The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain

As a child in the 1950s, Ian Jack hated the depressing tedium of Sundays. No shops were open, no trains ran - every week, for one day, the country stood still. Looking back from a time when Sundays are dominated by "arduous trips to Ikea and jams on the motorways", Jack is bemused. How could those peaceful Sundays, with a quality so missing from contemporary Britain and so longed for, have seemed simply dull?

The essays and columns collected here are fixated on the paradoxes of nostalgia and retrospect: they furrow their brows at the present and look sympathetically, quizzically at the past. The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain confirms Jack as one of those rare journalists whose work has a lasting interest that belies the ephemeral status of its medium.

Jack dusts off old things with the fascinated concentration of an archaeologist at a dig. Objects that speaks to his sense of a more wholesome past - bus conductors, British cherries eaten from a paper bag, a model of the Titanic made out of a coal-based resin, or his father's bookcase, which evokes an era of working-class autodidacticism - are the keys that link his experiences and those of his family to wider historical developments.

The big story here is the decline of Britian as an industrial force, and the effects of this on the working class. Digging through his father's old coal shed (left untouched for twenty years by his widow, Jack's mother) a series of scarcely identifiable tools and objects present themselves (dolly tubs: "a wooden appliance with two arms, and legs or feet, used to stir clothes in a tub"). These remnants of the "departed culture of coal" are viewed with ambivalence - they hark back to a simpler time of industrial prosperity, but Jack is not insensible to the hardships of those - like his mother - whose gruelling task it was to operate the dolly tubs.

So Jack's nostalgia is always more complicated than a sentimental yearning for the old way of life. It is not the passage of time itself that he regrets: some changes are simply inevitable, some beneficial. Jack deplores the privatisation of the railway system not out of some ideological hatred of private enterprise, but because - as he shows with patient, slow-burning anger in "The 12.10 to Leeds", an investigation of the Hatfield crash of 2000 - it created a system of money-saving incentives that compromised the safety of train travel. This urgent and detailed account of the political and economic pressures that precipitated the disaster is one of the book's highlights. Jack leads us through the history of railways and shows just how delicate the iron road can be, requiring the constant vigilance of engineers lest the rails splinter and break.

In rooting out the hidden causes of painful social and cultural change, the essays collected here frequently end on a note of ambiguity. They become more powerful still when they attempt what Jack sees as journalism's most difficult task, and name the guilty men.

Matthew Taunton's "Fictions of the City: Class, Culture and Mass Housing in London and Paris" is published by Palgrave Macmillan

Matthew Taunton is a Leverhulme Fellow in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at UEA, and is currently working on a book about the cultural resonances of the Russian Revolution in Britain.
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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

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 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis