Categories
Books

Is there such a thing as good taste?

In this essay, I put on my thinking beret, stroke my chin and delve into the vexed question of to what extent taste in food and wine is entirely arbitrary.

“Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste.” When Harry Met Sally, Nora Ephron

At a local Chinese restaurant there are asterisks by certain dishes with an explanation underneath that reads simply: “not recommended.” The asterisks appear next to delicacies such as chicken feet or cold jellyfish salad so what I think they mean is not recommended for non-Chinese people. It made me realise that much of what we think of as good taste is cultural. The Chinese appreciate the chewy and the gelatinous, urrggh!, but isn’t it equally strange that we eat what is essentially rotten milk in the form of blue cheese?

classic statue of Socrates

Wine can be equally counter-intuitive. I remember my first glass of claret drunk at Christmas. I expected it to taste sweet and fruity but it was earthy, bitter and full of mouth-drying tannins. Why would anyone drink this? As a student I would grimace my way through French reds rather than the sweet jammy, and lets face it much more appealing, Hardy’s shiraz that everyone else was drinking. Later I drank bone dry fino sherry whilst thinking, is it really meant to taste like  yeasty water? I taught myself to enjoy vermouth and Campari, olives and anchovies. But why?

As humans we naturally crave sugar and salt but bitterness warns us about poison and high acidity means something isn’t ripe. Our tastes, however, can be perverse perhaps because as omnivorous hunter gatherers we had to be adventurous in what we ate. We like spicy food because our bodies produce opiates to counteract the pain in chillies and some have suggested that eating bitter food gives us a frisson of danger.

Many people, however, don’t push their tastes. They don’t want bitterness or astringency and they couldn’t give a toss about a long finish. You can put this down to different palates, some people crave sugar in particular whilst others are abnormally sensitive to bitterness. 

But if I’m being honest with myself there was more than a little snobbery in my acquired enjoyment of difficult flavours. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste wrote that good taste is about getting acceptance from our peers. I worked in the wine trade after university and based my tastes on people I admired, and, importantly, defined them in opposition to people I didn’t.

fannyandjohnnycradock

We think our tastes are timeless but look at pictures of 1970s food especially anything by Fanny Cradock (above with husband and sidekick, Johnny) and tell me they don’t look revolting. And today’s Jackson Pollock-esque splatters from Masterchef will look similarly inedible in ten years time. In the Middle Ages, luxury food would have been cooked with lots of sugar and expensive spices as a way of showing your wealth. Bottles of champagne opened recently from a ship that went down in the early nineteenth century contained a dentist-worrying 150 grams of sugar per litre, modern day champagne contains around eight grams.  Sweet wines went out of fashion as sugar became the fuel of the masses. Food that we dismiss as well, a bit common like a plain white bap from Gregg’s would have been miraculous luxuries to our ancestors.

Luxury today is about being close to nature. The latest thing in wine is ‘natural’ wine, made without additives but more importantly difficult for the uninitiated to understand as much of it smells like scrumpy. Chefs too bang on about sustainability and seasonality, some even forage for food, but in the past haute cuisine was about breaking free of nature. Only the poor would have eaten seasonally. In an essay on taste in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik cites the example of the poet Lucien in Balzac’s novel Lost Illusions who is forced by lack of funds to eat in a restaurant that “has only local and seasonal produce.” He goes on to describe: “the shame and suffering that the diners feel in having to eat in so peasant like a manner right in the middle of Paris.” 

Whereas nowadays we pay through the nose at the River Cafe to eat authentic Italian peasant food but I am sorry to say that authenticity like good taste is largely made up. Most traditional foods and drinks are relatively recent creations. In The Discovery of France, the historian Graham Robb writes “the Dijon area was not particularly rich in blackcurrants until an enterprising cafe owner made an explanatory trip to Paris in 1841, noted the popularity of cassis and began to market his own liquor as a regional speciality”. 

51ei5dtBuGL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_

So is it all pointless then then? Should we just crack open a bottle of Blossom Hill and settle into a KFC mega bucket? Well if you want to go for it. But just because taste is cultural and changeable doesn’t make it pointless. Think of it as learning a language (a rapidly evolving one). You can appreciate the beauty once you have learned the rules, just don’t pretend there’s anything natural about them. 

Developing ‘good taste’ can be enjoyable, it should be an adventure, and I find the awareness that it’s made up liberating. I can appreciate haut cuisine but I know that the cheap restaurant from the acclaimed chef will be more fun than the three star temple of gastronomy, that bottle of chilled red had on holiday in Sicily with my wife will always be more delicious than first growth claret drunk surrounded by hedge fund managers, and there’s nothing better with a cup of tea than a McVities Hobnob. Don’t worry about what others think. Go with whatever you fancy which means you don’t have to try those local delicacies, unless you’re dining with some Chinese businessmen who you want to impress. 

A version of this essay appeared in Boat Magazine.

Categories
Books Wine articles

Booze interview – Glen David Gold

Glen David Gold is probably best known for his debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil, and its follow up Sunnyside. When I was in publishing I worked on the publicity for the latter and we spent a very pleasant, at least for me, few days together when he came over to England for publication. I didn’t know him well but he always came across as about the nicest most relaxed author one could wish for. Note for readers here, not all authors are nice and they are very rarely relaxed. There’s a very good line in his memoir, I Will be Complete, which comes out this month:

“When I describe what happened, people tend to ask ‘but how did you end up so – ‘ they dance around the world ‘ normal’. then realise it doesn’t apply, and instead they say, ‘so nice’?”

I’m not nice. I’m polite. Nice is a quality and polite is a strategy. But I have ended up happy.”

Glen David Gold c. Sara Shay

Glen David Gold looking happy. Credit: Sara Shay

Glen was brought up in affluence in southern California but when his parents broke up he moved with his mother to San Francisco. By the age of 12 he was living much of the time by himself whilst his mother was in New York. His relationship with his unstable and increasingly erratic mother provides the engine of the book. As a memoir it bears comparison with This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and in a neat link, Glen was taught by Wolff’s brother Geoffrey at the University of California who himself wrote a memoir about his bizarre childhood called the Duke of Deception. Glen’s book has the fluency of the former and the honesty and hard-won wisdom of the latter but with a strangeness and, at the end, a darkness, that is all it’s own. It deserves to sell by the container load as well as win every prize going.

In my correspondence with Glen I discovered that he is a fairly recent but already hopeless wine bore so here he is talking about one of his passions:

Hello Glen, what are you working on at the moment?

My memoir I WILL BE COMPLETE comes out June 26th and although there’s very little (no) wine in it you may very well want to pour yourself a glass while reading it. I’m writing a few brief essays to support it, I’m starting research on the next historical novel, and I’m looking to sit in a writers room for a good TV show and play in someone else’s kingdom for a while.

You mention your father has got into wine at 80, was that your work?

A little bit. My brother Seth started a rum company, SELVA REY, and spent five years coming over to every single family gathering with samples to test on us. My dad is a collector at heart and he loves the stories behind things, so he was a perfect sucker for the small batch bourbon thing. Like myself, he loves stories of growers and stories that begin, “This wine is now $100 but when I bought it en primeur it was $40,” but as you know those stories are very rare. His favorite wine is now Myriad Cabernet Sauvignon. (Update: I think the Sarah Francis Beckstoffer GIII now wins.)

Would you say wine has brought you closer together?

Yes but so has age. He’s a good dad for an adult.

What are you drinking at the moment? 

2016 Henri Boillot Bourgogne. That interview with Mike D in Noble Rot tipped me off to how to surf Burgundy by getting the $20/30 Bourgognes and Bourgogne Blancs of high-end producers, and as a result I am beginning to understand why that region is so terrifying. Dujac’s Bourgogne Blanc is hypnotic, delicious, has massive bottle variation and is utterly unavailable. Is there anything else to know about Burgundy?

Was there a eureka moment with wine or was it a gradual process?

Very gradual. About eight years ago, my friend David came to a party with three William Selyam pinots from different vineyards. He had a complicated experiment he wanted to conduct involving decanting and the terroir of single vineyard designates. Unfortunately another friend saw what he interpreted as giant glasses of wine, and he literally upended an entire, to the brim glass, said “wow, that’s great,” then took down the next one, and the next. I wish you could have seen the solid O of horror on my friend David’s face.

Maybe a year later, I was at a restaurant called Prospect in San Francisco. They’re friendly to me there and someone had left without finishing his bottle of 2007 Radio Coteau Savoy Pinot Noir, so they poured the rest of the bottle for me and my date, and I was intrigued.

About a year after that I had a 2009 Clos St Julien, which is a fairly weird St Emilion, and I realized I was in love with how I was tasting something I was unable to describe — just experience. My writing powers were nullified. Huzzah!

Who do you think writes well about wine/ drink?

I like how detailed Chris Kissack gets in his reports on producers, though he and I don’t have aligning palates.  I also like Kermit Lynch’s book — he was my local wine shop long long before I understood anything about what I was drinking.

Do you have a favourite drink scene in literature?

Wilton Barnhardt has a novel called LOOK AWAY LOOK AWAY about the contemporary American South, and there’s a lovely scene in which a rich relative works dark magic on a family meal, gleefully giving glasses of 1989 Lynch Bages to people who don’t know what they’re drinking. Quite the indictment of social mores.

What’s your favorite everyday wine?

I try to not have an every day wine. When I don’t crave a spectacular experience, but a familiar one, I’m drawn toward gamay in the summer months and older cru bourgeois bordeaux at other times — the 2010 Senejac, which was $17 a bottle, is a stupid value right now. 

Do you have a favourite restaurant for wine?

In St Helena there’s an unassuming place called COOK on the main drag; we’d been told to go in for a bite and a glass. The wines were written on a dry erase board because they changed daily, and sometimes hourly. I recognized some of the names but not all of them. I asked the waiter what we should have and he brought out…something. A cabernet with a little age on it. It was outstanding. What was it? He said not to worry about it. His old landlord owed him some money and had paid him in wine instead. What wine? Oh, something he’d taken in trade for a job done. There was a label on the bottle but it didn’t explain much. It wasn’t a label I ever saw again. And it was perfect.

Do you have a dream wine?

That’s interesting — because of their prices and everyone else singing their praises I’m curious about 1961 first growths and good vintages of Jayer and DRC and all that, but the wine I’m hoping someone will open for me one day would be a 1990 Henri Bonneau Celestins. I’ve had his basic Chateauneuf, and his Marie Beurrier, and even the vin de pays, but I haven’t yet managed to get near his grand achievement, which the ecstatic tasting notes suggest will put you through puberty all over again.

 

You live in San Francisco? Do you often visit nearby vineyards if so which ones?

It’s odd — only an hour trip, but I always felt like I needed to mentally prepare for a day before going. It was like visiting Comicon. My two guaranteed stops were at Acme Fine Wines, which is the Sun Records of St Helena, and the To Kalon vineyard. There is a lovely man, Tom Garrett, who runs DETERT, a very small winery, on something 17 acres of Cab Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. His wines are extraordinary and close to unknown, which is bizarre to me, given his location. We also visited CARTER (the name is a coincidence), as their wine maker, Mike Smith, does some of my other favorite California Cabernets via MYRIAD, SCARLETT and BECKLYN. That varietal can be loud, obnoxious, clever yet facile, designed for mass appeal and have a finish that’s far too long (I have just described every Marvel movie, haven’t I?) Mike’s work is intriguing — it flirts with all that stuff before veering into a better place. But if you want to try something that is far more St Julien like, the final wine maker on my list is Massimo Di Costanzo of DI COSTANZO wines, whose work is exceptionally elegant.

 

Thank you Glen! Some greats tips there. Now everyone, buy the book.

 

 

Categories
Books

Talking proper

George Bernard Shaw wrote “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” I don’t think my father ever despised me but he did wince when I said “eether” instead of “ither” or maybe it was the other way round. He thinks of himself as a stickler for correct usage but, horrible little snob that I was, I would cringe when he said serviette instead of napkin. And in turn a girlfriend once thought I was a bit common because we used the word lounge instead of drawing room. She came from an old army family and would get in trouble at school because her father insisted she say what instead of pardon.

I blame the pernicious influence of Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige which turned many middle class people into stuttering wrecks constantly worried about using the wrong word. I promised myself when I became a father that I would be more relaxed about such things but I find my mood darkening when my daughter says “haitch” instead of “aitch” when spelling out words. My wife’s bugbear is the word ate pronounced “et.”

Perhaps I should just accept that my daughter is not going to speak the same as me. She goes to a very different school to the ones I went to. It’s in South London and she has Lithuanian, Israeli, Chinese and French friends. Furthermore her mother is American, so it is unlikely that she is going to end up speaking with an RP accent or know or indeed care about the difference between toilet and lavatory. Though my public school was multicultural too, we were all being moulded into English gentlemen, or that was the theory, so farmers’ sons from Yorkshire spoke with the same accent as Nigerian princes and boys from Hong Kong.

