The Negroni

As most of my friends (and relatives, it has to be said) will tell you, I’m rather partial to gin – even though I openly admit to cleaning my jewellery in it. Does bring the old diamonds up a treat, I must say. It’s much better in a cocktail though, so I’ve dug out my old recipe book to see what gin-based potions take my fancy. Top of the list is one of my favourites, the negroni.

The negroni is an aperitif comprising equal parts of gin, red vermouth and Campari, served with a sliver of orange peel. It’s remarkably tart, fruity and extremely potent. Just the thing to kick start a three course dinner. It was based on an established cocktail called an Americano, which was equal parts Campari, red vermouth, topped up with soda water and garnished with a slice of lemon.

If gin isn’t your tipple (strange person you are), there is a whisky variant called the Boulevardier; the Dutch make a negroni with their own native genever rather than London dry gin; an Old Pal is a version using dry vermouth and Canadian rye whisky. There’s even one with tequila!

However you like your cocktail, I hope you have fun experimenting and enjoy a negroni. Please remember, however, the recommended guidelines for alcohol and also bear in mind that the average cocktail is often a lot more alcoholic than it looks!

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The Price of Monet

I really fancy the new Monet exhibition at the National Gallery. When I was last there, an assistant told me that there were going to be seventy five paintings on display, which is quite a lot of Monet. As are the ticket prices, currently being listed as £22 for non-members over the weekend (It’s cheaper during the week, but not much) although members (typically) go free. Clearly, the Gallery intend to make a bit of money out of it, given how popular Monet is.

Once I’d recovered from the shock, I reflected on how I would feel when tickets go on sale for the Van Gogh exhibition at the Tate next year – that will be another popular one, I expect. I know I baulked at paying £10 for Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern, but (a) I don’t really like Georgia O’Keeffe very much and (b) I detest the Tate Modern. I don’t like Tate Britain much either – it’s very badly organised – but the exhibition spaces are wonderful. Besides which, I would happily pay twice that amount to see Van Gogh’s British paintings.

People are saying that one thing which has to be remembered with this Monet exhibition is the number of paintings being made available – and that many of them have never been seen together. This was the same argument used by the Royal Academy when they had a room full of his Water Lilies – four of which took up entire walls. It really was overwhelming to see, but easily justified the entrance fee, which I think was about £20, and that was over ten years ago.

I suppose the question isn’t really whether £22 is a lot of money to see seventy five Monets, but whether I like Monet enough to pay £22 to see seventy five of them. I’m not sure I do. He’s not Van Gogh, after all.

When Is A Rebellion A Rebellion?

Somewhere in the depths of my comic collection is a short four-issue comic called The Hopeless Savages; the central characters are a family of counter-cultural punk rockers who live off-grid and rebel against the social and political norms – so they are left wing if the government is right wing and so on. It all goes a bit pear-shaped when their oldest son decides to rebel against his parents – as children are wont to do – and accepts a job at a large global coffee corporation (based on Starbucks, I don’t doubt), which causes concern amongst the family.

It’s not a great comic, much as I love it – it doesn’t have the emotional impact of Sandman at its best, for example – but I thought it did raise an interesting point about rebellion. In similar circumstances (i.e. parents are already viewed as countercultural) is following the pack the only form of rebellion? And is it really rebellion if one chooses to follow in the parents’ footsteps, becoming countercultural oneself? It does bring back memories of Marlon Brando somewhat: “What are you rebelling against?” “What’ve you got?”

As a question, it’s proved fairly pertinent, as I am now struggling my way through a more difficult Camus (given how wonderful I found The Plague), his book long essay on revolutions, The Rebel. It’s not an easy read, but given how I seem to be carrying around the plight of the Hopeless Savages in the back of my brain, it is proving an interesting one. I wonder if there is ever a point where it is no longer rebellious to rebel?

I fear I’m lapsing into semantics now, so I’m going to read a little bit more and see how I get on.

Some Unpleasant Truths About Revolutions

I’m not sure that reading The Rebel is proving to be a good idea; not only am I having a number of illusions shattered, but I’m actually learning something, I’m not entirely sure I like what I’m learning, but I’m equally not entirely sure that now I’ve learned it, I can unlearn it. If you don’t want to be in the same position, don’t read any further – if you do, don’t blame me.

There are things about revolutions that I admit I’ve never thought about. Perhaps I am by nature a rebel, in that I’m always protesting about something, but I’m not really a revolutionary. There’s a significant difference, which Camus explains in great depth, but there are a few things that he pointed out that I would like to share with you, although I’m aware that some readers may view it as hair-splitting, semantics or (at best) high philosophy best discussed over a large absinthe.

For example, there is no such thing as a revolutionary government. A revolution is a complete change from what went before – so replacing a government with another government is achieving nothing and is certainly not a revolution. If you are aware of Hegel’s dialectic of history, you will probably follow this argument better, but if not, don’t worry. The best way to think about the nature of revolutions is as a clock – start at 12 with the status quo, work your way down to the revolution at 6 – the polar opposite of the status quo – then it inexorably works its way back round to 12 again, where the “revolution” has now become the status quo and a new revolution will follow. It’s a lot easier to imagine than to explain, I assure you.

Another thing is that revolutions always start with a murder, and that murder will always lead to more. Now, I’m not sure this is true in every case, and I’m fairly sure there are examples of non-violent revolutions, but I think Camus would probably argue that those examples are not true revolutions. All true revolutions start with a murder, and he explores (again, in considerable detail) both the French and Russian Revolutions* – and both of these involved regicide. On this basis, then, the English Civil War of the late 1640s would also be classed as a revolution, although that ended with the death of a monarch.

Now, the bit that follows is tricky to explain but I’m going to have a go. Once murder has been justified for revolutionary purposes – by murdering the monarch to remove the status quo – it is not then justifiable for the murder of anyone else to be prohibited. This almost inevitably leads to a terror, and this was the case both in 1790s Paris and in Russia in the late 1910s, where large scale purges of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie led to deaths on a massive scale. Again, if we apply this model to the English Civil War, we can see similar things happening – once Charles I had been executed, it was politically prudent to be Puritan, even if you thought it was a bit strict.

What this means is that true revolutions are extremely rare (and given that Camus only explores two, and I can only add one more to that, reinforces this point). It puts the so called “revolutionary rhetoric” into some context and I’m not sure I like it given that I read an awful lot of Marx in my younger (and probably more left wing) days. I certainly wasn’t advocating mass murder, but ultimately, that is what revolution will involve. If you’re okay with that, then you’re probably a true revolutionary. If not – well, I’m sticking to rebellion.

* But not the American one, interestingly. Perhaps he views this as a War of Independence, rather than a true revolution?

Busting Some Goth Stereotypes

Or in other words, how to respond to certain things you will almost certainly hear (and I certainly have over the years):-

1. It’s a phase, you’ll grow out of it – Well, I stopped growing when I was 12, and I was quite the baby bat at that time, so perhaps that explains a lot. I have said previously that I don’t believe Goth is a phase; it’s an entire philosophy of life and so it would be very difficult to grow out of if it provides meaning.

2. You’re a bit morbid – On the contrary, I think the Gothic attitude towards death is entirely healthy. We face death head on, it doesn’t scare us and we understand that it’s an important aspect of living. Without death and decay, life itself cannot exist; it’s just that rather than pretend it doesn’t happen, or it’s a terrifying thing, we approach it rather more rationally than that.

3. You’re all psychos – That only applies to me at Victoria station on work days. Seriously, though – some Goths do have mental health problems, but then so do some non-Goths. Perhaps by not trying to put a brave face on it, or brushing it under the carpet, but acknowledging that the thought processes might be a bit skewed is actually the healthier option?

4. You’ll regret that when you get older – Said to me after every piercing, tattoo and new corset. I’m still waiting. Basically, if you’ve thought carefully about it and have made the decision carefully, regrets don’t enter the picture.

5. You’re all miserable – Some of the funniest people I know are Goths, but then I love black humour. Perhaps it’s that we find other things funny than the “normal people” do.

6. You’ll never get a job looking like that – I’ve got one. Many Goths of my acquaintance have well paid positions in professions ranging from sciences, medicine, law and journalism through to the creative arts and music. I have found that many Goths are fiercely intelligent, which can only help them when looking for paid employment.

7. It’s just another uniform – I disagree strongly with this. Not all female Goths try to resemble Morticia Addams, nor do all male Goths seek to look like Marilyn Manson. There’s more uniformity on the racks at Primark. If a girl wishes to wear black bondage trousers and a Cradle of Filth t-shirt, or a lad would rather dress like Lord Byron, then fair play to them.

8. You’re all devil worshippers – Not quite sure how this one comes about, but I think it has something to do with the fact that there is a fair bit of pagan or pseudo-Christian iconography on the scene. People often forget that the devil is, by and large, a Christian concept – and if you’re not a Christian, you can’t really believe in the devil, so you can’t worship him. The Old Gods are a different matter, and if idiots wish to brand them as devils, it says more about them than about you.

9. You’re too fat/old/young/disabled to be Goth – And the person who said that is too stupid to understand a sensible answer. Don’t dignify them by trying to provide one.

10. You’re not a real Goth – The only possible response to this is identical to that given to number 9 above.

I hope this is of some help to interested readers – and of wry amusement to others – but if you choose to walk the path, walk it your way and do it with your head held high.

London’s Old Prisons

London used to be full of prisons. Most of them were extremely well known and some names are still familiar – more so if you read nineteenth century novels. Yet apart from Wormwood Scrubs, Pentonville, Holloway and Wandsworth, the overwhelming majority of prisons simply aren’t there any more. Having read Oliver Twist and Affinity (by Sarah Waters), I thought it might be interesting to have a look at some of the better known of London’s lost prisons.

Dickens mentions many of London’s prisons in his novels; in Oliver Twist it is Newgate, which at that time was the central criminal prison in London. The inmates were famous, and their exploits were regularly published in The Newgate Calendar, which also gave details of executions and sentences as well as the crimes. Some of the old cells now form part of the Old Bailey – I think they are holding cells for defendants on trial – but they can be viewed by appointment I believe.

Dickens also used the Marshalsea Prison as a setting in his novel Little Dorrit. Unlike Newgate, the Marshalsea was a debtors prison and it was demolished in 1852 with the inmates being moved. Dickens’ father was a debtor in the Marshalsea and all that remains of the building is a part of the original wall. It was situated in Southwark, just overlooking the river, and also housed men convicted of crimes at sea. However, given that nearly half London’s population were inmates of debtors’ prisons, you can guess what the majority of the inmates were there for.

Sarah Waters sets her second novel, Affinity, in Millbank Prison, a beautifully designed prison in Pimlico. It was both a men’s and women’s criminal prison and a holding facility for convicts awaiting transportation. It was loosely based on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, his vision of an ideal prison, being built in a “flower” shape. Unfortunately, the site was redeveloped, and Tate Britain now occupies most of the land, with the remainder forming part of Chelsea College of Art and Design.

Another ancient prison in London is The Fleet Prison in Farringdon, which started as a criminal facility and ended as a debtors’ prison. It went on to form part of Ludgate Station which, in turn, was redeveloped to be part of City Thameslink. However, if you want to find out what these old prisons were really like, it is possible to visit The Clink Prison Museum in Bankside, on the site of the original Clink Prison (“clink” is also a London slang term for a prison). They have put a great deal of effort in recreating some original cells and it would be a really interesting insight into (for example) Little Dorrit, if you happen to be reading that.

I must admit that given the number of Victorian prisons still operational – I live quite close to one – I’m surprised that so many have been mothballed. It is fair to say that the conditions weren’t wonderful, but given the current crisis of overcrowding, perhaps bringing some back online on a short term basis might not be a bad idea.

A Modern Oliver Twist

Now here’s a scary thought. Take a classic of Victorian literature and without changing the plot substantially, rewrite it in a modern setting. Can’t be done? Unfortunately, the only thing missing from a revamp of Oliver Twist would be the workhouse, and I’m not convinced we’re far away from its return. Pretty much everything else, including the criminal gangs and the magistrates’ courts, haven’t substantially changed. For a book that’s almost 190 years old, I think that’s pretty shocking.

Anyway, following this thought, here’s how it would go. A young pregnant woman, living on the streets, gives birth in hospital but dies in childbirth. The child is placed into foster care initially, and then into a children’s home where he runs away after being abused by the carers. He falls in with a gang of young boys who all share a squat with an older “mentor”, who fences what they steal. Their near neighbours are a prostitute and her partner, a violent burglar. Oliver is arrested for a petty theft he did not commit and is about to be convicted when the prosecution allows that new evidence has come to light indicating that he is innocent. Oliver briefly escapes the gang and lives with philanthropic Mr Brownlow, only to be kidnapped and returned to his former life of crime. However Nancy feels sorry for the boy, who is treated more cruelly than before, and arranges with Mr Brownlow to have Oliver legally returned to live with him., but Sikes discovers the ploy and murders her. Oliver flees, returns to Mr Brownlow only to discover that Brownlow is, in fact, his maternal grandfather and who arranges to adopt him.

That took me slightly less than ten minutes (it only took me that long because I forgot Mr Brownlow’s name and I had to look it up) and, as you can see, I’ve barely tweaked the plot at all. Isn’t it appalling that in two hundred years, such a story could still be told – and be believable? I don’t have solutions to such deep-seated problems, but it strikes me that in all that time, very little has been done to alleviate them. Indeed, the only real difference between the London of Oliver Twist and the London of now is the lack of a workhouse – but instead, we have food banks and charity shops. It’s not really good enough, is it?

What Oliver Twist Tells Us About Funerals

It’s only a short episode near the beginning of the novel – indeed, I think Dickens ever so slightly skims over it to get on with the delivery to Fagin and the fun bits of the book – but for a while, Oliver Twist was a funeral mute. These were very common at Victorian funerals – the middle classes wouldn’t be seen buried without them – but they’re no longer used as burial itself has gone out of fashion. So what was their role in the funeral?

According to that bastion of knowledge, Wikipedia, the main purpose of a funeral mute was to stand around looking sad, initially at the door of the deceased’s home before leading the funeral cortege to the churchyard, and then at the door of the church. They were almost all employed by the undertakers rather than the bereaved, and formed part of the funeral package alongside the coffin and the service. They were considered symbolic protectors of the dead until their committal into the ground.

This practice died out with the onset of the First World War, partly due to the sheer number of deaths in that period but also because of the increased popularity of cremations, partly as a result of increased secularisation but also (especially in the UK) due to lack of space. As funerals became more expensive, people realised that they couldn’t afford a horse-drawn hearse with plumes, half a dozen mutes, two professional mourners and a three hour requiem mass (or CofE equivalent). So non-essential elements simply dropped away – virtually nobody has professional mourners and mutes anymore, although you do still see the occasional horse-drawn hearse, especially in the East End of London.

The Victorians had a very definite way of doing death and it’s possible that they went over the top – I certainly don’t fancy spending five years in mourning when my husband dies or three years for my daughter – but they had some lovely traditions which, if you can afford them, you really should think about bringing back.

A Dark Side to Oliver Twist

As if a story about organised gangs of child pickpockets, thievery and murder wasn’t dark enough… but I’m still reading the beginning of the novel, before the reader is introduced to Fagin, Artful Dodger and Bill Sikes – before, even, we move to the workhouse. You see, little Oliver starts his life at what was known as a baby farm, which were incredibly common in the Victorian era – and at least one provided an infamous serial murderer.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. Baby farms were set up by women who essentially adopted unwanted children for money. Such children were often born of unmarried mothers, who would then return to their former lives without apparently suffering the stigma of giving birth out of wedlock. The care in these baby farms varied from the basic but healthy to the barest minimum; Mrs Mann, who cares for Oliver in the novel, falls somewhere between the two, but I would wager towards the lower end of the scale.

Unsurprisingly, such an easy means of making money led to some unscrupulous behaviour, and none more so than Amelia Dyer, a notorious baby farmer in Reading who, over the period of twenty years, murdered an unknown number of infants whom she had “adopted”, usually by strangulation but sometimes also by neglect and starvation although I suspect an over-generous dose of laudanum may well have helped them along. Because of the social stigma attaching to the natural mothers, many children went unchecked and so the neglect of the adoptive parent frequently went unreported. Amelia Dyer was hanged in 1896 at Newgate, although the exact number of her victims remains unknown. There is a possibility that her daughter, Polly, was also complicit in some of the murders, but this was never proven and the charges against her were dropped.

The scandal and public outcry created by the murders did lead to substantial changes in the law surrounding adoption, and effectively rendered baby farming illegal. Perhaps this is just as well. In this respect, one must assume that Oliver was fortunate to have reached his eighth birthday and return to the workhouse, although the treatment there probably wasn’t much better than what he had already endured.

My Life In Books

Okay, I admit it – I nicked this idea from The Guardian because I think that actually it’s quite fun and really makes me think about what kind of books I like (and loathe). It was, if I’m honest, also surprisingly difficult to do and there’s every possibility that the answers could change if I were to do it again in a year or two. So here we have it – my life in books.

1. Book That Changed My Life – Very probably My Year of Meat by Ruth Ozeki, which I read years and years ago but not since, even though I have a copy. What I learned about factory farming put me off eating meat for life. I think that’s a fairly significant life decision, don’t you?

2. Book I Wish I’d Written – There are two contenders for this, but I’m going to opt for the obvious one and say The Children’s Book by AS Byatt. I fell in love with it within pages of borrowing it from the library so immediately picked up my own copy so I never had to part with it again – and I don’t regret that decision one jot. I really, really wish I’d written it.

3. Book I Would Give as a Present – That depends on the potential recipient, but I do wish more people have read Lust for Life by Irving Stone. It’s a fictionalised account of the last decade or so of Vincent Van Gogh’s life and used his letters to his brother as the basis for the novel. It’s wonderfully moving and I really feel I understand his paintings a little better. This is the other book I wish I’d written – that’s how much I love it.

4. Book I Think is Overrated – Anything by Dan Brown. Now I appreciate that he can write books that sell by the truckload, but the stories are badly written and in a couple of cases, not very original. I don’t see what all the fuss over Fifty Shades of Grey was about either, and that’s another example of “poor writing that sells a lot”. I’d love to know how they do it. Is there a form I have to fill in?

5. Book I Think is Underrated – Albert Camus’ The Rebel. It’s not the easiest read, and I am the first to admit that, but it’s well worth the effort. The breadth of his learning is astonishing and he makes some fascinating points which I hadn’t really considered before.

6. Book That Changed My Mind – Moby Dick, although I had to wait until my mid-forties to tackle it, but it was worth it. I hadn’t realised how cleverly written it was and – despite some of the subject matter – I really enjoyed it, but it’s not for everyone.

7. Book I Couldn’t Finish – Finnegan’s Wake, and I have tried. Honestly, three times I’ve started it and the furthest I got was page 23. I just can’t do it. The bloody thing’s impossible and I’m convinced that anyone who claims to have read it is lying through their teeth.

8. Book I’m Ashamed Not to Have Read – I’m not ashamed, but I don’t like admitting that I dislike Jane Eyre. So many of my friends love it but I’ve never really got on with the Bronte’s and I find Jane Eyre really irritating.

9. Book That Made Me Cry – Lust for Life (see above) gets me every time. I just can’t help getting emotionally involved. Mind you, I also cry at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, so that just proves I’m a sentimental old bat.

10. Book That Influenced Me – Too many to mention, as I have stolen something from pretty much everything I’ve read, including how not to do it. Perhaps my biggest influence is a friend of mine, Suzie Grogan, who has written a number of books now. She’s clear evidence that there’s nothing quite as effective as getting on with it when you want to write a book. And her books are brilliant to boot.