Book Corner – November 2020 (8)

Sweet Danger – Margery Allingham

This is the fifth crime novel by Margery Allingham to feature Albert Campion and in many ways marks a turning point in the development of her principal character. Published in 1933, in the States it went under the titles of Kingdom of Death and then The Fear Sign, it is the last where Campion is portrayed as a rather vacuous ass, albeit one with considerable underlying intelligence and steely determination well, an obvious parody of Dorothy L Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey. Subsequently, he becomes a more cerebral character, an effective sleuth. In this book his character betwixt and between. This is also the first book in which he forms a working partnership, later to be consummated in marriage, with Lady Amanda Fitton.

Frankly, this is a rather ludicrous book with a fantastical storyline, stocked full of bizarre and eccentric characters, which betrays its age, but nonetheless is hugely entertaining if you are looking for a light and escapist read. Campion, aided and abetted by his man, the wonderfully named Magersfontein Lugg, and his friend, Guffy Randall, is called upon to establish that a small but oil-rich principality on the Adriatic coast by the name of Averna is British and, principally, belongs to a now defunct aristocratic family in Suffolk. The proof that Campion is searching for is a crown, a drum and a receipt signed by Metternich, confirming the sale of the land. If that was not difficult enough, an unscrupulous financier, Brett Savanake, and his gang of thugs are also after the same prize.

The trail leads to a pretty village in Suffolk, Pontisbright, the home of the Fittons. Amanda is the belle of the family, described as being “at a stage of physical perfection seldom attained at any age’ and possessor of hair of a ‘blazing, flaming, and yet subtle colour which is as rare a it is beautiful”. It is inevitable that Campion will fall for her. Mind you, she is a game lass and more than plays her part in thwarting the evil plans of Savanake and his pals.

The characters, for the most part, are well-written, Savanake a monstrous, loathsome man straight out of central casting, and Dr Galley delightfully over the top as a medic who has lost his marbles. The plot has many ludicrous moments, characters climbing in and out of windows, some not advancing the storyline a jot, giving the sense of being padding, and Campion jumps into a cupboard and switches identity in a way that is so obvious it is a miracle that none of the other characters caught on. The tone of the book veers between tongue-in-cheek humour, almost a parody of the genre, and a high-class thriller, as if Allingham could not quite make up her mind which way to take the story.

The showdown at the Mill is a tense, taut piece of writing, Allingham at her best, and keeps her reader gripped and anxious to know what happens. The resolution of the mystery, though, is a little disappointing, a bit rushed with Allingham giving the sense that she had had enough of the story and wanted to put it to bed as quickly as possible. She only agreed to write the book under pressure from her American publishers, after disappointing sales of Police at the Funeral and at the time she was working on what was to become the sixth in the series, Death of a Ghost.

Many consider this to be her best Campion novel. I found it a little too rushed and silly to give it that accolade, but it was an enjoyable few hours spent.

Apostrophe Of The Week

The Apostrophe Protection Society may have thrown in the towel in their attempt to halt the misuse of the apostrophe, but here’s an example when knowing when and when not to use one can make all the difference.

An Indian takeaway restaurant in East London thought it would overhaul its publicity in order to attract more custom and to enhance its presence on on-line food delivery sites. A good idea, at least in theory.    

The name of the gaff is Anu’s Kitchen. In what can only be called a lamentable piece of proofreading, the oh so vital apostrophe was omitted and so the advert proclaimed the virtues of a restaurant known as Anus Kitchen. It was even listed as such on Foodhub, where you can get a 15% discount.

Still, look on the bright side. After the error went viral, they probably got more publicity than they would otherwise have done. Who needs apostrophes anyway?

Shiitake mushrooms anyone?

Dish Of The Week (2)

I like a nice steak, but I think I will give the Ouroboros steak a miss. If you don’t know the symbolism of the Gnostic philosophers, a pretty niche subject I have to admit, the ouroboros portrayed a snake engaging in autophagy by eating its own tail, a symbol that was initially used a millennium or so earlier by the Egyptians.

Said to be a critique of laboratory-grown food, the Ouroboros steak kit would allow users to grow miniature steaks from their own cells. The idea of a scientist, Andrew Pelling, an artist, Orkan Telhan, and an industrial designer, Grace Knight, it has created sufficient interest to be nominated for the Design of the Year award by London’s Design Museum.

