The vanishing futurist by Charlotte Hobson (Faber)


“In May 1914, much against the advice of my parents, I took up the post of governess to the Robelev family of No 7 Gagarinsky Lane, Moscow”

THERE is an endearing description on page two of this provocative, colourful entertaining, even visionary novel.

“Miss Clegg was born and bred in Truro, a solid leathery woman as dependably stuffed with good Chapel values as a pasty is with potato…” Part of the charm here are the people…

I picked up my copy at the RA exhibition of Soviet futurism which might be a cute place to read this, surrounded by powerful propaganda for a new utopia. There is an essay at the back, entitled Alchemy of Art, which you could equally mug up on before.

Gerty is an English governess to an old family as revolution sweeps the streets of Moscow. When the family leaves, a new idealistic commune forms around her and two older ladies who have decided to stay in the house. The scientist Slavkin is trying to build a madcap contraption that will communize people in 20 minutes. Gerty’s hopes of love are met with a response that sex is now too bourgeois.

“We the comrades declare war on the private – from now on there shall be no I, only we.” They move into shared rooms and shared baths.

It is enough to put you off being young and idealist although the picture Hobson paints is not too different to squats and hippy communes of the ‘60 and ‘70s with the overbearing difference that they do not have any money. There is a sub text, almost an exchange of visions, a swapping of zeal for pragmatic survival, burning down the wooden windows to make a fire in the old mansion, so hungry they drink carrot tea. As Gerty’s husband tells her later: “Truth is the surgeon. It sets the bones. Otherwise time will heal them crooked”. You know the story, but probably not from this perspective.


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

The Third Plate by Dan Barber (Abacus)


“A corn cob, dried and slightly shriveled, arrived in the mail not long after we opened Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Along with the cob was a check for $1,000”

THE best place to read this book would be on a summer’s evening in the middle of a field of corn. It is perhaps one of the more important books I have reviewed. These arguements need to get aired to a notoriously po-faced generation of landed farmers and agricultural college graduates who have destroyed the countryside, here and in the USA, potentially to the point that we might not soon be able to feed oursleves let alone the rest of the world.

Barber is a notable chef, his restaurant Blue Hills at Stone Barns in the Hudson Valley was this year voted 11th in the World’s Best Restaurants list.

The first plate was steak and carrots, the second plate is 28 day grass fed fillet served with heirloom carrots, which is roughly where you might say we are today, the personification if you like of farm to fork dining. His third plate – the future – was steamed herloom carrots sauced with a braise from offcuts of the beef. He goes much further here.

He takes us on a journey of discovery back down the food chain to explain why all that white flour that permeates the diet is nutritionally useless, the top soil in which it grows has been destroyed which caused among other things the dust bowls of the 1930s. His guide in this, as a chef, is of course taste. He is doing what any serious chef does, talk to his suppliers, but he has an anthropologist’s curiosity and an attachment to the land having been raised on a farm himself. Also, unlike most chefs, most of us indeed, he has also read up on the agricultural journals, so he recognises the value of a southern crop rotation from the 1800s – buckwheat, peas, corn, barley, rye, sweet potatos, sesame, collards and livestock raised in tandem, a latter day improvement of the native Indian three sisters of corn, squash and beans.

We currently think of foods as commodities –  indvidual items to be bought in a supermarket – the carrot, the piece of steak, but on the farm these two items would be unrelated activities. The need is to reconnect with the organic nature of the land, to reclaim it. And in that regard as a chef he (and others) has the vision to see how to link up different crop cycles, overlooked grasses, what in common parlance are called weeds but in fine restaurants might be marigolds, emmer wheat, wild garlic, wild radish etc His mission is to join up the thinking from the kitchen to the farmyard because, as he points out, most of what we grow these days goes to feed the animals not ourselves, which is pretty foolish and uneconomic.

In the introduction he explains:

“What we refer to as the beginning and end of the food chain – a field on a farm at one end, a plate of food at the other – isn’t really a chain at all. The food chain is actually more like a set of Olympic rings. They all hang together. Which is how I came to understand that the right kind of cooking and the right kind of farming are one and the same.”

For the most part he is pretty good at summarising the industrialisation of food although this rather juicy titbit might raise an eyebrow: “as late as the 1900s, a French girl from the countyside had her dowry measured by the amount of manure produced on her family’s farm”.

Along the way we meet a cast of the agroscenti like the sage of Californian organic growers Amigo Bob Cantisaro. “Mutton-chopped and moustached, he has thick silvery-black Rasta hair down his back, making him look more Pancho Villa-like than plain old Bob-like.” And Glenn, “an oddity, even in a place like Lowcountry, where eccentrics grow like beautiful weeds…”

He dates the start of battery chickens to one Cecile Steele in Delmerva, Delaware who, in 1923, accidentally added an extra nought to her order for 50 chicks. Still in the 1970s, 70% of chicken was sold as whole birds, now it is 20% “a nightmare version of the loaves and fishes – an agricultural system out of control”.

You might say this is all an elite arguement, but the land in any country is owned by the elite who are charged you might like to think with its good husbandry. You can read this as a list of acts of dereliction of duty that go back 175 years. Equally in the oceans he suggests that as recently as 1950 we took out 19 million tons of fish where in 2005 it was 85 million – “we  are taking fish faster than they can reproduce”

Dan is as sharp as any lawyer and accepts that most chefs have been complicit, although this book and various events around waste free, holistic cooking have started to get a groundswell behind them, not before time. Back in the day when I edited restaurant guides we termed this approach as Real Food, and that was 1982. Thirty years later I cannot easily point to anyone in the UK following this philosphy at all, least of all government or council. If you want to see such a vision in action, you might go here. But that is in Italy.

Dan takes us instead to the dhesas of southern Spain, home of the fabled Iberico ham, of Morucha cattle and a chance to meet the only free range foie gras farmer in the world, Eduardo. From there we move on to aquaculture and grains.

“Our job (as chefs) isn’t just to support the farmer, it is really to support the land that supports the farmer. That is a larger distinction than it sounds…” Quite. He decribes looking out on fields of American agriculture that suggested abundance, “but what I did not see were crops I could cook with.”

A long overdue politic for chefs. The food he is looking for is a “pleasure, but also a satisfaction”. The answer is to cook the whole farm.


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

Outline by Rachel Cusk (Vintage)


“Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I’d been promised had liberal credentials.”

I GOT my copy of this book second hand. Various passages were marked up as if the previous reader had been making notes for a discussion or an essay. She (or he) had opted for different sentences, looking for meaning of sorts. So we have the “coupling of formality with doom…prompting of fate…money is a country of its own…he began to ask me questions as though he had learned to remind himself to do so…(his) life had been lived unconsciously, absorbed in it, as you can be absorbed in a book…your failures keep returning to you… “The notes stop after page 65. Another refers to the “fundamental anonymity of America”. Perhaps they did not finish the book or got distracted or missed their deadline? I wonder? I have them in my head, a distraction as I read, a parallel dectective story, the start of another unattached mystery linked only by pen and paper…their thoughts abandoned mid book, not edited nor publised or for all I know not seen by anyone else, a very personal missive which was then consigned to a second hand book shop. Whatever had driven them to start and consciously make notes had been thrown away. Part of me wants to track the author down and ask what happened? Where did they read this? Somewhere in Britain probably.

Not everyone likes to make biro marks and scrawl underlinings in books; there is a certain a profanity, an interference, a mark of disrespect, a certain ruthless professionalism, the reader as more important than the written ( I use yellow post-it stickers to mark out pages with quotes I might want to return to later, which makes me wonder more about the psychological etiquette at work here). At the bottom of page 17 they have even written boldly: “Beyond the Pleasure Principle (freud) – why do people repeat their own suffering?”. Freud is spelled with a lower case f. Did something more important come along that made them stop reading or note taking? Or did they just get bored? I am straying into Modiano territory. I double check there is no secret missive hidden away at the back (I fantasise: if you find this book rescue me…and an address or better  the key is in a box at 117 castle cottage,) no dedication: To Fran. No endearment: you get younger every birthday….Nothing, no link, no clue, a dead end. Just quasi academic notes.

They are not even quotes I would have picked out to portray this book which is the more baffling. So maybe it was being used for another purpose altogether?

We open with a trio of random meetings: the billionaire, a Greek divorcee,  the writer in the caffe, Cusk sketches out deeply confessional conversations struck up in everyday settings over lunch, a beer, on a plane. She is a writer bound to a conference to teach Greeks how to write, in English. She is divorced or seperated. You start to feel that her own saga is likely to be a match for the lives she is being told about, like the moment the music starts to hum in a horror movie…Or are these men would be lovers? As in the opening lines above, we are jet setted into a situation without context or background. We are in the now with a few measly fragments of the narrator’s past although her companions are all candour. She is someone seemingly random strangers seem happy to open up to…she is an Alice walking through her own Looking Glass.

I might chose this description: “One has the curious feeling that one is looking at an illustration of Paniotis, rather than at Paniotis himself“. Or this: “Scholars on bicycles sailing like dark swans through the streets in their black robes“. Or more moody: “The human capacity for self-delusion is apparently infinite…” And “I  was beginning to see my own fears and desires manifested outside myself…”

She mixes the mundane everyday – “we would drive for a while” –  with sudden psychological flashes – “other people’s lives a commentary on my own”, vivid human portraits as yet without backdrops…like a pack of cards where you see the colours of the jack and queen but cannot be sure which is which. At its centre is a recurring theme of the writing itself – we have eight pages, no less, describing Clelia, the writer’s, apartment without meeting her at all.

“Writers need to hide in bourgeois life like ticks need to hide in animal’s fur, the deeper they are buried the better.” Ticks are another recurring menace.

Where to read this? Like the heroine herself perhaps on a charter flight to Athens and go on to a villa for a discussion as to what this book is really about which is fragments, clues, a vicarious self portrait told through a series of random encounters, like walking around an art gallery and looking at different, unrelated people framed in one book.

I am reluctant to give the game away here, but I would wish she had taken another step that might have turned this into a novel rather than a literary conceit. I could write an ending for her:

She opened the door. Everything was the same. The chair. The table. The note on the table should have read: your dinner is in the oven. Instead, it just said: We have gone. There was an unopened letter underneath marked. Hamilton, Bailiffs.

Posted in Biography | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Ashes in the Wind by Christopher Bland (Head Zeus)

ashesinthewind“John Burke wants to be Tomas Sullivan. John wants Tomas’s worn brown boots, the scabs on his knees, his green jersey darned with whatever coloured wool had come to his mother’s hand. He wants to talk like Tomas.”

AN old school book, economical and direct, parallel tales of two Irish boys in the first half of the 20th century. Tomas is a bottle of whisky. John is red burgundy. The style is perhaps informed by Christopher Bland’s time as a businessman and media chairman, notably at the BBC, the Royal Shakespeare Company and BT (and some publishing too at Century Hutchison). I heard him quoted as saying that had he known the pleasure he found in writing/story telling, he would have started much earlier. This was his first novel, published in 2014. He died in January this year. His subject matter is worth our attention as he tracks the painful schisms of Irish independence. It was, you could argue, the Irish through the various factions of the IRA, who invented modern terrorism, or maybe it was the moment that patience ran out for empire. Predictably our heroes are cast on either side of the divide, their romantic escapades as disruptive as the political shenanigans.

The colourful horse racing scenes dovetail in a curious way with Doped which picks things up later in the ’50s but reveal another side of the author who also owned a vineyard in Gascony and was chair to Leith’s cookery school. A good venue to read this book might be a stable loft with clean hay and regular deliveries of mugs of sweet tea.

The narrative veers towards the military. She anounces she is pregnant. He shows his elation by going off to paint the spare room. The women are all a bit of an unkowing quest for the boys to discover their mother Ireland. The personal like the politics is sloganned. By the third part, the narrative accelerates as Bland finds himself as a writer. His real theme is in the title. For all the noble virtues we imbue in words like patriot, freedom, independence, there is another side of the coin for those who do not share in the triumph.

On a personal note having witten a history of oysters, I found the end scenes all the more heartwarming.

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

Recipes for a nervous breakdown by Sophie White (Gill)

recipesforanervousbreakfdow“Before going mad, I didn’t really give madness that much thought. It seemed like a distant concept that had absolutely zero bearing on my life.”

THE best recipe writing comes from a compulsion, like composers, to explain a passion, a conviction as to her rightness. Sophie wonders early on if “I am literally the the only person in the world who drifts off to sleep musing on the following day’s menu plans”. These plans take us on to the comfort of the peanut butter series, on to the chilli con carne which includes ale and chocolate and on to homemade Rolos. For salmon with caper butter she explains: “in a fit of restraint in this instance I opted for a shitload of butter, and it tastes delish”.

This is the antidote to celebratory chefs, to clean eating. She may well end up being a TV chef but it won’t be TV cooking as you know it. This is Dawn French meets Gabrielle Hamilton. Bridget Jones goes to cookery school with Mr Bean. She opens with her bad experience on ecstasy – how one pill took five years out of her life –  and then takes us on a 20-something’s romp through boyfriend (Himself), baby (Yer Man) dealing with parents (Herself and Kev) and only child syndrome etc each episode rounded out with some inventive, sometimes hilarious but thorough recipes including the “only ice cream recipe you’ll ever need…no ice cream maker required”. 

She writes beautifully in that loose ramble you can also find in other Irish writers. Her friend Mark is – one of those six foot 14 year olds who literally has no clue what to be doing with his giant man body. The Amsterdam bad trip might count as one of the finest pieces of drug writing I have read.

And she picks up the mores of her era, especially to do with eating. “I have been pretty fat at times” but if only “one could be as fat as the first time one thought one was too fat”.

She is also a bit of a social media babe. See her here making whipped cream the FUN way. In a sense this memoir is before the event. Perhaps that is the joy, making the everyday important. Everything about the book itself, the typography, the subdued photos, the paper has been given the kind of respect and care a diva would expect.