For those with Mitford-induced anxiety, I recommend reading Oliver Kamm’s Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English. He writes: “to the purist, the way people speak and write is an opportunity to find fault rather than listen.” One of the points he makes in the book is that meaning and pronunciation are always changing. Doing a little research for this article I discovered that ate used to be pronounced “et” (and still is by many) and only recently came to be pronounced to rhyme with eight probably due to American influence (which might mean that the American version is older.) I wonder whether the English language might be evolving faster than before because of the globalisation of media and immigration. Though we cannot hold back the tide of change, part of me does mourn the disappearance of words with a distinct meaning such as disinterested, now mainly used as a synonym for uninterested.  

Kamm counsels the reader to embrace change rather than trying to fight it but he does emphasise that having a standard usage is important. This is what we want to instill in our daughter. We worry about her picking up bad habits from her peers or even from her teachers: at her nursery school her class was called “Gruffalo’s” (sic) and during one meet the teacher session my wife complained about Helena’s burgeoning glottal stop to which the teacher replied “you wan’er to speak be’er?”

Insisting that she say “think” instead of “fink” isn’t elitist as the son of a (middle class) friend maintains. I know a pub landlord with a thick Cockney accent whose daughter speaks standard English because he wants her to have the best start in life. The important thing is that one knows the standard usage even if one doesn’t always use it. My daughter is going to speak differently with her friends to how she talks to us. I sometimes find myself adopting an involuntary Mockney accent in order to sound a bit less posh, usually when talking to plumbers.

We want her to speak with confidence therefore we have a total ban on uptalk, that irritating verbal tick where every sentence becomes a question. Whenever my daughter’s voice starts to rise, I say: “say it like you mean it”. And she laughs and then says whatever she was saying confidently and loudly. Worse even than uptalk is that strange way of talking common amongst young Americans where they say every word with a strange emphasis as if they don’t know what it means.

If she can speak articulately then it doesn’t matter whether she says “ither” or “eether”. I don’t want her to have the same anxieties I had. To quote from Oliver Kamm “the task of English should be to instill the conventions of fluent communication not Shibboleths”.  And yet to some extent the problem with his approach is that Shibboleths are there for a reason: I want my daughter to be part of my tribe, I want her to get my references, I want us to talk the same language. It’s instinctive. So though I’m trying to be relaxed about her English, “Haitch” is where I say “here I stand; I can do no other”.

A version of this article appeared in The Oldie magazine. 

 

Categories
Books

Free gin (and a book reading)

I’ve been up to my ears in a new book hence the rather sporadic posting of late. It should be out in October. I’ll post more about it when it’s up online. Meanwhile a paperback of my last book Empire of Booze will be out in May. Not only does it have a spanking new jacket but it’s been updated for 2018, this is a euphemism for all the typos that I noticed have been corrected. It’s therefore about 6% better than the hardback despite being cheaper.

To celebrate I’m going to be reading at the Blackheath Bookshop (this is actually a Waterstone’s but without the branding) on Thursday 31st May at 6.30pm. I’ll only read for 15 minutes and then we can get stuck into the all the free gin that I’ve accumulated in the last couple of years. Honestly there’s going to be so much gin. I might have some water and prosecco for non-gin drinkers but mainly it’s all about the gin. . . . and the book.

Please RSVP by emailing enquiries@theblackheathbookshop.co.uk or calling 02034091463. Click on the jacket for more information.

So if you’re in South East London please do come and if you’re not, do buy the book. It’s 6% better than the hardback.

51DBTT+0UoL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

 

Categories
Books

Legends in their own lunchtime

The literary world lost some legendary figures in the past couple of years. One was Jeremy Lewis, the chronicler of the golden age of British publishing who died in April. I spoke to him in January about how publishing has changed since his heyday. “Publishers used to be household names” he told me “Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape and Carmen Callil founder of Virago were regulars in the gossip columns”. When Allen Lane, founder of Penguin books died in 1970 it was front page news. Towering figures such as George Weidenfeld, Andre Deutsch and Peter Owen, emigre Jews from Central Europe who transformed British publishing, were often better-known than their authors. Deutsch died in 2000 and both Owen and Weidenfeld died last year.

Lewis wrote a series of memoirs about his time in publishing. I was surprised by the sheer amount of drinking that went on. It was an industry lubricated with alcohol. At editorial meetings at Andre Deutsch there would be wine. Lewis writes of working with Kingsley Amis on the New Oxford Book of Light Verse where they would start on the white wine at 11am on the dot. Deals were done over long liquid lunches at  L’Etoile on Charlotte Street, the Garrick Club or the Groucho Club in Soho.

