Empire of Booze Nooze

I have a book coming out on 3rd November. I am not sure if I have mentioned it. It’s called Empire Of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass. You can order a copy by clicking on the jacket on the right. I’m going to keep readers updated with events and publicity on this page.

I will be giving a talk at Lutyens & Rubinstein in Notting Hill on Tuesday 29th November at 7pm. Lea & Sandeman will be supplying wines. It should be a good evening. You can buy tickets here.

Here is a rundown of some of the publicity that has already appeared. Hopefully there should be more to come.

A little mention in the Drinks Business.

A feature in the Oldie on whether Jesus drank wine or not. You can read it here. Or if you can’t be bothered to read, I’ll give you the short answer, yes, yes he did.

I did a short interview on Vinolent where Joss Fowler said the book was “miles and miles better than I thought it would be.”

Article in Spectator on Champagne’s best customers, the British.

Interview in the Buyer.

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There’s something oddly egalitarian about champagne

This article originally appeared in the Spectator

The British are notoriously cheap when it comes to wine; the average bottle price is around £6. On one wine, however, we’re happy to spend five times that: champagne. We love champagne, and champagne producers love us: Britain is their biggest export market and it’s only getting bigger: up by 4.5 per cent last year.

In fact, champagne as a dry sparkling wine was created specifically for us. Until the mid-19th century, most production from the Champagne region was still red wine. French connoisseurs thought the fizzy stuff rather vulgar. Bertin du Rocheret, a wine merchant, compared it to ‘beer, chocolate and whipped cream’. It would have been a rich yellow wine fortified with brandy; a sort of sparkling sweet sherry, beloved by Russians in particular.

While Veuve Clicquot built her business on the Russian market, others such as Pol Roger saw that the future lay with the expanding British middle classes. Champagne was drunk as a dessert wine in Europe, but the British already had port, sherry or madeira for that so they wanted something before or with the meal. The wine became drier to suit demand.

Better vintages in the 1870s meant riper grapes, which needed less disguising with sugar. The product was becoming more consistent, ripe for mass production. By the 1890s Moët et Chandon employed 1,500-people, held stocks of ten million bottles, owned 20,000 casks and lit their cellars with 30 tonnes of candles a year. Laurent d’Harcourt, président du directoire at Pol Roger, told me that ‘the key to champagne’s success is consistency’. This is achieved today by blending vintages and grape varieties from all over the Champagne region.

The other key is marketing. Pol Roger’s son Maurice visited London in 1899 and sold his wine to hotels, clubs and regiments. Ads featured images appealing to women, such as elegant ladies in Art Nouveau splendour. For men there were saucy showgirls and naughty 1890s gents. Later, Pol Roger became Winston Churchill’s favourite — something they like to mention on occasion. Champagne producers flatter us by saying that they keep their best and driest wine for the discerning British (and it may even be true).

Unlike Bordeaux or Burgundy with their-communes, vineyards and vintages, you don’t need specialist knowledge to buy champagne. You can get Bollinger at the corner shop. Despite its prestigious image, there’s something oddly egalitarian about champagne, which is perhaps why experts are often disparaging about the big brands. The cognoscenti prefer ‘grower champagne’, made by the person who grew the grapes from a specific patch of land, just as in Burgundy. The public care less. ‘The customer just wants magic’, as Laurent d’Harcourt put it to me. There’s a danger that in trying to make champagne more like Burgundy it will lose its greatest strength: its simplicity. What makes this especially true is that the quality of the big brands has never been better. Wine magazine Noble Rot ran a blind taste recently of some of the world’s leading sparkling wines. They were surprised when non-vintages from Pol Roger and Taittinger were placed above their favourite grower champagnes. The top two places, however, weren’t even from Champagne: they were English. Sacré bleu

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Did Jesus drink wine?

This article appeared originally in the Oldie magazine.

Did Jesus drink wine? You’d think the answer would be a resounding hell yes! Just think of the Wedding at Cana or the Last Supper. Then there’s Holy Communion; wine plays a sacred role in most Christian churches. But a couple of years ago I discovered that not all Christians agree.

My wife comes from a family of Southern Baptists who live in Iowa. Her grandparents were missionaries. They do not drink because they believe that the Bible expressly forbids it. I asked my mother-in-law about this and she explained the logic to me: Jesus didn’t turn water into wine in the miracle at the wedding at Cana, he turned it into grape juice.

If I’d been a bit quicker on the draw I would have quoted Psalm 104:15 ‘wine maketh glad the heart of man’ and we could have had a proper Bible quote-off but my Biblical knowledge is a little lacking. So I decided to do some research. It turns out there is a whole branch of writing arguing that the Bible is explicitly anti-alcohol. Pastor John Hamel, an Evangelical preacher from Nashville, writes:  “the fermentation of wine. . .  is a process of decay, which is rooted in death. Satan is the author of death, not Jesus or His Father.” It’s a rather circular argument. And this proscription against fermentation would preclude eating sourdough bread, sauerkraut, salami and cheese which no Christians as far as I know have a problem with.

Far more convincing is the Reverend William Patton’s 1871 work, Bible Wines, which has become the bible of non-alcoholic Christianity. I think this is the origin of my mother-in-law’s point about the Wedding at Cana. According to Patton, the Greek word, Oinos, used in the Gospel of John meant ‘new wine’ which could also mean grape juice. Except that it doesn’t. I spoke with Canon Dr. Anthony Phillips, an expert on Biblical Greek, who told me that it always means wine and that “there is a Greek word for grape juice which is trux but as far as I know it does not appear in the New Testament.” He went on to say “to argue this (grape juice) is what Jesus ordered is specious. Is it seriously suggested that at the Last Supper, Jesus produced grape juice?”

In a climate such as Palestine it would have been nearly impossible to preserve grape juice without fermentation.  Yet William Patton’s book is a picture of a parallel world where rather than make wine, the ancients would have preserved grapes by boiling the juice or pickling whole grapes. But of course they wouldn’t because they would have just turned it into wine.

Wine was ubiquitous in the ancient world. According to wine historian Hugh Johnson the only book of the Old Testament that doesn’t mention wine is Jonah. The usual Hebrew word in the Bible for wine is Yayin. Rabbi Rebecca Qassim Birk confirmed to me that it never means grape juice. Naomi Alderman, a novelist with a good knowledge of Hebrew both ancient and modern, told me “abstaining from alcohol isn’t considered positive in Judaism, in fact there are festivals where you’re actively supposed to drink. No evidence ancient Hebrews drank grape juice, plenty of wine-jar evidence they drank wine!” In present day Armenia they have found remnants of winemaking from 6,000 years ago. Even under Islam, Jewish and Christian communities made and indeed still make wine.

The only reference I could find to total abstinence comes from Numbers: “He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink. . . ” This is the Nazarite vow, a holy order who also vowed not to cut their hair. This is not the mainstream Jewish view of alcohol. John the Baptist was a Nazarite and in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is explicitly contrasted with him: “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil. The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber (oinopotes in Greek literally wine drinker), a friend of publicans and sinners!”  

Unlike with many other things, the message from the Bible on alcohol is clear: drink good, drunkenness bad. For most of Protestant history, this crucial difference was understood. John Milton, the poet laureate of Commonwealth, wrote a paean to the joys of ”spicy Nut-brown Ale” in L’ allegro. Methodists now shun alcohol but the founder of the movement, John Wesley drank wine and was a beer connoisseur. The stereotype of the tight-lipped unsmiling Calvinist is an enduring one yet John Calvin himself wrote “we are nowhere forbidden to laugh, or to be satisfied with food. . . . or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine.’

American Protestantism used to be similarly relaxed about drink. The first crisis of the Pilgrim Fathers when they arrived in America was that they didn’t have any beer to drink. But following independence, the country developed a serious drink problem. In his book The Alcoholic Republic the historian WJ Rorabaugh estimates that the average American in the early 19th century put away a pint of spirits per day. The understandable reaction to such excess was the Temperance movement which flourished on both sides of the Atlantic. Initially this just meant temperance, moderation, but it soon moved to prohibit alcohol entirely. Much of the energy from Temperance came from Evangelical Abolitionists. They’d freed the black man from slavery, now they turned their attention to the working class at home who they saw as enslaved by alcohol. William Patton, author of Bible Wines, was just such a man. The techniques of the anti-slavery movement were used to demonise alcohol: mass petitions, articles placed in the press and striking prints depicting the misery of alcohol, and religiously-infused public meetings.

The roots of Protestant abstinence lie not in the Bible, but in an entirely understandable attempt to stamp out drunkenness. This mass movement later led to Prohibition with all the crime and unhappiness that went with that. One of the problems with this absolutist attitude to alcohol is that it makes drinking something illicit. When eating with my in-laws rather than the bottle of wine at the table I would sneak off for a surreptitious dram of whisky in my room.

From learning a bit about Biblical abstinence,  I am struck by the unyielding certainty of its proponents. They know better than scholars of the ancient world, people with a knowledge of ancient Greek and Hebrew. And yet ordinary Baptists aren’t always so closed off. Earlier this year I had lunch with Spanish winemaker. His wife’s family also didn’t drink for religious reasons. Rather than write an article in the Oldie, he politely discussed it with them. He pointed out that Jesus did indeed drink and showed them the evidence. Rather than falling out with them as I would have if I tried this, they were persuaded and, having been abstinent all their lives, now go on wine tasting holidays with their daughter and son-in-law.  People changing long-held beliefs in the face of evidence? Surely a miracle to rival turning water into wine.

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Wellness is balls and crisps are ace



The above is a short extract from the two page lunch box rules booklet provided by my daughter’s school. Below is an article I wrote for the Spectator about crisps and biscuits. Also you may have noticed that I have changed the title of the blog. This is to reflect it’s role as a place to access all my writing rather than just my musings about booze.

To alleviate the pain of being sent back to boarding school, my mother would make potato crisps for my brother and me. She’d slice the potatoes carefully with a mandoline, lovingly fry them in sunflower oil, let them drain on kitchen towel and then sprinkle with sea salt. They were nice, but I hate to say this Mum, they weren’t as delicious as salt & vinegar Crunchy Fries, a now defunct snack similar to a Chipstick.  I tried adding vinegar to my mother’s crisps but they just went soggy.

When I’m abroad the thing I miss most about Britain is salt and vinegar crisps. Not any of that faux natural kettle chip nonsense but Golden Wonder (far superior to Walkers.) When it comes to crisps, the nation agrees that the classics are best. Earlier this year Richard Osman from the television game show Pointless ran a Word Cup of Crisps. Over one million votes were placed in a competition conducted on twitter. In the final pickled onion Monster Munch triumphed over Wotsits. Monster Munch aren’t even made from potatoes and they’ve never been near an actual pickled onion. They are cooked up in a laboratory and all the better for it. As a child I imagined crisp factories to be wondrous Willa Wonka-esque places full of mad scientists concocting crazy flavours.

In Britain we aren’t noted for our culinary prowess but we are good at processed food. As the first country to industrialise, we were the first to create food for the machine age. Canning brought good quality healthy food high in vitamins and nutrients to the working classes in industrial cities who had no access to fresh produce. Canning preserves fresh foods but soon scientists were creating entirely new kinds of food. Marmite, for example, is a by product of Burton-on-Trent’s brewing industry. It was in biscuit form, however, that industry and food found their apotheosis. McVities founded in Edinburgh in 1830 had a winning streak that ran from Chocolate Digestive in 1925 to 1985 with the launch of the Hobnob, the last great biscuit. They’re still made in factories in Carlisle, Stockport, Halifax, Harlesden and Glasgow even if Mcvities are now owned by a Turkish company.  It wasn’t all British ingenuity however,  flavoured crisps were invented in Ireland by Tayto’s in 1950s. The Irish food aisle in my local supermarket is a wall of Tayto’s. Their salt & vinegar is particularly fine.

When I was growing up crisps were considered a health food. They were made from potatoes, dammit. Well or maize and flavour enhancers in the case of Monster Munch. Plain digestives were positively ascetic. But now our great British foods are under attack. At my daughter’s school they are specifically forbidden from bringing crisps and biscuits in their lunch boxes. The cult of Wellness stalks the land with its pseudo scientific pronouncements against gluten, sugar and ‘processed food.’ We are told that sugar is as addictive as tobacco. Ella Woodward, the Nigella of Wellness, wrote how she became ‘totally-hooked on sugar laden convenience food.’ Jamie Oliver has campaigned successfully for a tax on sugar.

Wellness recipes substitute maple syrup for refined sugar but don’t explain why it’s healthier or more natural. They’re both sucrose and both come from plant sap. The American food writer Adam Gopnik makes a good point when he says ‘every attempt to say what nature wants us to do turns out to be what someone thinks we ought to.’  Cutting out gluten makes even less sense. In fact, unless you’re a coeliac, it’s probably detrimental to your health. There’s a nasty streak of snobbery in the Wellness movement: cheap foods that people like, biscuits, crisps etc are demonised whereas expensive organic foods are considered healthy.  Maple syrup is much more expensive than sugar. The sugar tax will disproportionately fall on the working class, the main consumers of fizzy drinks. In order to cut out gluten, the Hemsley sisters, currently starring in their own series on Channel 4 recommend substituting plain flour, 30p a kilo, with coconut flour at £5.

McVities tried a bit of substitution of their own in 2012 in order to make their digestive lower in saturated fat. Much to the horror of biscuit fans the new ones turned out to be oily and crumbly. There was outcry at teatime across the land and sensibly in 2014 McVities reverted to the old recipe. Classic British biscuits don’t take kindly to improvement. My wife attempted to bake chocolate digestive biscuits using organic  flour and high cocoa fat chocolate. We both took a nibble and agreed that they weren’t a patch on McVities.

The truth is that biscuits taste best when made in a big factory in Harlesden. ‘Processed’ and ‘convenience’ are dirty words nowadays when it comes to food but  I think they should be celebrated. On a sustenance level they have enabled our society to thrive but they can also be something unique and delicious. Bill Bryson referred to the chocolate digestive as “a British masterpiece. “ They’re Britain’s equivalent of Coq au Vin or Linguine Vongole except they’re available in every corner shop in the country. They’re a truly egalitarian delicacy.  So when I pack my daughter off to school with her carrots sticks and sandwiches, I like to smuggle in a couple of digestive biscuits wrapped in tinfoil. It feels like a subversive act and I know they’re good for her.

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After Brexit will we go back to cooking with tinned mushroom soup?


This is something I wrote for Food & Wine, an American magazine, just after the EU Referendum result. It’s entirely speculative but then most Brexit commentary is.

Much of the increasingly bitter arguments over the recent referendum boiled down not to matters of economics or democracy but to food. A friend of mine organised a campaign where Parisians came over to London bearing croissants as if to show us what we’d be missing if we left the European Union. The Sunday Times restaurant critic, A. A. Gill, wrote of how British bread used to be “brittle and gum-lacerating on the outside, hollow sawdust inside.” Now we have “wholemeal, wheat germ, rye, sourdough, poppy seed, caraway, brioche, sandwiches dunked, dipped, spread lasciviously, shared generously, communion.” In short, we’re now better fed, kinder and sexier thanks to the EU. Is this true?

There’s no doubt that food in Britain has improved immeasurably since we joined the European Economic Community (EEC), as it was then called, in 1973. My mother told me how olive oil used to come in tiny bottles at the chemist as a remedy against excessive earwax. Canned mushroom soup was a common ingredient in recipes (I hear this still persists in some parts of the States today.) I can remember a time when in most towns outside London the only decent food you could get after dark was Indian.

So what can we thank for Britain’s improved culinary standards? Immigration has played a big part. The British fell in love in particular with food brought by immigrants from the Indian subcontinent but our slumbering tastebuds were also awoken by cuisine from the West Indies, China, Lebanon, Vietnam, Turkey, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Later in the 00s, millions of Europeans especially east Europeans came to Britain lured by a booming economy. London is now a world city. Down the road from me there’s a row of shops containing two Turkish supermarkets, a pizzeria, a Polish and an Italian delicatessen.

The British began to travel more in the 60s and 70s thanks to cheaper air fares. This exploded in recent years because of airline deregulation. Suddenly a weekend in Barcelona wasn’t so expensive. There we discovered that tapas didn’t have to come out of a microwave. Improvements, however, also came from home-grown chefs such as Marco Pierre-White, Gordon Ramsay and Fergus Henderson who demonstrated that British food could be world class. Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson showed the home cook how to make good simple food from scratch without a can of mushroom soup in sight. Britain became a much more affluent country in the 80s and 90s and people aspired to an Italian lifestyle.

We have the EU to thank for airline deregulation. Being a member also made it easier for people and goods from the continent to come to Britain though there was a sizeable European immigration before joining. It’s interesting to note though that it was Australian wine in the 80s and 90s that finally turned Britain into a wine drinking nation. Australia, a country about whose food even the British were sniffy about, has become a culinary destination without joining a bureaucratic superstate. The improvement in British coffee over the last 10 years is mainly down to baristas from the Antipodes. Food in America also improved drastically in the same period though you wouldn’t know from eating out in Harlan, Iowa.

So what’s going to happen when Britain leaves? There’s a lot of panicky articles being published at the moment but nobody really knows. Noone even knows when Britain will leave let alone what will happen afterwards. We hope that the politicians both British and EU can come to a sensible arrangement.  After all Britain is a massive market for European goods.

A big worry is the current uncertain status of EU nationals in Britain. Poles and Romanians in particular are vital for the functioning of the country’s food supply. They’re fruit and vegetable  pickers, drivers, butchers, waiters and bar staff. The country would grind to a halt without them. Worrying too is how the pound has fallen since the 23rd June making imported goods more expensive. Add that to the possibility of  tariffs on European food and I think though it’s safe to predict that the price of food and wine from the EU will go up.

The EU for all the benefits it has brought to members, is a protectionist trading bloc. Leaving should mean access to cheaper food from the rest of the world. Good for consumers but also good for Third World farmers. Also on an optimistic note, leaving the EU might end the current curry crisis in Britain. Due to targets imposed on non-EU immigration, there is a shortage of chefs from  the Indian subcontinent. Apparently east Europeans  just can’t be taught to make a good curry and British Asians (ie from the Indian sub-continents) don’t want to work long hours for low pay.  The other group looking forward to leaving are fisherman. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy meant that every country in Europe had access to British waters, disastrous for fish stocks.

Don’t forget that home-grown food has improved hugely since 1973. Our daily bread, cheese, and sausages are so much better than they used to be. It’s a time of great worry and uncertainty, but whatever happens, I predict that we will still be able to buy good buttery croissants and there’s no chance in hell that we’re going back to cooking with canned mushroom soup.

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Did King Arthur’s father sell dodgy wine?

On holiday I watched Monty Python’s Holy Grail for the first time in years. Unlike most of their stuff, it’s actually still very funny. Whilst watching the taunting Frenchman bit below, I had a bit of an epiphany. Elderberries were traditionally used to bolster the colour in wine. If your vintage was a little week, a load of elderberries would quickly make the wine appear much richer. Port was often bought on colour alone so eldeberries were a good way of tricking (usually British) merchants. In 1757 the Portuguese Prime Minister, The Marquis of Pombal, passed legislation that made it illegal to plant elderberry bushes within the demarcated port region. It wasn’t just in Portugal, however, these berries were commonly used by merchants in Bordeaux and London to make weedy claret look better. So perhaps the Frenchman in the Holy Grail was actually accusing King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, of selling dodgy wine, a grave insult in France. No idea about the hamster thing though.

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Misadventures in academia with David Lodge.


Image result for david lodge

This article first appeared in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 51, Autumn 2016.

The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach, Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine. Single issues from £11; annual subscriptions from £40. For more information please visit www.foxedquarterly.com

© Henry Jeffreys, Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 51, Autumn 2016.

The philosopher Roger Scruton refers to modern academia as the ‘nonsense factory’. In a recent interview he bemoaned students ‘clogging their minds with nonsense from Deleuze and Foucault when they could be reading Shakespeare’. This was very much my experience studying English Literature at university in the 1990s. The lecturers, rather than imparting a great love of the classics, spouted half-digested bits of literary theory at us. I still shudder when I recall the tortured theorising of writers such as Judith Butler (who won the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest in 1998 for a particularly incomprehensible sentence). Tutorials would consist of discussions of our lecturers’ theories about theory. It was maddening.

Some fellow English Literature students took refuge in drink, drugs or promiscuity. My escape was the novels of David Lodge. Between 1975 and 1988 he wrote Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work, which form a loose trilogy set mainly at Rummidge University, a very lightly fictionalized version of Birmingham where Lodge taught. The first novel, Changing Places, concerns an exchange programme where the stolid and unambitious Philip Swallow from Rummidge swaps with the dynamic, cynical Maurice Zapp from Esseph University in the State of Euphoria (Lodge spent six months teaching at UC Berkeley in the late ’60s).

It is, I suppose, an experimental novel; parts are written in the form of letters, film scripts, flashbacks or newspaper clippings. Don’t let that put you off, though. It’s really a classic fish-out-of-water tale, with the thrusting American baffled by backward Birmingham, and Philip embracing the freedom offered to him by America. Zapp is appalled by cold, pre-central heating England as well as the chilly reception in the English department: nobody talks to him for the first week. Swallow, in contrast, proves an immediate hit in America when he introduces the game ‘Humiliation’ at a faculty party. In it the participant has to name a literary work he hasn’t read, and he gets a point for everyone else who has read it. The way to win the game is to show your ignorance in front of your peers, hence the title.

The sequel, Small World, takes the jet-setting of its predecessor to absurd lengths. There’s a vast cast, and instead of two campuses, it’s set at conferences all over the world: in fact much of the action takes place in aeroplanes and airports. The subtitle ‘An Academic Romance’ gives a clue to the structure. A character defines romance as ‘a pre-novelistic kind of narrative. It’s full of adventure and coincidence and surprises and marvels’, which is an apt summing up of the novel. It consists of a series of quests: the main hero Persse McGarrigle from Limerick pursues his love, Angelica Pabst, around the world while academics compete for that Holy Grail, the UNESCO Chair of Literature, which equals money, status and, best of all, no teaching.

Swallow and Zapp feature, of course, but what ties all the strands together is the Heath Robinsonesque plot where seemingly unconnected events a publisher having an affair with his secretary, for example have distant repercussions and Swallow becomes frontrunner for the ultimate prize. It truly is a small world.

While reading Small World I thought to myself, who pays for all the jet-setting? The answer, at least in Britain, is the taxpayer, and the final part of the trilogy, Nice Work, looks at what happens when an academic goes out into the world of work. Dr Robyn Penrose is sent to shadow Vic Wilcox, manager of a Rummidge engineering firm. Swallow and Zapp have only minor roles this time, for in contrast to its predecessors Nice Work is set in the more realistic world of 1980s Britain, where ‘receiverships and closures have ravaged the area in recent years, giving a desolate look to the streets’. Of course Lodge still manages to have lots of fun by making Penrose an expert on Victorian literature and having her journey echo novels such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South while all the time she denies that literature can ever truly be ‘realist’.

Indeed, one of the pleasures of these novels lies in spotting the literary references. Some are obvious, others less so. At one point in Small World McGarrigle stumbles into a street theatre version of The Waste Land, and his acquisition of his lectureship in a case of mistaken identity echoes Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Lodge’s warring academics and students are all steeped in literature. Swallow’s game, ‘Humiliation’, only works because the protagonists are so well read. An elderly academic, Miss Maiden, says at one point: ‘I respect a man who can recognize a quotation. It’s a dying art.’ One cannot imagine playing this now because people no longer have the same frame of references. (A friend of mine teaches a creative writing course and the only novel everyone on the course has read is Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.)

As well as being an escape, these novels echoed my own struggles with literary theory. Robyn Penrose forces ‘her mind through the labyrinthine sentences of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida until her eyes are bloodshot and her head aches’. I know that feeling. Robyn represents the new wave, the kind of lecturers who taught me at university, whereas Swallow is the old guard, concerned with the primacy of the author’s voice and even believing in the moral power of literature. The trilogy charts the change in English Literature from a study of great writers to a study of writers through the prism of theory or indeed just pure theory. Swallow says in Small World: ‘there was a time when reading was a comparatively simple matter . . . Now it seems to be some kind of arcane mystery, into which only a small elite have been initiated.’

The few novelists who appear, such as Ronald Frobisher, a former Angry Young Man, and Zapp’s estranged wife Desirée, are baffled and isolated by all the theorizing. ‘They both feel intimidated by the literary jargon of their hosts which they both think is probably nonsense but cannot be quite sure.’

Zapp, though of Swallow’s generation, is happy to ride cynically on the back of whatever theory happens to be fashionable at the time: ‘His style of teaching was designed to shock conventionally educated students out of a sloppy reverent attitude to literature and into an ice-cool, intellectually rigorous one.’ This is almost exactly what we were told on day one of our English Literature degree. The problem with this style of teaching is that it’s only applicable to students with a good sound knowledge of literature. This didn’t apply to most of my contemporaries; they hoped to be taught literature and instead they were taught irreverence for something they had never been reverent about. As a character in Nice Work puts it:

The irony of teaching it [theory] to young people who have read almost nothing except a GCE set text and Adrian Mole, who know almost nothing about the Bible or classical mythology . . . the irony of teaching them about the arbitrariness of the signifier in week three of their first year becomes in the end too painful to bear.

These are not just novels of ideas, however. Lodge has a gift for characterization which is particularly apparent in Small World. Well-placed minor characters have strategically important roles and even the most minor characters are portrayed with warmth and flair. There’s Fulvia Morgana, an Italian Marxist, who drives a gold Maserati and holds forth about ‘the necessity of Revolution with her mouth full of sacher torte’. My particular favourites are the Turkish academics, Akbil and Oya Borak, who studied in Hull. A lesser writer would use them as an excuse for some jokes at the expense of this much-maligned town. Instead, back in Turkey now, they miss their old life and on cold winter nights warm themselves with shared memories of Hull, ‘murmuring the enchanted names of streets and shops, “George Street”, “Hedon Road”, “Marks and Spencer’s”’.

Above all these are very funny novels. Much of the comedy comes from their self-awareness but you don’t need to be an English Literature student to get all the jokes. When Morris Zapp is kidnapped by communists in Small World his wife, Desirée, tries to haggle with them over the ransom money. One of the concluding chapters of Changing Places contains a scene that’s pure slapstick: Morris Zapp being chased around a Paternoster lift by the increasingly unhinged head of English at Rummidge, Gordon Masters.

The first two novels also seem alarmingly prescient. There’s a character in Changing Places, Wily Smith, who pretends to be black and is writing a novel about the black experience. Esseph University is desperate to employ more black or native American lecturers so that they don’t seem racist. Small World presents a world transformed by technology: jet travel, direct dialling telephones and Xerox machines, the Internet of the 1970s. Only Nice Work, the most modern of the three, seems dated because it’s so firmly rooted in Thatcher’s Britain. It’s also the only novel where you feel Lodge’s own politics coming to the fore.

Nobody writes novels like these any more. The nearest thing in recent years was Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Which is a shame just think how much fun one could have these days with ‘no platforming’ and ‘safe spaces’ at modern universities. Though perhaps student politics nowadays are beyond parody; and of course the madness of academic theory has percolated into everyday life Facebook has twenty-one terms to define your gender.

Though Lodge satirizes academia, he also loves it. It’s his world, and theory is a game he knows how to play. Small World ends at the MFA, the daddy of all conferences, where a character says that what ‘matters in the field of critical practice is not truth but difference. If everybody were convinced by your arguments, they would have to do the same as you and then there would be no satisfaction in doing it. To win is to lose the game.’ Me, I managed to play well enough to get a decent degree. In retrospect though, I do wish I’d taken a principled stand against ‘the nonsense factory’. It might have livened up those deadly tutorials.

David Lodge’s Changing Places (1977), Small World (1984) and Nice Work (1988) are all available as Vintage paperbacks, each priced at £8.99.

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