Thursday, December 21, 2017

Favourite new films of 2017

1. Logan
2. The Florida Project
3. 20th Century Women
4. Dunkirk
5. Jackie
6. Blade Runner 2049
7. Raw
8. Lady Bird
9. Good Time
10. The Handmaiden

Favourite non-2017 films I saw for the first time in 2017

1. A Face in the Crowd (1957)
2. Cutter's Way (1981)
3. Paterson (2016)
4. The Bad Seed (1956)
5. The Color Wheel (2011)
6. A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
7. Lincoln (2012)
8. The Overnighters (2014)
9. Dark of the Sun (1968)
10. Christmas, Again (2014)
11. Michael (2011)
12. 10 Rillington Place (1971)
13. The September Issue (2009)
14. In the Heat of the Night (1967)
15. Incendies (2010)
16. River's Edge (1986)
17. California Split (1974)
18. The Whole Shootin' Match (1978)
19. Chuck and Buck (2000)
20. Tampopo (1985)

Favourite albums

1. Lorde – Melodrama
2. Jay Som – Everybody Works
3. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 3
4. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
5. King Woman – Created in the Image of Suffering
6. Kllo – Backwater
7. St Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

Friday, December 15, 2017

The five best things I ate during two months in New York recently
Veggie burger at Superiority Burger
Hot chicken sandwich at Endless Summer
Tuna carpaccio at the Four Horsemen
Char kway teow at Taste Good
Big plate chicken at Nutritious Lamb Noodle Soup

Five non-food establishments I also enthusiastically endorse

The John M Mossman Lock Collection
Twisted Lily
VR World

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Salt smuggling and cholera in the Ottoman Empire

"On the sea coast, the government salt monopoly had to compete against daring smugglers who brought in salt from the salt pans of Cyprus and Crimea. In some interior regions, such as Aleppo and Yemen, the salt works were exposed to incessant depredation by nomad tribes due to the proximity of the desert. Particularly in Yemen, the revenue had almost entirely disappeared.

"In the Black Sea region, the Ottoman Public Debt Administration itself assumed responsibility for the transportation of salt from İzmir to reduce its price in the region and wipe out the contraband. However, it failed to compete with the Crimean salt smuggled into the region and asked for the government’s cooperation to guard the sea coast. The government often ignored the smuggling activities until 1892, when the Porte was forced to establish a sanitary cordon along the Black Sea coast due to the prevalence of cholera in Russian Black Sea ports. To enforce the quarantine cruisers were sent to patrol the open sea. The Annual Report of the Corporation of Foreign Bondholders in 1892 notes that ‘the smugglers were unable to elude the vigilance of the cruisers or break through the sanitary cordon’. As a result, the OPDA’s salt revenue in the Black Sea Region increased by approximately 50 percent within a year."

from The Political Economy of Ottoman Public Debt by Murat Birdal

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

London: the Ned Guide
Above: BYOB champagne at Needoo Grill, my favourite restaurant in Whitechapel

Ever since I published my guide to New York – which is now severely out of date, so I wouldn't recommend planning a holiday around it – people have been asking me if I was going to do the same for London. I've scarcely been able to keep up with the requests, which have been coming in at a rate of one, sometimes even two a year.

I wasn't sure about it, though, because I knew I would have less to offer. Firstly, I am not as tireless an explorer of London as I was of New York. Secondly, even when I do venture out, I don't find as much that I like: London is one of the worst cities in the western world to drink in, and although the food there is getting pretty good these days, New York is still way ahead.

However, since the most recent phase of my life in London has just come to a close – I've moved out of Clerkenwell and I'm going to be abroad for several months – I thought I might as well offer a reckoning. So here is a Google Map of my favourite London establishments.

"Favourite" in this case means I've been at least twice (with visits counted across both locations in the case of two sister restaurants, such as Salvation in Noodles or Berber & Q. Further to this topic, I've left off Dishoom, Tonkotsu, Pizza Pilgrims and Franco Manca, because there are so many branches of each they would clog up the map, even though I do endorse them).

There are seven bars on here, but I decided to leave off pubs completely. I have a complicated relationship with pubs – complicated in the sense that I detest them, but I am also an Englishman, which makes that a fraught attitude to go through life with. For the record, the only pubs in London for which I feel any real fondness are the Exmouth Arms, the Scolt Head and the Palm Tree (the last of which is likely to close).

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Some events

August 14th: with Martin Macinnes at the Edinburgh Book Festival
August 15th: at Waterstones Deansgate, Manchester
September 13th: at Waterstones Gower Street, London
September 18th: at 5x15, London
September 26th: Ink Academy masterclass at the Library club, London

Saturday, July 01, 2017

My fourth novel, Madness Is Better Than Defeat, will be published in a bit less than two months, and I've written a Frequently Asked Questions about it. I did this with Glow, and the same preamble applies. Because the book isn't out yet, most of these Questions I haven't even been Asked once, let alone Frequently. And it might seem a bit too early to start talking about it in detail. However, plenty of proof copies have already gone out, and I'm told that reviews are already being written. So the following FAQ is mostly for interviewers and reviewers, anticipating some of the more obvious questions that they might have.

How did you get the idea for this book?

Like many people, I'm fascinated by the production histories of Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo – the sense that, if you set out to make a film about white men who go into the jungle and fall victim to tyrannical hubris and latent insanity, you are yourself doomed to have the exact same thing happen to you. In this book I wanted to ask, what if there's a secret reason for that seemingly inescapable pattern, beyond the morass of overstretched budgets and tropical storms and colonial legacies?

Also, in 2010 I did some research into the construction of the Panama Canal. The Canal Zone, with its workforce of thirty thousand, had courthouses, post offices, a newspaper and an army, like a miniature independent nation. The chief of the project, the former army engineer George Washington Goethals was described as 'an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent ruler.' It made me think of Coppola and Herzog ruling their film sets.

Three of your four books have been set in the 1930s/40s/50s. Do you have any misgivings about that?

Serious misgivings. It's a pretty monotonous output for a writer whose jacket copy advertises him with words like 'eclectic' and 'imaginative'. However, The New Adventures of Tarzan, the first Hollywood film ever shot on location in the rainforest, came out in 1935, so the book couldn't realistically have taken place any earlier than that. And it couldn't have taken place any later, I think, because with each successive decade of the twentieth century, the events herein would become even less plausible.

Other reasons: I wanted to catch the last years of the robber baron era, when the names of living individuals like Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Hearst and Ford resounded more than the names of limited liability corporations; the Second World War had various useful functions in the background of the early part of the plot; and I liked the idea that the Hearts in Darkness, the Hollywood screwball comedy that begins filming in 1938, had a provenance in common with 1940's The Philadelphia Story, my favourite comedy.

'Beauman, clearly chastened by the mixed reception for Glow (2014), his sole venture into the present day, has now retreated to the safer ground of the interwar era in the hopes of recapturing his earlier critical success.'

I had the idea for this book in 2010, I started it in late 2012, and by the time Glow was published in hardback I was already about half way through, so I couldn't possibly have reacted to the


OK, don't let me stop you.

Also, there is once again a Nazi involved.

This is the last time, I swear.

To go back a bit, how is it possible that by the time Glow was published, you were already half way through your next book? Is it because you dash off your novels in between suit fittings and croquet matches?

Although that does seem to be the general perception, the reality is that Glow took about eighteen months to come out after I delivered a first draft, so I had time to make plenty of headway on the next one. Subsequently, my progress flagged for various reasons, so all in all I was working on Madness is Better than Defeat for about four years before I sent a first draft to my editors, and several more months of editing followed.

Look, I write pretty fast, but I'm not a freak of nature. Jonathan Franzen wrote Freedom (570 pages) in 14 months. Marilynne Robinson wrote Home (352 pages) in 18 months. Nell Zink wrote The Wallcreeper (200 pages) in three weeks! As I've said before, I am in good health, I have no dependents, I have no day job, I don't leave long gaps between projects, and I don't make many false starts. Given those factors, I don't think there is anything especially impressive – or discreditable, depending how you want to look at it – about my productivity.

What are some central influences on this book?

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Apocalypse Now dir. Francis Ford Coppola (and Hearts in Darkness and Notes)
Fitzcarraldo dir. Werner Herzog (and Burden of Dreams and The Conquest of the Useless)
Bioshock dir. Ken Levine
Fordlandia by Greg Grandin
'The Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp' by R. A. Radford
The Sweet Smell of Success dir. Alexander Mackendrick
'The Aleph' by Jorge Luis Borges
'Monadology' by Gottfried Leibniz
American Tabloid by James Ellroy
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Citizen Kane dir. Orson Welles
Declare by Tim Powers
The City and the City by China Miéville
'The Horror at Red Hook' by HP Lovecraft

Will this book be impossible to enjoy if I haven't read Hearts in Darkness or seen Apocalypse Now or Fitzcarraldo?

I hope it won't make much of a difference. I deliberately didn't re-read or re-watch any of the three while I was writing this book in order to ensure that it wouldn't be too larded with references. However, if you have never experienced one or more of them, then under no circumstances should you read my book yet, because a much better use of your time is available.

How much did you plan in advance?

Although I get asked this question constantly, I've never been able to come up with a very interesting or useful answer. I knew many of the beats I wanted to hit, as screenwriters say, but I also left myself a plenty of gaps and flexibility. I wouldn't say I was improvising, because there was always a margin of planning, so I knew in detail what was coming a certain distance ahead; and of course a host of essential things were in place from the very beginning. But a lot of what ended up in the book – the prominence of certain characters, for instance – would have been a surprise to me when I started it.

OK, how was that? Riveting?

Did you set out to write a complicated book?

Yes, in the sense that I chose to write a novel about a large cast of characters, over a long period of time, under the sway of various shadowy and baroque agendas. Given that, it would not only have been structurally impossible to make the book 100% streamlined, it would also have been a mismatch between material and approach. Obviously, I didn't want to explain everything right away, because I wanted to preserve some suspense for the reader, and also because I wanted to evoke, as viscerally as possible, the sense these characters have that they are in the mouth of some enormous dark beast.

But, no, beyond that, it's not supposed to be confusing. The plot was originally going to be even more expansive, but it got trimmed down, both in the planning stages and in the editing stages, because I was acutely conscious of this issue (and so were my editors, of course). I do find it interesting sometimes to prickle or confound the reader, but I don't want to alienate anybody for good. If you get lost at any point, you can just email me. I'm serious! Just tell me what page you're on and what you don't understand, and I'll fill you in.

Did you go to Honduras?

No. I also didn't go to Burma for Glow and I didn't go to Berlin until I'd written most of the Berlin chapters of The Teleportation Accident. It's just not my approach. These are not rigorous or reportorial books.

Why does the narrator refer to 'CIA' and 'OSS' without a definite article?

That was how employees of these two organisations often used to talk, and indeed still do. For instance, the very first paragraph of the CIA's internal style manual remarks that 'the information CIA gathers and the analysis it produces mean little if we cannot convey them effectively.' For comparison, we wouldn't say 'the MI5'. (Conversely, however, the narrator refers to the CIA as 'the Agency', when really he would have referred to it as 'the Company'. I felt I had to sacrifice authenticity here to avoid confusion with the United Fruit Company, which also has a role in the book.)

Do you use a lot of long obscure words just to show how clever you are?

Sometimes, there is a word which conveys the meaning you are trying to convey more precisely and economically than any other word in the English language, and that word, although an exquisite specimen, happens not to be in common use. I refuse to say, 'Well, nobody else is using that word, so I can't either.' If you think like that, the only trajectory for words is towards death – once a word falls below a certain threshold (or never reached that threshold in the first place), it might as well be purged from the dictionary. But no word is inherently obscure or difficult – we use technical words and long words and foreign words all the time – some of them are just more familiar than others, partly as the net result of a long series of usage decisions by writers at their desks. In the OED there are thousands and thousands of fabulous, irreplaceable words that deserve a chance to shine – and if a literary novelist can't give them that, who can? The only words I won't use are words marked in the OED as 'obsolete' or 'archaic', even though I often want to.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Selected journalism from the last few years

(I will continue periodically to update this list, which is limited to what's available online.)

