Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Iris Murdoch, Nick Kent and Joshua Ferris.

Iris Murdoch: a Writer at War (Letters and Diaries 1939-45), edited by Peter J Conradi

"Reading Murdoch's letters during this period is something like being plugged into the national grid," writes Frances Wilson in the Sunday Times. Yet, in her view, this is no thanks to the editor: "Murdoch's youthful mind is as sharp and polished as a sword, but Conradi's editing is not. Random footnotes pop up like glove puppets interrupting a soliloquy, to explain that 'Je t'aime' means 'I love you' and that Baudelaire is a French poet."

Adam Mars-Jones in the Observer also has quibbles, finding the collection "a strange volume, poorly conceived as well as thoroughly self-sabotaged". There is "little here which couldn't have been written by anyone of the period sufficiently bright and smug". In the Telegraph, Claudia FitzHerbert appreciates Murdoch's evolution "from the jejune chrysalis of her student experiences".


Apathy for the Devil: a 1970s Memoir by Nick Kent

Nick Kent, writes Robert Sandall in the Sunday Times, "had a Zelig-like knack for being in the right place at the right time. Wherever the action was, for most of the 1970s, the dandyish Kent with his notepad and drugs stash was never far away." His memoir is "in a compulsively readable class of its own".

Tom Horan in the Telegraph is less than impressed with this former NME writer's vocabulary: "A kind reading of his prose style would be to say that it perfectly suggests the era that it is describing . . . Bands are always 'combos'; songs are not written, they're 'penned'; nothing begins, it 'commences'; almost everything is 'ongoing'." However, it is also a "fascinating read", which becomes most fascinating when "Kent reveals a side to punk that has been given a gloss of glamour down the years: the mindless violence that surrounded it".


The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

Ferris's second novel is described as "strange" by Christopher Tayler in the Guardian. He compares the protagonist Tim's life to "something out of early Paul Auster -- resonant but opaque, Europeanly alienated but firmly located in an American landscape".

For Catherine Taylor in the Telegraph, "Ferris spreads the malaise on thick by tackling the subject of inexplicable mental illness". But by the end, "the story has long since run out of mileage". Peter Parker in the Sunday Times concurs, finding the novel "intriguing but ultimately disappointing".

For Robert Epstein in the Independent, this follow-up is also a disappointment due to overwhelming expectation, deeming it "distressingly bleak rather than distastefully blithe; staccato-sentenced rather than sardonically satirical".

Reviews of Nick Kent and Joshua Ferris appear in forthcoming issues of the New Statesman.

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

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 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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