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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times