In the Critics this Week

In the Critics section of this week's NS, Laurie Penny interviews Neil Gaiman, Jude Rogers plugs in to Lorde and Ian Sansom is fascinated by Georges Simenon's Maigret.

This week’s critic at large is Laurie Penny, who interviews the ever-popular Neil Gaiman. Gaiman says that the real problem with such a degree of popularity is the inability to write it produces: he cannot find time to be a “writer”, rather he is a “traveler, a signer, a promoter, a talker, a lecturer.” Nevertheless, he has found the time to write not only one but two books: Fortunately, the Milk… a children’s book about the wild tales a father tells to his children to explain why he is late from the shops and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, an adult horror story about a bookish, lonely child who meets ancient monsters at the bottom of the neighbour’s garden.

Ultimately, Penny seeks to discover why Gaiman appeals so much to the lost and alone. She concludes: “More than anything else, Gaiman’s work is about escapism and he appeals to those who long to leave their lives. Which, at some point or another, is almost everyone.” Gaiman recognises this escapism in his work but for him “there’s nothing wrong with escape”.

This is a fascinating interview that, among other things, touches upon the self-reflexive nature of Gaiman’s work, his “personal brand” image that is now being emulated by younger authors - his past with the Church of Scientology and being in a punk band.

Jude Rogers reviews the debut album Pure Heroine by teen sensation Lorde. Her number one single “Royals” was used to herald the arrival of Bill de Blasio, New York City’s new mayor, onto the victory platform on 5 November. Rogers is aware that:

Politicians plumping for youthful aural support is nothing new. Gordon Brown said he “loved” the Arctic Monkeys (his slice of Lester Bangs criticism: “They are very loud”). But with Lorde comes a self-awareness that shimmers in every part of her presentation.

It is this self-awareness that has Roger’s hooked. Lorde sings about the rich-poor divide, she satirises the pop-star world and is “acutely aware of the way in which young people are caricatured.” All in all, Lorde is a refreshingly new voice: a clever female pop star aware of how she can “access and shape the world.”

Never heard of Georges Simenon? Well, you probably will soon, because over the course of the next seven years, Penguin are going to be releasing a new translation of each of his 75 – yes, 75 – Inspector Maigret novels every month. The first one – Pietr the Latvian – has been translated by David Bellos, and author Ian Sansom is a fan. He appreciates the novel for its paradoxical, liminal tone, most particularly that of its “beautiful-ugly”, “exceptional unexceptional”, “delightfully dull” detective protagonist. However, more so than the novel itself, it seems Sansom is fascinated by its author. “If Simenon were the analysand,” he writes, “then Maigret would undoubtedly be the therapist.” Over half the review, in fact, deals with how hedonistic and prolific Simenon was – “a writer with a quantitative career, as well as qualitative achievements”.

 

Also this week, Adrian Smith lauds the new C J Sansom: Dominion - a 650-page counterfactual historical novel which posits a rather big What If. What if, instead of Churchill, Lord Halifax had succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister, and France's surrender in 1940 led to Britain signing a peace treaty with Hitler? Smith and Sansom both hold PhDs in history, and Smith's qualms with the novel's comprehensive research are relatively minor (“Etonians play football not rugby”). The rest of Sansom's alternate timeline is praised as realistic while remaining compelling reading: the Gestapo operate out of the University of London library, Senate House (a building Hitler famously coveted), and blackshirted Fascist Oswald Mosley has become home secretary. Most extreme of all, Hitler assists Enoch Powell fight to retain India for the Empire instead of allowing it independence. However, Smith does note the contentious choice Sansom has made in his speculative portrayal of the Scottish National Party, whose nationalism leads them to collaborate with the Nazis. In the year before Scottish independence goes to the polls, apparently even things that never happened can cause controversy.

This week’s Critics section also features:

  • The Goldsmiths Prize
  • Ryan Gilbey's film critique of The Counselor and Don Jon
  • Downton Abbey and Poiriot according to Rachel Cooke
  • Antonia Quirke on BBC radio 3's Discovering Music
  • An analysis of Rahul Sagar's book Secrets and Leaks: the Dilemnas of State Secrets by Katrina Forrester
  • Neel Mukherjee's review of Penelope Fitzgerald: a Life by Hermione Lee
  • Frances Wilson assessment of John Sutherland's A Little History of Literature and John Freeman's How to Read a Novelist
  • Olivia Laing's examination of White Girls by Hilton Als 
Lorde performs at the VEVO Halloween party in London on 31 October, 2013. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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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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