Arts, Books, Culture

Book Club: Au Revoir, Tristesse

Groskop

AN excellent read. Viv Groskop takes a light-hearted look at how to bring more humour and happiness into our lives through French literature

Viv Groskop may wish she were a little more French. Like many people perhaps the world over. Starting at the age of 11 she studied the language obsessively and spent every vacation in France. Her desperation to escape her Britishness is obvious in pursuit of that French chic characterisation she feels more aligned and in comfort with. The author is cultured – a writer, comedian and journalist by trade.

In Au Revoir, Tristesse, Groskop blends literal history and memoir to explore how the classics of French literature can infuse our lives with joie de vivre (the joy of living) and how to say goodbye to sadness.

This is a cleverly written book. It is, in effect, a love letter to the great French writers: from the frothy hedonism of Colette and the wit of Cyrano de Bergerac to the intoxicating universe of Marguerite Duras and the heady passions of Les Liaisons dangereuses.

There are chapters on Marcel Proust, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, Albert Camus, and of course Françoise Sagan. This is a delectable cultural read for book lovers everywhere.

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Arts, Poetry

Poem: Feel Glad To Be Alive

FEEL GLAD TO BE ALIVE

From far-flung lands you came here

In days now long gone past,

You stayed, and now you give us

Your splendour unsurpassed.

Magnolia pure and perfect,

Your annual show’s sublime,

Though each year newly minted,

Your roots stretch back through time,

Your history is ancient,

Both ice and flood you’ve known,

As continents divided

You’ve still survived and grown.

May long you stay tenacious,

May long you ever thrive!

And may, when I see you,

Feel glad to be alive.

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Arts, Drama

Whodunnit: Murder At Mattingley

Whodunnit

A keen member of the Ornithological Society, Miss Miller was delighted by the chance to visit Mattingley Chase, whose extensive grounds included an area of marshland that attracted rare species. The owner, Kyler Mattingley, was a noted recluse but ornithology was his passion, so he allowed four Society members to stay for the weekend.

The guests were familiar to each other from exchanges in the Society’s journal, Tweetings. The ride to the Chase was the first time they had actually met, however.

They were a merry bunch. Miss Wilson was the youngest of the quartet, fashionably dressed, with a special interest in finches and an enthusiasm for photography. Austin Ball was charming and magnificently attired in a cream jacket, dark trousers, black boots and silk kerchief. Clayton Hendricks was an outdoor type strongly built, with a large beard.

Their conversation was dominated by thoughts of Kyler Mattingley.

“I hear tell that Mr Mattingley is an impeccably gracious host,” said Miss Miller.

“A cautious one,” Hendricks replied.

Miss Wilson smiled. “We’re very lucky,” she said.

“Indeed, we are,” said Hendricks.

“We shall just have to ensure that the great Mr Mattingley has no reason to be displeased with our presence,” Ball said. “Maybe that way we can hasten the day when this opportunity is extended to other members of the Society.”

Miss Miller nodded. “Quite. I assume we all remembered our gifts?”

“Of course,” said Hendricks. “I have brought him a book of doves; the illustrations are magnificent.”

“That sounds delightful, Mr Hendricks,” said Miss Wilson. “I’ll have to ask Mr Mattingley for a look.”

When they arrived at the Chase, they were met by Gustav, Mr Mattingley’s man, who showed them to their rooms.

Miss Miller’s bedroom was charming. A comfortable bed and tasteful décor were complemented by a selection of beautiful artworks of birds. There were several sketches, a silver-backed mirror engraved with owls, a small, graceful carving of a jade heron in flight, and a wooden bookend in the form of a woodpecker. But what really caught her eye was a striking oil painting of birds of paradise.

After refreshing themselves, the guests assembled downstairs, clutching their gifts. Kyler Mattingley was there to greet them.

“Welcome, my friends,” he said, smiling. “I so rarely meet people, but I feel as if I know you all already. Where would we be without your lovely studies, Miss Wilson, or, Mr Ball, your hilarious anecdotes?”

After cocktails, the party went into the dining room, where they were served an impressive meal. Afterwards, he opened their gifts with every appearance of delight.

Miss Miller had brought a dozen hand-carved whistles in the likeness of less common woodland birds, in a lacquer box. When blown, each one made the trill of the bird it resembled. Hendricks presented Mattingley with the book of doves, each illustration a masterpiece of both art and biology. Ball gave a rather elegant jade phoenix, caught in the moment of its fiery rebirth, cleverly wrapped in silk. Miss Wilson, finally, had prepared a series of photographic exposures showing the changes in a park near her home over the course of a year, bound in red leather. Eventually, they retired early, to facilitate a dawn start.

Miss Miller had barely dozed off when she was awoken by a heavy knock, and Gustav entered.

“Ah, you at least are in place. Forgive me for disturbing you, Madam, but Mr Mattingley has been murdered. Your companions are not in their rooms.”

“I shall come down directly,” said Miss Miller.

By the time she was dressed and downstairs, the other Society members had been gathered.

“They say Kyler Mattingley is dead!” Miss Wilson exclaimed.

“So I hear,” said Miss Miller. “It’s a terrible business. I was in bed.”

Miss Wilson paused. “I was in the dining room, actually. I wanted to look at Mr Hendricks’ book.”

“I was in the drawing room, enjoying a cigar,” said Ball. “It is my invariable habit.”

Hendricks shrugged. “Well, I was in the kitchen. I need milk to take my medicine with.”

Miss Miller waved to the manservant. “May I have a word, Mr Gustav? He nodded, and she crossed over to him. “I fear that I know who the killer is.”

Who is the assassin, and how does Miss Miller know?

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Arts, Books, History

Book Review – Coffeeland: A History

LITERARY REVIEW

Coffeeland

IF you’ve ever been to your nearest Costa and scanned the blizzard of drinks on offer, I wonder if your immediate thoughts were “I just want a cup of coffee”? If so, then maybe this book – in excess of 350 pages of dense political history of the erogenous little coffee bean – isn’t really for you.

But on second thoughts, perhaps we should know the extraordinary story behind our morning cortado. Where would we be without coffee, the wonder drug of the world?

Honore de Balzac, the great French writer, was a manic consumer. He worked relentlessly through the night, kept going by a continual stream of strong black coffee, often up to 50 cups. He died at just 51, not unsurprisingly of caffeine poisoning.

The best sitcoms on TV would certainly be lost without it. Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David opened his own coffee shop, called Latte Larry’s, naturally; the cappuccino-sluicing twenty somethings of Friends lived on the stuff on the sofa at Central Perk (Phoebe drank the most which might explain her general excitability). As for Frasier and all the Cranes, they were regulars at the Café Nervosa, ordering pretentious macchiatos.

The theme of Augustine Sedgewick’s hugely detailed book is, however, considerably darker than all of that. A Leftist New York historian, Sedgewick wants to portray the coffee industry as a metaphor for worldwide exploitation. Coffee, he writes, “is one of the most important commodities in the history of global inequality”.

But is that true?

 

THE story of this book is largely focused on one plantation owner in El Salvador and his family since 1889, and it certainly has its fair share of exploitation and brutality. But that doesn’t mean that globalisation is the universal evil Sedgewick implies. We enjoy our morning coffee; the Brazilian coffee farmers grow it because they want to build a decent life for their families.

Billions of cups of coffee are drunk around the world each year, bringing in vast amounts of money in exports. The word itself is one of the most widely used on the planet. In the American Civil War, soldiers’ diaries referred to coffee far more frequently than bullets or rifles.

Coffee was native to Ethiopia, then took root in Yemen and was exported to the world from the port of Mocha. The first recorded coffee shop was in Constantinople in 1554.

In the middle of the next century it took off in Europe, where its medicinal qualities – giving the consumer a massive pick-up – were quickly appreciated. By the 1660s, hundreds of coffee houses were emerging and growing all over London, places were men could escape their wives and put the world to rights – and wrongs.

But it was more than two centuries later that coffee started to spread across the world – and it was James Hill from Manchester who was behind it. Hill was born in 1871 to a textile family and brought up in the teeming heart of the Industrial Revolution.

By the time he was 18 he was on a boat to Central America and made his way to the tiny country of El Salvador, arriving in 1889.

The coffee industry was beginning to take root and Hill, in marrying a local girl, inherited some plantations. El Salvador was a stable farming community, with its rich soil perfect for growing guavas, papayas, avocados, mangoes, tomatoes and much else.

But if Hill was going to get his coffee plantations to operate at full steam, he had to make sure that the local Indians needed work. Which meant making sure they couldn’t eat for free. Which in turn meant taking over common land and removing all the fecund trees and bushes.

Hill’s workers were required to turn up at 5.30am for a 6am start. He knew that, by being hungry, they would work in order to eat, so a breakfast of tortillas and beans with coffee was delivered as part of the pay.

Brutal capitalism, yes, and very effective in the short term. Within decades Hill had built up a vast coffee empire that had made him a colossal fortune.

The hard labour was backbreaking and the workers’ conditions were dreadful. In 1932, the inevitable explosion came: a few thousand Indian farmers revolted, equipped with just machetes, and were swiftly put down by the National Guard armed with machine guns. The death toll may have been as high as 50,000. A coffee house had become a charnel house.

 

THE decades after were a period of growing instability in Central America. Tens of thousands died in the Salvadoran civil war of the 1970s and 1980s and, in 1979, Hill’s grandson Jaime Hill was kidnapped by guerrillas.

He was freed after a $4 million ransom was paid. Now there is relative peace and Salvadoran coffee is a high-end product.

It’s a rich and complex story and the book is full of historical glances of the times, including the movement that legalised your morning coffee break, which has been enshrined in U.S. law since the mid-1950s after a difficult legal tussle.

Phil Greinetz owned a weaving business in Denver, Colorado, employing young men to work his looms in what was a very draining job.

When the men went off the war, Greinetz hired some middle-aged women who were quickly exhausted by the “primitive” looms. Eventually, broken by fatigue, they suggested a couple of 15-minute breaks twice a day. With coffee.

Greinetz agreed and quickly noticed a rapid improvement in his workers, but he deducted 30 minutes a day from their pay.

In the ensuing legal actions Greinetz argued it was free time and he shouldn’t pay for it. Eventually, after protracted legal arguments the Court of Appeal said that was wrong: coffee breaks counted as work time and should be regarded as such. Which became good news for all employees everywhere in any place of employment.

Sedgewick delivers a staggeringly well-researched piece of work. You might well suspect that it started life as a dissertation: the Bibliography alone is nearly 20 closely printed pages.

Some illustrations would have helped: the story is peopled with vivid characters and scenes, but it would have been good to see them at various stages throughout the book in what is a serious story.

‘Coffeeland: A History’ by Augustine Sedgewick is published by Allen Lane, 448pp

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