An Evening in: Neverwhere

Neverwhere is a feast, a bonanza, a treat, a graffiti-covered dreamscape, a road-trip on a tube, a hymn to the forgotten, a love song to London. I dig it.

Neil Gaiman (of Sandman or Stardust fame depending on your sub-culture selections) has, in this book, created a hectic urban fantasy adventure set in and starring London Below. This is a parallel version of good old London town, where all the people who fall through the cracks – the homeless, the odd and the fantastical – live, with the Underground as a sort of gateway. If you’ve ever ridden about on the Tube for any period of time it’s probably crossed your mind to wonder who the Earl of Earlscourt was, or what the Black Friars were up to, and Gaiman runs with this idea to build a world that’s strange and familiar and exciting and dangerous. The hero, Richard, is a normal bloke who is dragged into the world of London Below by an accidental visit from the Lady Door, fleeing two sinister gentleman, one of whom eats pigeons. The why and the how of this event is the beginning of Richard’s trip down Below, where he meets such interesting people as the Marquis de Carabas, Old Bailey and the fierce Hunter searching for the great Beast of London.

These little guys…

I have recommended this book to many people who are not fantasy readers in general, and it’s a hit across the board. It’s a particularly satisfying read if you know London at all, because trying to guess the next move and what sideways version of a well-known place the characters are off to now is great fun. But even without knowledge of a Tube map it’s a story with heroes, villains, monsters, Marquises (well, one), ravens, rats, chases and SFCs (Strong Female Characters). Everything you need for a hella good read.

I’m going to provide a little extra option here as well. There’s a companion BBC TV version of this made in the 90s which I wouldn’t bother with. It’s got a great cast, but the setting and the characters are so interesting and huge in the book that it’s just painful to sit thinking wrong, wrong, wrong. The book and the series were made at the same time, so perhaps I’m being too harsh on it, but there is a version I strongly recommend and that is the 2013 radio adaptation, also BBC, also all-star, but with the heavy bonus of audio that the makers can leave the sets blank to be filled in by your own imagination.

…and this cheeky lad

So, this evening you have a choice of reclining in an armchair with your eyes shut, or reading a trusty hard copy while sipping on a glass of light and fruity Beaujolais. This is actually one of the wines I drink most often, so perhaps it’s the comfortable feel of both it and Neverwhere in my own personal habits that I’m matching up, but the flavoursome notes of a beaujolais seem to mirror something of the flamboyant Marquis de Carabas, one of the brightest stars in this particular world. On the other hand, if you really want to get into the spirit of London below, feel free to neck some hard spirits, but chapter 2 is worth reaching.

Book: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Pair with: Beaujolais

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An Evening In: Ghosts of Spain

I read far less non-fiction than fiction, but I do make forays into travel books. Jan Morris, Paul Theroux, Michael Palin and Wade Davis are all writers I make time for. I am particularly keen on the sort of journalistic social history style of country guide, like Germania or The Dark Heart of Italy, and best in show of this breed must be Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett.

I read Ghosts of Spain while trying to learn Spanish, already in my twenties and having very limited success. Part of the reason was my sad lack of enthusiasm for Spain itself. I knew a vague outline of Spanish history, but it went something like this: there were some moors and some Christian kings, Don Quixote tilted at a windmill, Philip II was prudent and argued with Elizabeth I and then Franco ruined the whole thing for everyone. Somewhere along the line there were pirates, Zorro, Spanish gold and conquistadores, but these much more exciting things didn’t happen in Spain itself.

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Pictured: Tenerife

 

Ghosts of Spain has a wide scope; the history and society of the different regions, the sad legacy of the Civil War, flamenco, bull-fighting, football and food all come within the remit of Tremlett’s pen. He ties together chapters that could be stand-alone articles (may in fact have begun life as such, for  Tremlett was the Madrid correspondent for the Guardian when the book was published and now fills this role for The Economist) into a volume in  which you follow historical breadcrumbs and social mores towards understanding and appreciating a genuinely fascinating country.

After reading this I spent a year in Tenerife, teaching English in Santa Cruz, the capital in the north. I would not have been half so informed on Spanish history and culture, or half so interested in it, without this book to set me on the way.

So the drink. No, I do not suggest sangria. I rarely suggest sangria, it is not a favourite of mine. Spain is wide and many such classically ‘Spanish’ things – paella, flamenco, pintxos, gazpacho – are the specialities of one region or another. Spanish wine is often excellent, particularly that from Rioja, and I had one of the nicest white wines I’ve ever sampled from a local vineyard near Guimar in Tenerife.

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Pictured: Spain

But because it’s unusual and a speciality of Tenerife, I’m going to suggest a Barraquito. This is a drink you can only get in Tenerife; I tried to order one in Gran Canaria and the waiter gave a hollow laugh and shook his head. Well, I defy that waiter and am happy to suggest a Barraquito on a sunny afternoon anywhere you might wish. I had a dangerous fondness for cafe condensada, or a cortado leche leche. Yeah, condensed milk. It should be horrible. It’s delicious. For a proper Barraquito, start with condensed milk in the bottom, espresso and Liquor 43 on top, then foamy milk, with lemon peel and cinnamon added last. Liquor 43 is something I haven’t encountered outside Spain, but I haven’t looked for it. Tia Maria is an acceptable substitute.

If you have any interest in Spain, or an appreciation of informed and well-written travel books,  you will not go wrong with Ghosts of Spain and your coffee with a kick.

