Probably not, in the case of our flamboyant friend and artist and Lord High just about Everything Else Jonny’s samizdat ramble. Given a style which is very much the man as he holds forth, Cook au Vin deserves to be hailed as the Tristram Shandy of its ilk. And it really should be read from cover to cover (the illustration above is by his pal David Hockney, perhaps not one of his best...). From his fastness in the foothills of the Alpes maritimes above Nice, the Broon has compiled recipes of sorts with a little help from friends with mysterious names such as ‘The Saintly’, J-J and Chinkers (one of the few to be properly introduced to us). So beguiling are the digressions that I was almost disappointed when we finally reached ‘Appetizers and Aperitifs’.
I needn’t have worried. The footnotes and the Chinese-box off-pistes continue. Musing on the order of wine serving, JB floats back to Edinburgh in the 1980s – which is where I met him – and a Queen’s Hall recital by Roger Woodward; he’d written the notes in chronological order for a programme of three Chopin sonatas, only to find that Woodward had decided to play them 3-2-1. But before we get to discover the reason, there’s a note on why artists’ Green Rooms are so called, and after it another on Woodward carving a duck ‘like a swashbuckler from a Chopin Polonaise’. Here's a snap I took of the author at a splendid Edinburgh Gesamtkunstwerk event to launch his roadmovies exhibition and book (J sang Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, amongst other musical plums).
The food? Well, you’d probably eat it. We have, on various excursions to Duranus - that's me looking bleary and unwashed below with my morning coffee after a night on the floor of JB's record room - though I remember the gaggle of weird guests rather than the flavours (how could I forget Belinda and Belinda, who were writing a book called Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll: A Year in Provence? ‘It’s in real time’, they told us, ‘and you’ll be in it’. Given our failure to click, it’s probably a mercy that said publication does not appear to have reached the light of day).
At least the advice on ingredients is probably sound. Thereafter they are mashed into what JB calls ‘gunk’ spread on bread or else pickled in various kinds of alcohol (James Hamilton Paterson’s semi-dud Cooking with Fernet Branca springs to mind – does Jonny know this book?) OK, so the worst is definitely tongue in cheek, the ‘gunk’ for pan-fried foie gras wittily titled ‘Sauce tirée des boîtes’ – the boxes in question containing fish fingers and cornflakes, preferably mixed with retsina. This priceless volume, complete with plenty of JB's artworks like the one below and reproduced bottom-of-wineglass stains, is printed to order by Brown Paper Editions. Apply to firstname.lastname@example.org or (less preferably) buy a copy from Amazon.
A step up the evolutionary ladder is the beautifully produced three-tone Goodbye Cockroach Pie from London friends Rosanna Kelly and Casilda Grigg, celebrating the launch of Rosanna's Inky Paws Press. It stems from a 1986 discussion around the same Dundas Street (Edinburgh) kitchen table I had only recently deserted for London after graduation. Rosanna and law student Gail Halliburton mooted the idea of a cookbook especially aimed at students. They gleaned many vintage recipes from friends, but the idea hung fire until this year when the concoctions were refreshed and punctuated with jolly illustrations.
Very well, so this Carabosse is in mild dudgeon not to have been asked for his perfect student recipe. Needless to say I no longer cook it, but it became a staple in the Dundas Street kitchen: a fish curry consisting of smoked mackerel (!), cooking apples, desiccated coconut, onions and the usual powders. Decidedly an improvement on the meat loaf cooked with a lump of lard in it by flatmates Mary and Helly, or the Spaghetti Carbonara of Simon without the carbonara. I blush to think of the pride with which I served up to visiting mother and stepfather gammon and pineapple. Happy days, as the delightful co-winner (hurrah, a woman!) of Masterchef: The Professionals would put it.
This has not been the best of years for reading, but the finest is probably what I’ve now reached: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Sonechka – A Novella and Stories. The shorter form seems to suit this author best: she is so keen to give us her many heroines’ backstories that a longer novel like Medea and Her Sisters can get overloaded by multiple strands. But what compelling histories these are, usually tales of fortitude in the face of adverse Russian circumstances and – unfashionably – of happiness descending in time from banal or manipulative situations.
Within a couple of pages bookwormish Sonechka, her big breasts her only physical asset, is courted by an equally unlikely artist and soon can’t believe the joy to be found in the mundane. Zurich magics up a love story between a Russian girl looking for a westerner and a westerner looking for a one-night stand. The outcome of The Queen of Spades, its nonagenarian matriarch tyrannizing her daughter and granddaughter much as the Countess tyrannises Lisa in Pushkin’s short story, is less happy, but emancipation is so close at hand. I so want to read more by Ulitskaya, but currently only The Funeral Party is translated into English, and my Russian probably wouldn’t be up to Imago, which Vladimir Jurowski selected as one of his 2011 summer reading books for The ArtsDesk.
Before Ulitskaya, I’d had something of a Patrick Gale binge, with a slight sense of diminishing returns as I worked my way back from the most recent to the earlier novels. Gale excels in his polyphony of family voices and sense of place, especially Cornwall in the two I enjoyed the most, A Perfectly Good Man and Notes from an Exhibition. No doubt if he’d tackled the subject matter of The Facts of Life today, he’d have cut and shuffled voices and times more flexibly than he did back in 1995. The jackets and the Richard and Judy commendation do tend to put these books at lower than their real value. For once, here’s a novelist who incorporates music and – as far as I can tell – art with real understanding, who usually has a sympathetic gay character or two but doesn’t necessarily make us see the world entirely from their point of view. I know I’d like him as a person, and there are plenty more novels for cosy company when I wish.
Otherwise, I don’t know why I was so compelled by the sometimes dodgy preaching of Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part Two of which I’ve also read since the Vaughan Williams stint, and I’m not sure whether I was in the right mood when I read Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, but the Boleyn saga didn’t seem to me quite as singular as Wolf Hall. Music book of the year – not that I’ve read many – is Anthony Phillips’s superb translation and footnoting of the Prokofiev Diaries, Volume Three. But further comment on that had better wait until after the BBC Music Magazine review appears. Other reading highlights of the year here and here.