Books in Brief: Catherine Merridale, Matthew Kneale and Chickenshed Theatre

Three new books you may have missed.

Red Fortress: the Secret Heart of Russia’s History
Catherine Merridale

The Kremlin is more than just a place, writes Catherine Merridale: it is an idea. Created in the 12th century as a military fortress (much of the compound was designed by Italian architects), it has been a symbol of absolute power for the best part of 1,000 years. Its roles have included palace, religious centre, military operations hub and very centre of both monarchies and communism. Along the way, it has stored the Russian crown jewels and, in 1941, a cache of radium. In the minds of Russians and the rest of the world alike, the Kremlin is Russia in bricks and mortar.

Allen Lane, 528pp, £30

An Atheist’s History of Belief
Matthew Kneale

Matthew Kneale is an atheist but not a militant one. In this unusual and personal history, he seeks not to disprove belief in its various forms but to discover why we believe and what has shaped those beliefs. He looks at the great faiths and at other, less numinous creeds, such as Marxism. Kneale is a former Man Booker Prizenominated novelist. He structures his book as a collection of stories, lucidly told. He is not interested in institutions but in religion as a fundamental need – it is, he argues, “humankind’s greatest imaginative project”.

Bodley Head, 272pp, £16.99

Chickenshed: an Awfully Big Adventure
Elizabeth Thomson

The Chickenshed Theatre Company was founded in 1974 by Jo Collins, a musician and composer, and Mary Ward, a teacher and director, in the belief that everyone has a talent that can be put to good use. Their inclusive model has attracted support – both financial and moral – from Alan Bennett, Elaine Page and Guy Ritchie (“This is the England I want,” Ritchie has said). Their story is told in this celebratory coffee-table book, with spotlights on individual company members and an affectionate foreword by Judi Dench.

Elliott & Thompson, 248pp, £25

Books on the beach in Sydney, Australia. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images.

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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