Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Roddy Doyle, D J Taylor and a history of the Caucasus.

The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle

Nick Rennison in the Sunday Times finds problems with the structure of The Dead Republic: "The two halves of the novel, divided by 20 years, seem almost to belong in different books and perfunctory attempts to yoke them together towards the end fail to persuade." The book "skilfully weaves together its facts and its fiction", yet as the end of a trilogy, it "suffers from Doyle's determination to cram so much significance into the trajectory of his antihero's life". Tim Adams in the Observer wonders "when exactly does a novel become a yarn?" "Over the course of the three books," he complains, "reality becomes slowly diluted." He writes that this is the result of "the engine of plot" that runs insistently beneath the surface, and "by which he has to get through years and decades", rushing him into "a less satisfying fast-forward". For Cole Moreton in the Financial Times: "There is lovely, brutal detail, as well as a grand swoop over the timeline of Ireland and America, just like the kind of film they just don't make any more." He insists that a reader must "suspend disbelief . . . Go with the story. It's magnificent."

Let Our Fame Be Great by Oliver Bullough

Wendell Steavenson in the Sunday Times admits that this history of the peoples of the north Caucasus is "a complicated tale", but finds that Bullough is "perfectly adept at reconstituting history from second-hand sources". For Steavenson, "the book really comes to life in the final section on the Chechen wars of the past 20 years", where there are "several wonderfully told, bitter stories". He is most impressed that: "This is the first attempt to put together the history of the lost Circassians in any whole account." Iain Finlayson in the Times agrees. Bullough, he says, "brings us exciting news, presented as short, gripping stories that tell of the terrible things that happen to people caught up in constant warfare". Justin Marozzi in the Financial Times declares that the book has "struck a blow for the glory of the Caucasus and helped to give voice to the voiceless". He writes that "while sensitive as a historian, Bullough is also deft as a reporter", describing the volume as "impassioned". To George Walden in the New Statesman, the book is "part historical travelogue and part journalistic reflection on the past and present-day sufferings of the region's peoples". He asserts that: "There are moments when it might have been preferable to allow the facts to speak for themselves, without an occasionally sentimentalising authorial commentary. The hint of Rousseau-esque noble savagery does no service to their cause. At some points in the Chechen story, a more critical eye is needed."

At the Chime of a City Clock by D J Taylor

In the Independent, Jonathan Gibbs writes that At the Chime . . . should be subtitled "a thriller . . . for bookish types", finding that "Taylor paces his story brilliantly, but it is a gentle Sunday trot through his chosen genre, rather than a breakneck race". The novle is "a carefully wrought, warm and inoffensive sort of fun". Leo Robson in the New Statesman, on the other hand, sees the book as "pastiche", requiring "sleuthing or guesswork on the part of the reader". He concludes that "one's enjoyment of the novel does not depend on unpicking its complicated ancestry", and that: "The book provides a fine exhibition of this writer's unusual speciality -- parochialism with panache." David Grylls in the Sunday Times concurs: "Taylor's latest novel is a pastiche period thriller -- but one in which pastiche and period elements loom larger than the thrills". "Taylor constructs a crime novel," he writes, "but one that largely lacks suspense or excitement or any real sense of mystery. Not so much film noir as Ealing comedy, less Double Indemnity than The Lavender Hill Mob, the novel is essentially social history filtered through popular culture."

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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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