In the Critics this week

Leo Robson on Martin Amis, Peter Hennessy interviewed and Rainer Werner Fassbinder remembered.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, the NS’s lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson takes the measure of Martin Amis’s new novel Lionel Asbo: State of England. Amis, Robson reminds us, for all that he is credited with importing the rhythms of the modern American novel into English fiction, “started off as a neo-Dickensian”. Lionel Asbo, Robson writes, is “a more or less straight piece of updated Dickens pastiche” – albeit one that is “at least as interested in race as class”. This is, Robson concludes, “is a contentedly throwaway piece of work, as can be deduced from the almost complete absence of reflections on physics, fascism and the waning powers of the middle-aged novelist”.

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to historian Peter Hennessy about his new book Distilling the Frenzy. A substantial portion of the book is devoted to an examination of the office of prime minister, one of the defining paradoxes of which is that it has a tendency to “overmightiness”, even though the occupants of No 10 rarely feel powerful. Hennessy agrees, though observes that “those who are on the receiving end of excessive prime ministerialism certainly feel it”. On the two great “command premierships” of the postwar period, Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s, Hennessy says: “There’s a difference. Margaret liked to get her way after a bloody good argument. Tony didn’t like the argument … And that’s a big difference.”

Also in Books: John Gray reviews Anthony Beevor’s “utterly absorbing” The Second World War; Peter Wilby on How England Made the English by Harry Mount; Helen Lewis on Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet by Andrew Blum; and Alex Preston on Simon Mawer’s novel The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey assesses the career of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 30 years after the German director’s death; Antonia Quirke is entranced by Newshour on the BBC World Service; Will Self examines the subtle relationship between irony and snobbery; Alexandra Coghlan goes to Glyndebourne; and Rachel Cooke wades through a weekend’s worth of Jubilee programming on television.

Neo-Dickensian: Martin Amis (Photo: Getty Images)
NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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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