Gruff Rhys live at the Barbican, London. Bertrand Langlois/Getty Images.
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Reviews round-up | 1 July

The critics’ verdicts on Tristram Hunt, Gruff Rhys and Leslie Jamison.

Ten Cities That Made an Empire by Tristram Hunt

Tristram Hunt’s impressive CV as television historian and lecturer turned Labour MP is more master than “jack of all trades”, judging by the recent reviews of his latest book Ten Cities That Made an Empire. Hunt’s analysis of the rise and fall of the British Empire travels meticulously and ambitiously through different cities, beginning at the Boston Tea Party and ending with the impact of Liverpool’s vast exports.

The particular cities selected by Hunt for analysis, ranging from Dublin to Calcutta, are censored by the Independent, with Justin Huggler remarking “this is not a comprehensive survey of the British Empire. It barely touches on British colonialism in Africa beyond Cape Town ... or the Middle East, and Singapore only gets a mention in the Hong Kong chapter.” Surely one of the inevitabilities of a BuzzFeed-worthy format of ten cities is the limited number, and as the Observer's Robert Service concedes, “No book can deal with everything”, proving that what Hunt may lack in breadth he makes up for in depth.

Hunt’s objective approach to sensitive matters such as the slave trade and other debilitating aspects of colonialism is derided by The Observer as “a middle position between the two sides” adding that Hunt “dislikes any cut-and-dried analysis that suggests that the effects of British rule were wholly good or wholly bad for the subject peoples.” Michael Gove’s support of Hunt in the Times takes the view that the historian’s distanced narrative is “clever, stylish, carefully balanced ideologically so as not to give offence to vigorous partisans on either side of the debate and a pleasure to spend time with.” Hunt’s impartial gaze, while frustrating for some, demonstrates that his interest lies not in the dichotomy of condemning or rejoicing the British Empire but instead on exploring how colonialism transformed the urban landscape.

American Interior by Gruff Rhys

On an “investigative concert tour” throughout the USA, Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys retraces the journey of his distant ancestor, John Evans, who sought to find the Madogwys, a fabled tribe of Native American Welsh-speakers. Although Evans never found the Madogwys, during his journey up the Mississippi river he created a map which would be used by Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition and, two centuries later, plots the points for Gruff Rhys’ own artistic journey in American Interior.

Rhys’ ambitious project takes a multimedia approach, appearing in four forms: book, album, film, and app, all named American Interior. Each form allows Rhys to tell the tale of his and Evans’s parallel journeys from a different angle. The book was praised by the Independent’s James Attlee as “charming and entertainingly written”, while the Guardians John Harris applauds a book which “brims with verve and fascination”. Harris recognises the risks of Rhys’ project: relating two journeys separated by two centuries “could easily go wrong”, but Harris assures the book “actually soars, thanks to three things: the strength of Rhys’s writing, his talent for finding the extraordinary among the mundane and his grasp of the subject.”

Yet, for Paul Lester of the Express, John Evans’s journey is overwhelmed by historical detail, leaving the reader’s mind “scrambled by all the dates and names.” Lester describes the book as an “avalanche of minutiae” and “a barrage of facts, albeit leavened with Rhys’ wry humour and neat turns of phrase.” Lester’s lukewarm response shows that with ambition comes the risk of failure. Gruff Rhys, like John Evans before him, is mapping out new territory.

In the London Review Bookshop on July 15th, Gruff Rhys will be in conversation with Iain Sinclair, discussing the project.

The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison’s ruthlessly honest book studies the emotional and physical complexities of pain, grounded as it is in personal anecdotes which aim to avoid over-generalisation. There is no thought she appears to censor, revealing that before an abortion she told herself to “answer every question like you’re clarifying a coffee order”, leaping onto other essays about breakups, visiting prison inmates and getting her nose broken by a man who stole her purse in Nicaragua.

Former NS features editor Sophie Elmhirst, writing in the Financial Timesplaces Jamison in an “alternative tribe – patron saint, David Foster Wallace – who try to encounter the world more gently.” Jamison attempts to write and live according to empathy, concluding one essay: “I want our hearts to be open.” Elmhirst sees Jamison “surprising even herself with the Disneyish sentiment” in a review which is affectionate towards and impressed by the “winningly honest” Jamison. However, the Guardians Brian Dillon takes issue with the sincere, sermon-like call for open-heartedness “Too many essays conclude, as “Grand Unified Theory” does, with trite expressions where it seems the expectations of the well-formed lit-mag essay have pressed too hard”. For Dillon, while Jamison’s attention to vulnerability is “exceptional”, solidifying her place in the “alternative tribe” of empathy, The Empathy Exams is “more of a retreat at the level of thought than that of style.”

Jamison’s work is repeatedly compared with Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls due to its popular culture references and unashamedly confessional tone. Her unique blend of inspiration, ranging from Axl Rose to Charles Dickens, is criticised by the New York TimesDwight Garner who commented that “one or two of her lesser essays find her swinging too frequently from quotation to quotation, as if from vine to vine.” Yet Garner ultimately defends Jamison’s mix of gory personal injuries - such as a maggot-infested ankle - with cloying clichés, concluding that “the prose contains not a shred of self-help imbecility.” The originality of Jamison’s self-criticism may inadvertently lead to some soul-searching of your own.

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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