Image result for jeremy lewis

Writer, editor and luncher Jeremy Lewis

Editors could make instant decisions over a boozy lunch because they wielded tremendous power. Sales, marketing and publicity were junior professions with no say over acquisitions. It was entirely up to the editor what was published. The industry began to change in the 90s. The ending of the ending of the Net Book Agreement in 1997 meant that supermarkets began selling discounted books which paved the way for Amazon. Bestselling author and journalist, Francis Wheen, however, thinks the rot was setting in as early as the 1980s. He told me:

“I proposed to Gail (Rebuck of newly-formed publishing house Century) that we should discuss a new travel book over lunch at the Reform Club, saying that this would be most auspicious since the Reform was where Around The World in Eighty Days started. I even offered to pay – but no, Gail said we would have the meeting at their office over bought-in sandwiches and mineral water, thank you very much. I abandoned my travel book there and then.”

I caught the tail end of the long lunch culture when I started in publishing in the early 00s. We were told quite firmly not to let one author, a well-known cricket writer, to get hold of the wine list. Another writer I worked with used to attack lunch as if he hadn’t eaten or drunk for weeks. He’d have a cocktail to start, a bottle with the meal and then order a brandy afterwards. It seems like a long time ago now.

In the 80s publishers began to merge into corporations. The largest was created in 2013 when Penguin merged with Random House. Editors now have to build a consensus with sales often having the final word. I remember the soul-destroying corporate speak of editorial meetings: ‘going forward’ ‘KPI – key performance indicator’ and, oddest of all, ‘pre-mortems’ – a budget sheet that editors filled out before acquiring a book. It’s what Jeremy Lewis refers to as the “Perrier Culture. “

You have to be sober to deal with all that.  One can hardly blame publishers for becoming risk averse though when sales are often so poor. Nielsen, the company that track book sales, published data that showed in 2001 the average novel sold 1152 copies, now it’s 263. No wonder publishers are so cagey about  releasing figures. The writer Roger Lewis (a relative of Jeremy Lewis’s) told me: “The point really is that ever since sparkling water came in and boozy publishers’ lunches got the heave-ho there has been no actual improvement in English literature. No discernible improvement whatsoever.

The market has become polarised between the authors who sell in large quantities and those who sell next to nothing and advances reflect this. Philip Gwyn Jones, one of London’s most experienced publishers with stints at Harpercollins, Granta and now Scribe, told me about “the evaporation of midlist, nowadays advances are either under £25k or over £100k.” Paying large amounts is a way to get attention both in house and without. It’s a sign of a lack of confidence. Big books are hyped up by literary agents who “skew the market” according to Ros Porter from Granta magazine. Agents have become increasingly influential as most publishers now don’t take unsolicited manuscripts.

There are still some larger than life personalities stalking the corridors of publishing houses, however. Figures such as Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury and Jamie Byng at Canongate function as ambassadors for their firms, their authors and for literature in general. When Canongate won the Booker Prize with Yann Martel’s the Life of Pi in 2001, many newspapers were more interested in Byng than the author.  Byng with his trademark poodle hair is probably the nearest thing we have today to a publishing celebrity but I doubt even he is widely known outside the industry.

Ravi Mirchandani at Picador is more low key but he has a formidable reputation within the industry for, as agent Charlie Campbell puts it, ‘swimming against Nielsen.’ “Spending too much time paying attention to what previous books sold is not particularly helpful when acquiring literary fiction. A publisher’s job is, in part, predicting what the public might think” Mirchandani told me. He points out that pre-Corrections, Jonathan Franzen had woeful figures.

As the publishing conglomerates get bigger and less nimble, it presents an opportunity for small presses. In private most publishers curse Amazon because it eats into their profits and author royalties, and puts the traditional bookseller out of business. But it can be a boon for the small boys: Humfrey Hunter from Silvertail press, a one man publishing house, is “very very pro-Amazon, I wouldn’t have a business without them. They open up the world for company like mine.” He was the only British publisher brave enough to publish Lawrence Wright’s American bestseller on Scientology and scandalously also penned an article in the Bookseller in favour of leaving the European Union.

