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Christopher Driver

Christopher Driver has recently resigned the editorship of the Good Food Guide, which he had held since 1969, and is writing a history of British cooking. He is the author of The Exploding University and of The Disarmers.

De Mortuis

Christopher Driver, 28 June 1990

If the Sixties were the decade for penis power, the Nineties are already designed for turning up one’s toes, and at the risk of proclaiming myself as the Fiona Pitt-Kethley of the crematorium, a paid lyricist to fin-de-siècle obsequies, my muse is waiting. I am just about old enough to find myself mourning friends and colleagues younger than myself (a vicissitude endured by my mother, now 92, for a quarter of a century, but that’s the occupational disease of her gender). I took my own mocks for the death examination on a January mountainside a few years ago by observing a little stroke, and I can confirm that hearing is the last sense to go before black-out.

Cad’s Cadenzas

Christopher Driver, 15 September 1988

Composers are supposed to die young, preferably of consumption. Their women, if their tastes lie in this direction, may be called to matrimony and motherhood: but they are seldom given to authorship, and they are not encouraged to own independent musical personalities. These preconditions leave a clear field for the imagination of Hollywood scriptwriters or the industry of Berkeley musicologists. But it is better so. Beethoven’s reputation has survived his sharp practices with publishers, his intermittent problems with servants, and his ‘Battle’ Symphony: but he could hardly have recovered from ‘Life, Laundry and Ludwig: The Diaries of Frau van Beethoven’. At the same time, the composer myth is woefully inaccurate. Haydn, Telemann, Verdi reached their eighties. Anna Magdalena Bach, Constanze Mozart, Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler did more for their husbands’ posthumous fame than a gaggle of critics and sycophants. As for musical cipherdom, the unmistakable rages and affections of Frau Strauss are preserved in the concertante solo violin part of Heldenleben, just as Benjamin Britten’s dependence upon Peter Pears, the sharer of his bed, shines through most of his later music.

Ages of the Train

Christopher Driver, 8 January 1987

It is better to arrive than to travel – these words are being written on a broken-down hovercraft, beached like a whale at Dover – and it was better still, before defiance of gravity and the euphemisms of airports suffused the glands with a cocktail of contempt and funk, to relish le départ. This is because the rituals of arrival and departure require the services and shelter of a station where the rites de passage can be worthily celebrated, with emotions taut and perceptions heightened. In Britain, during a period of stylistic evolution that lasted half a century, railway stations became, both in grandiloquent and in self-effacing modes, the characteristic public buildings of the age, expressing that mélange of optimism, fancy and thoroughness so dissimilar from our own climate of feeling. What better venue than the Gare d’Orsay for the museum of the 19th century which has just opened in Paris?’

Lamb’s Tails

Christopher Driver, 19 June 1986

For a generation now, it has been a commonplace that in Britain food and drink are much discussed. Fewer people seem to notice that this has almost always been so, wherever the capacity to discuss anything is found. Pockets of unawareness are the exception rather than the rule: early redbrick university departments striving to differentiate themselves from Oxford and Cambridge; or the English gentry, who, as Lord Stockton has reminded us, taught their genteel imitators that it was bad form to notice the manna that came to dinner. In other times and places, both hunger and plenty have proved stimulating sauces for food discourse. Miranda Chaytor tells me that the dreams of a 16th-century Northumbrian witch elicited at interrogation centred upon food rather than sex. English diarists – Evelyn as well as Pepys, Thomas Turner as well as Parson Woodforde – confide their meals to paper as readily as their other concerns. One reason why Keats makes better reading than Shelley is that he had a superior gust for eating and drinking, and found a language for it in verse and prose: not just the lucent syrops tinct with cinnamon but the nectarine: ‘good god how fine. It went down soft pulpy, slushy, oozy – all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry. I shall certainly breed.’’

The Rat Line

Christopher Driver, 6 December 1984

By chance, the evening I took this book to bed for the painful reading expected, I jabbed the tooth of a comb down a fingernail and cried out. As a reminder of what Klaus Barbie was about, not just at the Hotel Terminus in Lyon forty years ago but at the Bolivian Joint Chiefs of Staff headquarters in La Paz as late as 1980, the moment served. An inkling of the more enduring wounds for which Barbie was proud to share responsibility can be gathered from Claudine Vegh’s I didn’t say goodbye, a labour of love rather than literature in which the surviving children of French Jewish deportees talk to a psychiatrist who shared their experience: ‘I didn’t have a youth, I no longer have a mother, I have a sister who needs treatment, a father who hasn’t been able to lead a normal life since he came back. An entire existence ruined.’

Gang of Four

Christopher Driver, 22 December 1983

The gang of four, discoursing melodically and harmonically within the gamut of some five octaves, was a relatively late response to the acoustic properties of the violin family. Once formed, however, a couple of centuries ago, it acquired within our culture a more-than-musical resonance, comparable with the development potential of the novel, the intimacy of the still-life, the proportionality of Georgian domestic architecture, the numinosity of Cranmer’s collects. People who have discovered or been brought up with the string quartet, as listeners but above all as players, generally regard themselves as blessed in this life, and possibly in the next too. Yet outside newspaper and magazine concert notices, usually starved for space or time or both, and outside concert-programme analyses of works to be played, sustained reflection on the composition and performance of quartets is for the most part confined to studies of individual composers, and there overshadowed by discussion of operas, symphonies and other large-scale works. As far as society at large is concerned, all serious music nowadays obeys its own rules, perpetuates its own traditions and keeps its own counsel, to an extent which other generations would have found surprising. Interesting comments on quartet performance are to be found in the music criticism of George Bernard Shaw and Ezra Pound, to name two writers whose main preoccupations lay elsewhere. But in our own day almost all composition, and much performance, is virtually invulnerable to non-specialist critique.

Floating

Christopher Driver, 6 October 1983

Of these novels, the one with legs and a long finish, as the wine-tasters say, is Graham Swift’s Waterland, his third. The story – which is at once story and history, erzählung and geschichte – is sustained within, or threaded into, an intricate web of inter-locking images. Or rather, to respect its prevailing metaphor, it floats and develops in an amniotic fluid of local, biological and antiquarian detail. The precision of this detail is hugely relished. The reader emerges dripping from his involuntary immersion, boasting better knowledge of the Fenland lock-system, the ecology of beer, and the life-cycle of the eel, than most people expect novels to supply. At the same time, there is no sense of self-indulgent Dickensian sprawl about these excursuses. They are properly canalised tributaries to the book’s total preoccupation with liquidity. The epigraph is drawn from Great Expectations: ‘Ours was the marsh country.’ But Heraclitus got there first with ‘Everything flows.’–

Time and Men and Deeds

Christopher Driver, 4 August 1983

The platitude about America, also voiced by Americans, is that it is a country that thinks big and thinks new. One sees why. There is plenty of there, there, between Nameless, Tennessee and Liberty Bond, Washington – two stations on Moon’s orbit of his own land. As for novelty worship, planned obsolescence – though not necessarily more objectionable than the unplanned British kind – came in 31 flavours or 57 varieties long before the phrase was invented. The celebration of obsolescence even lies near the heart of the terminally destructive arms-race which America, naturally, leads. In the city park of Langdon, North Dakota, the author gazes at a ‘retired’ Spartan missile ‘that now apparently serves the same function as court-house lawn fieldpieces with little pyramids of cannonballs once did’. In Britain, we clearly treat ephemera of this kind with sad disrespect. Why was Julian Amery never invited to unveil one of the Blue Streaks that never were as an adornment to St James’s Park? When Mrs Finchley trades Polaris in for Trident, will the old model be put on public display outside the United Reformed church of that borough (conveniently called St Margaret’s)? A poor nation like our own should never order a missile without thinking about its antiquarian value.–

Entails

Christopher Driver, 19 May 1983

The theme of William Trevor’s new novel – his ninth, and that leaves short-story collections out of account – is the murderous entail of Anglo-Irish history, in which, as a Cork man, he may fairly be considered expert. But unlike most experts, above all most specialists in Ireland’s past, he knows how little has to be told and how much is best left to the reader’s own memory and imagination. The point about an entail, as Mrs Bennet constantly complained to her long-suffering husband, is that it is buttoned up by law, invulnerable to grace. In Ireland, as in Pride and Prejudice, it follows the male line: only recently has an Amazonian tendance invaded Anglo-Irish contestation. The blood in this book is shed by the men, but the life sentences are served by their women, whose tragic warps still find their metaphor half a century later in the blackened, twisted beams of once-gracious country houses fired in the civil wars and never repaired. Such a house is Kilneagh.–

Pushkin’s Pupil

Christopher Driver, 1 April 1983

Not since Arnold Bennett, Elizabeth Bowen and Vicki Baum can a novelist have looked so readily for resonance in the name and function of hotels. After his world-beating Freudian serve with The White Hotel here is D.M. Thomas again, standing on the baseline at the start of his new novel in yet another hotel setting. The Soviet poet, Rozanov, is sharing his bed with a blind woman whom he has arranged to meet because he fancies a literally blind date, and she is a fervent admirer of his verse. The hotel is in Gorky, so lacks character: you will not expect to find it among Mr Rubinstein’s Quaint Little Hotels of Britain and Europe, as might have happened with Thomas’s previous hotel by the lake where ‘your son crashed through my modesty, a stag in rut. The staff were wonderful. I’ve never known such service as they gave.’ It is a caravanserai of convenience only. Rozanov is by no means a reluctant rutter – hardly anyone in Thomas-land is – but on this occasion he is too bored by his admirer to perform until she appeals to his other talent. He is an improvisatore, grandson of an Armenian storyteller who perished in the genocide of 1915. ‘Ararat’ the tale takes shape on his lips between night and morning in the hotel bedroom armchair. The twin peaks of his desire, to borrow the soft porn expression, are those of Mount Ararat itself, the sacred mountain of the Armenians, which lies beyond the Iron Curtain (from the point of view of a Soviet Armenian) because it was annexed by the Turks.–

White Slaves

Christopher Driver, 3 March 1983

Richard Titmuss has cast light on civilisation by comparing what happens when blood is sold and when it is donated. Edward Bristow’s subject, likewise, is a service which may be either donated or traded – or obtained under duress. His exploration of it takes him into unfamiliar recesses of public and private depravity, and shines a torch into the laundry room of Judaism.

A Serious Table

Christopher Driver, 2 September 1982

Drake postponed sailing against the Spanish Armada till his game of bowls was over, Nero preferred his lyre to ARP duty, Belshazzar’s feast was rudely interrupted. In that appealing branch of mythology which counterpoints the trivial with the catastrophic, the cooks on HMS Sheffield deserve a place, killed while preparing lunch. Few men seem as innocent and apolitical as a chef who is preoccupied with his craft – though an exception might have to be made for the trusty employed by the Borgias. Frenchmen, perhaps, are too realistic, or live too closely to their chefs, to subscribe to this view: it was a Frenchman who reminded the world that an army marches upon its stomach, and another Frenchman who proved it for the English. As Punch wrote after Alexis Soyer’s self-imposed slavery in the Crimea on behalf of his adopted country:

Letter

Slaughtered

8 November 1990

It must be official: the LRB takes precedence over mere dictionaries. ‘Abbatoir’ is now the correct spelling (see Les Murray’s poem, 8 November 1990).
Letter

Encore

8 May 1986

SIR: As a footnote to John Bayley’s review (LRB, 8 May) – and since there is unlikely to be another biography of Duff Cooper coming along – it seems worth transcribing manuscript notes made on the end papers of my copy of Cooper’s Old men forget by the previous owner, Roger Senhouse. They suggest that the Paris Embassy under the Coopers was not, perhaps, the finest hour of British...
Letter

Trollies

21 February 1985

SIR: Though neither an etymologist nor a corsetier, may I hazard a frivolous suggestion for the origin of Barbara Pym’s ‘trollies’ (LRB, 21 February)? James Laver’s Taste and Fashion (1937) illustrates an all-in-one undergarment of the period which seems to have been called a cami-bocker. It does not look very summery, but its upper-and-lower-deck effect, surmounted by two slender...
Letter

Unfair to Food

24 January 1985

SIR: It is better to think while holding a tomato or a leg of lamb than not to think at all, and Angela Carter (LRB, 24 January) might have been wise to heed Alice Waters’s advice. I thought I had been unlucky when motherhood got in the way of her perpetually forthcoming LRB notice of my The British at Table 1940-1980 a year or so ago, but now I am not so sure. A woman capable of splashing blame...

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