Two things to clear up: the kit is little more than a twinkle in the fevered minds of the trio and autophagy or eating yourself does not technically class as cannibalism. The latter may be a fine line many of us would not want to cross.

In a year which has taught us to pay closer attention to the provenance of our foodstuffs, they make a fair point, but I do not see it replacing a nice rump steak anytime soon.

Cantering Through Cant (10)

Sleeping with someone who is not your partner may not necessarily be down to loose morals but rather to a shortage of beds. Francis Grose in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) describes a custom called bundling which he defines as “a man and woman sleeping in the same bed, he with his small clothes, and she with her petticoats on; an expedient practiced in America on a scarcity of beds, where, on such an occasion, husbands and parents frequently permitted travellers to bundle with their wives and daughters”.  

One of the drawbacks of celebrating a birthday when I was a boy was that so-called friends would seize you by the arms and legs and throw you up and down for as many times as the years you were celebrating. We called this getting or giving the bumps. Grose gives a possible etymology for the custom of bumping which, no doubt due to ‘Elf and Safety considerations, is no longer performed in the nation’s school grounds. Grosse described it as “a ceremony performed on boys perambulating the bounds of the parish on Whit-Monday; when they have their posteriors bumped against the stones marking the boundaries, in order to fix them in their memory”.  

We may be the poorer for the loss of these customs.

Curio Wild Coast Gin

My wife and I enjoy our trips down to Cornwall, taking in the wonderful gardens and breath-taking scenery. Our recent trip this October was more bracing than usual, battling against the ravages of what the meteorologists dubbed Storm Alex. There is something peculiarly British in battling against the elements to stand on Lizard Point, the most southerly point in Britain. As well as invigorated, bedraggled, and windswept, we had that distinctive taste of saltiness on our lips. If you could bottle it, that would be the essence of Cornwall.

Our visit did have its compensations, one of which for me was a visit to the delightful Constantine Stores. On the principle of when in Rome, I was looking for a distinctive Cornish gin, of which the ginaissance has spawned many, and Curio Wild Coast Gin jumped out at me from the shelves.

It comes in the squat, dumpy bottle shape favoured by a number of distillers, think Chase or Malfy, for example. The neck is quite short with a wooden cap and artificial stopper. The labelling is distinctive and bright, featuring in colour a tableau of botanicals, presumably those in the mix. The lower part of the bottle is dimpled, and the words “Curio” and “Cornwall” are embossed at the top of the bottle just before the neck.   

The label at the rear of the bottle informs me that everything they do is “inspired by the alchemy of flavour”. The gin is four-times distilled and “captures the light, fresh sea spray and wild aromas of the Cornish coast with notes of piney juniper, fresh citrus, sweet cinnamon and a slight peppery finish. Hand foraged on the local cliff tops, rock samphire is blended with 14 botanicals, then distilled with pure Cornish spring water in small batches”. Leaving aside the marketing hyperbole, this is the sort of information that a potential purchaser is looking for when they pick up a bottle. My bottle is from batch number 104.

I have been unable to find a definitive list of the botanicals used, but it does seem that juniper, lime flower tea, star anise, fresh lemon peel, seaweed, and nutmeg are deployed with the botanicals highlighted on the label. What else is used seems to be a state secret.

The gin is the brainchild of Rubina and William Tyler-Street who operate from Trenance, near St Keverne, although the expansion of their business means that Rubina looks after the gins and William the vodkas. Work began on developing the gin in 2014 and the Wild Coast Gin with an ABV of 41% suggests that their experimentation has paid off. On the nose there is a distinct smell of the coast, a mix of the aromas of the vegetation found on the Cornish cliffs and the spray of salt, but the juniper makes its presence felt as do the more citric elements. Like a well conducted orchestra, the disparate elements combine to make an alluring come-and-drink-me smell.

In the glass the clear spirit does not disappoint. There is a rush of taste sensations, a gin with a character of its own, with each element given its opportunity to shine whilst the juniper sits in the background, holding this whirligig of tastes together. It also tastes a little salty, not unpleasantly so but enough to conjure up the visions of a stretch of the Cornish coastline. The aftertaste is long and slightly peppery. The addition of a tonic has a transformative effect, bringing out the more floral and sweeter elements. Again, the choice of tonic is crucial. It cannot be overstated how the type of tonic you use can distort the taste of the spirit. Discretion is the better part of valour.

I really enjoyed the gin. It does what it says on the bottle and is distinctive. In a good way, I have never tasted anything like it.

Until the next time, cheers!