Fact: in 18th-century London, one in every four people drank a pint of gin a day. Image: Look and Learn/Peter Jackson Collection/Bridgeman Art Library.
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Nina Caplan on gin: beyond the dark old heart of mother’s ruin

Reams have been written about the British empire, but one culprit in the colonisation project has yet to receive its fair share of blame.

In a charming turquoise hotel in south Malaysia, I spotted a familiar-shaped bottle with an unfamiliar label. The Majestic in Malacca was built as a Chinese tycoon’s mansion in the 1920s; the place probably didn’t have a cosy boozing nook with mahogany bar just inside the front door in his time, but that’s progress.

He might, however, have had a bottle of Tanqueray, in the unlikely event that he was a gin enthusiast, as it’s been around since the 1830s. This particular Tanqueray, with its khaki label and white lettering, is a recent creation, a softly cinnamon homage to the firm’s founder, Charles, who turned his back on the family business – the church – to distil gin. It is named for the city of Malacca, which was once the hub of a commercial activity as lucrative as slavery and a lot more glamorous: the spice trade.

At that gleaming bar, I sipped a pink gin, or Gin Pahit (gin and bitters – pahit meaning “bitter” in Malay), and considered the colonies. Reams have been written about the British empire but one great culprit in the colonisation project rarely receives its fair share of blame: gin. Without quinine, malaria would have felled the conquerors; without gin to alleviate the bitterness of this highly effective anti-malarial, the soldiers would have refused to down their medicine.

The Spanish went to the Andes and found the cinchona tree, the bark of which turned out to contain an acrid but exceptionally useful substance. The British planted the tree in their Indian colony and attempted to sweeten that bitter bark with sugar, water and lemon: the resulting “tonic” turned out to be much more palatable when dosed with gin. Halfway down my second Pahit, I still can’t work out which is more peculiar: that those long-ago soldiers needed booze to persuade them to protect themselves from an often fatal disease? Or that a spirit so lethally popular that a quarter of mid-18th-century Londoners averaged a pint of the stuff a day was enlisted to save the lives of those same poor people – the ones who became foot soldiers in the Imperial British Army? The ability to withstand malaria helped Britain to conquer half of Africa and keep India subjugated (more or less). So much misery, engendered by one of the world’s most inspired taste combinations.

Of course, gin – invented by the 16th-century Dutch to “cure” kidney disorders – is merely vodka colonised by juniper and other botanicals and spices. Old Raj gin contains saffron, that precious crocus-stamen, naturally grown in India; and if you pour me a generous measure and top it up with an anti-malarial, I’ll refrain from complaining that the Raj – India’s name for the British crown – is old, and that my evening tipple is not improved by tautology. Instead, I’ll raise my glass to that Old Rager, the Queen Mother, who was known to be un-averse to gin and survived on the stuff to the age of 101.

As my contemplations appear to have brought me home from the colonies just in time for a preprandial, I will briefly turn my attentions to a rather more local spirit: Warner Edwards gin, made in Northamptonshire by two chums who met in agricultural college, the finest martini gin it has been my pleasure to upend in a very long time. The water is local; the main botanicals are not. Juniper, coriander and cardamom could all tell a richly scented tale of adventure and encroachment, precious powders bartered or stolen, and enormous fortunes, like golden milestones, marking treacherous roads to Elsewhere.

The stories probably make better reading than they did living, particularly for the indigenous peoples encroached upon. Colonies, thank goodness, are mostly out of fashion; gin, thank a higher power still, is not.

On 13 May, Nina Caplan was named Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the year for her New Statesman columns

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 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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The film for The Lost City of Z was flown back from the jungle – and it was worth it

Based on David Grann’s book about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, the film is a beautiful, diligent portrait. Plus: Aquarius.​

Two ravishing new films with a Brazilian flavour are generous not only in length (two and a half hours apiece) but in wisdom and wonder. The Lost City of Z is based on David Grann’s book about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, who embarked in 1906 on a Royal Geographical Society expedition, only to become entranced by the legend of an advanced Amazonian civilisation. Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, delivering his lines in a mesmerising whisper) is drawn repeatedly to the jungle with his aide-de-camp, Henry (Robert Pattinson), interrupting these quests only to fight on the Somme or to return to England to impregnate his patient wife, Nina (Sienna Miller).

Fawcett raises hackles by arguing against the characterisation of the indigenous people as savages and the film repeats this democracy of spirit visually, making no distinction in mystique and allure between the various locations. Devon looks as delicious as Bolivia or Brazil; the mood in the wood-panelled conference room where Fawcett is reprimanded for abandoning one of his party is as treacherous as the depths of the jungle. This creates a continuity between the various worlds, rather than making one exotic at the expense of the other.

James Gray, who writes and directs, retains the unfashionable preference for film over digital which has defined his previous work (moody, mumbly dramas such as We Own the Night and Two Lovers). The picture was shot by Darius Khondji on 35mm, even though that added over half a million dollars to the budget and meant the footage had to be flown thousands of miles from the Colombian rainforest locations to be processed. It was worth it. The dense colours are soaked deep into the grain of the filmstock. They tell a story not available in pixels.

Gray’s screenplay weighs Fawcett’s bravery against his intolerance of ­fallibility, his racial progressiveness against the short-sightedness of his sexual politics. When Nina asks to accompany him, it’s more than he can stomach. “Men and women have performed their roles since the beginning of time,” he fumes. All at once a man fighting social orthodoxy takes cover beneath its privileges. Nina is framed against the tangled blue flowers of the wallpaper; that’s the closest she will get to his adventures. And yet it is she who invokes Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto” to urge her husband on: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?”

The diligent direction hints that Gray was aiming for the level of scrutiny found in Barry Lyndon, an impression supported by a talismanic cameo from Murray Melvin, who starred in Kubrick’s 1975 film. Barry Lyndon pops up, too, in Aquarius: the distinguished music writer Clara (the incredible Sônia Braga) has a poster for the movie in her Recife apartment. She lives alone but not lonely, visited by her adult children and attended to by a long-serving maid, Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto). A more unwelcome interruption comes in the shape of the property developers who want Clara, the last ­resident in her block, to sell up and move out.

We already know she is formidable. She wears her mastectomy scars defiantly, and the opening scene establishes that her anthem is Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”. With her black hair scraped severely into a bun, and her lips on the verge of a wicked laugh or a vinegary screw-you sneer, Clara is a tenacious warrior. Yet in these businessmen who hide their desires behind tight smiles and veiled threats, she may have met her match.

Aquarius is a leisurely character study that is also urgently political in its treatment of race, class and commerce. Its Brazilian director, Kleber Mendonça Filho, who started out as a critic, has a gift for translating psychological states into cinematic language. His
use of dissolves is haunting, his placement of figures in the frame expressive, and his zooms make you swoon. No detail escapes his eye, from restless feet jiggling under the table on a girls’ night out to strands of hair caressed by the breeze at a late-night party.

The film’s main symbol is a chest of drawers, crammed with layers of memory to which only we have been given access. It represents the sort of history that is in danger of being trampled by people who believe every principle has a price tag. The beach outside warns of shark attacks but the deadliest predators come in human form.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution