Book Corner – August 2016 (3)


Golden Hill – Francis Spufford

Everybody has a novel in them, they say, and often that’s where it should stay, in my experience. It might be seen as a bit of a gamble for an accomplished writer of non-fiction – his debut account of the Scott polar expedition, I May Be Some Time, won him literary prizes – to turn his hand to a novel but Spufford has produced an astonishingly impressive and highly entertaining piece of work.

In November 1746, a young adventurer, Richard Smith, lands in Manhattan with a money order for £1,000, a stupendous amount of money, backed by a reputable City of London firm, which he immediately presents to the owner of a counting house on Golden Hill Street, Mr Lovell. The bill is to be paid in sixty days and the absence of any corroborating evidence and Smith’s reluctance to reveal much about himself or what he proposes to do with the money provokes suspicions that he might be a trickster.

The novel recounts the various adventures that befall Smith during his stay which include a roof top escape, a duel, the killing of his only associate, Oakeshott and being caught in flagrante delicto with the local trollop and actress, Euterpe Tomlinson . The protagonist finds himself in and out of a debtors’ prison and in grave danger of dancing the hemp jig ie being hung. In this book Spufford recreates the feel and pace of a Fielding or Smollett novel of the era.

As a newcomer to the nascent Manhattan – it has just 7,000 inhabitants and is more of a village than a city where everyone knows each other’s business – Smith is able to compare and contrast what he finds with what he left behind in London. The streets are clean, there are no beggars and the dread marks of smallpox are remarkably absent from the visages of the inhabitants. But it has its own set of horrors – slavery, a gruesome tableau of rotting scalps of Frenchmen presented annually by the Mohawks as a gesture of friendship towards the English and Dutch – and is riven by factions.

The language Spufford deploys is intoxicating. It has just the right mix of archaisms to maintain the pretence of being written in the mid 18th century without making it a chore for the modern reader. Whilst the paragraphs and the sentences can be long with multiple subordinate clauses, they proceed at a pace and do not get bogged down by their intricacy. And his metaphors are brilliantly evocative, painting a crisp, clear image in just a few words. To take just one example in describing the forming ice on the river he writes, “reaching fingers of ice growing out from each shore met in the middle and locked ..rigid as in the heart of a child’s marble”.

A mix of narrative and epistolary style, a melange of real and imaginary characters, a tale of trust and doubt interspersed with the complexity of relationships, Spufford has produced a thoroughly entertaining read. Smith, though, is a frustratingly mysterious character. We don’t know what makes him tick and so it is difficult to feel much sympathy for him as he lurches from crisis to crisis. And the ending with its double climax is as unexpected as it is bemusing.

A good holiday read.

Gin o’Clock – Part Eleven


Southwold is situated on the mouth of the River Blyth on what is known as the Suffolk Heritage coast. From memory it is full of beach huts and has a prominent lighthouse and pier. Frustratingly at busy times there is only one road in and out.

For the drinker the name Southwold is synonymous with Adnams.  The tradition of brewing in Southwold dates back to at least 1345 when Johanna de Corby and 17 other so-called ale wives of Southwold were charged by the manorial court for breaking the assize of ale, a law regulating the price and quality of beer. The brothers, George and Ernest Adnams – George was tragically eaten by a crocodile in South Africa, but that is another story – with the help of their father bought the Sole Bay Brewery in 1872 and the business has been there ever since. Their ales have always been worth seeking out.

More germane to this series, however, is their decision in 2010 to build and open a copper still distillery for the distillation of vodka and, as a logical follow on, gin. This month’s featured gin,  Adnams Copper House Dry Gin, comes in a squat round bottle with a bluish label which gives the bottle a blue hue. The label at the front has a picture of a copper still, seagulls and botanicals and the top has foil which protects a natural cork stopper. The stopper makes a very satisfying sound as it is removed from the bottle. To the nose the dominant flavours are juniper and orange. In the mouth it has an oily texture and the juniper is to the fore making it perfect for those who like a classic London dry gin. In the aftertaste orange and floral sensations predominate giving way to a lingering, almost peppery finale.

Mixed with Fever-Tree tonic it produces a very aromatic drink. After my first tasting I followed it up with Williams Extra Dry Gin and the orange and apple oriented aftertastes of the two made for a nice contrast. Adnams use just six botanicals in producing this gin but the mix seems just right giving the drinker the opportunity to savour a complexity of flavours without being overwhelmed by a multiplicity of flavours jostling for attention.

As well as juniper berries, orris root and coriander seeds, cardamom pod, sweet orange peel and hibiscus flower are used. Cardamom is the third most expensive spice in the world, apparently, and adds a spicy note to the spirit, although too much can make it seem bitter. Its essential oils and aromatics are very volatile and degrade quickly, something the humble orris root is there to prevent.

In very simplistic terms oranges can be classed as sweet, used for orange juice, or bitter, used for marmalade. Distillers use either and Adnams have chosen the former to give a very zesty edge to the gin. Having been very conventional in their choice of botanicals Adnams tip their hat to modern tastes by introducing hibiscus which gives the floral tastes in the aftertaste . These plants have large, trumpet-shaped flowers with five or more petals and their bitter, floral flavour gives a quite unusual and attractive taste.

Aside from using hibiscus what sets this gin out from many of its rivals is that the whole distillation process is undertaken in-house. The base spirit is made with East Anglian malted barley, fermented using Adnams’ eighty year old yeast before being transferred to their copper pot still where it is reduced to around 50% alcohol by volume at which point the botanicals are added, allowed to soak overnight and then distilled.

A very satisfying addition to my collection. Cheers!

On My Doorstep – Part Nine


Admiral Sturdee (1859 – 1925)

As I was walking through the graveyard of St Peter’s Church in Frimley away from the church a little while ago, my attention was caught by a rather unusual gravestone. It is conventionally shaped but the centre is cut out and replaced with a wooden cross. On further investigation I found that the timbers making up the cross were from Nelson’s HMS Victory – Trafalgar and all that – and what I was looking at was the grave of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Frederick Sturdee, 1st Baronet, GCB, KCMG, CVO no less.


Born in Charlton in 1859, Sturdee joined the Navy as a cadet on the training ship HMS Britannia at the tender age of twelve. He became a career sailor and took part in the bombardment of Alexandria in July 1882 during the Anglo-Egyptian War. Commanding the cruiser HMS Porpoise off Australia he became involved in a tense stand-off with the Germans who were disputing control of the Samoan Islands with the Americans and for his diplomatic skills was promoted to captain and appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1900.

Sturdee rose up the naval ladder to the point that he was made a vice-admiral in December 1913 and Chief of War Staff at the Admiralty in July 1914. At the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile on 1st November 1914 the British navy suffered its first naval defeat since the Battle of Lake Champlain in the Anglo-American war of 1812, von Spee in his famous Scharnhorst surprising the Brits, sinking the Good Hope with the loss of 1,600 hands and forcing the Glasgow and Otranto to flee. The Germans sustained a handful of casualties and entered the Chilean port of Valparaiso to the cheers of the German community there.

Sturdee in his desk role was under fire for the unpreparedness of the British fleet. Reeling at this humiliation Churchill assembled a new fleet and asked our hero to sort out the mess he had created. They sailed off to the South Atlantic with orders to hunt von Spee down.

On 8th December 1914 Sturdee found his target off Stanley in what we call the Falkland Islands and proceeded to attack. The Germans, recognising that they were facing a superior force turned and fled but Sturdee steadfastly pursued them, sinking almost the entire squadron including the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Only a light cruiser, the Dresden, escaped but was finally hunted down in March 1915. For his restoration of British naval pride and for winning the so-called battle of the Falkland Islands, Sturdee was created a baronet in March 1916.

His war didn’t finish there. He commanded a squadron in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and became a full admiral in May 1917, eventually retiring from active service in 1921 when he was made Admiral of the Fleet. He retired to the Frimley area which is why he ended up in the local graveyard.

Sturdee seems to have been a bit of a Marmite character. A biographer penning in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, wrote, “Sturdee was an able naval officer and an effective squadron commander. Despite being an indefatigable student of his profession, however he never grasped the higher demands of war and failed as a chief of the war staff. His vctory at the Falklands was both fortunate and ironic.” Another recorded that Sturdee “perhaps became a trifle conceited after his victory of von Spee”.

Whatever the truth, Sturdee is one of the most famous residents of the graveyard. Sturdee Close is just off Bret Harte Road, just as the Admiral’s grave is to the right of that of the Immortal Bilk.

Olympic Review Of The Week


Although I wasn’t an avid viewer of the Narcolympics in Rio these are my highlights.

The Eddie the Eagle award

Former Olympic champion, Russian Ilya Zhakarov, belly flopped into the pool during the 3m springboard competition. He must have thought he was competing in the dodsing championship. But pride of place must go to Haitian hurdler, Jeffrey Julmis, who forgot to jump over the first hurdle of his 110 metre race, crashed and fell. Fair play to him, he picked himself up and finished the race but after his pre-race histrionics it made him look even more stupid.

The wrong pole wrong time award

Attempting a 5.3 metre jump, Japanese pole vaulter, Hiroki Ogita, suffered an untimely erection which knocked the bar off. Cold shower for him, next time.

The forgotten man award

I may be missing something but for synchronised diving I thought you needed a pair of divers, at least. Not that you would have realised it, judging by some of the photos in the press after Tom Daley and Daniel Goodfellow won bronze. Goodfellow was conspicuous by his absence. No doubt he understood what schadenfreude means when Daley crashed out of the individual event. Naturally, I won’t post a picture of Goodfellow.

It’s The Way I Tell ‘Em (27)


The best jokes from the Edinburgh Fringe 2016 for your delectation.

  • My dad has suggested that I register for a donor card. He is a man after my own heart – Masai Graham
  • Why is it old people say “there’s no place like home” but when you put them in one…- Stuart Mitchell
  • I’ve been happily married for four years – out of a total of 10 – Mark Watson
  • Apparently 1 in 3 Britons are conceived in an IKEA bed which is mad because they are really well lit – Mark Smith
  • I went to a pub quiz in Liverpool, had a few drinks so wasn’t much use. Just for a laugh I wrote the Beatles or Steven Gerrard for every answer…came second – Will Duggan
  • Brexit is a terrible name, sounds like cereal you eat when you’re constipated – Tiff Stevenson
  • I often confuse Americans and Canadians. By using long words – Gary Delaney
  • Why is Henry’s wife covered in tooth marks? Because he’s Tudor – Adele Cliff
  • Don’t you hate it when people assume you’re rich because you sound posh and went to private school and have loads of money? – Annie McGrath
  • Is it possible to mistake schizophrenia for telepathy, I hear you ask – Jordan Brookes
  • Hilary Clinton has shown that any woman can be President, as long as your husband has done it first – Michelle Wolf
  • I spotted a Marmite van on the motorway. It was heading yeastbound – Roger Swift
  • Back in the day, Instagram just meant a really efficient drug dealer – Arthur Smith
  • I’ll tell you what is unnatural in the eyes of God. Contact lenses – Zoe Lyons
  • Elton John hates ordering Chinese food. Soya seems to be the hardest word – Phil Nicol

My personal favourite, though, was Masai Graham’s I got ripped off in Ireland recently. I bought some cocaine from Limerick but the third and fourth lines were a lot shorter”.