On the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show for the AnOther website

On Olafur Eliasson for the New York Times' T magazine

On Mica Levi for the New Yorker website

On Craig Green for the New Yorker website

On William Gibson for the Observer

On Ford Madox Ford for the Guardian

On 20 Fenchurch Street for the Guardian

On Jane Jacobs for the Guardian

On permutation for Aeon

On William-Adolphe Bouguereau for Literary Hub

On meaning threats for the Frieze website

On La Specola for the Frieze website

Saturday, April 01, 2017

While I was in Vietnam I read Norman Lewis' hugely enjoyable book A Dragon Apparent, in which describes seeing, in Phnom Penh, 'an indecent photograph, of the Port Said kind, vintage about 1925.' I'd never heard of 'photographs of the Port Said kind', but evidently Port Said was once notorious for pornography. In his travel book Labels: A Mediterranean Journal, Evelyn Waugh describes peddlers offering

'picture postcards of unexampled lewdness which they flourish very embarrassingly under one's eyes. Geoffrey bought a packet and sent them in heavily sealed envelopes to various acquaintances in England, thereby, I believe, rendering both himself and them liable to criminal prosecution. The original plates of the photographs are, I learned later, of some antiquity, having been made for sale at the first International Exhibition at Paris and being brought to Port Said for the celebrations at the opening of the Suez Canal.'

while Gauguin, in his journals, writes about how he used 45 postcards from Port Said to decorate his house on the island of Hiva Oa:

'They were set up quite frankly in an alcove in my quarters. Men women, and children laughed at them, nearly everyone, in fact, but it was a matter of a moment, and no one thought any more of it. Only the people who called themselves respectable stopped coming to my house, and they alone thought about it the whole year through. The bishop, at confession, made all sorts of enquiries: some of the nuns, even, turned paler and paler and grew hollow-eyed over it. Think this over and nail up some indecency in plain sight over your door. From that time forward you will be rid of all respectable people, the most insupportable folk God has created.'

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Travel endorsements

Merino wool T-shirts: The hype is justified. They're cosy in cold weather, yet also uncannily light and breathable in hot weather (meaning you're not picking them out of the small of your back when you sweat). Also, you don't need to wash them as often as cotton, and when you do, they dry quickly even in a hotel bathroom with no airflow. I got mine from Outlier because I admire Outlier's textile fetishism, but given the Brexit pound and the import duty, they ended up costing me a lot – next time I might try Icebreaker.

Beyerdynamic DTX-350m headphones: they're lightweight, they fold up small, they've got great sound, and they seal out a lot of external noise even when you're not playing anything through them. As useful for the night bus as for the long-haul flight. Admittedly, my first pair broke in less than a year, but Thomann gave me a full refund so I bought another pair because I liked them so much.

Jetlag fasting: as far as I'm concerned, jetlag is like scurvy: a preventable disease. Last month I flew from London to Chiang Mai, a time difference of seven hours, and experienced no tiredness. OK, I realise the method that works for me isn't necessarily going to work for everyone, but nevertheless I am such an evangelist for this I would willingly go door to door like a Jehovah's Witness. The essential thing is simply to drink water when you get hungry.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The best thing I ate in Xi'an was this bowl of noodles. I came to Xi'an because my favourite restaurant is Xi'an Famous Foods, the northern Chinese fast food chain with ten locations in New York. While I was subletting an apartment in East Williamsburg for a month in 2013, I ate at the Greenpoint XFF three or four times a week, which I regard as a roughly optimal frequency. Because I haven't been back to New York in a couple of years now, and I live a long way from Silk Road in Camberwell, XFF's closest equivalent in London, I have occasionally resorted to making hand-pulled cumin lamb noodles in my own kitchen, but that's a process so labour-intensive I can't do it very often. So I was wildly excited to visit Xi'an. I made sure to book a hotel room right next to the Muslim Quarter, and after dropping my bags off at the Ramada, I walked straight over, found a restaurant that looked promising, ordered noodles, and prepared for a revelatory experience comparable to the first time I ever ate Thai food in Thailand.

The noodles were... fine.

What I learned over the next four days is 1. the food at Xi'an Famous Foods in New York is better than most of the food in X'ian itself and 2. everyone tells you to eat in the Muslim Quarter but the best food in Xi'an is not in the Muslim Quarter. In fact, my favourite meal there was from a nameless shop recommended here. I know nobody wants to read another piece of food writing about simplicity and authenticity and letting the ingredients speak for themselves and feeling a real connection to somebody's heritage – but I'm afraid this was inescapably one of those.

