Monday, 15 December 2014

Books of the Year

It's time for my annual review of what I've read this year.

As with last year's list, it's influenced by things I saw on TV or in newspapers and other media, as well as the non-fiction I've read.

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

I enjoyed re-watching this ITV Hercule Poirot adaption with David Suchet at the start of the year so decided to read the novel it's based on in which a serial killer's victims and the towns in which the crimes are committed proceed in alphabetical order.

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe

I spotted this short, semi-autobiographical novel about unrequited love on a list of supposedly unreadable books and thought I'd take up the challenge.

The Jealous God by John Braine

I picked this up after reading a description of it in Jay P. Corrin's Catholic Progressives in England after Vatican II, about the Catholic left of the 60's. The main character is a young Catholic schoolteacher of Irish descent in a small Northern English town who meets a Protestant woman, a world I instantly recognised given my own similar background.

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Pretty much the only thing I hadn't read by Conrad, this novel, about exiled Italian revolutionaries in a fictional South American country, is widely regarded as his masterpiece.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

The only book I hadn't read by Austen, for similar "completist" reasons.

Ulysses and Finnegans Wake by James Joyce

I tried to read Ulyssses as a teenager but didn't get very far. It's about Leopold Bloom, a middle-aged Jewish advertising salesman wandering around Dublin on a single day in 1904 (now known as "Bloomsday") and is actually quite accessible, especially compared to the supposedly unreadable Finnegans Wake, an avant garde mix of Irish folklore and puns which I read next.

The Group by Mary McCarthy 

This had sat on my bookshelves for many years and I'm not sure why it took me so long to get around to this highly autobiographical novel about young female graduates and the American left in 1930's New York.

The Folks That Live on the Hill by Kingsley Amis

I read this social comedy set in early 90's North London after hearing an excerpt from it in a documentary about Amis.

Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D'Urbevilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

Having not read a Hardy novel before, I had a midsummer binge on four of his tales of life and love in his native Wessex.

The Spire by William Golding

Stopping in South West England, I read this novel about the building of Salisbury Cathedral's spire in the early fourteenth century.

Nana by Emile Zola

I read quite a few Zola novels as a teenager and this was the only one on my bookshelves that I hadn't got round to. The young prostitute Nana serves as a metaphor for the corruption of the French Second Empire on the eve of its downfall.

The Long Memory by Howard Clewes

Set in the post-war London Docklands, this novel was made into a film starring John Mills which has long been a favourite of mine. The main character is an ex-convict who - in an almost Dickensian plot - wanders along the banks of the Thames attempting to clear his name.

Catholics by Brian Moore

I bought this after a seeing a clip from the film adaption of it. A short novel about an American priest sent by Rome to to suppress the Latin Mass at a monastery off the coast of Ireland after the Second Vatican Council, I read it straight through in a little over an hour.

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

Also on the theme of religion, this light comic novel features camp Anglo-Catholics in a London parish of the late 50's.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Long on my "must read" list, this is a psychological study of a young man who commits a double murder in mid-nineteenth century St Petersburg.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

Rounding off the year on a Russian theme, I read Gogol's comic masterpiece about landowners and their dead, but still taxable, serfs and the conman who aims to exploit that.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Matt's mats

Rather stereotypically for a cask beer drinker, my favourite types of music are blues and jazz.  Those two interests coincided yesterday when the secretary of Manchester Jazz Society, of which I'm a member, very kindly gave me a collection of 1970's beer mats which he was clearing out.

As well as being visually appealing and in some cases jogging memories of pubs from my childhood, they also give a snapshot of a vanished world: not just the breweries that no longer exist such as Ansell's, Higson's and Walkers but also the unexamined sexism, tobacco advertising and the appeal on the back of some of them that drivers only drink moderately.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Take Courage

I've finally got round to drinking a bottle from the new batch Courage Russian Imperial Stout which I wrote about here.

I now get what Cyril Ray meant in the sixties when he wrote that "the beer frothed creamily into the glass, dark and rich...smelled like burgundy and drank like liquid silk." 

As well as that silky mouthfeel and the alcoholic warmth you'd expect from a beer with an ABV of ten per cent, Russian Imperial Stout has a complex range of flavours: among those I picked up were burnt cork, fruit, chocolate and dates. I think I'll buy a few more bottles to see how those flavours mature with age.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Bishops' wars

Assuming Parliament approves the measure passed by the synod of the Church of England yesterday, a female Anglican bishop should be appointed some time next summer at the end of a battle that has taken up almost half the twenty years since the first women were ordained. I wonder which Prime Minister will chose her, the nominal Anglican David Cameron or the Jewish atheist Ed Miliband?

The Church of England must surely be the only religious institution in the world whose leaders are picked by people who aren't themselves members of it, like the last Prime Minister, the Scottish Presbyterian Gordon Brown. Margaret Thatcher  a Nonconformist turned Anglican  was apparently the most interventionist Prime Minister in episcopal matters, once rejecting both names on the shortlist sent to her by the Church, while Winston Churchill was so uninterested that he let his Parliamentary Private Secretary, the Irish Catholic Brendan Bracken, pick them for him.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Indulge yourself

I tried Indulgence, the new seasonal beer from Stockport brewery Robinson's, for the first time yesterday.

Robinson's describe Indulgence as a winter warmer which made me think it would be brown, malty, sweet and strong. It's not really any of those things but it's still a great beer.

It's a darkish amber colour and has got a very clean, crisp taste, mouthfeel and finish with a nice balance between the malt and hops. It reminded me a lot of the Altbier you get in Düsseldorf.

If you're anywhere near a Robinson's pub this winter, I recommend trying it.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Brewer's pounds

Anti-alcohol groups have seized on the fact that the new head of the civil service John Manzoni has been allowed to retain a non-executive directorship with global brewer SABMiller.

Although Manzoni will forego his £100,000 a year salary and place the shares he holds in the company into a blind trust, critics claim that these interests should rule him out being appointed as Civil Service Chief Executive,

I don't hold any brief for Manzoni (his activities in the oil industry haven't between without controversy and he seems set to introduce a more business-orientated, target-based culture into the civil service), or for global brewers like SABMiller come to that, and as a former civil servant I understand the argument about conflicts of interest and impartiality.

Having said that, I suspect that what those opposed to his appointment really object to is not his corporate background per se but specifically his links to an industry (brewing) which they regard as beyond the pale.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Another Man Done Gone

The bassist Jack Bruce who died aged 71 at the weekend was one of those who came to prominence in the British blues and R&B boom of the 1960's.

Bruce started out playing in jazz and skiffle bands in his native Glasgow before gravitating, along with like-minded musicians from Belfast, Newcastle and Manchester, towards the blues and R&B scene in London where he played with Blues Incorporated, the band led by Alexis Korner (a mentor to many of them), John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Manfred Mann. In 1966, he formed the blues-rock trio Cream with ex-Bluesbreakers guitarist Eric Clapton and ex-Blues Incorporated drummer Ginger Baker (I've got a diagram somewhere showing how musicians swapped bands in the British blues and R&B boom).

I'm happy to say that there are still a few people left from that generation of British blues musicians, including John Mayall - who I'll be seeing when he plays Manchester tomorrow night - and Paul Jones, with whom Bruce collaborated in Manfred Mann. Others though, like so many musicians, succumbed at an early age to drug and/or alcohol problems.

Here's Bruce on bass in Cream playing probably his most famous riff .