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30 August 2023

From Daljit Nagra to Charlie Porter: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring National Dish by Anya von Bremzen and Metropolitan by Andrew Martin.

By Anna Leszkiewicz, Ellen Peirson-Hagger, Michael Prodger and Matthew Gilley

Bring No Clothes: Bloomsbury and the Philosophy of Fashion by Charlie Porter
Particular Books, 368pp, £20

The lives, work and parties of the Bloomsbury Group have been exceedingly well documented in literary biography: is there any more to say? Charlie Porter, in his group portrait Bring No Clothes, hopes that homing in on a specific element of the group’s eccentricity – their philosophy of style – will allow him to “tell a different story of Bloomsbury, one that cuts away the myths and gossip, letting its characters reveal more of themselves whether we like what is revealed or otherwise”.

As that last phrase suggests, there is some moral hand-wringing in Porter’s book – he is at pains to highlight the set’s “immense privilege”, anti-Semitism and colonial sympathies. But he also clearly enjoys their company – exploring how Virginia Woolf’s loose, long-line garments, John Maynard Keynes’s “soft tailoring”, Vanessa Bell’s wildly colourful home-made dresses, photographs of a naked Duncan Grant, and the gradual loosening of EM Forster’s buttoned-up suits all demonstrate the radicalism of a group of people determined to live differently.
By Anna Leszkiewicz

National Dishby Anya von Bremzen
Pushkin One, 352pp, £22

In this lively blend of travelogue, food writing and cultural critique, Anya von Bremzen explores the idea of the “national dish”. The popular origin story of the margherita pizza states that it was named for the queen who ate a tricolore pie on a political visit to Naples in 1889. But on Von Bremzen’s stay in the city, she discovers that that is a myth, a marketing ploy thought up by a pizzeria’s owners. Anyway, the pizza is “ur-universal”, related to the Indian naan, the Mexican tortilla and the Arabic pita. Can it truly be called Italian at all?

Von Bremzen consults chefs, restaurateurs and historians as she travels from Oaxaca to Tokyo. Most pertinent are the sections in which she reflects on her own family history. Von Bremzen was born in Moscow in the 1960s and fled the USSR as a teenager. At home in New York City, she hears the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and cooks borsch, the beet soup that both countries claim as their own. Intent on “decolonising” borsch from herself, she practises her Ukrainian to search Google for an authentic recipe, and in doing so calls for food preparation, writing – and of course eating – to be treated with greater political significance than we typically give it.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

[See also: A comic story of Britain]

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Metropolitan: An Ode to the Paris Metro by Andrew Martin
Corsair, 244pp, £16.99

The thing about Paris, writes Andrew Martin, is that its beauty is “perpetuated underground” in the Metro. As the architect Charles Garnier wrote to the French ministry of public works in 1886, Parisians would only take to the Metro “if it rejects absolutely all industrial character so as to be completely a work of art”. From the floral art deco street-level entrances to the spare white and blue colour schemes, the station designers did their best to live up to the stricture.

Martin is the author of a series of crime novels set on the railway and this personal account of the Metro – a name taken from London’s Metropolitan Railway – is decorated with the aperçus of a true aficionado. He notes that the boxy shape of the carriages encourages standing, delights in the public address system calling passengers “chers voyageurs”, and recounts that the pioneer of the whole system was the philosopher Blaise Pascal, who in 1662 sought permission from the Sun King to establish a network of timetabled horse-drawn carriages. Would-be flâneurs, suggests Martin, should head not for the boulevards but beneath them.
By Michael Prodger

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Indiom by Daljit Nagra
Faber & Faber, 178pp, £14.99

Daljit Nagra’s debut collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover! (2007), established him as a poet of distinctive satirical, mischievous energy. Indiom extends this style into an epic. A cast of “Indic heritage” poets (referencing existing characters and real poets) gather to discuss Nissim Ezekiel’s controversial poem Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa TS (1976), written in “Babu”, an Indian English voice associated with the servants of empire. Is it offensive and patronising? Can vernacular writing enable satire, resistance and authentic expression?

It seems clear where Nagra’s sympathies lie. His characters speak in a joyful polyphony of voices. While his last collection, British Museum, presented him as a potential poet laureate, this is maximalist anarchy. There are digressions and surreal adornments, taking in class politics, food culture, love. Samuel Taylor Coleridge appears. As does Apu from The Simpsons, in dialogue with Apu from Satyajit Ray’s classic films. The range of voices and metres can be bamboozling, but the wit carries the reader along. Trying to discern one meaning is fruitless anyway. As one character says: “Sound & sense are tectonic,/thus any layer of phonic or semantic/can consanguineously coexist.”
By Matthew Gilley

[See also: The revenge of Theresa May]

This article appears in the 30 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Tax Con