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Punch is a survivor’s drink - and one that cannot be drunk alone

So convival is traditional punch that even its five ingredients party together in the bowl.

January is a time for conviviality, for turning inwards with congenial company and shouldering out the cold. Some will tell you it is the time to detox, but it is always the time to detox, and your liver and kidneys are busily obliging as you read. No: January is the moment to remind ourselves, after the forced closeness of Christmas, what we like about other people, particularly those to whom we are not related.

You have just lived through a season of insanity, where even anti-capitalist atheists find themselves celebrating the birth of a human deity via a Sinai-size stack of presents; it is time to break out the punchbowl and knock yourself up a potent toast to your survival.

Punch is a survivor’s drink. It is older than the cocktail by at least 200 years – a gift from India (the name comes from panch, Sanskrit for five) that became the tipple of imperial merchants, Regency maidens, Tory toffs and press-ganged sailors. It is also the most convivial of potions: even the five ingredients party together in that shining bowl, with no harsh shakings or mischievous stirrings to interrupt the intercourse. Around a large ice cube, sweet and sour come together for mutual benefit, while power consorts with nature and the past finds accommodation with the present.

The peels of four lemons are left in sugar for a week, then made sherbet by the addition of the lemons’ juice; to this is added water, without which we cannot live, and strong alcohol, without which some of us wouldn’t want to. Grate a quarter of nutmeg on top and you have a blend of sweetness, spiciness, simplicity and strength, along with a strong dose of civilisation, for in the ancient world no civilised man would have dreamed of drinking alcohol without cutting it with water.

There is healthfulness, too: in the 17th century, when this exotic drink washed across the Western consciousness, nutmeg, a luxury foodstuff worth 300 times the price of gold, was also thought to ward off plague; citrus was, all unknown, preventing scurvy; and rum was proven to be the cure for all evils – at least if you were a sailor, vulnerable to exploitation and homesickness.

Punch is a drink that cannot be drunk alone, or even à deux unless, like Romeo, you are planning never to get up again. As my punch guru, Aaron Jones of Banks rums, upended an entire bottle of his company’s product into the bowl, before adding a litre of water and that tangy, oily, sugar-lemon sherbet mix, it became apparent that this was the ideal way to soak dry January to the eyeballs. Banks is named after Sir Joseph, an eminent 18th-century botanist who surely appreciated the luxurious flavour of nutmeg; he was also a member of the Society of Dilettanti, a group of art lovers better known for loving drunkenness. I bet they drank punch. 

Jones kept reminding me of punch’s chronological superiority to the cocktail, but it has other advantages. The cocktail is the tipple of individualists, as befits a drink (or several) designed to combat Prohibition; punch requires a like-minded society, prepared to blend its differences, at least enough to drink the same thing. Mellow conversation over a fine common beverage is precisely what I’m after in these dark and chilly days. And so my friends and I raise our punch cups to you, and wish you an agreeable 2018, with plenty of insobriety, and just enough spice. 

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 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

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