In the Critics this week

Stuart Maconie on the Doors, Kate Williams on the gothic novel, Simon Blackburn on human nature and

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, Stuart Maconie reviews The Doors by leading American rock critic Greil Marcus. Even Marcus, a "magisterial and important writer", isn't able to persuade Maconie that the Doors aren't "the most overrated bands in the history of rock music". Doors frontman Jim Morrison embodied all the band's shortcomings, Maconie argues: "Watch the old footage of him, preening in his leather kecks, his self-satisfied, puppy-fat-frat-boy face pursed waxily as he declaims some sententious claptrap ..."

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to American author Chad Harbach, whose first novel The Art of Fielding was published to great acclaim in the US in the autumn and has just been published in this country. The book is about a college baseball team, and Harbach says two of the principal influences on him when he was writing it were Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace: "They are two of the only novelists who have really thought about the relation of sport to larger society" DeLillo's End Zone and Wallace's Infinite Jest were, he says, "models" for The Art of Fielding.

Also in Books: Simon Blackburn on Beyond Human Nature by Jesse Prinz; Simon Kuper on Sport Italia: the Italian Lover Affair With Sport by Simon Martin; Helen Lewis-Hasteley on The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky by Bryan Appleyard and How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? By John Brockman; and Leo Robson on Masscult and Midcult by Dwight Macdonald.

This week's Critic at large is historian and novelist Kate Williams, who examines the enduring appeal of the gothic novel: "Gothic fascinations," Williams writes, "tend to increase with recessions. [Mary Shelley's] Frankenstein was perfectly fitted to the economic slump that followed the end of the [Napoleonic] wars. ... Recession ... makes us desperate for distraction - the more monstrous the better."

Also in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Shame and Margin Call; Rachel Cooke on ITV's Eternal Law; Alex Preston reports from a British Council-sponsored event in Athens; Antonia Quirke on a radio history of the obituary; Will Self on the suburban way of death; and "Endowments" by Terry Jones, the winner of first prize in the Bridport Prize, 2011.

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
Show Hide image

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