In the critics this week

A brief look at the Spring Books Special

The Critics section of this week’s New Statesman is a Spring Books special that sees our critic at large, Sarah Churchwell looking back at the “annus mirabilis” that was 1922. Noting the significance of literary works (T S Eliot’s, The Waste Land), inventions (sound for film) and discoveries (the tomb of King Tutenkhamen) that emerged during that time she states, “So much of what would come after is suggested embryonically in a catalogue of that remarkable year.”

Australian heritage is the focus of the Spring Books interview, when Nina Caplan talks to the prolific Peter Carey. His new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, briefly touches on their mutual heritage, and this is a revealing portrait of a writer who consistently tries to “deflect my attention from his roots”.

John Gray reviews The New Few: or a Very British Oligarchy, in which Ferdinand Mount discusses “why Britain tolerates the rule of the super-rich”. Drawing analogies with Communism, Mount promotes “an inspiring message that politicians of all parties would do well to study and digest.” However, in a country that is “less radically flawed”, Gray raises the question: “Do politicians and the public really want to alter Britain’s course?”

Talking about his new novel, and “straightforward farce”, Skios, Michael Frayn is interviewed by Jonathan Derbyshire about the challenges surrounding farce in fiction. Frayn points to the constraints of a staged production compared with the freedom of the novel surmising that, “In a novel, it’s harder because it’s easier.”

In the film review, Ryan Gilbey discusses Whit Stillman’s “idiosynchratic”, Damsels in Distress, which follows “a trio of female undergraduates who have dedicated their lives to improving the lot of their fellow students”. Although Stillman has “a fair stab at rescuing quirkiness”, Gilbey is concerned that “some of the scenes seem to be a re-write or two away from achieving their potential”. Then, in an enlightening interview, Stillman reflects on the 14 year gap between his last two films: “I failed as a film entrepreneur,” he tells Jonathan Derbyshire.

Rachel Cooke is gripped by a documentary on Channel 4 recalling the liquid bomb plot of 2006, when a group of British Muslims attempted to bring down seven planes over the Atlantic. “The gravity of the plot” and “the expansive ignorance” of the terror cell meant Cooke “could hardly breathe”.

Elsewhere in the critics: Helen Lewis on The Sex Myth: Why Everything We’re Told Is Wrong; Leo Robson reviews Scenes From Early Life; Lindsey Hilsum’s review of Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution; Ziauddin Sardar on In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World; Veron Bogdanor on Seasons in the Sun: the Battle for Britain 1974-79. Plus: Will Self’s, Madness of Crowds.

Whit Stillman Photo: Getty Images
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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