At heart it is about our conflicted contradictions with eating. She comes out in favour of meringue roulade… with a little low carbs on the side.

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

The poet by Michael Connelly (Orion)

thepoet“Death is my beat. I make a living from it.”

IF you have a cold or flu, then Michael Connelly is a good companion. Being a bit dopey helps with the severe plot twists, not twists at all really but 90 degree corners, the dialogue is the driving force, the victims are worse off than you are and no one is fully emotionally engaged. These characters do not have much range or tone. They are one notes. It is a Trumpian view of Americana, paedophilia, chopped up bodies, bent cops, clues in cars, two bit criminals, dodgy lawyers, women who stay at home.

Jack McEvoy, murder correspondent for the Denver paper, to which, this being America, he has no shortage of choices as to what to write about each day. Until, that is, his twin brother commits suicide. I wanted to read this because logically a newspaper reporter might lend a fresh angle to crime drama. Not in this case because our Jack just becomes another virtual detecto. As I have written before part of the appeal of Connelly’s approach is the sense that you are along for the ride on someone else’s day job.

This is the style: A hatchet face always seemed red the times I saw him. I remember he drank Jim Beam over ice. I’m always interested in what cops drink. It tells a lot about them. When they’re taking it straight like that, I always think that maybe they’ve seen too many things”. Not much punctuation, you might notice.

I am not sure I agree with the ending here, or perhaps it is a deliberate set up for another title, my deduction is different to that given on the page, or maybe I just did not believe any of the rationales and here we just ran out of pages to explain. Whatever. I feel better now. Although it is 20 years old it still feels iconic of its genre and highly topical with the football abuse scandal going on. The official follow up books are the Narrows (2004) and the The Scarecrow (2009), no point wasting some good characters on one title.

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

The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carre (penguin/Viking)


“I sit at my desk in the basement of the little Swiss chalet that I built with the profits from the Spy Who Came In From The Cold in a mountain village ninety minutes by train from Bern, the city to which at the age of sixteen I had fled from my English public school and where I had enrolled at Bern University.”

THERE is a line on page 72 that asks: “maybe I am just one of those who people who are unable“…surely, surely, John that should be singular, is unable, it is not a royal we? Or do you mean we the secret service, we at her majesty’s service, or we the spies or we who lived in the ’60s or is it just an old idiom of the time? The royal we, John the queen? Or the establishment, a loose knit old boy’s network of bumptious undergraduates who speak foreign languages and are uplifted to a secretive world of embassies and ambassadors, lies and deception?

His major role at the Bonn embassy was to chaperone parties of German journalists and politicians on visits to London to see how things are done, or should be done post world war 2. He had carte blanche to just travel about then west Germany like a radar antennae to listen into the local politics. What in this context of the cold war is a spy anyway, something he transfixes on and has brilliantly conjured up in his fiction but as he explains here the real line between lies and truth is thin. John is not a spy in the sense that he has a bagful of secrets to offload, rather he was briefly the bag man and conduit through which such a creature might suggest a getaway plan. Until he became such a successful writer that he could afford a chalet in Switzerland, a house in Hampstead and a mile of Cornish coastline.

Much of this book is less memoir and more trailers for the people he has met and portrayed in his fiction. The best of all, by a street, though is his father Ronnie, “conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird“. Everyone else pales in his shadow. Here is a snatch:

“I am holding the hand of my mother Olive, alias Wiggly. As we are both wearing gloves, there is no fleshly contact between us. And indeed, as far as I recall, there never was any. It was Ronnie who did the hugging, never Olive. She was the mother who had no smell, whereas Ronnie smelled of fine cigars, and pear-drippy hair oil from Taylor of Old Bond Street, Court Hairdressers, and when you put your nose into the the fleecy cloth of one of Mr Berman’s tailored suits you seemed to smell his women there as well.”

Think of Hugh Laurie as Richard Onslow Roper in the Night Manager. Ronnie stands out because he is real where everyone else tends to be cartoons, of interest only for who they were, Richard Burton, Robert Maxwell, Alec Guiness. In Rupert Murdoch’s case, lunch lasted 25 minutes. There is not so much to tell.

For all the clues, the winks, the brown envelopes, the double dealings, the standing on street corners in old raincoats, the retelling of old yarns, it all feels very black and white compared to the colour of his fiction. But the ’50s and ’60s were the era of black and white, dissolved in the darkroom of truth. What colour we have is not high minded and principled but delivered by larger than life rogues like Ronnie, and one suspects Le Carre aka David John Moore Cornwell, himself.



Posted in Biography | Tagged , , | Leave a comment