Category Archives: 2018

Bristol gin [tonic optional]

On international gin and tonic day, we’ll undoubtedly be drinking some Psychopomp tonight, which is an incredibly good Bristol gin made right in the city centre on St Michael’s Hill. It was at the owner Danny Walker’s gin club that I first heard that each city used to have its own gin-making process.

In 1789, Bristol historian William Barrett wrote of ‘many great works ( distilleries ) being erected at amazing expense in different parts of the city’.

Barrett was convinced that spiritous liquors caused ‘slow but sure death’ and added: The quality of gin and brandy made at home indicates and proves what a great consumption of these liquors there is now.

It may have been cheap but Bristol spirits caused – drying up and hardening of the fine vessels and nerves, rendering them impervious, producing paralytic strokes, hemiplegies and apoplexies Barrett added.

London Dry gin, became known for its own distillation process, which included adding the flavours during the distillation process and not afterwards.

Historically, the term “Dry Gin” came about with the advent of the Coffey still in 1832. Once the Coffey still came into action and a more consistent (and critically, more neutral) spirit was available, unsweetened gin started gaining popularity and became known as “Dry Gin”.

Working off a neutral base spirit of agricultural origin, that has already been distilled to over 96% ABV, London Dry Gin must be (re)distilled to at least 70% ABV. It can only be watered down to a minimum strength of 37.5%, it must contain no artificial ingredients, contain only a minute amount of sweetener and cannot have any flavour or colour added after distillation. Of course, as with all gins, the predominant flavour must be that of juniper berries.

Danny at the gin club was much more fascinating that a list of percentages and he got me to thinking about what Bristol gin might have been like. Currently, there are two or three Bristol gin distilleries producing the juniper-based spirit but they don’t know how it used to be done either [from what I have been able to determine]. I searched for a while and while I found records of where the distilleries used to be, Cheese Lane in St Phillips was one, owned by Thomas Castle — the process was not known for its health-affirming properties. By 1821 there were five Bristol distilleries.

The closest I came to discovering what Bristol gin might have tasted like was the following list of ingredients itemised by a brewer in London and sent to a Bristol distiller in 1870.

By then the process would most probably have been similar to dry gin but perhaps there was some variety in the flavours. The ingredients are: juniper, coriander, calamus and angelica. I don’t know the individual proportions but there was three times as much juniper as there was coriander and 1/8th calamus and angelica relative to the coriander.

 

And that’s Bristol gin done the 1870-way. We may be sipping it the Psychopomp St Michael’s Hill way tonight however.

Chin chin.

Sophie Hannah, The Mystery of Three Quarters; a Poirot mystery

The Mystery of Three Quarters is Sophie Hannah’s third Poirot mystery following the Monogram Murders and the Closed Casket. As with any ‘revisiting’ of such characters, the first thing to note is the tone and how believable the new Poirot is; it is unfortunate that the storyline only comes second in these cases.

There are a few stories out there about why Hannah started writing Poirot stories and I heard a couple of them, one from Hannah and one from her agent, at the Cheltenham Literary Festival where she introduced the first book in 2014. The stories didn’t quite gel but the most realistic explanation is that the copyright is about to expire on Agatha Christie books but if a character is kept alive then it cannot do so. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd comes out of copyright next year. That one has no character to keep alive, unfortunately for the Christie Estate.

The other issue with Christie’s stories — she is still the best sold writer after the Bible’s writers — as I was told at the festival, was her weak characterisations. Her characters are no more than two-dimensional and that’s at times part of the pleasure of it all. She stages different scenarios in different ways as a means of exploring plots and structures. At times her books were weak, that’s hard to disguise, but they were usually sparse in a good way. If someone is about to be killed off or pointed out as a murderer, you don’t want to get too close to them.

However, Hannah, tried to get us a bit too close to the characters in Monogram Murders with our sidekick and narrative device having his own personal issues about his sexual preferences. I’m not sure how far that continued or will continue but it was certainly a very un-Christie thing to do.

I’m a little cynical at this attempt to reanimate one of the best-loved creations of that Golden Age of detective novels for the sake the pockets of the Christie foundation but I do love a good mystery. Christie herself had her own issues, which see many of the beloved writer’s books interspersed with blatant racism and anti-Semitism. Hannah, thank goodness, speaks with the morality of our times and now that she has the tone down pat — although she was pretty good in the last two books too — she can really focus on the story.

The Mystery of Three Quarters was to me the most enjoyable one yet. The Poirot voice was there with his quirkiness and familiarity. The mystery is set in 1930s London and features a coffee shop again.

What the publisher says:

Returning home after lunch one day, Hercule Poirot finds an angry woman waiting outside his front door. She demands to know why Poirot has sent her a letter accusing her of the murder of Barnabas Pandy, a man she has neither heard of nor ever met.

Poirot has also never heard of a Barnabas Pandy, and has accused nobody of murder. Shaken, he goes inside, only to find that he has a visitor waiting for him — a man who also claims also to have received a letter from Poirot that morning, accusing him of the murder of Barnabas Pandy…

Poirot wonders how many more letters of this sort have been sent in his name. Who sent them, and why? More importantly, who is Barnabas Pandy, is he dead, and, if so, was he murdered? And can Poirot find out the answers without putting more lives in danger?

The Mystery of Three Quarters was published 23 August 2018.

Why climate deniers exist and spend $0.5 billion doing so

The extent of the climate denial industry created by the polluters. Pollution would cost these industries £200 billion A YEAR so instead they pay half a billion to create this network of denial. A bargain.

February 4, 2014 – In this speech, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse reveals the “carefully built apparatus of lies” constructed to deceive the public about the reality of climate change.

1000 Books to Read Before You Die, a Bristol perspective

1000 books is an incredible number to find and write about but the essays and sections feel like they have had individual attention rather than just being quick summaries, in this collection. From King to Kafka and the Quran to Nora Ephron, the book selections must fit most moods as they are incredibly varied.

It all boils down to what seems an enormous effort by a true bibliophile, James Mustich, editor-in-chief of the Barnes and Noble Review. Recommendations cover fiction, poetry, science and science fiction, memoir, travel writing, biography, children’s books and history.

Cleverly arranged alphabetically by each author’s last name, so that priority would not need justification, there’s Grimm next to Grisham, and Orwell followed by Ovid. Essays on why each book is an essential read conclude with notes on the best edition, other books by the author, “if you like this, you’ll like that” recommendations and recommended audio versions and TV and film adaptations.

I would love to pitch a Bristol section and help Mustich select more location-inspired reads as there are quite a few Bristol links within the choices but there could be more.

The second book listed is Flatland — the famous two-dimensional romance — by Edwin A. Abbott who in 1864-1865 was an assistant master at Clifton College. Another link to the exclusive Bristol school is the Agatha Christie entry of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Christie was married in Emmanuel Church on Guthrie Road. They came to Bristol because her husband’s step-father was a schoolteacher at the Clifton College.

St Augustine of Hippo is a bit of a non-literary link but it was pleasing to think of St Augustine’s Parade in front of the Hippodrome.

I’ll leave up to the reader to decide whether it is Mustich who has chosen from far and wide or whether Bristol does have its many links to literature. Sherlock Holmes was meant to have been written by Arthur Conan Doyle’s wife Louise who studied at Badminton School in Westbury on Trym; Edmund Burke was a Bristol MP, Jane Austen lived close by in Bath and died two years after Mary Shelley summered in Clifton in 1815 and looked down at the ships carrying slaves. It’s quite possible that Frankenstein’s monster came to pass because of the links with the horrendous exploitation she witnessed or could imagine.

