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It was sheer heaven

Bee Wilson: Just Being British, 9 May 2019

Exceeding My Brief: Memoirs of a Disobedient Civil Servant 
by Barbara Hosking.
Biteback, 384 pp., £9.99, March 2019, 978 1 78590 462 2
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... started out as a Cornish scholarship girl and rose to become a senior civil servant under Harold Wilson and Edward Heath and, later, a top executive at breakfast television – has written a memoir of her rise to the top of the British establishment. Sentence by sentence, her story is likeable and impressive but never very exciting to read. Most of the great ...

Drop a tiger into a court-bouillon

Bee Wilson: Mesopotamian cookery, 6 October 2005

The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia 
by Jean Bottéro, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan.
Chicago, 134 pp., £16, May 2004, 0 226 06735 1
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... Who was it who invented the first black cakes Or the uncounted poppy-seed? Who mix’d The yellow compounds of delicious sweetmeats? This was one of many questions asked by the poet Athenaeus in the Deipnosophists, a long series of dialogues on food and dining. If Athenaeus, who lived 1800 years ago, couldn’t, how much less equipped are we to answer questions about the way the first cooks cooked? How can we know what people ate in the past? It is hard enough to re-create a meal we had last Tuesday: ingredients are never the same, and we forget how much pepper we added; we can go back to the recipe book, if we used one, but it won’t tell us that we substituted garlic for onions, or that our children picked out all the courgettes before they ate it ...

The butler didn’t do it

Bee Wilson: The First Detectives, 19 June 2008

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or the Murder at Road Hill House 
by Kate Summerscale.
Bloomsbury, 334 pp., £14.99, April 2008, 978 0 7475 8215 1
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... The word “clue”,’ Kate Summerscale writes, ‘derives from “clew” meaning a ball of thread or yarn.’ In mid-Victorian England, clues were satisfying objects to be grasped, then unknotted or unravelled. Clues pointed the way to go. On his way into the Minotaur’s labyrinth, Theseus unravels a ball of red thread given him by Ariadne, so that he can find his way out again, gathering the thread as he goes ...

They didn’t have my fire

Bee Wilson: The New Food Memoirists, 25 June 2009

The Settler’s Cookbook: A Memoir of Love, Migration and Food 
by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
Portobello, 439 pp., £20, March 2009, 978 1 84627 083 3
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... I went into a milk-house; they brought me some cream-cheese curds and whey, and two slices of that excellent Piedmont bread, which I prefer to any other; and for five or six sous I had one of the most delicious meals I ever recollect to have made.’ Thus Rousseau in his Confessions, where he also writes about his liking for pears, his fear of pastry shops, his fondness for starting the day with milky coffee and his preference for simple, ‘rustic repasts’: ‘give me milk, vegetables, eggs and brown bread, with tolerable wine and I shall always think myself sumptuously regaled ...

Winklepickers, Tinned Salmon, Hair Cream

Bee Wilson: Jonathan Meades, 14 July 2016

An Encyclopedia of Myself 
by Jonathan Meades.
Fourth Estate, 341 pp., £9.99, February 2015, 978 1 85702 905 5
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... Lists​ make us feel better. They take the uncertainty and messiness of life and spray it with a sense of purpose. On low days, I sometimes write to-do lists of tasks I have already done and put ticks next to them, just to give myself the illusion of resolve. We cross days off a calendar, and imagine that July was something we positively achieved, rather than an unstoppable wave of time that scooped us up and spat us out into the next month ...

Too Specific and Too Vague

Bee Wilson: Curry House Curry, 24 March 2022

Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionised Food in America 
by Mayukh Sen.
Norton, 259 pp., £18.99, January, 978 1 324 00451 6
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The Philosophy of Curry 
by Sejal Sukhadwala.
British Library, 106 pp., £10, March, 978 0 7123 5450 9
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... Give me an English one!’ Matty Robinson said after tasting her first Indian curries in Bombay in 1858. She was 29, the eldest child of a Gloucestershire rector, and had gone to India as the wife of a British army officer, her cousin. As a third-generation Anglo-Indian, she was familiar with spicy food. Her problem was that the curries in India weren’t like the unsubtle curry-powder-laced stews she knew from home (in ‘A Poem to Curry’, written in 1846, Thackeray describes one made from three pounds of veal, three tablespoons of curry powder and half a pound of Epping butter ...

Look beyond the lips

Bee Wilson: Hedy Lamarr, 28 July 2011

Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film 
by Ruth Barton.
Kentucky, 281 pp., £25.95, May 2011, 978 0 8131 2604 3
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... Compared with most actresses, Hedy Lamarr wasn’t very interested in acting. She was an intelligent woman, capable of great things, but, beauty aside, the greatness didn’t show up on screen. If you only knew her through her performances in Algiers, Ecstasy or Samson and Delilah, you would never have thought it possible that she was jointly responsible for one of the great inventions of the 20th century ...

How much meat is too much?

Bee Wilson, 20 March 2014

Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat 
by Philip Lymbery, with Isabel Oakeshott.
Bloomsbury, 426 pp., £12.99, January 2014, 978 1 4088 4644 5
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Planet Carnivore 
by Alex Renton.
Guardian, 78 pp., £1.99, August 2013
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... Vegetarians, we say,​ are self-righteous and humourless; or fussy and weird; or like Hitler; we say that their diet makes them anaemic; that having to cater for them ruins every dinner party; that they are crazy not to eat bacon/lamb shanks/pepperoni because we evolved as hunter-gatherers; that their food smells horrible, and by implication, so do they; that it’s cruel to bring up a child vegetarian; that they are hypocrites, because how can they pretend to care about animal suffering when they still buy clothes from normal shops – and are those leather shoes by any chance? Vegetarians themselves often argue that they make us feel uncomfortable because their existence is a reminder of the cruelty and carnage that the rest of us refuse to see; there’s probably some truth in this ...

They Supped with the King

Bee Wilson: Mistresses, 6 January 2011

Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman 
by Elizabeth Abbott.
Duckworth, 510 pp., £20, 0 7156 3946 3
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... Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress – since I can’t be your wife?’ Ellen Olenska asks of Newland Archer in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. By this point in the novel, it has become obvious to us that Olenska and Archer are each other’s only chance of what Newland calls ‘a real life’. Newland’s impending marriage to the terrifyingly girlish May Welland cannot be anything other than ‘a sham’; it closes round him with all the stifling force of old, status-obsessed New York society ...

Throw it out the window

Bee Wilson: Lady Constance Lytton, 16 July 2015

Lady Constance Lytton: Aristocrat, Suffragette, Martyr 
by Lyndsey Jenkins.
Biteback, 282 pp., £20, March 2015, 978 1 84954 795 6
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... In Holloway prison​ , in March 1909, Constance Lytton decided to carve the words ‘Votes for Women’ across her chest. She had been locked up for taking part in suffragette protests but found that, as an aristocrat, she was receiving preferential treatment from the prison officers, and she didn’t like it. Lytton had serious establishment connections ...

Mmmm, chicken nuggets

Bee Wilson: The Victorian Restaurant Scene, 15 August 2019

The London Restaurant: 1840-1914 
by Brenda Assael.
Oxford, 239 pp., £60, July 2018, 978 0 19 881760 4
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... In​ 1901, London was still the largest city in the world. It had a population of six and a half million, two million more than New York and five million more than Tokyo. One of the ‘biggest wonders of this glorious Metropolis’ as well as ‘one of the most strangely human sights that the world can show’, according to J.C. Woollan, was the spectacle of all these millions of people being fed ...

Punk Counterpunk

Bee Wilson, 20 November 2014

Vivienne Westwood 
by Vivienne Westwood and Ian Kelly.
Picador, 463 pp., £25, September 2014, 978 1 4472 5412 6
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... Some time​ in 1979, after the death of Sid Vicious and before the enthronement of Margaret Thatcher, Vivienne Westwood ‘lost interest’ in punk. She and her lover Malcolm McLaren had been at the heart of the British version: they had dreamed up much of the look, the attitude and the lyrics, though not the sound. A full year before David Bowie adopted the same hair style, Westwood had her hair bleached blonde and cut ‘coupe-sauvage’ style: tufty, asymmetrical and barmy-looking ...

Laertes has a daughter

Bee Wilson: The Redgraves, 6 June 2013

The Redgraves: A Family Epic 
by Donald Spoto.
Robson, 361 pp., £25, November 2012, 978 1 84954 394 1
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The House of Redgrave: The Lives of a Theatrical Dynasty 
by Tim Adler.
Aurum, 336 pp., £20, July 2012, 978 1 84513 623 9
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... In the National Theatre’s inaugural season in 1963 Michael Redgrave played Claudius to Peter O’Toole’s Hamlet. Apart from Olivier, the theatre’s first director, Redgrave, then aged 55, was its greatest star. Known to the public from his many film roles, and having just been named actor of the year by the Evening Standard for his Uncle Vanya at Chichester, which one critic called ‘the highest level of acting the contemporary theatre has to offer’, he was good box-office ...

Stuck with Your Own Face

Bee Wilson: The Beauty Industry, 8 July 2010

Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry 
by Geoffrey Jones.
Oxford, 412 pp., £25, February 2010, 978 0 19 955649 6
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... My grandmother Elsie couldn’t bear to look at photographs of Princess Diana. A pretty face was spoiled, she felt, by the thick streak of kohl along the bottom of Diana’s eyes. Odder still, the kohl was sometimes blue. To Elsie, this was a form of self-mutilation: Diana might as well have taken crayons and scribbled all over herself. ‘Why must she do it?’ Elsie would ask, with genuine puzzlement ...

‘You have a nice country, I would like to be your son’

Bee Wilson: Prince Bertie, 27 September 2012

Bertie: A Life of Edward VII 
by Jane Ridley.
Chatto, 608 pp., £30, August 2012, 978 0 7011 7614 3
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... Asked​ in an exam at the age of 16 whether kings should be elected, the future Edward VII answered: ‘It is better than hereditary right because you have more chance of having a good sovereign, if it goes by hereditary right if you have a bad or weak sovereign, you cannot prevent him reigning.’ By Bertie’s feeble standards, this was a flash of insight ...

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