Good mourning with Peter and Wealands

A pair of sulky churchmen give John Humphrys a run for his money

On Sunday Worship (Sundays, 8.10am, Radio 4) guests were having a hard time understanding why Samuel Johnson never rated his home town of Lichfield. "Sadly for us," mourned Canon Peter Wilcox, "he was not always complimentary about his native Lichfield, often finding it cloying and dull compared with the bright lights of London."

But there was much to recommend the town, argued Peter. Take the cathedral itself. Eight hundred years old, three spires, the burial place of St Chav - what was the good doctor on? Wilcox's despair spurred his colleague Canon Wealands Bell into an astonishingly bitter reverie during the homily. "Wanna know what God's like?" Wealands challenged. "Well, watch this space!" He then directed his congregation to look very closely at a crucifix, and specifically the kind you find in a Mexican shrine, with eyes the blue of killer jellyfish, that ooze real blood when nobody is looking.

Such patent sulking is rarely heard this early on Sundays, whereas weekdays on Today, despite the arrival of the as yet très low-temperature Justin Webb, it's Plus ça change, plus c'est le même Humphrys. "I always get it wrong," complained Hmph recently, of having to inform listeners of the programme's web address.

“It's 'forwardslashtoday'. I think," as though it were the first time he'd been challenged to say it, when it's been years now. It's not really that hard, is it, John? Not exactly what a person could define as tricky, but it remains his favourite little whinge. As an affectation, it's almost as annoying as when he had to report on something to do with the rapper Dizzee Rascal, and said the name like he was reading a particularly incomprehensible printout at Bletchley Park, which struck me as a bit rich, coming from someone happy to say "Jock Stirrup" with a straight face on a regular basis.

(PS: Anyway, so I removed the septic tank. Or technically someone else removed it while I stood on the towpath thinking of the words of Haji Umar, who goes back and forth to the local mosque several times a day, occasionally stopping to says things like "What you need now is the Quran" and "All you need is the Quran" while holding a little radio to his ear and endlessly fiddling with the static, tuning and tuning to a station that forever seems to elude him. And I'm never sure if he means "Your life is clearly perfect, but the Quran will make it tip-top" or "For pity's sake, woman, turn to the Quran", but whatever, a couple of hours before they removed the tank Haji had not merely recommended the Quran but added: "Only Allah will know." Cut to the tank swinging on its hoist and sinking down on the pontoon: revolting, but crucially, dearest reader, unbroken. Way to go, Allah!)

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 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken

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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