In the Critics this week

John Gray on Brian Leiter, Leo Robson on Julian Barnes and Kate Mossman on Kylie Minogue.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, our lead book reviewer John Gray reviews Why Tolerate Religion? by the American political philosopher Brian Leiter. “Why treat religiously based claims of conscience as morally privileged, while denying similar exemption to others?” Gray asks. “How such conflicts can be settled is far from clear but Leiter believes there is no reason for giving religions any special standing.” There is nothing special about religion, Gray goes on: “Clinging to beliefs against evidence is a universal human tendency … Toleration means accepting that most of our beliefs are always going to be unwarranted.”

Also in Books: Leo Robson reviews Julian Barnes’s essay collection Through the Window, and is put off by Barnes’s “rivalrous, gossip-minded and passive-aggressive” writerly persona – “Even the most enthusiastic essays here are full of rib-nudges and eye pokes”; Antonia Quirke reviews Richard Burton’s diaries, the “most captivating book of the year”; Vernon Bogdanor reviews Making Thatcher’s Britain, a collection of essays on the legacy of Thatcherism, and The Conservatives Since 1945 by Tim Bale; and David Shariatmadari reviews Sara Maitland’s exploration of the fairy tale, Gossip From the Forest.

This week’s Critic at large is writer and psychotherapist Talitha Stevenson, who asks why so many of the pathologies of modern life are assuming a form previously thought to be peculiar to creative writers. “As a psychotherapist I see people with solicitor’s block and banker’s block and designer’s block and surgeon’s block – and the pain is the same pain in each case.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: NS pop critic Kate Mossman reviews Kylie Minogue’s The Abbey Road Sessions (“Minogue has become a mannequin upon which her fans project grand abstracts like joy, strength, liberation and love”); Matt Trueman reviews Trojan Women at the Gate Theatre and Arab Nights at the Soho Theatre; Antonia Quirke enjoys an episode of Radio 3’s The Essay; Rachel Cooke defends the BBC’s arts presenter Waldemar Januszczak; and Ryan Gilbey welcomes Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt as “a Midwich Cuckoos for the Savile era”.

Kylie Minogue performing in Sydney, 2011 (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/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