Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on memoirs by Antonia Fraser and Edmund White.

 

Don't look back in anger

In the Guardian, Blake Morrison has only good things to say for Antonia Fraser's Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter: "the book is intimate without being confessional . . . But she's not so discreet as to be dull." He believes that "[Pinter's] wishes have been honoured in this book, which is less flowery than most elegies have a right to be, one year on". Robert Harris in the Sunday Times concedes that the book "certainly has at times a bosom-heaving, lace-handkerchief-fluttering quality", but is concerned at how Pinter's first wife and son are treated "with chilling contempt". Charles Spencer, in the Telegraph, describes it as a "moving and compellingly readable memoir", which is written "with palpable love, warmth, affection and a huge sense of loss . . . the book is deeply moving in its closing section, following Pinter's cancer diagnosis in 2001".

One-trick pony?

For Jay Parini in the Guardian, the novelist and critic Edmund White's New York memoir, City Boy, is "the story of sexuality run amok, detached from love, caught in its own whirligig of mindless sensual motion . . . [White] takes us into the 1960s and 70s, describing Manhattan life in those tumultuous decades with a compulsive, self-revelatory energy." To Nicholas Shakespeare in the Telegraph, it is "at bottom, an old-fashioned period piece about a fascinating period". Despite flashes of White at his best, Shakespeare "wanted to like the result more than I did. Too often I found myself wondering if he had mistaken candour for truth or if his characters were one-trick ponies overly defined by their sexuality."

Alamy
Show Hide image

Why serving wine at room temperature is a myth

There is no such thing as room temperature: there are simply different rooms. 

As a child, I loved Aesop’s Fables – all except one. Like most children, I had an aggrieved sense of adults’ perceived superiority, and enjoyed seeing them outwitted or outthought, in fiction at least, by fellow inferior beings: children, ideally, but animals would do.

Voltaire thought that fables were invented by the first conquered race, because free men have no need to dress up truth in allegory, and maybe he was right: Aesop, after all, was a slave. But children have been shackled by dependence and freed by imagination since time began, so who knows? Perhaps the form was created by them.

The fable I disliked involved a Satyr and a Man. The latter blew on his fingers to warm them, then on his porridge to cool it; the former, appalled, refused to fraternise further with a creature who could blow hot and cold with the same breath. Even to my immature self, this seemed unjust. The Man was adaptable, not dishonest; the ambient temperature had changed, and his actions with it. And who is a Satyr – half man, half goat – to accuse others of being neither one thing nor the other?

It turns out that most modern wine waiters are Satyrs of a sort. If I had a pound for every bewildered burbling about “room temperature” when I’ve asked for a wine, often red, to be cooled, I would buy myself a Eurocave. (Actually, I already have one, and it stores all my wine at a beautifully consistent 12 degrees. But it is full, so I would buy another.)

There is no such thing, Satyrs, as room temperature: there are simply different rooms, and just as I despise a wine chilled beyond all flavour perception to a degree that could be termed English Stately Home, so I desire never again to sit in a breezeless interior in midsummer while someone serves red wine that practically steams in the glass.

The vine is an exceptionally adaptable plant, stubbornly digging its roots into chalk or sand or clay, and the eventual result is a liquid that contains, when well made, something of both the land that nourished it and the hand that made it.

Humanity, too, is malleable, often to a fault. We shuck off cardigans or pull on thick coats, and sometimes we do the one while wishing heartily that we were doing the other, and we drink something that briefly transports us to the place we yearn for. It is only Satyrs who lack imagination, although adults sometimes need theirs refreshed.

Voltaire agreed. “The Man was absolutely right,” he wrote scornfully of this fable, “and the Satyr was an idiot.” I suspect he and I would also have concurred on the question of wine temperature, although, if so, Voltaire had a problem. He was in the habit of serving his guests wine from Beaujolais, just south of Burgundy, which is made with the Gamay grape. If there is one red wine that needs to be served chilled, to about 11 degrees, it is this one. But for his own enjoyment, the great philosopher cravenly reserved fine Burgundy, and the aromatic complexity of that wine would have needed a couple of degrees more for its perfumes and flavours to evaporate sensuously into his hovering nostrils.

I picture him chilling the wines uniformly, then warming the contents of his own glass with a discreet exhalation of breath. Moral failings, as every Aesop reader knows, come in many forms. That is what separates us from the animals.

 

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 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear