Longhand – Andy Hamilton

Andy Hamilton is best known as a comedy script writer and actor for TV and radio and his shows have been a constant favourite of mine since he started in the 1970’s especially the BBC Radio 4 long running series Old Harry’s Game which he writes and stars in as Satan. Not a particularly obvious subject for humour but as always with Hamilton he finds a new way of looking at the character and that is what imbues him with comedy. In this book, his second novel, he takes another mythological character and brings him to life in a surprising way telling his story and allowing him to debunk a lot of the myth around him.

We first meet our hero, for hero he is even if he doesn’t like it and for reasons that swiftly become clear he shuns publicity as much as he can, frantically writing a very long letter to the woman he loves because he has to leave her and for the first time in thousands of years feels that he has to tell her why. As you can see below the joy of the book is that we get the letter, the whole book, all 349 pages of it, is handwritten, with crossings out and edits just as Malcolm would have written it.

The reader finds out almost immediately that Malcolm is actually Heracles and has lived for thousands of years always having to move on as firstly he never ages so starts to look odd to people who know him for a long time but secondly, and as it turns out more importantly, Zeus is determined he will never be happy and has tormented him throughout the millennia. The letter he writes to his darling Bess over a period of three days is funny yet also tragic; it is without doubt a love letter but also a confession and Hamilton handles the emotional roller coaster perfectly. I found myself reading late into the night as I simply didn’t want to stop finding out more about Malcolm and Bess and the ways that he tries to disguise his enormous strength and immortality from all those around them.

I have read many versions of the Greek myths so knew Heracles’s story but it isn’t necessary to know any of that before reading this book, Hamilton takes us right through the tales mainly so Malcolm can explain why they are so wrong and what really happened. It’s a brilliant idea and, to me at least, a completely original approach to mythological story telling, Malcolm is so ordinary because he has to be but his back story is one of wanton destruction and tragedy, he so despises that aspect of his early life and just wants to be ‘normal’. With Bess he has found that normality he craves but as the letter explains he is being forced to abandon the happiness he now has and at a truly awful point in time.

By the end of the book you are totally invested in the tragic love story of Malcolm and Bess, a tale that fit right in with the classical Greek mythology that Hamilton has mined for his characters’ source. We never hear from Bess in the whole book, other characters are reported verbatim but Bess is always heard through the medium of Malcolm’s letter as he explains what had just happened in the hope that she will forgive him. Fortunately we know right from the beginning that she does and that she still loves him as there is one other letter included right at the front and that is typewritten ostensibly from a firm of solicitors to the publisher. I read this first as that is where it is placed but rereading it after finishing Malcolm’s letter you understand it better.

The book is published by Unbound, a crowd funded publishing house, and I subscribed to it before Andy Hamilton even started to write, based partly on the pitch that he made on the site but also as a fan of his work over many decades I knew that he would produce something well worth reading and he has certainly delivered. As a subscriber I received a signed copy on publication and my name is in the list of around five hundred people who supported the work through to publication.

The Plagiarist in the Kitchen – Jonathan Meades

I first came across Jonathan Meades through his highly idiosyncratic TV documentaries where he was always dressed as shown on the cover of this volume, all in black with black sunglasses. He would talk direct to the camera whilst totally ignoring something going on behind him or alternatively somebody else would be talking to the camera and he would appear in the background apparently having little connection to what was being said. The films looked spontaneous precisely because they weren’t, everything was tightly scripted and performed with an artifice unique to Meades. The person on screen was not Meades as he really was it was Meades acting a character of himself and presenting the sort of intelligent TV that rarely gets made today. I later found out that The Times newspaper had employed him as a restaurant critic for fifteen years so seeing that in 2017 he had written a cookbook made searching that out imperative. How would the Jonathan Meades I knew and loved from his many programmes approach cooking. The answer, it turned out, was uniquely and also filled with his dry wit, in short exactly as I hoped.

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Meades explains the title by stating that all recipes are theft, they all come from somebody, even if you add to or alter them in some way, there is really only so many ways to cook something and they have all been done. This is more than a cookbook it is a cookery philosophy and also assumes that the reader has an understanding of cooking in that a lot of the recipes don’t actually have quantities to the ingredients. The only times that quantities are given is when it is essential to get the balance right such as avoiding a sloppy batter, or getting the right balance of flavours such as with gayettes (French style faggots). Other than that there may be hints, such as don’t use too much celery or carrot in a mirepoix because both can dominate. Some of the recipes can barely be called such.

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Simplicity is everything. But when he needs a more complex approach it can also be found here, cassoulet for instance takes four pages, most of which is actually involved with cooking the dish.  What you definitely do get is a healthy dose of advice, such as his instructions for making risotto.

What you do with the rice is more important than where it comes from
What you do is keep patient
What you do is stay put whilst it’s cooking
What you don’t do is slip outside for a gasper with the other snoutcasts
What you don’t do is include wine. It adds nothing

Do not get carried away stirring, cooking is not therapy

One of the joys of the book are Meades epigrams, which can be pearls of wisdom or just plain funny. Just a few from the section on oils will give a flavour of what to expect

  • Extra-virgin might be a desirable quality in nuns … but applied to olive oil it is close to meaningless
  • Various degrees of chastity have spread to other oils
  • Duck fat – Much cheaper than goose fat and virtually indistinguishable.
  • Toasted sesame – Asian dishes are for consuming, not for preparing. It is futile to steal what you can’t understand
  • Beef dripping – Delicious on toast … Good for chips and Yorkshire pudding and anything else that comes from north of the Trent

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The recipes are definitely practical and I will certainly be cooking a few with the exception of the fig and ham tart which ends

Leave to cool
Chuck in bin

This was Meades attempt a creating a dish and as he says the reasoning behind it appeared sound at the start but…

Only the doltishly insentient, the immemoriously recidivist, the sociopathic and the smug regret nothing. I no doubt belong, in this instance, to one of those unhappy categories by not regretting having invented this dish. I do not regret it because it was a warning. Never create when you can steal. Never enter a restaurant that advertises its ‘cuisine d’auteur’ or ‘creative cooking’.

But definitely do read this book.