When you order a bowl of oil splash noodles in this shop, the cook picks up a ball of dough and stretches your noodles by hand in front of you. After cooking them in a pot outside, he puts them in a bowl and adds a few toppings: I noticed chilli flakes, spring onion, sugar, salt and MSG, and the recipes I've found online reveal that garlic and soy sauce and black vinegar were most likely involved as well. To cook the sauce, he simply pours a spoonful of very hot oil over these toppings. No wok necessary.

Finally, while you're mixing the sauce into the noodles at your table, he brings over a soup bowl full of water from the pot, which is the same water he's been cooking noodles in all day, so it's essentially a kind of wheat broth. That's the whole meal, and it's satisfying beyond belief.

Now, I would never normally have gone into this shop, because it was cold and grubby and there was only one other customer. My first rule of eating in foreign countries is not "Head straight for restaurants that have a vaguely depressed quality." But all of my expertise disintegrated upon contact with China. Which is the only reason I was even willing to contemplate signing up for an organised street food tour after I arrived in Sichuan Province. I was glad I did, though, because the Chengdu Food Tour turned out to be a really good use of an evening, climaxing with the famous pig brain mapo tofu at Ming Ting.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The most confounding thing I ate in Kunming was this dish of stir-fried walnuts. (At least I think they were walnuts.)

I pride myself on my ability to find good, cheap, interesting food in foreign cities. (After all, what else makes life worth living? I fear I permanently alienated myself from several other writers on our British Council trip to Guadalajara in 2015 by the intensity of my reaction when I learned that they were planning to eat dinner in the hotel.) But here my usual strategies were all hopeless. The problems were as follows.

1. Because not many Western tourists come to Kunming, there is hardly any data about it on the Anglophone gastronomical internet, compared to cities like Saigon or Chiang Mai.

2. The sum total of my prior knowledge of Yunnan food was a dim recollection of a New York magazine review of two Yunnanese restaurant​ that opened in Manhattan a few years ago (I never ate at either of them and they have both since closed). In other countries, where I know the basics of the cuisine, I can just keep squawking the word 'laap' or 'pho' with different intonations until I'm served some kind of meal, but here I had no idea what the essential dishes were, let alone how to say their names.

3. The sole reason I came to Kunming was because the chef Andy Ricker said in an interview that Kunming has 'fantastic outdoor eating'. I can't contradict him, but although I did eat some good bowls of spicy wheat noodles on the street, I already had a lot of spicy wheat noodles on the docket for Xi'an and Chengdu. I realised that if I wanted to eat distinctively Yunnanese food, I was going to have to eat in restaurants, which was a dispiriting prospect for reasons I will lay out shortly.

My Airbnb host, Emily, was kind enough to take me out for a bowl of 'crossing-the-bridge noodles', the signature dish of Yunnanese cuisine. But of course there is a lot more to Yunnanese cuisine to that. In fact, the primary item of trivia I have learned is that it would be possible to assemble a Hawaiian pizza from Yunnanese ingredients. Most people don't think of Chinese food as including bread, cheese, tomatoes, pineapple or ham (as opposed to pork or bacon), but all of these things are eaten in Yunnan. I was determined to tick 'Chinese cheese' off my list, and by my last night in Kunming I still hadn't succeeded, so I went to Lao Fangzi, a restaurant that came universally recommended by what few sources I could find.

Why do I hate eating in restaurants on a trip like this? 1. Restaurants are a lot more expensive. 2. Eating alone at a rickety aluminium table in a crowded market, I find exhilarating; eating alone in a proper restaurant with waiters and a wine list (or baijiu list), I find rather melancholic. 3. At street stalls, I often just point to another table in the universal gesture of 'I'll have what they're having.' In restaurants, it's harder to make yourself understood like that. Do you mean 'I'll have every single dish those six people ordered'? Do you mean 'I'd like to sit with them, they look nice'? (The relevance here of Willard van Quine's theory of the inscrutability of reference is, I trust, obvious to any reader of this blog, so I will not bother to dwell on it.)

And 4. restaurant dishes in China are intended to be shared. So if I wanted to eat Yunnanese fried goat's cheese, I had no choice but to order a platter suitable for a wedding buffet. And if I wanted to eat Yunnanese chrysanthemum greens, I had no choice but to order a plate of leaves so big that it didn't resemble a salad so much as an agricultural surplus.

