Books in Brief: Andrew Davies, Robert Graves and Linda Porter

Three new books you may have missed.

City of Gangs: Glasgow and the Rise of the British Gangster
Andrew Davies
 
In the 1920s and 1930s, Glasgow was so riddled with gangs that it was known as “the Scottish Chicago”. Shipbuilding and heavy industry had made the city overcrowded; their decline left it underemployed. Add in sectarian divisions and the conditions were perfect for gangs such as the (Catholic) Savoy Arcadians and the (Protestant) Billy Boys to thrive. Andrew Davies’s book is an account not just of the fear they brought to the streets of Glasgow, but the role of the press in fostering underworld myths and the efforts of the police to control the spread of violence and protection rackets.
Hodder & Stoughton, 464pp, £20
 
Selected Poems
Robert Graves
 
In “Mid-Winter Waking”, Robert Graves writes: “Stirring suddenly from long hibernation,/I knew myself once more a poet/Guarded by timeless principalities . . .” For many modern readers, Graves’s poetry has hibernated beneath his Claudius novels and his memoir, Goodbye to All That. Michael Longley’s selection of his verse – a primer to the Complete Poems – is a reminder that he was not only a friend of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen but a war poet of power and anger, too. After 1918, his many poems about love were also couched in uncompromising terms, and the mythology he expounded in The White Goddess (1948) gives them an extra flavour.
Faber & Faber, 160pp, £15.99
 
Crown of Thistles: the Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots
Linda Porter
 
Mary Stuart’s “fatal inheritance” was the long-standing power struggle between the English and Scottish royal families. Her fatal tussle with her cousin Elizabeth I was just one stage in a battle for supremacy that had started with their grandfathers and would not be resolved until Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, became James I of England. Mary’s life was rich in incident and Linda Porter recounts it with judiciousness and verve.
Macmillan, 424pp, £20 
A woman browses titles at the Leipzig book fair. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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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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