Despite all the changes, one of the reassuring things about publishing is that even in the vast super companies, everyone reads. The heads are usually from a publishing background rather than outside corporate types. “It’s still a business governed by instinct and charisma. That hasn’t changed” Philip Gwyn Jones told me. And most publishing deals are still done over lunch, they just tend not to be terribly long or boozy.  Me, I left publishing in 2015 to pursue a career as a drink writer. Now, there’s an industry that still knows how to lunch.

This is a version of something I wrote for a website called Heat Street which has now disappeared. You can read something of its rather tortured genesis here.

 

Categories
Books

Whatever happened to the boozy publishing lunches?

Not that people ever ask me for writerly advice but a bit of advice I would offer to any budding hack is that an article is never dead. Even if it has been spiked some of what you put into it will at some point resurface elsewhere. You must never give up.

Last year an editor at the Spectator asked me to write something on literary mavericks tied to the death of publisher Peter Owen. I duly did lots of research, probably too much, spoke to everyone I knew in publishing and produced a thoughtful article that to be honest was a bit worthy It would have worked in the Bookseller but not the Spectator so I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t run it. The editor then left the Spectator and the article was finished.

Or so I thought. I spoke with Alexander Chancellor at the Oldie earlier this year and he liked the sound of something about publishing and suggested I talk to his deputy Jeremy Lewis who used to work in publishing in the 70s and 80s. After a long and amusing chat with Jeremy, I rewrote the article to make it a lot more gossipy. It was slated to run earlier this year when Alexander Chancellor died. I felt like Lena Dunham in that episode of Girls where her editor dies and all she can say at the funeral is “but what about my book?” Then Jeremy Lewis died. There was now no chance of my article appearing.

In April I had a boozy lunch with an old journalism crony in New York and I told him about my article. He asked to take a look and said that it might work for his website. I thought he was just being nice but I sent it to him last month and he liked it but said it needed to be even more gossipy and anecdotal. So rather than ask serious questions to serious publishers, I called up some gossipy journalist cronies and they all said the same thing: read Jeremy Lewis’s memoirs, Playing for Time, Kindred Spirits and Grub Street Irregular. They are perhaps the best books about publishing ever written. If I’d read them back in June last year then this article would not have had such a long gestation.

Anyway click below to read the article. I’ll put it up on my site in its entirety in a couple of weeks:

Mad Pen! Publishing Was a Better Business When it Was Fueled by Alcohol and Long Lunches

 

 

Categories
Books Film and TV

Why writers love booze (and it’s not just because they’re often drunks.)

So closely are some of the giants of 20th century literature associated with alcohol that modern readers might think that a serious booze habit was once the equivalent of a degree in creative writing from Iowa or UEA. It’s not surprising, therefore, that alcohol permeates the work of writers such as Kingsley Amis, Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker. They were writing about what they knew. Alcohol, however, in fiction doesn’t just reflect the lifestyle and times of the writer, its role is more complex and interesting than that.

I’m currently reading a collection called “Shaken and Stirred: Intoxicating Stories” (Everyman). In many of the short stories featured, a drunken incident is the motor of the narrative. For example in Alice Munro’s “An Ounce of Cure” a lovestruck teenager gets paralytic whilst babysitting and becomes an outcast at school ‘but there was a positive, a splendidly unexpected, result of this affair: I got completely over Martin Collingwood.’ In Frank O’Connor’s “the Drunkard”, a boy’s disastrous encounter with a pint of porter  prevents his father going on a long-anticipated drinking spree. Both stories pivot on alcohol, the effect in Munro’s is cathartic, she purges herself of her infatuation; in O’ Connor, it’s a reversal of fortune.

Shaken and Stirred features an extract from The Lost Weekend by Charles R. Jackson, another one of literary America’s great boozers. Drink enables Jackson to show us the innermost thoughts of the protagonist, Don Birnam, a failing writer. After a few glasses of rye consumed in a bar, he starts to daydream of literary success. He veers between giddy optimism and neurotic self-doubt. Without the drink, it would seem clunky, but having his thoughts come out in a progression of alcoholic intoxication draws the reader in. ‘Suddenly, sickeningly, the whole thing was so much eyewash’ he thinks after another drink. Something all writers and day dreamers can sympathise with not just drunks.

This use of alcohol to reveal narrative is particularly useful for writers of detective fiction. Fictional detectives spend a lot of time in pubs and bars not just because they like drinking but because that’s where they find information. One of the novelist’s problems is finding something for his characters to do when they are thinking or engaged in conversation. Giving them a drink and a cigarette is makes it appear natural. Drink oils the cogs of the plot.

A good example occurs in The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. Philip Marlowe, a private investigator, meets one of the principal character, Lennox, in a bar. Lennox explains his problems with his wife and we learn that she is terrified of something. Soon afterwards she is found dead.  If they had this conversation on the street, it would look staged. In a cafe it wouldn’t work either. Alcohol has to be around so that it seems natural when characters open up and tell stories. Drink is a good way for novelists to tell rather than show without the reader noticing.

Part of the reason fictional detectives have drink problems is because it gives them an air of mystery. Think of Rebus in Ian Rankin’s novels or Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s. Cocaine serves a similar purposes in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Detectives solve crimes but they are also trying (and always) failing to solve themselves. Alcohol is an outward symbol of their inner turmoil.

In Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton drink is synonymous with mental illness. Written in the 1930s and set in a grim, smoky Earl’s Court. The hero George Harvey Bone is hopelessly in love with Netta, one of the great monsters of English literature. The more he drinks, the more he is prone to moments where a switch flips in him. In these moments he sees clearly that he must murder her and move to Maidenhead. When these episodes strike, the narrative on the page is disrupted reflecting the Bone’s mental disintegration:

‘He still had the gin bottle in his hand. Watching her carefully, he held it by the neck behind his back. Now! Now! Now! He thought. ‘

The drink of choice in Hangover Square is gin. Gin has a special place in British literature. The very word gin is a byword for particular kind of British frustration. It’s tied up with boarding houses, borrowing money, dead-ends, broken dreams, and unhappy pubs. Think of the works of Graham Greene or Julian Maclaren Ross. The gin-soaked colonial type is a fixture of English literature.  Here is Flory the hapless hero of George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days: ‘I can never get it into my servant’s head that SOME people can exist without gin before breakfast.’ Orwell’s description of the taste of Victory gin in 1984 is a masterclass in squalor:

“He took down from the shelf a bottle of colourless liquid with a plain white label marked VICTORY GIN. It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice-spirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, and gulped it down like a dose of medicine. Instantly his face turned scarlet and the water ran out of his eyes. The stuff was like nitric acid, and moreover, in swallowing it one had the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club. The next moment, however, the burning in his belly died down and the world began to look more cheerful. “

Ahhh the magic of gin.

Drinks can provide the opposite function, however.  In Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms  the constant listing of drinks such as Marsala, Cinzano, Asti Spumante, and Martini, serves as a reminder that there was a normal life before the war and will be afterwards. For Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, “this Burgundy seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant reminder that the world was an older and better place …” A sip of good wine can take you away from the horrors of war.

In the same novel, alcohol plays a less benevolent role, as a weapon in the snob’s arsenal during a scene where Charles Ryder has dinner in Paris with Rex Mottram, an arriviste Canadian businessman and his love rival. Ryder orders a cognac which is dismissed by Mottram as “the sort of stuff he puts soda in at home. So, shamefacedly, they (the waiters) wheeled out of its hiding place the vast and mouldy bottle they kept for people of Rex’s sort. ’That’s the stuff,’ he said, tilting the treacly concoction till it left dark rings round the sides of his glass.” Evelyn Waugh wants us to see Mottram as a vulgarian and Ryder as a man of taste but also reveals his own prejudices.

The ultimate boozy status seeker is James Bond. This is from Casino Royale:

Bond insisted on ordering Leiter’s Haig-and-Haig ‘on the rocks’ and then he looked carefully at the barman. “A dry martini,” he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

Here’s a man who knows what he wants and knows how to get it. We’re meant to admire Bond, I think, for his discernment but you could just see him as a bit of bore. It’s only a short leap from Bond to horrendous characters in Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho:

“Van Patten,” I say. “Did you see the comp bottle of champagne Montgomery sent over?”

“Really?” Van Patten asks, leaning over McDermott.

“Let me guess. Perrier-Jouët?”

Bingo,” Price says. “Non Vintage.”

“Fucking weasel,” Van Patten says.

Wine connoisseurship plays a narrative role in two stories in the Shaken and Stirred.  In Edgar Allen Poe’s 1846 story “A Cask of Amontillado”, Montresor lures a rival Fortunato down to a deep cellar with the promise of old amontillado sherry which was much-prized in the 19th century. Many sherries were sold as amontillado but they weren’t the real thing. To have the genuine article was unusual. Along the way Montresor gets Fortunato drunk and bricks him up alive in a wall. The mystery which is never solved is why he does this.

