Saturday, 8 July 2017

Drinking for Scotland: Rachel McCormack's Chasing the Dram

Chasing the Dram: Finding the Spirit of Whisky
By Rachel McCormack
Simon and Schuster, £16.99

Rachel McCormack is someone I am in contact with only through her acerbic Twitter presence, but she is the only person in my sphere of even virtual acquaintance who has ever heard of, let alone read and critiqued (very forcefully), the Catalan author Manuel Vazquez Montalban. Who was so admired by the Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri he named his protagonist Inspector Montalbano after him. 

Rachel did live in Barcelona and is well known for her Spanish and Catalan cookery expertise, some of which may have permeated down from the otherwise (apparently) loathsome Sr Montalban, who was both a gastronome and writer of several cookbooks, notably La Cocina Catalana. He was (at different stages of his life) also a Marxist, a CIA agent and writer of some of the most peculiar detective novels in the genre. If you want to know what may be going on in the dark underbelly of both the Catalan and Scottish independence movements, his last book, The Man Of My Life, is available in English and I’d highly recommend it. Nobody else likes it.

Anyway, Rachel herself has just published a book which is, and she won’t appreciate me saying this, not dissimilar to some of the Montalban canon in its enormously entertaining eclecticism. Just as Pedro Carvalho, Montalban’s detective, veers from political pondering and philosophy through gourmandizing on a grand scale to cooking, unearthing criminal activity and making impenetrable jokes, Rachel has produced a whisky travelogue which purports to be a ‘road trip’ through Scotland searching for ‘the meaning of whisky’. While championing the inclusion of whisky in food through a series of recipés, some of which are  appealing, some  hilarious, while others appear to be spirit-fuelled culinary fire hazards. There is also quite a bit of politics, some very funny and piercingly sad family encounters, and a lot of extremely entertaining drinking, much involving the conversion of whisky-haters to lovers of at least some version of the cratur. And there is truly wonderful travelogue. The sojourn in Kilmarnock is worth the price of admission alone. Hogmanay  with her mother and blue-rinse pals is the funniest and most accurate piece of writing about Milngavie I’ve ever read.

There are some great character studies, notably of broadcaster Billy Kay’s hair, beard and voice, as well as  an occasional (knowing) submission to the PR blandishments of things like the risible Keepers of the Quaich ceremony (a Masonic Lodge/Orange Order for upmarket drinks retailers). But there are some really splendid insights, too  - and while some of the less worthy in whisky geekdom have already tried to trash the book (jealousy, I’d guess, in particular of the Simon and Schuster imprint, and now removed from the Amazon listing) one of the most erudite and experienced of topers I know was hugely impressed by her wheedling out of dark secrets concerning what Ben Nevis’s Japanese owners actually do with their new-make spirit.  I ended up spending £37.70 on a bottle of Ben Nevis 10-year-old, for reasons you’ll have to buy the book to discover.

Rachel’s breezily clear descriptions of whisky making, its legal and historical  context and maturing processes are accurate and careful, and it’s only her initial and typically belligerent dismissal of ‘terroir’ that both misleads and, in the end, is contradicted by the book itself. In the early sections she argues that nearly all of a whisky’s character and taste comes from its ageing in wood, and that all that stuff about distillery location, sea breezes and water is romantic nonsense. As her journey progresses, though, Rachel inadvertently marshals various facts against her own argument: Malting barley turns out to be crucial, as is the design of the stills, the methods of heating them, and yes, location. 

We move towards an admission that there’s perhaps a 70-30 split in the effect of wood against other factors, or maybe 60-40...but by the end of Chasing the Dram we know, as this Glasgow woman who left Scotland and then came back surely does, that whisky is all about place, and people; history, myth and magic as well as science. And for Scotch Whisky, that can only happen in Scotland. It’s our terroir, pal, and we’re gonnae use it. You could even write a book about it.

Provided with a superb, note-perfect cover by Sarah Mulvanny though it is, I can’t help feeling Chasing the Dram deserved the kind of large-format, copiously-illustrated presentation the late, great Leslie Forbes (artist and writer) produced so well with things like A Table in Tuscany and her masterpiece, Recipes From The Indian Spice Trail. That design approach might have made the abrupt arrival of the ‘whisky recipés’ , which at times have little to do with Rachel’s actual textual adventures, a little less jarring.

Still, this is an enjoyable, erudite, funny, sometimes brilliant book full of passion, insight and ebullient, feisty, boozy sarcasm. And chips. Mustn’t forget about the chips. She is very good on chips. Or patatas fritas we call them in North Lanarkshire.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Not Very Cheap Thrills: Kindling a price war over Rankin, McKinty, Moore and Ben-David

In the crack cocaine world of the  long-running detective series, waiting for the next Rebus or Duffy can be excruciating. I haven’t decided if Adrian McKinty’s habit of blogging teaser chapters of upcoming books is a good or a bad thing - personally I couldn’t face the gap between the opening chunk of Police At The Station And They Don’t Look Friendly (Tom Waits song) dangled online by McKinty and the rest of the book, which I consumed on release day at a single sniff. Ian Rankin’s I’d Rather Be The Devil (John Martyn/Skip James song) was another much-anticipated sequel, though it’s a case these days of slumping with a pleasurable sigh alongside a crumpled, semi-retired and ageing Rebus  (and his dog and assorted retinue) as he more and more measuredly ponders mortality,  slouching along the crime-ridden streets of Disneyburgh, grumbling.

With Duffy, whose journey through the Troubles has reached the late 1980s, there’s still an aghast, stomach-churning sense of being in an out-of-control car heading for unfathomable horror, even as the drugs and wisecracks flow, the intellectual references and gunfire rattle out and the BMW 535i V8 (derestricted) hits 140 mph on the M2 outside Belfast, either NWA or Arvo Part on the stereo.

But here’s a thing. I admit to being a McKinty addict. Which is why paying £9.09 (as I write; it was £12.99 earlier) in paperback -yes,  paperback -  from Amazon might have been a genuine option, had the Kindle version not been a more agreeable £4.74. Go on, Serpent’s Tail, take ruthless advantage! The Rankin book is in a more peculiar position. You can get it in hardback - yes, hardback - on the Big A for £7.00, while the Kindle version is a frankly lunatic £9.99.

I know Amazon prices are set partly by algorithms depending on sales as well as whatever deal the publisher has struck with Bezos and his acolytes, but some of the Kindle prices on high-demand books are frankly disgusting attempts to rip off the hopelessly addicted - or, if you prefer, the faithful fan. Publishers are, on the whole, short-sighted idiots who just don’t get digital; even the vicious fools in the record industry, while punting the dead format of vinyl in pursuit of the vast mark-up an LP offers, will offer you a download code as part of the deal. But seek an offer of a souvenir hardback with a free Kindle edition, and the Neros of print will laugh in your face, and fiddle their launch-lunch budgets as their industry smoulders.

Another example. Alan Moore’s amazing (and badly under-edited, not to mention logorrheaic) Jerusalem came to me as a gift in the single-volume hardback edition. That would be 1100 pages of tiny type, 600,000 words. I wanted badly to read it but it was too heavy and it hurt my eyes. Easy, I’d download the Kindle version and beef up the font. How much? £14. FOURTEEN QUID? Nope. A Kindle version as part of the hardback (£17) deal would have saved sprained wrists and damaged eyesight for thousands.

Grumping about pricing aside, Rather Be the Devil is Late Rebus (Continuing), and extremely enjoyable. Far more concise and focused than the early Rankins, and, dare I say it, relaxed. It offers considerable pleasure alongside a nagging sense of doom. Rebus must die, will die and you sense the author knows that, but can’t bear the thought. The wait for cancer results may be pushing it a bit, though...great music choices, the delights of various restaurants and of course the Oxford Bar. Rankin’s cruising here, but Rebus undoubtedly knows there’s an iceberg ahead,

Police At The Station And They Don’t Seem Friendly - a ‘Troubler’ as some call Northern Irish political thrillers - is among the best of the superb Duffy series from McKinty. Some find these books a bit broad-brush but the speed, wit, sense of place and history are, to my mind, irresistible. Duffy’s Catholicism is very much on display in this latest book, which looks at some extremely unpleasant aspects of Ulster’s past policing, in the form of the infamous ‘B Specials’. Assured plotting, the best gunfight descriptions in the business, vast quantities of drink, drugs and fast cars...that was Royal Ulster Constabulary life in 80s, folks! I absolutely loved this book which in its hectic, full-on humour, constant threat of violence and looming  tragedy, captures the more lurid aspects of Norther Irish life you will find nowhere else in literature. And it doesn't even come close to Altnagelvin A&E on any Saturday night.

Pricing problems looming again, this time for a text which, as I write, isn’t out yet. I loved (see Thrillfilters past) the first  Mishka Ben-David book to be released in English, Duet in Beirut. Now Final Stop Algiers, which I read pre-release, offers even more insights into the strangely casual world of Mossad missions

At first, this tale of a would-be artist recruited into counter-intelligence seems oddly deliberate, then romantic and unlikely. But Ben-David writes as a former Mossad officer and has always stressed in interviews that he keeps his books as realistic as possible. Finally, it occurs to you that this is what it’s really like, right down to the matter-of-fact approach to death and violence, meted out as part of the job and described with great candour.

The final section of the book, detailing a mission to Algeria, grips not because it’s particularly well written (and I don’t think the translation is as colloquial as Duet in Beirut) but because you know it’s really like this. Terrifying, compulsive and uncompromisingly patriotic, there is nothing like Ben-David’s work in the thrillersphere. Powerful, memorable stuff.

But expensive. £11.99 in paperback on release to pre-order and £9.49 on Kindle. Then again, I got mine for nothing...