I was able to get that far because the menu, mercifully, had pictures. The only English text in the whole thing was a heading on one page that read 'Characteristic Local Flavors', and I decided to complete my dinner by ordering from that section, hoping to try something unique to the region. With the waitress at my shoulder, I pointed at a dish that looked as if it might be some kind of stir-fried chicken.

However, there were two more things I wanted that I couldn't find any pictures of: some steamed rice and a beer. 'Rice?' I said. (Why, before coming to China, did I not at the very least learn the Chinese word for rice? I cannot give you a satisfactory answer to that question.) The waitress flipped to the back of the menu and pointed at a listing that appeared, from the prices, to be three different sizes of something quite cheap. I nodded and pointed at the smallest size. Shortly afterwards, she returned with... a small bottle of Tuborg. Failing to order one thing I wanted, I had inadvertently succeeding in ordering the other thing. But I never did get any rice. And this mishap turned out to be harbinger of what was to come, because the rest of the food soon arrived. First the cheese, then the greens, and finally the stir-fried walnuts. Because that was apparently what I had ordered.

I tried them. They tasted roughly as you'd imagine. In other words, I'd inverted the usual cliché about the Englishman in an exotic land who tentatively orders who he hopes will be an innocuous dish and ends up with jackal tartare or something like that. Excited to try something fiercely Yunnanese, I'd been served the kind of food that you wouldn't otherwise find yourself eating unless one of your dinner party guests informed you at fifteen minutes' notice that his new girlfriend was vegan. A lot of people seem to think the greatest peril of dining in faraway places is that you'll be obliged to eat something weird, tainted, or morally unconscionable; on the contrary, the greatest peril of dining in faraway places is that you'll be obliged to eat something boring.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The best thing I ate in Saigon was this banh mi from Bánh Mì Bảy Hổ. I've eaten an average of (rough estimate) one banh mi a week for the last seven years of my life, as a loyal customer of the Banh Mi 11 stall in Broadway Market, then of Num Pang near Madison Square Park, then of Hanco's in Cobble Hill, and most recently of Viet Baguette in King's Cross (which is the best banh mi in central London). Within 90 minutes of my plane touching down in Saigon, I was eating, for the first time ever, a genuine Vietnamese banh mi, and I felt like the Christian villagers in Silence who, after years of praying together in a hut without so much as a Bible, finally have the sacraments administered to them by a real Jesuit priest. My main recommendation if you're ever here is to follow the advice of a blog called Vietnam Coracle, particularly this post.

Monday, March 06, 2017

The most expensive thing I ate in Penang, and indeed the most expensive thing I expect to eat on this entire trip, was this durian. Previously, I knew durian only as the fruit responsible for the rancid-sweet smell that pervades Chinese supermarkets in London. Many hotel lobbies in South East Asia have signs forbidding durian for the same reason. (I read about one of these signs and used it in Glow, thinking it was a humorous and evocative detail. I now realise that if you've spent any time in this part of the world it's as banal as 'No Smoking'.) Penang is famous for its durian farms, and in researching them I learned that a variety called the Musan King is regarded as the best of all durians – although Olexander Nechytaylo, the Ukrainian ambassador to Malaysia, recently declared, 'I don't like Musang King. My favourite is XO.' Scorning Nechytaylo and his hipster durian opinions, I decided to try the consensus pick.

I went to a shop on Dr Lim Chwee Leong Road called TNG Siang Hock Trading. There were no other customers, and the shelves were mostly empty, perhaps because it is not yet durian season. Two young assistants sat playing with their phones. However, a huge banner advertised the Musan King, and sure enough there was a display of about thirty of them at the front of the shop. One of the assistants came over and I asked him how much a Musan King was. “Fifty ringgit,” he said.

At that moment I couldn't summon the exchange rate to mind, but I knew that a bowl of noodles from a hawker stand was only four or five ringgit. Fifty was clearly an enormous sum for a piece of fruit. But how often, I thought, does one have the opportunity to try the very best of something? Never in my life, probably, will I taste the very best Iberico ham, or the very best white truffle, or the very best Japanese whisky. But this was the very best durian. Also, it had been an extremely cheap holiday up to this point. I agreed to the price.

He put the durian on the scale. At this point it dawned on me that the durian actually cost fifty ringgit per kilo. (And I wasn't being scammed – I've since confirmed that this is about the market rate when musan kings are scarce.) “A hundred and forty ringgit,” he said.

“Are there any smaller ones?” I asked. He put a different one on the scale. “A hundred and thirty-four ringgit,” he said. “OK!” I said, feeling that I'd shrewdly economised.

He hacked up the durian with a small cleaver and put it on a table for me. I sat down, pulled on a pair of the plastic gloves provided (to prevent the smell clinging to your hands), and began to eat. I should note that I'd already had a big lunch of beef rendang at a nasi padang stall. Fortunately, at 31°C with 80% humidity, it was just the kind of weather that stimulates a hearty appetite.

As advertised, the lobes of flesh inside had a remarkably smooth, melting texture, and a rich, custardy taste. However, they also had something of the durian's obnoxious bouquet. More than anything, I was reminded of the black sapote, the Mexican fruit with flesh uncannily like chocolate pudding. Black sapotes can be found in the markets of Oaxaca for as little as ten pesos (40p) per kilo, and as I ate this elite durian, I tried to work out how much it was costing me. I knew that I'd exchanged a Thai thousand-baht note at a money-changer for something in the range of 120 or 130 ringgit. I also knew it was forty-five baht to the pound, so that was... more than twenty pounds. This fruit – which, frankly, was not even as enjoyable as a ripe mango – was costing me more than twenty pounds. And I was already starting to feel pretty full.

However, I forced myself to continue eating until it at least looked superficially as if I'd got through it all. Then I counted out some notes and got up to give them to the assistant. “Take away?” he offered. Which I had not expected, but seemed reasonable, given that, at these prices, even the shreds of edible matter still clinging to the seeds were worth a little something. I shook my head. “Take away?” the assistant said again.

Why wouldn't he take no for an answer? I looked back at the durian, and realised for the first time that he'd only exposed part of the fruit with his cleaver. The other part was still intact. There was at least a tenner's worth of durian left inside. “You can give to friend,” suggested the assistant.

Why did I still refuse? Partly because, like many insecure males, once I've stated a decision in public it's almost impossible for me to bring myself to reverse it, even when I know reversing it would be in my best interests. But also I just didn't want the rest of the durian! I could imagine myself sitting there in my hotel room the next morning, gnawing grimly through the rest of this fruit for no reason other than that I'd inadvertently spent so much on it. During durian season in May and June, TNG Siang Hock Trading has an all-you-can-eat durian deal, and the thought of an endlessly replenishing supply struck me as a form of luxury torture, like being waterboarded with Napoleon brandy. I was so eager to avoid this that I felt considerable relief when I remembered the 'No Durians' sign in the lobby of my hotel, because it gave me an excuse not to take the durian back there. (But was I seriously suggesting I couldn't have smuggled it up in a plastic bag? Also, what kind of proto-fascist cur feels grateful that he's not allowed to do something because there's a regulation about it?)

But the assistant was now looking at me in disbelief. Subsequent research reveals that 134 ringgit is actually £24. (To put that figure in terms a layman would understand, it's almost 40% more than the projected RRP for the hardback edition of my forthcoming novel Madness Is Better Than Defeat.) And the minimum wage in Malaysia is 4.8 ringgit an hour. So a Malaysian working a menial job – such as these teenage assistants at the durian shop, perhaps – would have to work about 28 hours to afford this durian. And they would have to work for at least fourteen hours to afford the amount of durian I was simply going to leave behind as if it was kitchen waste. I knew that would be loathsome gesture, like some bow-tied colonialist languidly dousing his cheroot in the champagne he's decided he doesn't want any more. I tried to reassure myself that perhaps the assistant could take the leftover durian home to his family, but then it occurred to me that if there's one thing that the family of an assistant at a durian shop are definitely sick of, it's free durian. What would the maximally ethical course of action be, I wondered? Somehow sell the half-eaten durian on the streets of Penang and remit the proceeds to a mosquito-nets charity?

While I was in New York I went to two Michelin-starred restaurants with lengthy 'modernist' tasting menus – Momofuku Ko and Corton – and both times I found them less enjoyable than much cheaper meals. The amount of money I was paying for each fussy little mouthful was a calculation that weighed on me too heavily as I tried and failed to wring from it the quantity of pleasure that I felt I was owed. So what hope did I ever have of whole-heartedly appreciating this durian? Even before the economic awkwardness around the leftovers, the price was just too high.

But then, as I left, the assistant gave me 10 ringgit change back from the 140 ringgit I gave him. He'd only charged me 130 ringgit for the durian. I'd clawed back another 4 ringgit from the purchase! Enough to buy a plate of char kwey teow better than anything I ate at Corton. In fact, if I ate enough hawker food, it would be almost like I was amortising the cost of the durian across the savings I was making on my other meals. Which is what I spent the rest of my time in Penang attempting to do. But by day 4 my appetite buckled under the pressure, and I was only able to eat three meals yesterday instead of my normal six to seven. They included a serving of Kek Seng Café's famous home-made durian ice cream, which I can recommend, if you ever come to Penang, as a considerably cheaper way of finding out whether you like durian or not.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

This summer I'm hoping to get a dog, and once I do it will be harder for me to travel, so I decided I had better take the Trip of a Lifetime beforehand. This was supposed to slide neatly in between deadlines for my new novel, although that didn't quite work and I ended up having to submit the latest draft from a guesthouse in Mae Hong Son. I've just arrived in Penang after nine days in northern Thailand.

The best thing I ate in Thailand, out of 79 separate dishes, was nam prik ong at Sorn Chai in Chiang Mai. I heard about Sorn Chai from the EatingAsia blog, who evoke it better than I can. I was emotionally shaken by this nam prik ong.

The worst thing I ate in Thailand was nam phia at Laap Chiang Mai which is not in Chiang Mai but in Mae Hong Son. This is an algae-green condiment drawn from the rumen of a cow. It was the most unpleasant thing I've ever been served in a restaurant context, worse than the boiled silkworm pupae soup I once had at Han Shin Pocha in Queens, worse even than Fernet Branca. However, I would still recommend Laap Chiang Mai! You don't have to eat the nam phia, and it came as part of a pretty memorable meal: raw laap, nam phrik kha, and pork intestines straight from the barbecue (which was placed out in front of the shop, practically in the road, like an attractive hitchhiker trying to wave down drivers).

I don't have much else of value to offer, because the best places I ate fell into one of two categories: either 1. I heard about it from EatingAsia, Austin Bush, or Eating Thai Food, who are all much more knowledgeable than I am; or 2. I took a punt on a place and loved the food but had no way of finding out the name because I don't read or speak Thai.

Among the latter I would count many of the best som tams (papaya salads) I had, such as the one pictured below, from a place on Thanon Panglor Nikom in Mae Hong Son. I like my som tam like I like my Scotch – flabbergastingly pungent – and these did not disappoint. It was only in the cab to the airport at the end of my time in Thailand that I learned how to request that style – "som tam pu pla ra" – but I was generally able to accomplish the same thing by gesturing frantically at the jar of salted black crabs.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

from Funeral Customs by Bertram S. Puckle (1926)

An amusing dispute arose in Paris (1913), where the croque-morts [undertaker] is still of some importance in municipal service. It appeared that the City Fathers had received many complaints as to the unshaven and unkempt appearance of these officials supplied by the Department; the matter was solemnly debated, when it was realized that on their slender stipend such relatively expensive matters as hair-cutting and shaving could hardly be insisted on with any show of justice. On the other hand, it was decided that there was reason for the complaints of the citizens, whose petition was suitably acknowledged; forthwith it was decreed that these functionaries should be trimmed into respectability at the City's expense. That their dishevelled locks, a recognized sign of grief, should be thus trimmed off them, showed a want of knowledge of the history of funeral practices, for the Romans much prized such tokens of the abandonment of despair, and even Biblical injunctions are not wanting.

Certain barber establishments in the city were commissioned to tend the croque-morts free of charge – then the storm broke! That one citizen should be thus favoured with municipal patronage whilst others were neglected cut at the most cherished traditions on which the Republic is based. The neglected barbers rose to a man and demanded a fair share of the trade. "Give tickets to the croque-morts," they demanded, "that they may extend their patronage to whom they will, rather than encourage a pampered minority." And so the matter was settled.

Even this equitable arrangement was found to have its drawbacks in practice, owing to a regrettable tendency on the part of the croque-morts to sell their tickets and go unshaven as before.