I can't do better than reproduce the piece Sam Muston wrote in The Independent, Feb 6th 2014:
It was the gravy that did it. Dribbling lazily down the p...moreI can't do better than reproduce the piece Sam Muston wrote in The Independent, Feb 6th 2014:
It was the gravy that did it. Dribbling lazily down the pot on the front cover, it looked so slovenly. So unlike the other cookbooks on my parents shelves. Elizabeth David and the other heavyweights of the kitchen bookcase wouldn't have stood for that gravy.
By the time I came across it in the 1990s, my parents' copy of Jocasta Innes's The Pauper's Cookbook was in the evening of its days – stained, torn and singed at the edges – but it drew me in like a bowl of cake mix. It was perfect for a child, assuming little prior knowledge and not aiming for an ethereal, Frenchified vision of perfection. It was a good friend to my family, that book.
I must admit, though, I had quite forgotten it: it had long ago slipped into that pit in my brain where my knowledge of GCSE chemistry and pure maths lives. This week, though, Frances Lincoln publishes an updated version of Innes's 1971 classic (below). The cover may have changed, though there is still a touch of the flaired trouser about it, but the contents are largely untouched. And that's a boon.
It was, in its day, quietly revolutionary. The book's conceit was both simple and attractive: it aimed to help indigent cooks produce "good home food at Joe's Café prices". The 150 recipes were spread across chapters with uncompromising titles, such as "Padding", "Fast Work", "Fancy Work", "Dieting on the Cheap" (this last one has been removed from the new version). It showed people how to take creative possession of modest circumstances.
The recipes themselves were diffuse. A "meal in a potato" – which requires a large spud, butter, cheese, nutmeg and egg – rubbed up against the rather grander "stuffed mussels". There were outliers like the "British Rail Salad", which takes in quail eggs, black pudding, garlic and leaves, and familiars like bread and butter pudding. What drew them together was the fact that you could knock up any of these dishes on a budget of two and sixpence per person per meal (about 60p today) which, incidentally, was what Innes was living off while writing it, having left her husband, the producer Richard Goodwin, for a life of bohemian penury in Swanage with the novelist Joe Potts. She was, in some senses, the Jack Monroe of her day.
While some of the recipes in the book seem a little dated today, others are as fresh as ever. But half the fun of the 280-page book is to luxuriate in Innes's style. Her style of writing is not unlike the previously mentioned Elizabeth David and, like her, she pulls no punches. But I always used to think of her as a counterweight to the blessed David, whose recipes can be so know-it-all and who certainly never lived impecuniously in Swanage.Writers like David are so skilled at evoking flavours and places, which are so far away – it makes their work timeless – whereas Innes and, indeed, Jack Monroe write practically for the here and now. David might be a culinary god but Innes has her place too.
Perhaps my parents thought as much, too, for I remember Elizabeth David's books lived on the top shelf in our kitchen – like some holy text. The Pauper's Cookbook, however, lived two storeys down. They are books of different status, certainly, but 43 years after it was first published, The Pauper's Cookbook should still have a place in every modern kitchen.(less)
Fabulous memoir/history, of Soviet life through its food. She has a loud, engaging voice and it's worth reading just for the Stalin ghost story told b...moreFabulous memoir/history, of Soviet life through its food. She has a loud, engaging voice and it's worth reading just for the Stalin ghost story told by his personal chef.(less)
It's not often that you get the chance to revisit a book you've written, and amend it. When I came to re-read Greenback, I saw more clearly where it l...moreIt's not often that you get the chance to revisit a book you've written, and amend it. When I came to re-read Greenback, I saw more clearly where it lagged, and where it needed tightening, or corrections: and I've incorporated those changes in this Kindle edition. It's the pre-history of the dollar, before the Fed was set up in 1913, and it's something of a wild and surprising ride. It's also, I have to say, quite funny.(less)
No: Fanny Price is not a modern heroine, and her character does not 'develop' in a modern novelistic way. Is that because she is born good? I think Au...moreNo: Fanny Price is not a modern heroine, and her character does not 'develop' in a modern novelistic way. Is that because she is born good? I think Austen manages to achieve her aim here, using Fanny's goodness - and her timidity, or niceness, or reserve, or whatever - to reflect the nature of the people who surround her. Wonderful people - the ghastly Mrs Norris, the languid moral pygmy Lady Bertram, the fascinating, intelligent and morally vacant brother and sister, the solid and honourable Sir Thomas... It's very funny, very acute, and builds brilliantly to a vindication of the heroine. I loved it.(less)
Thank God for Waugh! Going back to him - it must be ten years since I've read any - is like emerging from a Turkish bath, alive in every pore, your se...moreThank God for Waugh! Going back to him - it must be ten years since I've read any - is like emerging from a Turkish bath, alive in every pore, your senses quickened and joie de vivre restored. The dialogue is brilliant, the characters sad, odious, weak, shabbily noble - all of them brilliantly anatomised. Waugh's sympathies are huge (and yet in life such a splenetic and selfish man!) and his wit is at full tilt. What a horrible, horrible man is Basil Seal. The evacuee children, the Connollys, are among Waugh's best comic creations. Named, I now realise, for Cyril Connolly!(less)
This is a careful and well-informed commentary on John Michell's work. It's not quite a biography, although it contains a great deal of useful informa...moreThis is a careful and well-informed commentary on John Michell's work. It's not quite a biography, although it contains a great deal of useful information and some very interesting discussions about (especially) leys, or ley lines. The author re-founded The Ley Hunter magazine in 1969. (less)
Ollard writes with such precision and intelligence: brushing up against the brightest 17th century writers has made his own prose deliciously recondit...moreOllard writes with such precision and intelligence: brushing up against the brightest 17th century writers has made his own prose deliciously recondite, and his judgements - and illustrations - are very good. Not the first book you'd want to read about the Stuart kings,but indispensable second. (less)
I reviewed this for someone, maybe the Spectator, a few years ago - like this:
‘Its character is complex, awkward, and unique,’ wrote the French histor...moreI reviewed this for someone, maybe the Spectator, a few years ago - like this:
‘Its character is complex, awkward, and unique,’ wrote the French historian Fernand Braudel, in the preface to the First Edition of his The Med and the Med World in the Age of Philip II. ‘No simple biography beginning with date of birth can be written of this sea; no simple narrative of how things happened would be appropriate to its history.’ But then, no French historian could reckon on JJN, either. Historian, broadcaster, champion of Venice, he can be viewed almost any day in the year in the Reading Room of the London Library, where he bones up on his facts, and writes his books. Over the years these have included a history of Sicily, two volumes on Venice, and three on Byzantium. If anyone could come up with a simple narrative of how things happened in the Mediterranean, it would be the man who has travelled and guided other travellers across those wine dark seas for well over half a century. In the preface to this amusing, absorbing and companionable history, Norwich claims to be an amateur, not a scholar; a claim we can take with a pinch of sel gris, because he has done an impressive amount of research here, taking us from the first pyramids to the outbreak of the First World War. The airy disavowal is, I suppose, a reminder that history can be a pleasure; it helps to establish his role as a genial storyteller, slipping across a surprisingly large amount of important information. The trick is always to make it look easy, and Norwich never falters; his tone, throughout, is that of a brilliant conversation with his reader. It’s a totally one-sided conversation, of course, like the talk that opens a Conrad novel, between men drawing on cigars in the warm darkness. Norwich must cover the whole of classical civilization, as well as the renaissance. He must deal with Nelson, Nice, Nineveh and the War of the Sicilian Vespers. It is a Muslim story, a Christian story – and the cockpit of the Jewish story, too. Art, music, sailing rigs, gunpowder: these are a few of the obvious topics; but Julius Caesar, Constantine, Jesus Christ and Roger, the Norman king of Sicily, need their say, too, among a cast of characters which must run into the thousands. Above all, it’s the weave, as any decent rug merchant from Tyre to Gadez would be likely to point out. Now that the shores of the Med are coated in an almost continuous line of resinous foliage and concrete holiday houses, lapped by a warm embrocation of salt, algae and Factor 15, connected like a cat’s cradle by no-frills airlines, charter yachts, ferries and motorways, borders extinguished between Gibraltar and Kylithos, poverty to the south, prosperity to the North, with euros doubling as currency the whole way round – we need reminding that the Middle Sea was, until recent times, a varied universe; a stew of such variety that only a fisherman’s paella could do it justice. Norwich’s answer is to toggle the focus as the centuries unwind. Egypt, Crete and ancient Greece, the rise and fall of Rome: all these are covered in the first seventy pages. He devotes fifty pages to the Napoleonic escapade, and its fallout in Egypt, as well as Italy, Spain and France. He often uses great set pieces – the Battle for Malta, the story of Gibraltar – as forward bases to launch raids into neighbouring territories – a technique which allows full rein to his enthusiasm for vigorous narrative and the telling detail. And when Norwich says he’s no scholar, all he means is that he lacks the desire to be dispassionate. The Middle Sea is a book that Braudel could never have foreseen, but he might have welcomed its air of high-tone gossip. Piazza San Marco, which Norwich knows so well, was the finest drawing room in Europe; but step through the French windows and there’s a party on the lawn going on outside, too. Those Phoenicians? ‘Herodotus tells us that in about 600BC, at the behest of Pharaoh Necho, they circumnavigated the continent of Africa.’ Fellow with the red beard? Kheir-ed-Din. ‘He may not have had quite the panache of Aruj, but he possessed all his brother’s ambition, all his courage, and – arguably – rather more statesmanship and political wisdom.’ Avoid the kumiss, by the way, ‘that fermented mare’s milk so unaccountably popular with Turks and Mongols alike.’ Stout lady in a veil? Caterina, wife of James of Lusignan; her father was a diplomat, her uncle the Auditor of Cyprus; ‘on her mother’s side her lineage was still more distinguished: there she could boast as a great-grandfather no less a person than John Comnenus, Emperor of Trebizond.’ The Emperor, of course, is there as well; and so with the urbane Lord Norwich murmuring the introductions at your elbow, you move gracefully through the best Mediterranean society. ‘There is little point in speculating on how history might have been changed had Constantine Dragases indeed married Maria Brankovich,’ he murmurs; but it’s worth a small aside, isn’t it? The Byzantines were doomed – we shake our heads - and now we’re off again, with the Ottomans rolling up the eastern Mediterranean, to discover the fate of the islands and the shores of Greece. Everyone stands to learn things from this book. However well we think we know our patch, most of us have difficulty placing our knowledge in context; the march of events eludes us; whole epochs and areas are to us a closed book. Our historical training and experience, from school to university, has been bitty and selective, in direct opposition to the sort of history Norwich – or Braudel, for that matter – revel in. We need these grand sweeps, these energetic narratives, because we just don’t know enough. How did the Knights of Rhodes wind up in Malta? Why did the puff go out of the Venetians? What was, all jokes aside, the War of Jenkins’ Ear? How did we get Gibraltar – and who won the War of Spanish Succession? Norwich is a superb narrative historian: he will give you the lowdown on, say, the history of Greek independence, or Giulia Gonzaga’s escape from Barbarossa’s clutches, without distorting the facts, or leaving out the jokes; his grasp of the diplomatic essence is no less assured than his command of strategy. Nor does he overreach. Nowhere does he really present an argument for taking Mediterranean history as a whole: he assumes it, just as we do. People connect; battle is joined; there may not have been, since the time of the Greeks, a pan-Mediterranean culture, but the sea has always been a stage. Constantine moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium, 2000 miles across the sea; Roger of Sicily lit up the world with his fertile tolerance; Barbarossa quartered his sailors in Toulon, with French connivance, in 1546; and an English admiral, Nelson, destroyed the French fleet, and effectively created the emperor Napoleon, on the Nile in 1799. Norwich leaves us with the impression that we share an old friend: the wide locus of our hopes, our speech, our culture and ideals, with ever a leavening hint of spice from the world beyond. You can take your Blue Guide, or your Rough Guide, anywhere you like; but if you are planning to go anywhere south of the Alps, or north of the Sahara, to an island, perhaps, studded with Venetian fortresses, orthodox churches, cafes and pines, this is your book.
A book after my own heart. Vanished Kingdoms details the stories of several significant European polities which no longer exist, including the Kingdom...moreA book after my own heart. Vanished Kingdoms details the stories of several significant European polities which no longer exist, including the Kingdoms, Duchies and Counties of Burgundy, the Polish-Lithianian Commonwealth, and Saxe-Coburg. The biggest recent Boojum is, of course, the Soviet Union, which vanished overnight without anyone – least of all Gorbachev – intending it to do so; nor the hundreds of thousands of soldiers, strategists, politicians or secret policemen devoted to its preservation, being able to do anything about it.
We tend to look at the history of existing things, rather than vanished ones; and the more eagerly when they are powerful existing things. And that brands us not only as creeps, but as fools: because the most interesting lessons of history, when you think about it, teach you how things fail and disappear.
The follow-on from Confessions Of A Radical Traditionalist, this Kindle e-book contains John Michell's last fifty three essays for the Oldie Magazine....moreThe follow-on from Confessions Of A Radical Traditionalist, this Kindle e-book contains John Michell's last fifty three essays for the Oldie Magazine. Reading them will change you perceptions of the world, and ought to make you wiser and happier. It should be required reading for Darwinists, bankers, atheists, art collectors and crooks of a humorous turn of mind.(less)
It's rather strange to revisit a book after a long gap - especially one you've written yourself. Going through the proofs for this new Kindle edition,...moreIt's rather strange to revisit a book after a long gap - especially one you've written yourself. Going through the proofs for this new Kindle edition, I couldn't help making a few small edits; but I didn't want to change much. The voice is the voice of my younger self. When the book won the Mail on Sunday/JLR Prize - an annual award given to a writer under 35 - I received a cheque for £5000, a commission to write a travel piece for the Mail (I chose Venice) and a piece of advice from Bernice Rubens who was on the judging panel. She suggested I should write fiction - not because I'd made things up, I hasten to add, but rather because the book read in many ways like a novel, with a novelistic sense of pattern and rhythm. It took a good ten years for me to take that advice (writing The Janissary Tree which in turn won the Edgar Award). The prize was awarded at a lunch at the Reform Club in Pall Mall, and at the end of the lunch I suddenly discovered that I'd lost the cheque. Everyone searched but it was a good ten minutes before a waiter presented it back to me with a flourish: £5000 covered in coffee grounds and gravy where he'd fished it out of the bins. Some episodes in the book are funny, some sad, some gloomy; and it's perfectly un-PC. The TLS called it 'one of the truest portraits of present-day Central Europe available', and though so much has changed in these twenty years I think it does convey something of the atmosphere and history of those fascinating European hinterlands. I hope so, anyway. Perhaps I'm proudest of the fact that it's very different from The Gunpowder Gardens or, A Time For Tea: Travels Through China and India in Search of Tea. Neither of these books were written for money or prizes, just out of curiosity and for the sheer pleasure of travelling and writing. (less)
An epic tale, which draws in the American Revolution, the industrial revolution, Voltaire, Josiah Wedgewood and his astonishing family and descendants...moreAn epic tale, which draws in the American Revolution, the industrial revolution, Voltaire, Josiah Wedgewood and his astonishing family and descendants (Charles Darwin among them). A very tender, wise, warm novel, written with humour and compassion.(less)
I confess - I'm a contributor to this collection, with a piece on the neglected crime writer Nicolas Freeling's Van der Valk mysteries. The rest of the...moreI confess - I'm a contributor to this collection, with a piece on the neglected crime writer Nicolas Freeling's Van der Valk mysteries. The rest of the book is stuffed with excellent essays and suggestions for a good crime read!(less)
This is how I reviewed this book in The Washington Post: From The Washington Post’s Book World
It’s been 20 years since Peter Mayle wrote his bestseller...moreThis is how I reviewed this book in The Washington Post: From The Washington Post’s Book World
It’s been 20 years since Peter Mayle wrote his bestseller A Year in Provence, and there’s no sign yet of the “Year In…” franchise flagging. After all, what two-week vacationer could fail to dream of a year in Provence, Marrakesh or Tuscany? These are modern Mediterranean fairy tales, and they’re put together with the simplest ingredients: magical neighbors, hellish builders and much more olive oil than you expected. The Caliph’s House looks like one of those books, but it isn’t. British travel writer Tahir Shah’s highly readable account of moving his young family to Casablanca is constructed with something weirder and sharper: vinegar, perhaps, and ectoplasm.
It opens ordinarily enough. Shah is at a Casablanca lawyer’s office, signing the sale contract, taking in the view of the street, ruminating on why he had always wanted to skip the grey skies of England for the warmth and color of Morocco. He picks up the heavy old key. The caliph’s house is his. At that very moment, a car bomb explodes outside the lawyer’s office, covering them both with broken glass. An eerie portent of things to come, perhaps. Shah’s new home, the vast Caliph’s House, has been empty for 10 years and now stands decrepit, if not derelict, on the fringe of a shantytown. With it, Shah finds that he has also acquired staff: three lugubrious and potentially sinister “guardians,” who come “as if by some medieval right of sale.” More medieval still, a vengeful she-jinn called Qandisha haunts the house, they say.
Over the next few months she reveals her presence in various grisly ways: stringing cats up in trees and sucking raw meat through the toilet bowl. Children are said to be her favorite target. It may be no coincidence that the local gangster wants them out so he can steal the land. Down in the shantytown an elderly stamp-collector, who will take no money for teaching the author Arabic but likes his foreign stamps, gives him some amiable advice: “You put mannequins in the children’s beds, and tell your children to sleep in the oven each night. Do that, and you will all be safe.” An educated young lady Shah hires to get the renovations underway ultimately claims to have a 300-meter-tall jinn sitting at her shoulder, cleans out Shah’s bank account and reports him as a terrorist to the police. Her replacement – the crafty, efficient Kamal – is a binge-drinker on a perpetual high-wire, a sort of psychopathic Jeeves whose brutal and bizarre history includes a long interlude in the United States, where he made the acquaintance of Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 hijacker.
Yet nothing in Casablanca is quite as odd as Shah’s determination to carry on as usual. He and his imperturbable wife want servants, a big house in the sun and a bellyful of local color for their two toddlers. What they get is the local custom of dropping gobbets of raw chicken into the well to appease the jinns, and a bellyful of streptococcus. It’s almost fatal, but they don’t flush the key down the one working lavatory and get a cab to the airport. The thought briefly flits through Shah’s mind, but it doesn’t take hold. Instead, we are led on a darkly comic journey into the North African underworld, with the reckless but thoroughly well-connected Kamal as chaperone to Shah’s dubious Dante.
The joke is that Shah, in spite of his Afghan heritage, in spite of his descent from the Prophet, is a man with a rationalist moral gyroscope. He doesn’t believe in jinns, which everyone else seems to have like head lice. He’s bothered by rats, he has servant trouble, he discovers the desperate shifts the poor make to survive — the stealing, the sudden flashes of dignity, the mutual aid networks that underpin the black market, the medieval superstitions. Nothing works quite the way it works in a mature, liberal, democratic capitalist society. Everything has a price, but the routes to that price are devious and surprising. Every explanation raises more questions than it answers: Shah has baffling encounters and warily follows instructions he cannot understand.
One night he is taken to a mysterious rendezvous in the desert and expects to be killed, but nothing happens. Another day he gives a lift to an old man who steals his car. Fifteen minutes later, the elderly thief drives back, apologizing that if he took the car for good, no one would ever give an old man a lift again. It’s in this sly side-step from common reality that the Shah persona comes into its own. He doesn’t play it too knowingly, but he doesn’t play himself for a fool, either.
If Kamal is a Jeeves on amphetamines, Shah is no woolly-headed Wooster. He finds himself a very good fixer. He gets the house superbly done, with tiling and the tadelakt, so that he and his family can leave the single room they’ve occupied all year. And he finds out a lot about his grandfather, a widower who retired to Morocco because it was the one place he’d never traveled with his adored wife; he lived for years in Tangiers before being struck dead by a Coca-Cola delivery truck. Shah writes an outrageously black comedy with the straightest of poker faces. And in some quiet alchemical way, he finds himself at peace with the guardians and the imam and the gangster down the road and the shanty dwellers on his doorstep and the bank manager at home. He’s living there still.(less)
As usual, pitch perfect recreation of the 19th century - this one spiced by a sojourn at a Hetman's country house, and a hilariously bad-mannered esca...moreAs usual, pitch perfect recreation of the 19th century - this one spiced by a sojourn at a Hetman's country house, and a hilariously bad-mannered escape by sleigh, with cossacks in pursuit. The military stuff - down to Flashman's involvement in three major engagements in one day, including the Charge of the Light Brigade - is stupendous.(less)