Spirit level: thought to have addictive and hallucinogenic effects, absinthe was banned in France in 1914
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Absinthe friends: It’s time to fall in love with the green fairy

The Drink Column. 

The Sazerac may have been the world’s first cocktail but it wasn’t mine. Two decades in to my fitful but focused programme of spirit-based research, the barman at the Cat and Mutton on Broadway Market rinsed a glass with absinthe, poured in cognac, rye and two kinds of bitters and handed it to me like he was doing me a favour.

I didn’t have a problem with what was in the glass but I did with what had just left it. I’m afraid of absinthe. It’s one of the drawbacks of a degree in French literature; a lesser one, perhaps, than unfitness for gainful employment but an issue nonetheless. You can’t spend years reading the hallucinogenic poetry of Baudelaire or the delicately vicious stories of Maupassant and learning about their love of absinthe and their early, raving deaths without conflating the two. Absinthe is known as “the green fairy” but she’s the newborn-cursing (rather than wish-granting) kind. It’s no good pointing out that both writers died of syphilis. I’m a literature graduate, unhindered by scientific imperatives. For all I know, you catch syphilis from drinking absinthe, too.

A fearsome, raving death notwithstanding, the drink looked interesting and had a pretty name; and I’m quite brave when there’s alcohol in the offing. Reader, I drank it, and it was delicious – complex, pungent, with a liquorice bite. Legend has it that the pharmacist Antoine Peychaud invented the cocktail in 1830s New Orleans as a toddy for sick friends by mixing Sazerac de Forge et Fils cognac and his home-made bitters and, if the legend is right, no wonder it caught on. The brandy was swapped with rye whiskey when the phylloxera louse destroyed France’s vineyards; later, when the Cognac region was once again able to distil grapes, some bright spark started to include both spirits.

I’m not sure when the green fairy waved her wand over the concoction but her malign influence is apparent in that whisper of liquorice, to say nothing of my fierce hankering for another delicious, pernicious sip. I should have paid more attention to those 19th-century Frenchmen of letters. Here’s Gustave Flaubert on absinthe in his Dictionary of Received Ideas: “Ultra-violent poison; one glass and you’re dead. Journalists drink it while writing their articles. Has killed more soldiers than the Bedouins.” You have to admire a liquor that brings out the humorist in the author of Madame Bovary.

So I wound up in Spuntino, a bar in Soho – surely the patch of London that has the most affinity with convulsion-inducing liquors, to say nothing of syphilis – being shown how to make a Sazerac by the bartender Benny Locke. I may be preoccupied with absinthe; he’s obsessed with bourbon. Odd, really: no one ever banned bourbon specifically, as the French did absinthe, claiming it makes one crazy and criminal and provokes everything from epilepsy to tuberculosis.

Still, bourbon – corn liquor aged in charred oak casks – is delightful, sweeter than the spicy rye whiskey, and Benny drinks and creatively adulterates it, steeping fresh buttered popcorn in it and removing the fat with a strainer. His preoccupation has filled Spuntino with unusual takes on what was once moonshine for Southern farm boys, from high-end incarnations such as Van Winkle (which can go for over £350 a bottle) to Kings County, made in New York.

Benny holds bourbon cocktail-making classes at which you, gentle reader, can discover the allure of the Sazerac, so great that in 1919, F Scott Fitzgerald took a pitcher of it more than 250 miles from New Orleans to Montgomery to celebrate an important occasion. He doesn’t name the occasion; perhaps he couldn’t remember. The Sazerac, which now comes rinsed in a poison beloved of diseased intellectuals, was invented to heal the sick. Its creator did not specify of what. 

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 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon