Voice recognition

Introducing the Writers at Warwick Audio Archive

Last week, Warwick University's Writers at Warwick Audio Archive went live. Containing more than 200 recordings of poets, critics, playwrights, journalists, novelists, academics and musicians reading from, and answering questions about, their work, it represents the digital realisation of over 30 years of collaboration and conversation. Researchers will be able to listen to, say, a 1979 recording of Allen Ginsberg (reading with Peter Orlovsky and Tom Pickard at the young Warwick Arts Centre), or a 1975 recording of Seamus Heaney, a mere ten years into his career.

All but a very small number of the archive recordings can be accessed by anybody free of charge (provided they are used for educational or research purposes only). And more than a few of them will be of particular interest to New Statesman readers. Take the list of "Red Reads: 50 Books That Will Change Your Life" that we compiled over the summer: recordings (in some cases, multiple) of Linton Kwesi Johnson (number 11 on the list), Tony Harrison (number 22) and Jonathan Coe (number 49) reading and in conversation are all available for listening.

Some of their comments are, inevitably, as entertaining as they are illuminating. Here's Harrison, for example, talking in 1999 about reconciling Greek myth with his own dialect:

You'll find in Prometheus the central character is an ex-miner, an ex-shop steward, an inveterate smoker who has emphysema but still smokes 70 a day -- you'll find that he speaks Yorkshire all the way through. He has big speeches -- becomes identified with the great Promethean hero -- but he speaks Yorkshire all the way through. Whereas the representative of the gods, who's like a Peter Mandelson of Zeus, speaks very RP.

And here's Coe discussing the extent to which some of the odious Winshaws in his novel What a Carve Up! are based on real-life individuals:

One of my favourite characters -- although I hate all of these figures and have them killed off in various unpleasant ways towards the end -- one of my favourite characters is the tabloid journalist, whose name is Hilary. People often ask me who she's based on -- it's very dangerous to give an answer to that question really. There's no disclaimer at the beginning of this book saying that "all the characters in this book are fictitious" and that "any resemblance to any person living or dead is coincidental" -- but she's a compound, really, of people who will be familiar to you if, for some perverse reason of your own, you take the Sunday Express or the Sun or something like this. She's also a novelist, Hilary, because of course no tabloid columnist these days' career is complete unless they've knocked off some novel and sold it for a six-figure sum to some cynical publisher.

What else will New Statesman readers be especially drawn to? Germaine Greer interviewing her namesake, Griffin-slaying Bonnie, reveals a great deal about a figure not many people were too familiar with before that Question Time (not least Greer's and Greer's occasionally slightly sickening admiration for one another and the "great deal" they see themselves as having in common). Potentially most recommendable of all, though, are the performances (and that really is the only way to describe them) of the New Statesman columnist Will Self in 2002 and 2007. Here he is responding to a question about, of all things, the perineum:

Perineum? What, the area between the base of the testicles and the anus? Or between the vagina and the anus of a woman. Aren't we all fascinated with that? I mean, it's just that some people don't know the name for it. And more fool them. It seems to me that -- well, you could just as well as saying the "perennial issue" say the "perineum issue" is, well, really at the base of it all. I mean, when Eliot writes, "Broadbottomed, pink from nape to base,/Sweeney knows the temperament of women/And wipes the suds around his face," I think that Eliot is thinking: perineum. I think Alain de Botton, the contemporary popular philosopher, I can never hear his name without thinking: perineum. But that's just me. Or maybe it isn't.

 

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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

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 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times