Leafy living: the Sun Inn pub in Richmond, south-west London. Photo: Flickr/© Jim Linwood
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Sun-In and John Lewis: growing up in 1980s British suburbia

The setting is suburban posh – we are in Richmond – and the teenagers that stroll and sometimes strut across its pages are privileged types who attend smart private schools.

The House Is Full of Yogis: the Story of a Childhood Turned Upside Down
Will Hodgkinson
Blue Door, 336pp, £12.99 

 

This is a memoir of the Eighties but open it in search of Arthur Scargill and the Wag club and you’ll be disappointed. The setting is suburban posh – we are in Richmond, in south-west London – and the teenagers that stroll and sometimes strut across its pages are privileged types who attend smart private schools. Their idea of rebellion is to go completely mad with a bottle of Sun-In, assuming that the joint they’ve just smoked has not already reduced them to a queasy heap on the bathroom floor. (Sun-In, for those who weren’t there, was the cheap spray-in bleach of choice for wannabe David Sylvians.) Yes, shoulder pads abound. But these come courtesy of the author’s mother, who regards Margaret Thatcher as a feminist role model and has a mania for beige carpets and John Lewis kitchens.

In one sense, then, what befalls the Hodgkinson family in 1984 or thereabouts – the chronology is slightly hazy, this being a book that rather wants for dates – is strikingly out of kilter both with the times and with their sensibility. The yogis of the title, who fill up the house like so many skittles, surely belong to the gentle Sixties rather than to the rapacious Eighties. And the Hodgkinson parents seem at first to be the last people who would fall in love with meditation and white pyjama suits.

Liz Hodgkinson is a tabloid journalist (she is working on the Sunday People as the book opens) who specialises in lifestyle features with titles such as “How to turn your tubby hubby into a slim Jim”. Her husband, Neville, is a medical writer on the Daily Mail, which, then as now, has a reputation for being a somewhat brutal workplace. However, the beady-eyed reader will notice early on that there is perhaps more to Nev than meets the eye. After all, isn’t his favourite album Teaser and the Firecat by Cat Stevens?

The drama begins when Neville falls ill and is sent to Florida to recuperate. On his return, he gives up his job and becomes – who knows why, exactly? – a devotee of the Brahma Kumaris, a spiritual movement established in India in 1937 by a diamond dealer that is now run by women, whose job it is to lead the world away from violence using meditation. For his sons, Will and Tom, this is awkward. It’s embarrassing watching their father gently proselytising to family friends while wearing white pyjamas and it’s miserable always to be given dhal when what you long for is a fun-sized Mars bar. Neither of them understands why Neville spends so much time staring at his “red yogi egg of light”. Tom, at least, would rather stare at his ZX Spectrum computer.

Amazingly, the change in Neville rather suits Liz. When he moves into the basement, in effect putting an end to their physical relationship (celibacy is an important element of Brahma Kumari teaching), she simply churns out yet another feisty self-help book: Sex Is Not Compulsory.

What to make of The House Is Full of Yogis? Hodgkinson, a rock critic at the Times, has a lovely, light style and some of his set pieces are very funny (it’s impossible not to love his account of a family holiday on a boat on the Thames that ends in disaster as Liz, wearing her special captain’s hat, cheerily runs their vessel aground).

He is attentive to the minute social divisions that define the British middle classes – in this world, the posher you are, the more likely it is that your parents will be in possession of a crumbling and unwashed estate car – and he’s good at teenage embarrassment, whether induced by girls or by one’s mother’s bouffant hairdo and deranged gender politics.

Yet there are also moments when his story lags – he tells us, for instance, a good deal more than he needs to about his alternative boarding school – and it’s clear that while he is happy to send up his baffling, contrarian mother, his fondness for his wispy, mild-mannered father precludes a proper examination of his own feelings (or, for that matter, of Neville’s).

There are too many questions he leaves unanswered, not only about the Brahma Kumaris (Neville now lives with them at an Oxfordshire retreat) but about something I regard as far weirder and certainly more disturbing: his father’s role in driving the Sunday Times’s denialist reporting of Aids under its then editor, Andrew Neil. When he finally returned to work as a journalist, Hodgkinson repeatedly questioned the link between HIV and Aids.

I’m not saying that I longed to hear that Hodgkinson Jr had to spend his later life in psychotherapy. In a way, it’s a relief to read a memoir that is so affectionate, so moan-free, so reluctant to apportion blame. But its sweetness – and at times this book is very sweet indeed – needs cutting, if not with the vinegar of disappointment, then at least with the acid of doubt.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

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 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder