Friday, 27 September 2013

"Floyd on Italy", Keith Floyd

Back in the heady naive and optimistic days of 1995 Floyd on Italy inspired as television. I'd long been fond of him as cook and (dated phrase?) television personality, and "Floyd on Oz" had already done a lot to kick start my enthusiasm for cooking as an undergraduate in the distinctly non-Australian surrounds of Fife.

The combination of the Aston Martin, the Strangler's soundtrack, and Keith Floyd in all his pomp made for compelling viewing, and lusted after the associated book to an almost indecent extent.

Right, that is, until I came across the first "River Cafe Cookbook". Captivated by its polish, displayed so seductively alongside the desirable home furnishing of Habitat's newly opened Dublin store. Prior to leaving for my postgraduate time at Aberystwyth my mother bought me Rose Gray and Ruth Roger's book, commenting sagely when I would gush over Floyd, that I probably had all the Italian cookbook I was likely to need.

Off I went to Aberystwyth, and staples from the River Cafe, such as the classic Penne Cabonara, and what I'm sure they won't thank me for learning became known as 'sausage surprise', became standbys that last to this day. I still loved Floyd, did so for years, and was enormously sad to hear of his passing on that excruciating day for Radio 4, but I figured my mother was right, I didn't need another Italian cookbook.

Skip forward nearly 20 years and in the comfortable surrounds of South London, and seeing Floyd on Italy rerunning on the outer reaches of the Sky package, and suddenly the old urge is back. Floyd has style, he has panache, he has passion; how could he not have a brilliant associated book. Thanks to the miracle of the interweb a copy is duly purchased for a trifling sum, a package appears and...


Floyd on Italy remains brilliant, if now maybe dated, television, but the book does nothing, and I suspect will not become one of those loved cookbooks, food stained and annotated throughout. It will sit dryly on the shelf, occasionally looked at, and before long make its way to the charity shop contribution. Maybe it's time, but I doubt it, because "Floyd on Oz" works, and it's an earlier publication, but for whatever reason the pagination and typography of "Floyd on Italy" doesn't resonate.

In some ways you can never go back, maybe "Floyd on Italy" would have worked for me when I tried to cook to impress in mid Wales in the mid 1990s, but tonight's dinner came from the River Cafe (admittedly Puttanesca from one of the later books). The book will probably go pretty soon, but I'm smiling, because it means that I can still fall back on listening to Waltzinblack and remember Floyd in his television pomp, and what it inspired me to do.

Don't buy this book, track down the series and watch it, and cook great Italian food. It will be worth it.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Paul Sussman

A year or so ago a rather poignant FT review pointed me in the direction of Paul Sussman.

His archaeologically focussed crime novels, set predominantly in the Middle East can to an extent be seen as being a little bit formulaic, but much more importantly they're well written, thinking, and capture attention in a really satisfying way.

I've read his books in order, and tonight, as the rain stung on the windows and I figured lighting the fire was a logical thing to do, I succumbed to the temptation to start into his last work, "The Labyrinth of Osiris".

Paul Sussman passed away much too early. I'd have loved to see how his writing evolved and how he could continue to write novels that appealed to the Indiana Jones school of adventure while dealing with a Middle East that's clearly changing in all sorts of ways. It's such as shame that this has been denied to us, and it's with a few mixed feelings that I'm launching into this last of his books. 

I'm sure I'll enjoy it; I'm sure I'll be sad that there won't be any more.

Friday, 13 September 2013

"Hard Hearted", David Barrie

Back in 2009 I wrote a few lines about David Barrie's debut novel, the rather good "Wasp Waisted". Since then he's gone on to three more works featuring Franck Guerin connected variously with perfume, ballet, and now, with "Hard Hearted", high finance and (perhaps more loosely) 17th century literature.

Like the previous works in the series, "Hard Hearted" succeeds in feeling quintessentially French. This is Gitanes and espresso territory, where the geography of Paris is laid out before you, and everything is done with typical Gallic flair. This is delivered with a sense of wry humour, never more pointedly than when Guerin points out that "Defending French as a language of international communication is a keytone of our nation's foreign policy. Even if I could speak English, I'd have to pretend that I didn't".

The Paris of Barrie's work manages to combine the beauty of the Hotel Menier, by Parc Monceau, the elegant facades of the Sorbonne juxtaposed with the rabbit's warren within, and the more impoverished garrets in which the creatives and workers of Paris still exist cheek by jowl. Cast against this is a highly absorbing crime story mixing the theft of a rare manuscript, the murder of a beautiful woman, and the sort of financial activity that sits somewhere between being very clever and maybe a little bit criminal. Throughout it retains the ability to surprise, and at times shock, which holds attention throughout, and leaves you disappointed when you come to an end.

Barrie's works remain on the margins of crime fiction, strangely neglected by mainstream publishing. "Hard Hearted" languishes at 1,343,726 on the list of Amazon's best sellers. This is a huge shame. These engaging and erudite books deserve a much larger audience, and I can't help feeling that if anyone who enjoys the thinking person's flavour of murder picked one up they'd really enjoy it. 

Go on, try one, if nothing else it should spark an interesting discussion with your friendly local bookseller, and may encourage Barrie to finish the promised fifth volume in the series.