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Reviewed: Assorted programmes on Radio 4 and Radio 3

Listening on a loop.

Assorted programmes
Radio 4 and Radio 3

From my sick bed, everything sounded suspiciously, lip-curlingly familiar. With the single exception of the actor Adrian Lester talking about playing Rosalind in As You Like It when he was 23 (Who Was Rosalind? 4pm, 18 February). After weeks of failing in rehearsals with Cheek by Jowl “pretending to be a girl” he realised that if he was actually “a girl like him” he would feel predominately flatchested, tall and insecure, and then he immediately found the crucial speed of the part. (Ted Hughes: “The real power of a play is never in the language – though the language might make it a powerful poem. The dramatic power is always in the action.”)

But surely familiar was the episode of The Essay on winter walks, with the writer Deborah Levy working her way up London’s Holloway Road in a thick snow pleasantly dulling passing petrol fumes. She considered the bygone journey taken by cattle and sheep down this road towards the meat markets of Smithfield (geese also made this journey on foot, their delicate feet coated in tar and sand as makeshift shoes). Levy described the first recorded deliberately frozen food, a chicken optimistically stuffed with snow 400 years ago by a man who then died of a cold before being able to fry up the winglets, which even fast-food naysayers have to admit are incontrovertibly from actual chickens and delicious, however down-in-the-beak.

Yes, this was familiar! Was this a repeat? A high and mighty exchange with the Radio 3 press office as soon as dawn broke sought reassurance that The Essay, the five-weekly late-night short monologues going since 2007, is not now leaning on repeats because of the cuts. (That’s approx 1,200 essays, I calculated through the night, Nancy Drewishly narrowing my eyes. Hmmmm, that’s a lot of potential repeats. This trend must be exposed!). Turns out that winter walks was not in fact a repeat, although next week’s series on the subject of insomnia is, and that there have always been repeats of The Essay, but they are not remotely on the increase. Always been repeats? I’ve never noticed a single one!

I only tell you this to assure you how alert your correspondent is as she sits on the sofa flicking between Magic FM and Radio 4 Extra (radio reviewing at its purest) wearing the profoundly inconvenienced expression of the hard at work.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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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