry Morgan for a quiet daiquiri perhaps. Bonnefoy discards his creations like an old skin once they have served their dramatic purpose because he alone is the story teller. His voice is louder than theirs. Their existences are controlled, reined in by a minimum of dialogue, not allowed to stray too far into their own worlds. Bonnefoy talks like an old school Celtic storyteller, like he is telling a joke really through all the 215 pages or perhaps more relevant like a ship wrecked beachcomber sitting on a log on a shore with all the time in the world to whittle out his yarn.

There are heady descriptions. These are remedies for dropsy – “pomegranate-bark infusions, vinegared pine broths and preparations of goat’s milk mixed with ten ounces of cider”.

His text is the emergence of Venezuela the nation herself – for which the very simple opening line – see above –  provides one image –  starting with its discovery. The first arriving pirates are barbecuing a sloth and singing sea shanties. ”They served it with a few mangoes picked straight from the tree and a pair of fairly fleshy parrots caught in their migration south, marinated in lemon juice for two hours and cooked in banana leaves”.

His heroine here is Serena Otero, an only child of elderly parents so her home was “filled with outdated objects and old furniture and inhabited by a couple drained of all strength”.

The colours are vivid. The Otero family house has “ruby-red roof tiles”, the front door knocker is “shaped like like an open hand in welcome” and inside is ”bathed in warm light the colour of leather or aged oak.”

There is a joy in the telling. The central iconic story is the quest for pirate Henry Morgan’s buried treasure and the different people who come looking for it in the remote rain forest 300 years after his death. And there are other treasures too, newer ones – the sugar of the title, the cane, the rum, the oil – but Serena is not interested. Her wealth is the forest around her.

She is captivated by the small ads on the radio and grows into a lavish, rich symbol of a post colonial world.

Where Bonnefoy’s first Book Octavio’s Journey has sub themes of self expression and literature, here these are replaced with ideas about value, wealth and greed, told in a similar fable style, an allegory even. There are a couple of ambivalent reviews on Amazon about Octavio’s Journey, which are best avoided. Both books are wonderful, hugely enjoyable masterpieces, each sentence a delight, cogs in a bigger wheel of an original vision. Here is the French cover:sucre noire

By way of an aside: Morgan himself is an interesting starting point in that he is often credited as the inspiration for many fictional pirate figures, a real life governor of Jamaica who sacked Panama, and sued his shipmate and biographer Exquemelin for alleging treason and torture. Wikipedia assures me he was the inspiration for Rafael Sabatini’s 1922 novel Captain Blood and John Steinbeck’s first novel Cup of Gold written in1929, and even  Ian Fleming’s 1954 novel Live and Let Die. Portraits tend to show him as quite the rogue captainmorganHe is also the inspiration for the rum. Historians have tended to change their minds about him. Early biographies used Exquemelin’s salacious references to discredit him but over time he has come to be seen more as a modern, popular privateer.

Posted in 101greatreads, fiction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Octavio’s Journey by Miguel Bonnefoy (Gallic)

octavio2

“At the port of La Guaira on 20 August 1908, a ship from Trinidad dropped anchor off the Venezuelan coast, unaware that it was offloading a plague which would trouble the country for half a century.”

 

I abandoned two Booker prize winning novels in the last week which I had fully expected to make this listing – both after more than 100 pages albeit I am a bit clueless as to what was being said in either at all, just so much middle aged white man verbosity. By comparison I devoured this beautiful little book set in Venezuela, translated from the French in house at Gallic Press by Emily Boyce. In less than 96 pages, each chapter marks a step, each character is defined, each situation becomes apparent, each action hides a certain drama. The story is spun. There is an explosive, thunderclap of a plot change on page 47 that made me put the book down completely and draw breath. To even let a few details of the plot leach out would be to spoil the enjoyment. Not unlike Laura Esquivel’s 1993 Like Water for Hot Chocolate, it is a joyous, fresh thrill of a read from south America, a totemic modest little work of genius that warms the soul and has reset my reading compass. We open with a plague and a church and a cure. A man with a gun shoots a warning shot that downs a whole harvest of lemons, which counts as a miracle. But it progresses into a book about words, literature and reading and their value through a man who barely speaks and a woman who cannot stop herself from talking named after the country herself. Even the thief Guerra declares: “The way I go about burgling a house is like a writer sitting down to compose a poem”. Later the man imagines Literature herself as having “loose hair, torn clothing and a heroic air, wear a machete in her belt or a shotgun over her shoulder”.

What this little tome has that neither Booker winner had was the novelist’s great opportunity – story, and believable, interesting people, in a setting that breathes, almost like a fable. And it has something to say for itself. Here is a paragraph:

“Anna Maria Reyes Sanchez had seventeen children, the youngest of whom, Eva Rose, had shone from her earliest years. Eva Rosa helped to farm the fish, wove bags from goat hair, trimmed the cows’ hooves with maternal care and was up sowing the corn before sunrise. She had a face like a china doll, pale little metallic-grey eyes, and delicate skin as yet untouched by age. She always wore a tortoiseshell comb in her hair and wrapped her centimos in a hankie laden in her bra, so as to keep her fortune close to her heart.” A perfect portrait in 96 carefully chosen words. I thought I had guessed the ending with four pages to go but was very wide of the mark.

Bonnefoy himself is still in his thirties. He was born in France and raised in Venezuela and Portugal and has been recognised in France making the short list for the prix Goncourt in 2015 as well being named as young writer of the year in 2013. He has another book Black Sugar out too with the same team which I will review next…

Posted in 101greatreads, fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment