In the critics this week

Catch-22, the arms race in medieval relics and the action film with only one punch.

The "Critic at Large" this week is Daniel Swift, writing on the enduring relevance of Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22. "One recurring joke," Swift writes, "is about army canteen food. For lunch one day, the airmen have roast lamb with 'Iranian rice and asparagus tips Parmesan, followed by cherries jubilee for desert and then steaming cups of fresh coffee with Benedictine and brandy', all served by kidnapped Italian waiters at tables dressed with damask. The joke is surely that army food is so bad. Pause, however, and scroll forward to other wars in later times, to now. During the Iraq war, American soldiers stationed at al-Asad Airbase, west of Baghdad, could choose their dinner from Burger King, Pizza Hut or Kentucky Fried Chicken... Now, the joke changes; now, the novel points at us."

In this week's lead book review, Stefan Collini examines Thomas Docherty's For the University: Democracy and the future of the Institution:"Docherty fears that the university is now being treated as a 'menial service-provider for this vague world of business.' The whole agenda of 'transferable skills', for instance, 'diverts attention away from the specifics of academic or intellectual content' towards capabilities thought to appeal to employers."

The Books Interview this week is with Chris Adrian, who has reworked Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in his latest novel, and speaks about his experience as a paediatric oncologist.

Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre's book Ed: the Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader is reviewed by Roy Hattersley, who judges that the authors "skim the surface of almost everything in what is less a book than an exercise in sustained journalism, with all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre."

Helen Lewis-Hasteley reviews Caitlin Moran's feminist autobiography, finding that "while How to be a Woman might not have the anger or urgency of The Female Eunuch, it certainly has more jokes. And perhaps that's what modern feminism needs."

Elsewhere, Jonathan Derbyshire reports on the "Treasures of Heaven" exhibition of medieval relics at the British Museum, Antonia Quirke listens to Aung San Suu Kyi's Reith Lectures on Radio 4, and Tom Ravenscroft reorganises his podcasts, having acquired a new computer.

Film critic Ryan Gilbey examines A Separation, a film in which "only a single punch is thrown," despite being billed as "the year's most explosive action movie", and Rachel Cooke has an olfactory reminiscence occasioned by the BBC4 documentary Perfume.

Finally, lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson gives Alan Hollinghurst's latest novel the once over, noting that it has a striking resemblance, in the early chapters at least, to Ian McEwan's Atonement. "The difference is that Atonement turns out to be a parody of a novel by Elizabeth Bowen, whereas The Stranger's Child turns out to be a parody of a novel by Alan Hollinghurst."

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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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