Book: Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett

Pair with: Barraquito

An Evening In: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

The concept for this book began with old photos. Specifically, strange ‘found’ photos of children. As I understand it, Ransom Riggs was collecting old photos from anywhere he could find them – and in the UK that’s every other charity shop, flea market and antique dealer so I assume it’s not tough in the US either – panning for the gold of the truly weird or unusual photo. The story of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is hung around fifty of these, stuck at intervals in the narrative, real photos of real people that bring you up short and flesh out the descriptions and characters of the book in an almost eerie manner.

My sister gave me this book and I opened it expecting it to be one thing and then found it turned into quite another a little way in. I was expecting mild horror (peculiar children? Just say creepy little girls, let’s be honest, right), and that’s not what this is at all. It’s actually one of the most original plots I’ve ever read, and one of the most innovatively structured novels around. I pretty much loved it.

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The problem with trying to review a book whilst trying not to give away the plot or even the genre is you hit a brick wall of synonyms for ‘very good, actually’ pretty fast, as it turns out. It’s confidently written, clever, creepy in places, a bit sad, a bit funny and it has that thrilling quality of really making you wonder where the plot’s going. You know how, in some books, you know all the characters are going to be just fine at the end, and obviously the bad guys aren’t going to win. Riggs does not supply that guarantee, and that’s all I’m saying.

It’s definitely a red wine pairing. It’s juicy enough to withstand a pretty heavy flavour, and has a solemn undertone that could take some heavy tannins. On the other hand, there are fantastical elements that could support a veritable bouquet of notes and it is designed for a YA audience, light and accessible as Pinot Noir. My selection, though, is Merlot, a wine in the middle of the red spectrum that complements many foods and, in a reasonable extension, many literary genres. The full, fruity flavour will hold up well with a plot that twists and develops beautifully and lingers long after you’ve finished it, an excellent quality in a book but never to be sought in a drink.

Book: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

Pair with: Merlot

An Evening In: archy and mehitabel

There was a time in the Seventies, I’m told, when this next book was quite the thing. For some reason it has fallen vastly out of favour but I have two copies – one for me and one for lending – and I’m sure I shall soon bring it back into vogue.

archy and mehitabel by Don Marquis is the story of a cockroach with the soul of a human poet who writes nightly poems and maxims and stories of his life on Don Marquis’ typewriter. He lives in an apartment in New York with the cat Mehitabel who may or may not have been Cleopatra once and the cad Freddy, a rat who was once a punk poet and is jealous of Archy’s talent. To some extent Archy’s travailles are the standard difficulties of any struggling artist; he is misunderstood and under-appreciated and just getting heard takes Herculean effort. He cannot use capitals or anything that requires the shift button, making his writing not too many steps removed from a stream of consciousness. There is a poetical practicality to Archy’s philosophy that puts the book somewhere between poetry and prose, and makes the reading of it a pleasure.

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A battered book is a good book.

This is a light, cheerful read, one you can probably finish in a sitting or two. I recommend a dram of whisky with it, to be sipped slowly between sections. Since Archy first appeared in 1916 in Don Marquis’ daily column and archy and mehitabel was published in 1927 I should really be recommending some prohibition-era cocktails in teapots, but if you wish to retain the use of your eyes I recommend branded spirits. In Archy’s own words,

lots of people can make

their own whisky but

can t drink it

 and because the best advocate of Archy’s works will always be himself, here’s another maxim to get you through Sunday:

every cloud

has its silver

lining but it is

sometimes a little

difficult to get it to

the mint

Book: Don Marquis, archy and mehitabel

Pair with: a short measure of decent whisky

An Evening In: James Herriot

My grandparents lived in North Yorkshire when I was young, in a village by the moors. There was a wishing well and a church, and a post office that sold Yorkshire mix at the end of the road, and it was often summer and always lovely up there. It always smelt the same too, vaguely charcoal-y, and that smell makes me eight years old again whenever I catch it. I first read James Herriot up there, because I think there was a time when it was practically a by-law that if you lived anywhere around the moors or dales you better own the full set of James Herriot’s veterinary tales. My grandparents did. I essentially grew up in an Enid Blyton book in Kent as well, and we had sheep and pigs and chickens and plenty of space for small children to run around/fall out of trees/lock themselves in sheds/eat random plants in. I took a mildly professional interest in the various maladies James Herriot confronts in his rounds, before and after the second world war, and the rough-and-ready techniques he had for dealing with them.

I’m aware that not everyone has this very specific background that makes James Herriot an inevitable part of life’s wallpaper, so let me introduce him properly. James Herriot, real name Alf Wight, was a Glaswegian vet who started his working life in Thirsk, known in the books as Darrowby, in 1940 and never really left. Thirsk today still doesn’t feel many miles removed from the peaceful market town it was in Herriot’s day; there are many little shops, including some good bookstores, a nice florist near the church and a couple of excellent pubs. The James Herriot museum, the house where the veterinary practice was, is a lovely old building and if you feel any sort of enthusiasm for old bottles, antiquated surgical instruments or a pleasant rambling garden, I recommend a visit.

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Myself in my happy place

The stories he tells of life as a vet in that time and place are warm, funny, sweet, sometimes sad and nostalgic but bursting with affection for the people, the animals and the life. The descriptions of the moors in all seasons are sweeping and grand, and the writing has the same solid worth as the farmers and Dalesmen he meets. James Herriot is one of the authors I read when I am away from the UK and missing it.

I am recommending the whole oeuvre, but the first two – If Only They Could Talk and It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vetare the obvious starting point. As for the drink, there is only one option and that is good hoppy beer. For example, Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, which has the added bonus of being brewed in Yorkshire. There is no experience more warmly comforting than reading James Herriot on an idle afternoon with a cup of tea, or sitting by an open fire with a pint and Jim, Siegfried and Tristan in Darrowby.

Book: James Herriot, Any.

Pair with: Timothy Taylor’s Landlord