Charles Dickens’ characters stay at a hotel on Corn Street where, next to the current Registry Office, there is a plaque celebrating our mention in the Pickwick Papers. J.K. Rowling is from Yates–and close enough to count as a local– while the Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett may not have the gripping plot of Harry Potter but this first epistolary book does make its way through Bristol too.

The most classic of Bristol novels, Treasure Island, is also on the list. Linked to both the Llandoger Trow and the Hole in the Wall just a street away from each other on Welsh Back, the book is said to have a “taut narrative line that ripples with ominous vibrations”. Read the first few pages and see if you can stop, suggests Murtich. I’d say the same about 1000 Books to Read Before You Die. The selection is intriguing and challenging at the same time. A worthy addition to any bookshelf.

1000 Books to Read Before you Die is out now from Workman Publishing

Review, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (not!)

In this tale, which seems like the female and slightly less funny but more sinister version of The Rosie Project, Eleanor Oliphant is ‘weird’ and fine with being alone and with her routine until she decides she’s in love and is going to do something about it.

The narrative proceeds then to follow someone pursuing this path that would be ‘normal’ for most of the population but through the eyes of someone who doesn’t fit into the social spectrum deemed normal by the media and most institutions in society.

It’s a typical ploy used to exploit ‘other’ points of view so that we can have a laugh at them. She complains about the lack of other people’s manners while behaving in a way that the reader would immediately know is not socially polite. We are invited to look down and laugh at her through her very own narrative, in a sense.

By the end of chapter two I already disliked the book. Half-way through story I could no longer stand the exploitation and mockery of someone who the author was quite clearly suggesting had been abused and traumatised. There are horrible and sickening allusions and I couldn’t take it.

I read a review of the book on Shona Craven’s site and I agree with the following:

The biggest problem with the book as a work of literature is that there is barely a scene in it that rings true. As a character, Eleanor is utterly implausible, a crude caricature. Does she have autistic spectrum disorder? Post-traumatic stress disorder? Some kind of dissociative disorder? It’s barely worth speculating, as she is nothing but a figment of the author’s imagination. No-one like her exists in the real world. And as such, the book has nothing whatsoever of value to say.

But the reason it matters is that this is a book about a character who is part of one of the most marginalised and misunderstood populations in society – care-experienced young people. She is a young woman who has experienced childhood trauma, and moved around foster placements, and struggled to form relationships.

The average person doesn’t know a great deal about the care system. Neither, is seems, does Gail Honeyman, who has nonetheless written a novel about a care-experienced character who at the outset has no friends, no social skills and a ludicrously limited understanding of the world she has inhabited for 30 years. The novel is set in contemporary Glasgow, yet the author seems to have no interest in getting very basic facts right. She perpetuates a number of harmful myths about social services, including that workers conceal vital information from foster carers, that young people are not included in decision-making about their lives, and that trauma-experienced social work clients (whether adults or children) receive no meaningful support whatsoever.

This is an irresponsible book that ‘others’ certain behaviours for effect. It does feel harmful and it’s a sad state of affairs that people think they can understand others’ trauma by reading through the lens of mockery.

 

Louise Conan Doyle stars in her own mystery set in Bristol

Front cover of book Brimstone by John Allen

Californian author John Allen is so convinced that Sherlock Holmes was created by Arthur Conan Doyle’s wife that he has written the first in 12-part series of books in which she is the sleuth. Louise Hawkins Conan Doyle investigates her first mystery in Allen’s book Brimstone, set in Bristol, 1879.

Allen was born in California and first latched on to the idea that Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t have been the writer after he read a 1980s essay by Martin Gardner called “The Irrelevance of Arthur Conan Doyle.” Gardner claimed that Arthur was “too gullible and to easily duped to have created Sherlock Holmes.”

Allen’s thirty year fascination with the true Sherlock creator culminated in his book Shadow Woman published in 2017. He has also published original research about his stylometric method for author identification.

The claims include the theory that Louise and Arthur co-wrote the Sherlock Holmes portion of the first Sherlock Holmes Adventure, A Study in Scarlet while Arthur wrote the Utah narrative of that novel. Louise wrote each of every other early Holmes adventure, up to and including The Hound of the Baskervilles, two of the intermediate stories –those collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes– and Arthur wrote two of those intermediate stories.

Allen says, “I have never been to Bristol. But I have grown quite fond of Bristol from afar, researching it extensively for the Louise stories that will be set there. I’ve walked remotely through Bristol’s streets via Google Maps street level view. I’ve studied old maps of Bristol and refer to them frequently. I’ve studied Temple Meads Station, and New Gaol Prison, and police stations, and pubs, and churches, and the observatory. I would really like to visit, but time and distance and money are considerable barriers.

“Regarding why I located Louise’s first novel in Bristol. I did so because she lived there as a teenager, at least she lived in Clifton. She was a resident student at Badminton School for Girls, and I have the census records to prove it. I discovered them while working on Shadow Woman, and I consider it one of the great discoveries of my effort.

“Louise Hawkins [w]as a resident student at Badminton School in 1871. She was only thirteen at the time, tied for youngest of the students.”

Allen is not the first author to set their Sherlock Holmes-ian tales in Bristol. In Cavan Scott’s Cry of the Innocents, Sherlock and Watson visit the city to investigate the killing of a priest. The series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch has filmed in Bristol a fair few times and you can follow the film trail from here.

The ‘original’ Sherlock, just as in the new Louise Conan Doyle books, never did go to Bristol but the city is mentioned in The Boscombe Valley Mystery where one of the characters visits for three days to be with his barmaid wife. Sherlock will not be making an appearance in the new series either.

Further information is available at the following URL: louiseconandoyle.com.

Brimstone is published 18 May on Amazon

Bristol Libraries join in with 4000-book giveaway for Crimefest

CrimeFest celebrates 10 years on Saturday 5 May and in celebration is giving away 4000 books.

The UK’s biggest crime fiction convention has teamed up with publishers, Goldsboro Books and libraries in Bristol, Birmingham, Glasgow and South Tyneside to give away up to 4,000 crime novels for free, two weeks ahead of the crime fiction festival.

The initiative started in Bristol as a thank you to the city that has hosted the convention since 2008, and now CrimeFest want to extend that to crime fiction fans throughout the country. Eleven publishers and Goldsboro Books have generously donated books by thirty-five authors to this crime fiction giveaway being hosted at twenty libraries from across the UK Crime fiction lovers from will be treated to books by 35 authors.

The libraries taking part in Bristol are:

• Bishopston Library, Bristol North Baths, Gloucester Road BS7 8BN

• Marksbury Road Library, Marksbury Road BS3 5LG

• Knowle Library, Broadwalk Shopping Centre, Wells Road BS4 2QU

• Henleaze Library, 30 Northumbria Drive BS9 4HP

• Fishponds Library, Robinson House, Hockey’s Lane BS16 3HL

• Whitchurch Library, 7 Oatlands Avenue, City Centre BS14 0SX

CRIMEFEST – 17 – 20 May 2018 ‘One of the best Crime-Writing Festivals in the World’ – The Guardian

The authors and publishers taking part in the giveaway are:

• Claire Allan, Her Name Was Rose (Avon)

• Cara Black, Murder in the Pigalle (Soho Press)

• Sam Blake, Little Bones (Twenty7)

• Angelena Boden, Cruelty of Lambs (Urbane Publications)

• Anthony M. Brown, Death of an Actress (Mirror Books)

• Anthony M. Brown, The Green Bicycle Mystery (Mirror Books)

• Alex Caan, Cut to the Bone (Twenty7)

• R.M. Cartmel, The Richebourg Affair (Crime Scene Books)

• Rosie Claverton, Terror 404 (Crime Scene Books)

• Barbara Cleverly, A Spider In The Cup (Soho Press)

• Candy Denman, Dead Pretty (Crime Scene Books)

• Joy Fielding, Someone is Watching (Zaffre)

• Clio Gray, Burning Secrets (Urbane Publications)

• Camilla Grebe, The Ice Beneath Her (Zaffre)

• Adam Hamdy, Pendulum (Headline)

• James Hazel, The Mayfly (Zaffre)

• Corrie Jackson, The Perfect Victim (Zaffre)

• Diane Janes, Death at Wolf’s Nick (Mirror Books)

• Amanda Jennings, In Her Wake (Orenda Books)

• Ragnar Jonasson, Whiteout (Orenda Books)

• J.S. Law, The Fear Within (Headline)

• A.J. MacKenzie, The Body in the Ice (Zaffre)

• Michael J. Malone, A Suitable Lie (Orenda Books)

• Claire McGowan, The Lost (Headline)

• Simon Michael, Honest Man (Urbane Publications)

• Peter Murphy, A Higher Duty (No Exit Press)

• Lloyd Otis, Dead Lands (Urbane Publications)

• Daniel Pembrey, Night Market (No Exit Press)

• Agnes Ravatn, The Bird Tribunal (Orenda Books)

• Mark Roberts, Blood Mist (Head of Zeus)

• Leigh Russell, Death Bed (No Exit Press)

• Guy Fraser Sampson, Whiff of Cyanide (Urbane Publications)

• Jason Star, Savage Lane (No Exit Press)

• James Swallow, Nomad (Zaffre)

• Neil White, From the Shadows (Zaffre)

• S.W. Williams, Small Deaths (Crime Scene Books)

 

CrimeFest takes place between 17 – 20 May 2018, crimefest.com

Review, Reiki Insights by Frans Steins

Frans Steins is the co-founder of the International House of Reiki and Shibumi International Reiki Association with his wife, Bronwen Stiene, with whom he has co-authored several of his books. Reiki Insights is the latest publication and Steins looks back on some of the founders of Reiki and some of the principal insights into the system. This isn’t a practical workbook but an exploration with some depth and a light and warming touch.

The essential focus of the system of Reiki is foremost about rediscovering our original nature. Everything has original enlightenment beans within it, all we have to do is water them, give them light and keep the weeds out.

The Reiki precepts are repeated often and in reading them and following them, the healing and inner purpose of this system permeates the book.

  • Do not anger
  • Do not worry
  • Be grateful
  • Be true to your way and your true self
  • Be compassionate to yourself and others

There is some history of Reiki in this book but the main message is about practice. One must practice the precepts, one must meditate.

Reiki Insights is primarily a meditative journey into the inner depths of the system of Reiki.

It is presented as a series of short chapters, each of them a teaching, so that you can pick it up, choose a chapter and read it. After you have read the chapter, sit down and meditate upon the words. Let them sink deep into your mind, body, and energy, so that you can feel what is in between the sentences. By reading and experiencing Reiki Insights in this way, it will lay a foundation for inner change, from not knowing your true self to knowing your true self.

If you’ve never seen or felt reikin in practice, here is Steins performing a healing treatment demo.

In this wonderful book, Frans Stiene addresses ancient wisdom and meditation tradition in a very practical way to bring it to the modern world. It conveys a beneficial, heartwarming, and transformative experience, and will create happiness and joy for those who read it.
Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche, author of Our Pristine Mind

Reiki Insights is available to purchase.

Review, The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The writing is consistently tremendous. The content? … well, I don’t know. It belies a young person writing literature after having learned of the world mainly from headlines. The characters are the biggest problem and Benjamin’s bizarre immaturity the other.

The story idea is great even if the setting is rather Hollywood and shallow. Four children of various ages — the oldest 13 — are told the date of their deaths. What happens next? Each character gets their own section and their own years.

With four characters it’s hard enough to love all of them but I loved only one – Klara and by extension her daughter and Raj. The rest were, to use a word that reviewers have used a lot with this book, underwhelming. Pathetic even, really.

Varya, I couldn’t stand even though I felt sorry for her being introduced as a sexualised girl at 13 and maybe that was meant to mirror her sexless life later — she was ultimately stunted at the original visit — but I can’t help but think that Benjamin herself probably thinks more like a man in order to see this girl with her ‘palm-sized breasts’ at this age. It’s a horrendous description to add to such a young person because you are left with the image of someone’s hands on this little girl. It was an exploitative beginning, manipulative even. I can’t tell if it was deliberate, though.

There’s no life-changing hero’s narrative in this story except for those who get their life lessons from Hollywood and scripted TV.

There’s also an odd sense of balancing events in the background occasionally. We hear about the British Mandate being lifted off of Israel, which is a  recurring motif about having somewhere to call ‘home’ but we never hear about the Palestinians, the many UN resolutions against Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and of the daily torture and killings of the Palestinian people. Their home is destroyed so someone else gets to have one. The only criticism of Israel that is presented in the book is the support of Iraq and that it’s now a satellite of the US and incredibly powerful. The latter can be dismissed, the former was never brought up and could not be dismissed.

This idea could have been amazing. What a shame.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin was published January 9, 2018 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons

 

Betting the House, Review

By Tim Ross and  Tom McTague .

Betting the House never once veers from its purpose – to explain what happened during the 2017 general election, including the campaign and the night itself. The authors are political journalists who produced this work within six months; an incredible accomplishment, no doubt in part to their partners who held down the fort, and a bunch of editors.

There is little heart in this book; little acknowledgment of the deaths and the pain and the destruction that a Conservative government has brought upon the country and its people. There is no acknowledgment of the unnecessary austerity measures brought into force by the Conservatives, supported by their coalition partners the Liberal Democrats and often unchallenged and supported by the Labour ‘moderates’*; no acknowledgment that austerity brought on suffering to such an extent that the British voters chose to leave the European Union in a shocking referendum. The referendum is mentioned often but the policies that led to it not at all.

In this respect, the authors ignore the vile nature of the political part of the election results.

The right-leaning bias of the book is no surprise, Ross previously wrote about the 2015 election, Why the Tories won https://www.waterstones.com/book/why-the-tories-won/tim-ross/9781849549479

The ways in which the bias permeates the book is a curious one. The images of May and the Tories are consistently positive. She is strong and steady and just wants to get on with her job. She avoided the cameras and interviews because all she wants to do is her job and she wants to do it right. She is strong throughout Lent and even though she is diabetic and can only have crisps as a snack, she resisted even in critical moments.

Corbyn on the other hand, is not given such positive treatment. The epithet ‘socialist’ is nearly always applied to him even though ‘free-market loony’ is never once applied to May. The concept of the free market is used un-ironically when a Conservative MP disagrees with the idea of providing specific help with struggling regions because it’s meant to be the free market that decides these things.

I can’t tell if Betting the House is the voice of the right-wing, devoid of any interest in anyone but themselves — or simply a very efficient way of telling the story of the election. It is a book that leans heavily right in an almost immoral sense but it also reads well.

I feel I learnt a lot about elections and what I mostly gleaned is that those who spend the most money win the elections; something Trump and social research have always known too. Lynton Crosby’s campaign for Theresa May was not the winning one he’d hoped but the PR magnate and his company made £4m for two months of work. The Australian PR man was the one who won it for David Cameron in the previous election.

Some of the insights are maybe unintentionally fascinating such as when Jeremy Heywood, Britain’s most senior civil servant, and the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt, get together to decide who would form a government because “the country needed a government, and it must not be left to the Queen to decide”.

It’s these fascinating little tidbits that make me wish the authors were on the better side of the political spectrum.

Betting the House by Tim Ross and Tom McTague is out now.