From Rough Spirits & High Society. Picture: BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD
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Winter warmers: the best drink books of 2017

Featuring histories and tasting guides, booze-soaked memoirs, and a global tour of natural wineries.

It may be some compensation for the drinker decrying the difficult 2017 vintage (and the tiny quantities of wine it has given us) that this year has produced a bumper crop of drink books. There are histories and tasting guides, booze-soaked memoirs and a global tour of the most successful wineries caught up in the current craze for organic, natural and biodynamic practices.

This last is probably the most needed: as Jane Anson admits in Wine Revolution (Jacqui Small, £25), there aren’t any rules governing the designation of natural wines, so a celebration of the people making great wines while respecting the planet seems timely. Anson keeps in mind that most of us want something to drink with our supper, rather than a dissertation on winemaking styles; she taps sommeliers as well as winemakers for recommendations on food-matching and divides her wines by style. This has the advantage both of making the book more navigable and signalling the amount of alcohol you’re likely to encounter: a “fresh, crisp white” being less likely to knock you out than a “full and warming red” – although there are plenty of the latter here too, so you can lose consciousness with a good conscience.

The book – which looks gorgeous, too – is an extremely useful and well written compendium that, unlike a lot of writing on these new practices, never descends into finger-wagging or sanctimony.

Nobody could accuse Rachel McCormack’s Chasing the Dram (Simon & Schuster, £16.99) of sanctimony, either. A Scot who has spent years in Barcelona and London, McCormack loves whisky and hates the traditional food accompaniments, which range from bad pies to peanuts. She blames this on the tradition of whisky as a man’s drink, and sets out to change things, dragging friends along on a whisky-drinking odyssey and suggesting dishes to accompany their drams.

McCormack is about as interested in promoting the heather-dotted, loch-drenched stereotype of Scotland as an 18th-century whisky smuggler was in filing a tax return, and sometimes this, allied to a headlong writing style and a willingness to share the most disappointing or pointless elements of her journey, can leave the reader a little deflated. But then she will wax lyrical on flambé, or give serious consideration to a toke on a massive joint en route to Johnnie Walker’s grave in Kilmarnock. There is surely room, in an industry where rarified special editions sell for thousands, for a grumpy Scottish cookery writer who can, by her own admission, only afford supermarket blends, but knows a decent dram when she gets her hands on one.

Another idiosyncratic look at hard liquor is Ruth Ball’s Rough Spirits & High Society (British Library, £16.99). Ball, founder of a company that makes bespoke liqueurs, is interested in the public spaces where, historically, drink has been consumed. She draws careful class distinctions: inns and taverns for the wealthy, alehouses and gin shops for the poor, the suffragette drinking tea while discussing votes, the gentry fomenting political rebellion over coffee in private clubs.

The book is published by the British Library, which first contacted Ball to create a liqueur that evoked the smell of old books: she achieved this by blending musty citrus with vanilla. The library’s involvement means the illustrations are sumptuous: every page has something delightful, from a mischievous painting of a 13th-century French monk tippling from the barrel to a Cruikshank cartoon on fighting in the coffee shop.

For serious scholarship on drink’s history, turn to Rod Phillips. This Canadian historian has already written a “short” history of 9,000 Years of Wine; now he takes on the greatest wine-producing nation. French Wine: A History (University of California Press, £27.95) begins with the Etruscans, Greeks and Romans and progresses all the way to modern debates around terroir and the decline of French wine-drinking in favour of – whisper it – water.

The wine that the masses previously quaffed so enthusiastically was at best rotgut and at worst actually poisonous. In 1794, the new post-Revolutionary authorities analysed samples of “wine” from 68 bars and taverns. The tally of actual wines was eight. Since the disaster of phylloxera, the vine-killing louse that arrived in the 19th century, French vineyards have not reached their previous extent; still, over-production inspired a 1930s campaign to persuade the French to drink more (and they already drank plenty: 121 litres per capita, the highest figure in the world). Doctors advocated wine’s health benefits; children were taught wine regions in geography. None of which prevented the decline in quantity, even as quality rose to a standard no medieval baron, much less peasant, would have believed possible. This is addictively readable history, Phillips’s easy style backed up by formidable research.

Lastly, an indispensable guide to wine appreciation: Michael Schuster has updated his award-winning Essential Winetasting (Mitchell Beazley, £18.99). As well as grapes and styles, there are techniques from winemaking to decanting, and Schuster is not above the use of a piece of Parmesan to enhance the reader’s understanding of tannin. The updates include more on blind tasting and on organic, biodynamic and natural winemaking, though Schuster has the practical man’s impatience with trendy nonsense: “Wine no more makes itself,” he says of so-called minimal intervention, “than an egg boils itself.” 

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 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist