Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The beautiful game?

Dear readers,

As the World Cup approaches with sickening inevitability, I want to say a few words about football, or, rather, about the tyranny of football. I am, as anyone who knows me will attest, profoundly uninterested in football, to the point of outright hostility at times. That is my right. I am also well aware that many, many people (some of whom I usually count as rational human beings) are passionately wedded to "The Beautiful Game" (puh-leeze) and follow both it and their chosen team with fervour. That is their right. So far, so good.

To what I object is the period convulsions of the common weal when a significant event in football comes along, people lose their reason, and there is an assumption that, not merely fans of the game, but everyone will be interested. The World Cup is, of course, the most striking example of this, but we could also look at the European Championship, the Cup Final or other major tourneys in the world of association football. With Brazil '14 charging up on the rails, this is all happening again.

I am not much of a sports fan. I am addicted to motor racing in almost all of its forms, and I will watch Wimbledon quite happily each summer, but otherwise I don't really take a lot of interest. Sticks and balls? You're welcome to them. I confess I have some admiration for the veneration of the history of the game that baseball fans often exude, and I find their obsession with statistics charming in its own way, but, largely, I do not intersect much with the world of sports. This does not, to me, seem a particularly remarkable fact or quirk. But, oh, how some people disagree.

I know perfectly well that, come June, people will start saying "Did you see the match last night/yesterday/today?" I will politely tell them that I did not, and, if elaboration is required, I will explain that it holds no more interest for me than the All-Kazakhstan Wrestling Championship (I don't know if there is such a thing - but there probably is). And I guarantee, I guarantee, that, before the summer is out, someone will respond "But it's the World Cup!" And this is what I mean. When the Olympics rolled around, it struck no-one as unusual, despite the fact that I was very happy that London hosted the Games and put on a damned good show, that I didn't suddenly develop an interest in track-and-field. Look! A man throwing a pointy stick! Fine. When he hits someone with it, we'll talk. But I didn't watch, because I'm not interested in the sport.

Football is different, football is other, football is, people think, transcendent. I am sure that there are many people who do not think of themselves as football fans who will generate an interest in the World Cup, and I'm sure viewing figures for the matches will suggest that. I'm very happy for them. But I do dislike the assumption that you will be following, that you will be on the edge of your seat as England loses on penalties (or whatever, but I understand this is not uncommon). It is not a cultural norm. I am not feigning a lack of interest. I really don't care.

The World Cup takes on a particularly piquant nature because of national teams. As one who is of overwhelmingly Scottish ancestry but was born in England, there is the inevitable question: which team do you support? Well, none, actually, and I couldn't give a stuff. It's not England, it's not Scotland (it probably would be if I had a gun to my head) and it's not Whoever's Beating England, Ha Ha Ha. Do grow up.

But I am braced for all this anyway. The television schedules will be warped by showing matches from Brazil, the news will devote near-blanket coverage, and already Esquire has produced a World Cup special edition, filling pages of an otherwise-enjoyable magazine with paeans to 1980s Brazilian footballers of whom I have never heard. Grown men will talk and write in the most florid, Bulwer-Lytton-esque terms of the artistry of football, and will throw out wild generalisations about supposed national characteristics being exhibited in a playground ball game. Much of it will make Alan Partridge's excited cry of "Eat my goal!" seem like a model of restraint in broadcasting. I will not be watching. All I ask is this: allow me the peace and quiet (and, ideally, the scheduling time) to seek out the Le Mans 24 Hours, the British Grand Prix and a few other nuggets, and I will leave you alone if you'll return the favour.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Boyd on Bond

And so, dear readers, to the South Bank last night, to the Queen Elizabeth Hall where William Boyd was being interviewed about his new addition to the James Bond canon, Solo. (I should say, parenthetically, that while I generally distrust sarf London, I tend to view the South Bank as a north London bridgehead and really part of the civilised world). Boyd is the latest in a long line to pick up Fleming's baton, stretching all the way back to Kingsley Amis's pseudonymous Colonel Sun, and the new book was written with the full co-operation of Fleming's estate. A copy of Solo is now in possession but as-yet untouched, so of that more another day.

I am a great fan of William Boyd. He is a talented and thoughtful writer with a broad canvas, and one who is no stranger to spy fiction. He is also a Bond fanatic with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Fleming's writing (and he included Fleming as a character in his 2002 masterpiece, Any Human Heart). The format of the evening was a Q&A, introduced by Ian Fleming's niece, Lucy, which indicates how closely Boyd has worked with the Fleming Estate. She had some interesting observations on Fleming and the extent to which he would have approved of Boyd's work. Solo is a continuation novel set in 1969, so taking the timeline upon which Fleming (eventually) settled for Bond and is a period piece, in the vein of Sebastian Faulks's Devil May Care rather than the updated John Gardner and Raymond Benson novels or Jeffrey Deaver's (I thought very good) reboot of the franchise, Carte Blanche.

It is an interesting decision to place Bond (back) in period. In Boyd's book, 007 has just turned 45, and the setting is Africa, one Boyd knows well; he was born in Ghana and spent much of his early life there and in Nigeria, where he saw first-hand some of the effects of the Biafran War. His upbringing informed books like A Good Man in Africa and Brazzaville Beach, so his depiction of the continent should be worthy of Fleming's high standards of research and sense of place. Creating a period Bond will not please everyone. For some, Bond should always be at the peak of his powers, somewhere in his thirties, and with every accoutrement of modern life at his disposal. Done well, as Jeffrey Deaver did, this can be excellent, but I somehow feel Bond belongs in his time, or at least very close to it. It makes his back-story more credible (and Boyd's short reading from the beginning of Solo cast some interesting light on 007's wartime experiences as a young officer in the RNVR).

On to Boyd. The interview was conducted by journalist and poetess Olivia Cole (whose brother Harry was spotted in the audience toting a glass of champagne - well done, that man). Cole is a very accomplished and successful woman, but she seemed, especially at first, a little ill at ease, the opening questions slightly stilted and stumbled-over. Perhaps I am being harsh; but there were one or two moments of buttock-clenching awkwardness. Boyd himself was a model interviewee: polite, modest, funny and extremely well-informed. He was keen to stress that, while he drew very heavily from Fleming's writings, which he knows back-to-front, he had made a conscious decision to ignore completely the filmic Bond in creating his own version of the character. He took many of the basic reference points from Bond's (premature) obituary in You Only Live Twice, in which Fleming himself finally settled on some of the way points of 007's life and career.

Even for those familiar with the literary Bond, there were some stark and useful reminders. We know, of course, that Bond is a damaged and troubled man, with self-doubt and fear constant companions. You don't see the cinematic Bond vomit with fear. But Boyd also reminds us of his orphanhood, and his deeply emotional (ahem) bond to M as a substitute father-figure. He also stressed - and this was something I hadn't thought very much about - that Bond is an intellectual figure. Although he leaves school at 17, his Chelsea flat is "book-lined", and he is an impressive autodidact. There is surely something of Fleming in this. An upbringing of privilege, yes, but with an unconventional relationship with formal education balanced by a hoarder's brain which hoovers up snippets of information (and, in Fleming's case, often scatters them through the pages of the 007 novels).

So now I must scurry through the rest of the biography of Woodrow Wilson I'm currently reading, so I can turn to Boyd on Bond. The signs are promising. Certainly, he brings the most passionate attachment to Bond to the task so far, and maybe, just maybe, knows even more about the subject than even Fleming did. A note upon which to end, and to make a martini, I think. It is, after all, always five o'clock somewhere.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The happy place

Dear readers,

Today we address the vital subject of one's happy place. The place where one can relax, read, enjoy a glass and generally feel the cares of the world wafting away. The place where, in the words of the theme song from Cheers, everyone knows your name, or at least your order. I will make a surprising confession. There are many drinking establishments in London I love dearly: The Seven Stars, The SpeakerThe French House and Skylon are among them. But for true relaxation, comfort and warmth, my happy place is none other than part of a chain, All Bar One on Chiswick High Road (from where I write at the moment).

Why is this? I have no brief against chains, unlike some; they are reliable and uniform, generally well-stocked and reasonably priced. I accept, though, that they do not always summon up the blood and stiffen the sinews, nor set the pulse a-racing. Arguably, it is not their job. But I will defend this one.

For starters, the wine list is really pretty good for a high street bar. You can have a bog-standard glass of malbec, or a bottle of Washington State riesling. Very few bottles will cost you more than thirty quid, and you'll get something good for that. There is a fine range of draught beers and lagers (though I accept that it is not a venue for CAMRA types). The food is reasonably good and reasonably priced, if occasionally a bit mimsy. For those who are looking for such things in a bar, the coffee is good and I am told the tea is too (I cannot abide tea - it makes me nauseous).

That's not the real point, though. I come here because it is comfortable. It's spacious, I can usually get "my" table (and am in high dudgeon when I can't), the staff are friendly and will bring me my standard pint(s) of Peroni almost unprompted, there is a wifi connection now, since the refurbishment, and I feel like it is an extension of my living room. If I want to read, or write, or just think, it is a haven from the bustle of everyday life.

(All of this is slightly ironic. When I was flat-hunting before I first moved to London, I came into this very self-same All Bar One after leaving an estate agent, and hated it. Cavernous, with poor service. How times, and people, change.)

All of this says, I think, that happy places are more about people than the places themselves. One very good friend of mine will never be happy too far from The Seven Stars, while another gets misty-eyed at mention of the Wittenham Clumps (which really should be a pub name). I suspect most of us have them, however, and they are to be cherished. And, if you find yourself in Chiswick, pop into All Bar One. But don't sit at my table. I'll be cross.

Monday, 8 October 2012

'Tis the season of Bond

Dear readers,

Today we return to a subject dear to my heart, that of James Bond, 007, licensed to kill. This is very much the time for it; recently we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of the first Bond film, Dr. No, and later this month, of course, we will be treated to the latest cinematic instalment, Skyfall, complete with its Adele-sung theme song. (Skyfall is Bond 23, canonically, but that ignores the execrable Casino Royale and the much more entertaining, if silly, Never Say Never Again.) I've yet to hear the theme song, but Adele strikes me as ideal, very much a Shirley Bassey for the 21st century, with no disrespect to the still-extant Dame Shirley.

This month's GQ devoted a considerable portion of its pages to Bond, and very interesting it was too. Dame Judi Dench wrote an fascinating piece on working with Daniel Craig, David Walliams interviewed Sir Roger Moore, and Danny Wallace visited GoldenEye, and wrote the first chapter of a supposed Bond novel. All of this brought home to me how varied Bond is; how, in many ways, he is what you want him to be.

Popular perception of 007 is overwhelmingly shaped by the films, of course, and people's Platonic ideal of Bond is often dependent on their age and therefore who was their childhood Bond. (Mine was late-stage Moore, Dalton and, I suppose, early Brosnan, though I was hardly a child by the time the series was revived by GoldenEye.) For some, Bond is the seductive killer of Sir Sean Connery; for others, he is the licensed-to-quip Sir Roger Moore, and for younger people he is the smooth charmer of Pierce Brosnan. Those growing up with Daniel Craig will have a very different slant on 007, and there can't be many people whose childhood Bond was George Lazenby.

Then again, there is the Bond of the books. Fleming's Bond. The general revival of Bond over the past, say, ten years will, I'm sure, have driven more people in the direction of Fleming's eleven novels and two collections of short stories (and I devoured the John Gardner successor books as a teenager); but I dare say they are still considerably overshadowed by the silver screen Bond. The literary Bond is, it is almost a cliché to say, darker and bleaker than the films. There is a striking sense of the soullessness of Bond's job (is it a vocation, really?), and the famous brand names and high living are surely an antidote to all that, oases of enjoyment in a life that is really rather cold. And this shows in Fleming's writing. The very first book, Casino Royale, is, I think, a terse, tense and brutal masterpiece, and if anyone has framed a spy novel with better first and last lines, then it can only be Len Deighton.

"The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning."

"Yes, dammit, I said 'was'. The bitch is dead now."

I like both the books and the films, though I freely accept that some of the late Moore outings were very silly, and Sir Roger was looking rather creaky (see A View to a Kill). By contrast, I think Live and Let Die is one of the very best, up there with From Russia With Love and Thunderball. One has to enjoy them (or not) on their own terms. For me, the jury is still out on Daniel Craig. He is a magnificent actor, as anyone who watched Our Friends in the North must surely attest, but, while I thought Casino Royale was very good, I found Quantum of Solace a little limp (a shame especially as it's a cracking short story, albeit Bond barely features). Maybe Skyfall will tip the balance one way or the other; though I think Craig has also signed up for Bond 24.

All of which brings me to my perhaps-controversial conclusion. I've thought long and hard about this, and I wouldn't be without any of the Bond films, but my favourite screen Bond is Timothy Dalton. Like Brosnan, he was considered for the role more than once, but playing the role in his early 40s was probably about right. And I will say now that I think The Living Daylights is out-and-out one of the best Bond films there is. The gadgetry takes a back seat, we have a sympathetic and rounded Bond girl in the exquisite Maryam d'Abo, and some excellent villains. Dalton's Bond can be charming and quippy, but he is also a killer. That's his job. He also looked like Bond; dark hair, saturnine looks, a hint of Celtic charm. Bond, after all, was never the perfect English gentleman. Half-Scots and half-Swiss, he never quite fitted in.

If The Living Daylights was a great film, I accept that Licence to Kill was less satisfactory, though it still entertains. And I will always regret that Dalton walked away after that, hardly helped by the long legal wrangling between UA/MGM and Eon Productions. He'd have made an excellent fist of GoldenEye, I'm sure, though he'd have been in the region of fifty by that time. Brosnan proved a good Bond, but some of the darkness, so pervasive in the novels, had gone (and one could hardly blame a man who had been in the entertaining but campy Remington Steele).

Still, Bond fans have much to look forward to. First, there is Skyfall; then, next autumn, we have William Boyd's new Bond novel, to be set in the late 1960s. We shall return to this soon enough, I'm sure...

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Autumn - season of two faces

Dear readers,

I have been neglecting my duties of late, but you may consider me duly chastised. Today I consider the ultimate British topic of conversation - the weather.

We are now officially into autumn, though you would only occasionally know it from the conditions. It is a season I sometimes like a great deal, and sometimes despise; as two-faced as Janus. Today is a case in point. I strode out to sit and relax in a local bar, peered hopefully at the lightening skies, and threw on a blazer. A few moments after I had left,the rain, fine, aggravating drizzle, started, and I was even more pleased than usual to dive into the bar. Then the sun came out, and all seemed well. Now it's spitting with rain again.

I say all of this not simply as some quotidian reflection on the weather, but because there are profound implications: on clothes, on food and on drink.

Let's take clothes to begin with. Autumn can be a delightful time - out comes the tweed, the cashmere, scarves and coats. There is great satisfaction in pulling on a well-fitting pair of soft leather gloves, or clicking along the road with a tightly-furled umbrella. A crisp autumn street with crackling leaves underfoot and a pale blue sky is a joy. But then come the rains, the leaves turn to mush, the welts of shoes get clogged, or a burst of sudden warmth makes a scarf clammy and uncomfortable. As this can change half a dozen times in a single day, dressing in the morning is climatic Russian roulette.

Then food. Unctuous sausage casseroles, bosky stews and homely roasts make autumn an ideal time. Game is in plentiful supply, and meals can be genuinely "heart-warming". Then comes a grey, drizzly day of indifferent temperature, and it is difficult to think of anything to make the taste buds sing. Summer's table, like summer's lease, has been and gone, but it hardly seems the time to seek the succour of heavy, homely food.

And drink. There are some hardy perennials. A cold, crisp, strong martini will always comfort and caress, no matter what the weather, hot or cold, wet or dry. Just as a crisp cider, however, is blissful on a hot, sunny day, and a rich, spicy red wine is perfect on a cold, flinty evening, there is nothing which really speaks to a flat, blue-grey damp afternoon. Perhaps a good real ale comes closest, representing a truly English season.

So I am not a whole-hearted fan of autumn. I like its good cop but find its bad cop tiresome and depressing. One can only hope for a cold, sharp, clear winter.

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Sybarite's favourite martinis, part 2

Dear readers,

I recently found myself in Dublin's fair city, always a pleasurable experience, especially when the sun is shining and the handsome Georgian architecture is at its best. My employers had kindly put me up at the Shelbourne Hotel on St Stephen's Green, which was a real treat, to which I may return at another point. It is a magnificent establishment, and redolent with the complexities of modern Irish history as well as being the height of luxury and good service.

During a break in the proceedings, I found time to escape to the bar to peruse the selection of cocktails. (Oysters were also available, and I was sorely tempted, but I was about to dine. Another time, perhaps.) The list was solid, though, like so many places these days, it offered some rather unnecessarily florid variations on old standards, and I confess to being rather wary. While the staff were charming, most of them were not so much hearty raconteurs of Erin and winsome colleens as dutiful employees from east of the Oder. In any event, the barman placed a selection of snacks in front of me - wasabi peas, Japanese rice crackers, the usual abominations - and asked what I would like.

I decided to be brave. A martini, I told him, very dry, with gin. He nodded and scuttled off. I was wary because I have been to far too many bars where I have earnestly asked for a very dry martini and got some foul concoction that must have been nearly 50/50 gin and vermouth. He returned to ask two pertinent questions: firstly, what kind of gin would I prefer? Second, did I want an olive or a twist? After a run-down of the options on the first point, I asked for Tanqueray 10 and a twist (I've never really cared for olives in a martini; I don't like them in their natural state, and they do flavour the drink).

The barman is to be applauded. He took my instruction seriously, and brought me a good, cold, dry martini. The flavour of the gin was to the fore, as it should be, there was a hint of vermouth (I think I saw him using Noilly Prat), it was properly shaken (I am not a fanatic on the stirred vs. shaken issue) and it was a decent size. I shifted in my stool, took the first sip, and felt that life-affirming cold heat of the gin spreading through my body. Pure bliss.

This, I think, illustrates an important point. There are excellent cocktail bars, in which the staff know their business very well and should be able to furnish you with anything you want. Elsewhere, if the ingredients are there, all I ask is that the staff follow politely-offered instruction. I asked for it very dry, with just a whisper of vermouth, and that was what I got. It was delicious, and, even better, I somehow mustered the self-control to stop at two.

So if you are a cocktail lover and find yourself in Dublin, shamble along to the Shelbourne. Be warned, it is not cheap; but then it was not horrifically extortionate either. It was averagely-priced for a cocktail in a posh hotel. It was also well, well worth it. Sláinte mhaith!

Thursday, 31 May 2012

The house cider rules

Today, dear readers, I consider the issue of cider. It seems appropriate, as we stagger to the end of a glorious heat wave, to turn our thoughts to this most thirst-quenching of drinks. For the past few years, of course, cider has been quite the drink du jour, but with some excellent brands have emerged some real duds, and the marketing hype associated with some of the more prominent labels has been overpowering in the extreme.

It was, I suppose, Magners which revitalised the market which had previously been dominated by Strongbow and Dry Blackthorn (or, at the less salubrious end, Diamond White and Frosty Jack's), and in pure marketing terms I have to doff my cap to the C&C Group, the owners of Magners, for presenting an image of carefree sunny days in dappled apple orchards, allied to an easygoing Irish charm. The gimmick of serving it over ice was a clever one, and placed it firmly in the summer drink category. I confess that Magners is never more than a faute de mieux choice, if I am locked into a cider mood, and I find it a bit bland and tasteless. I don't have it with ice, either, as it should be cold anyway from the bottle or the tap, and the ice just leaves you with watery detritus at the end of the glass.

With the undoubted success of Magners, the venerable English company H.P. Bulmer fought back by marketing Bulmer's as a very similar product, also aimed at the served-over-ice aficionados. (Confusingly, Magners is sold in Ireland as Bulmer's; it is the same product, with almost-identical labels.) Bulmer's has also diversified, launching pear cider and No 17 cider, with the addition of crushed red berries and lime. I don't much care for these either, though the red apple edition which Bulmer's produced for a while was a toothsome novelty.

Then, of course, we have the Scandinavian invasion, in cider as in gloomy detective drama, with Rekorderlig and Kopparberg leading the charge. These two have played heavily on the different flavours available. I was for a time much taken by Rekorderlig (apparently to be pronounced Re-kor-DER-lig), and drank vats of the stuff, but I find it rather too sweet now. In small doses, the winter special, with vanilla and cinnamon, is very tasty (I have yet to try it warmed or mulled, but if 2012/13 is a cold winter, I can see possibilities), and the strawberry and lime edition is refreshing under the right circumstances. Both Rekorderlig and Kopparberg peddle pear ciders as well, but I cannot abide pears - a story for another day...

For real quality - and strength - however, the experienced cider drinker must adhere to traditional values. The two great names I am thinking of here are Westons and Thatchers, from the cider heartlands of Herefordshire and Somerset respectively. Both have excellent ranges, and, availability notwithstanding, make it unnecessary to look anywhere else. Westons Medium Dry is a deliciously crisp and tasty drink, and comes in at a decent 6.5% abv. The Vintage is a bulkier mouthful, at 8.2%, but has a wonderfully sweet and apply flavour, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Then there are the still scrumpies, including the mighty Old Rosie, which, apart from their many other virtues, are available in 20-litre boxes, if you have the storage space.

In the Somerset corner, Thatcher Katy Single Variety is a truly lovely drink, light and dry and refreshing, of which a very attractive rose version is available. Thatchers Gold is a smooth and easy-drinking tipple, only 4.8% abc for those who fight shy of the heftier ciders. Like Westons, they produce a vintage (7.4%) which is a complex and bitter-sweet swallow, worth pairing with food.

I do not deny it. I am a cider fan. Many of you may be too. It is certainly true that the options available to cider-drinkers are so much wider than ten or fifteen years ago, when a can of Woodpecker was a titan in the cider landscape. My only plea is to look beyond the big commercial hitters. Go for strength in depth. The wide ranges produced by the apple growers of Herefordshire and the West Country are a paradise of earthly delights. If the summer returns - it certainly seems to be fading at the moment - go to your local off-licence, dig through the shelves and fridges, and stock up on some fine and refreshing drinks. You won't regret it. Until the morning after.