The plot of Roald Dahl’s short story “Taste” hinges on identifying a rare Bordeaux but the real amusement comes from the pretensions of the wine taster: ‘a prudent wine. . .  rather diffident and evasive but quite prudent’ he says at one point. Waugh too in Brideshead Revisited has enormous fun with wine connoisseurship. In a famous scene Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte try to outdo each with their descriptions of a wine:

: ‘…It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle.’

‘Like a leprechaun.’

‘Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.’

‘Like a flute by still water.’

‘…And this is a wise old wine.’

‘A prophet in a cave.’

‘…And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.’

‘Like a swan.’

‘Like the last unicorn.’

The miseries of the morning after are even richer ground for comedy. PG Wodehouse’s descriptions of the aural misery of the hangover will surely never be bettered: ‘the Cat Stamped into the Room’ and ‘the roaring of the butterflies.’ It’s no surprise to find in Shaken and Stirred probably the best hangover description in literature from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim:

“The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad”

With a hangover there’s that awful sickening moment when you wake up and then start to have an inkling of how badly you behaved the night before. Dorothy Parker skewers the paranoia expertly in the short story “You were perfectly fine.”  In it a young man, Peter, wakes up in a the flat of a lady friend and she recounts what happened the night before: “she thought you were awfully amusing. . . . she only got a tiny little bit annoyed just once, when you poured the clam juice down her back.”

Whatever you want to do in fiction, alcohol can help. It can move the plot forward, it provides comedy, tragedy, explication, it’s a window into a character’s soul and a signifier of turmoil and mental illness. Raymond Chandler wrote that if you’re stuck writing a novel, “have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand” but a drink might work even better. If only real life was as simple.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Guardian

Categories
Books Wine articles

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.

Categories
Books Wine articles

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.

Here is a rundown of some of the publicity that has appeared:

Nice long review in the Guardian by Bernard Porter: “He clearly knows his booze. Perhaps a second edition might be purchased with a crate of samples.”

“Never mind books about drink — a book you can drink, now that’s a Christmas gift.” Ian Sansom in the Spectator

Simon Woolf writing in Palate Press has this to say: “Joking aside, “Empire of Booze” is that very rare beast – a non-fiction book written largely about wine (or wine-derived alcoholic drinks) that manages to be witty without being contrived, accessible without talking down to anyone, and educational without being preachy. I’ll raise my glass to more of that in 2017.”

Top MP Keith Simpson calls it “informative but amusing.” Thanks Keith!

Marcus Berkmann in the Daily Mail seems to really enjoy the book:

“his book is well argued and full of fascinating booze-related facts”

And: “…it’s an ambitious undertaking, but he achieves it with a sharp eye and an understated humorous touch I rather liked”.

Proper historian and wine expert Giles MacDonagh reviews it here: “There is a strong element of 1066 And All That but behind the self-mockery and light-hearted banter, there is plenty of information.here”

Nice mention here on wine blog Sediment, “ebulliently-written.”

Review in the Glasgow Herald. Thinks books is going to be a great success which is nice.

Review in Mail on Sunday, 30th October, not online yet. Here’s a snippet: “Fascinating pub trivia… Henry Jeffreys is a wine columnist and drinks writer who clearly knows his stuff.”

“If you wanted a project to ‘drink the empire’, this is your handbook.” Tamlyn Currin on Jancisrobinson.com

The Carouser gives is 8.5 out of (I hope) 10:

“Empire of Booze is not just another style guide to drinks but a very well written, humorous  book which traces the impact of alcohol on British culture and how British tastes for booze helped shape the drinks that are now consumed throughout the world.”

Some features and radio:

I made my parents very proud by making the front cover of the Bucks Examiner.

You can listen to me on the Food Programme on Radio 4 talking about Sir Kenelm Digby, cider and the Royal Society.

I was on Monocle radio talking about English Sparkling Wine at 22 mins 30 secs.

I wrote a booze book round-up in the Guardian. They didn’t let me recommend my own book (bastards!) but there is a mention at the end.

Long article in the Guardian Review on how alcohol works in fiction.

An article on British wines families the Bartons, the Symingtons and the Blandys in the Wine Society newsletter.

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.

I was interviewed by William Sitwell on Soho Radio on Tuesday 31 October from 9.30am. You can listen to the the whole show here.

 

Categories
Books

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.