In the Critics this week

Rowan Willaims, Ed Miliband, AS Byatt and many others choose their essential reads of the past year, Leo Hollis on London's architectural future

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, the magazine’s friends and contributors choose their books of the year. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, chooses Robert Harris’s financial thriller The Fear Index and the political philosopher Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy as his favourite reads from 2012. Sandel, Miliband writes, “makes a powerful argument that applying market values where they don’t belong . . . can corrode our ideas of right and wrong”. His shadow cabinet colleague Ed Balls, a keen cook, chooses the second volume of Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, singles out If You Sit Very Still by Marian Partington, whose sister Lucy was murdered by Fred and Rose West. “Her spiritual journey . . . is as moving as anything I’ve ever read on such a subject,” Williams says.

Leading novelists offer their choices: AS Byatt praises Jenny Uglow’s Pinecone; Ali Smith chooses Peter Hobbs’s second novel, In the Orchard, the Swallows; Margaret Drabble plumps for Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton; and Colm Tóibín chooses a new edition of The Book of Kells.

Other contributors include: Melvyn Bragg, Tracey Thorn, Alain de Botton, David Willetts, Douglas Alexander, Douglas Hurd, Norman Lamont, Laura Kuenssberg, Jon Snow, Julie Myerson, Joan Bakewell, John Banville and many more.

Elsewhere, Leo Hollis’s architectural review questions the future of Britain’s built landscape. “Already Renzo Piano’s building-objects has come to symbolise the confused and anxious state of the city” he notes of the Shard as he charts the rise of the ‘starchitect’ and questions the government’s plans to “to restart the economy through bricks and mortar”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Rachel Cooke reviews Channel 4’s The Aristocrats, Ryan Gilbey takes a look at Silver Linings Playbook, Alexandra Coghlan on Ceclia Bartoli at the Barbican, Antonia Quirke on Radio 4’s A Place for Us, and Will Self’s Real Meals.

Tha Shard: "the architectural hubris of the previous decade has turned our dreams into steel and glass" according to Leo Hollis (Photo by Jesse Toksvig-Stewart/Getty Images)
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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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