Pickled fish and rotten oranges

"£150,000 wrapped up, please"

"Yes, hello, I’d like to pay off my mortgage with a pickled fish" isn’t the most likely of banking requests, but then it’s not everyday that somebody has a Damien Hirst trevally-in-formaldehyde worth as much as their house. Darren Walker, a childhood friend of the Leeds-born artist, hopes to make £150,000 from the fish, a gift Hirst made to the Farsely chippy where Hirst’s brother worked, when it is auctioned later this year. Ever-concerned that art should not be about privilege, this follows on from last November when Hirst donated one of his sketches as a prize in a £1 raffle for Heart Research UK. At least the fish should help his humility rating, which plummeted last year when he created a diamond-encrusted skull.

Delia’s Bread and Butter

In the unlikely event that nobody fancies the Hirst fish at auction, perhaps Delia could pop it between two slices of long-life bread. Her 'How to Cheat' cookery series may have been denigrated by just about every food writer and TV critic with senses, including the New Statesman’s Rachel Cooke, but sales of the accompanying book soared last week, and saw Delia take the top slot for the best-selling UK title.

Oranges are not the only fruit

Ahead of the Orange Prize, Whitbread First Novel Award-winning author Tim Lott has dared to venture into the lionesses’ den by suggesting that the women-only writers’ prize is "discriminatory, sexist and perverse." Feminism has long-opposed the argument that women-only arts prizes actually increase the gender inequality gap in writing and publishing. In a rhetorical question, Lott debated whether a men-only prize might actually be more justified, "given their level of relative exclusion in schools and the marketplace." He might have immediately dismissed the idea, but Lott’s planting the seed suggested that secretly, he quite liked the idea. His statement that "pupils are taught reading mainly by female teachers promoting mainly female writers" was proved factually inaccurate by the F Word, where blogger Sian pointed out that Lott had neglected to heed the predominance of men in the English literary canon: "we had lectures entitled 'women in modernism'; next to lectures entitled 'ts eliot'."

Blogger Caitlin reiterated this, and criticised the poetry booklets the Guardian and Independent gave away last week: “in the Guardian series, Sylvia Plath is apparently the only 'great' female poet from the 20th century, out of the seven chosen (and while she was amazing, that is beside the point) while the Independent fairs slightly better with Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charlotte Mew and The Bronte Sisters - out of 38 poets! THIRTY EIGHT!”.

Meanwhile John Sutherland, A S Byatt and Anita Brooker have rallied round Lott. Considering the Orange Prize winner won’t be announced until June, there is of course still time for judge Lily Allen to pen a suitably anthemic pop song about it.

Anthony Minghella

The untimely death of British writer and director Anthony Minghella was met with unanimous regret and reverence this week. Alan Yentob called him “a great champion of British cinema, an elegant advocate for the craft and a marvellous mentor for new talent” and Tim Walker summed up Anthony’s significance on IndyBlogs – “Say what you like about The English Patient (and I know it gets right up some people's noses), but it put Britain back on the cinematic map.” Although there was debate at the BBC about whether screening was still appropriate, his final directorial effort, ‘The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency’, will be shown on BBC 1 this Easter Sunday. Check out the next issue of the New Statesman for a full review. The tribute that Anthony Minghella wrote to Samuel Beckett here in the New Statesman suddenly seems all the more poignant.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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