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Pity the polymath

In Two Minds: a Biography of Jonathan Miller - review.

In Two Minds: a Biography of Jonathan Miller
Kate Bassett
Oberon Books, 488pp, £20

Jonathan Miller has had an astonishing career, from Footlights and Beyond the Fringe to writing about Freud and Darwin. He wrote for the first issue of the New York Review of Books, edited the BBC arts programme Monitor and presented acclaimed television series about psychology and the history of medicine. One of the most distinguished theatre and opera directors of the past half-century, he has directed Gielgud and Olivier, John Cleese and Plácido Domingo, Kevin Spacey and Jack Lemmon. Peter Sellers, Alan Bennett and Michael Redgrave appeared in his 1966 TV production of Alice in Wonderland. Miller has won international acclaim, honorary fellowships and a knighthood.

He also has his critics. ITV’s Spitting Image made fun of his range of talents. In one sketch, he performed a liver transplant while simultaneously making calls to the “national opera” and managing a minicab service on the side.

What is most striking about Miller’s career is not just the achievement but the tensions between success and failure. The most fluent of conversationalists and performers, he has struggled with a stammer since his schooldays and with writer’s block through much of his adulthood. His career is full of books never completed, lectures never given, research never completed. Miller had a three-year fellowship at UCL to write a book about mesmerism, the spiritualist movement and the development of neuropsychological theories. It was never completed. “It seems,” said his lifelong friend Oliver Sacks, “that major ambivalences were involved.”

There is something manic about Miller’s creative energy. In the first seven months of 1991, he worked on six new international opera productions. At the same time, he presented two BBC series and managed to fit in a lecture tour of American colleges. And yet he has always been haunted by his father’s deep sense of underachievement. A distinguished analyst and psychiatrist, Emanuel Miller reared up on his deathbed and pronounced his last words: “I’m a flop!” Despite all the achievements in so many fields, his son has the same enduring sense of failure.

This is linked to a third tension: between Miller’s passion for medicine and science and his career in the arts. When he was interviewed by Jeremy Isaacs on Face to Face, he was asked how he would like to be remembered. Miller answered: for one worthwhile scientific article. However much he has achieved in the arts, he feels that he never made it as a great scientist. That was his true vocation, the path not taken.

All of this is documented in Kate Bassett’s new biography. She has done her research: interviewing numerous people who knew and worked with Miller, from school and university friends such as Sacks and Frederic Raphael to neighbours including Bennett and Claire Tomalin. She has read widely and, as a theatre critic, she is at home with his dramatic work. At times – and this is true of whole chapters – the book reads like a scissors-and-paste job, going from one production to another, with just the occasional anecdote to bring the cuttings to life. There are too many typos and errors and several omissions (at least three programmes I produced with Miller are missing from the chronology). The prose can be clunky and gushing.

Yet the biography’s strengths are considerable. Bassett is good on context (whether 1950s Cambridge science or Gloucester Crescent in the 1960s); she brings to life Miller’s schoolboy passion for science; she dutifully chronicles friendships and feuds and has dug up some real gems – in particular, a story by his mother’s friend, Stevie Smith – with fascinating insights into the young Miller. Bassett is thoughtful about the darker side of Miller’s life, from stammering to depression and the workaholic’s chronic fear of holidays. She is also unusually sensitive to questions about his Jewishness and his sense of being an outsider, someone immersed in Englishness but constantly drawn elsewhere.

In Two Minds is a fascinating account, bringing to life both the highs and lows of Miller’s career. Together with David Thompson’s outstanding Arena broadcast earlier this year, it reminds us of the scale of Miller’s talents. He has been one of the great figures of British culture over the past 50 years.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

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 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis