Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Wolfe of Wall Street

The American writer Tom Wolfe who has died aged 88 was known almost as much for his flamboyant dress (white suit, Homburg hat, two-tone shoes) as his prose. Wolfe styled himself a "Southern gentleman" and, despite many years residence in New York, you could still pick up the trace of a Virginia drawl in his speech when he gave TV interviews.

Beginning as a journalist in the fifties, he went on to document the late sixties counterculture movement in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and, like Dickens, used material from his reporting in fiction, especially in his first, and best known, novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which, again like Dickens' early work, was serialised in a magazine before being revised and published as a single volume in 1987.

The Bonfire of the Vanities has been called the quintessential novel of the 1980's, but it also one of the great late twentienth century New York novels which, alongside those of Don DeLillo, explore the racial and class divisions of the city, divisions which, given its geography on three islands connected by dozens of bridges and tunnels, is expressed by physical borders, such as the ever northward-shifting boundary between the ultra-rich Upper East Side and working-class Hispanic and black Harlem somewhere in Manhattan's east nineties and beyond them, across the Harlem River, the equally impoverished South Bronx section of the city into which the novel's wealthy main character, Sherman McCoy, and his mistress accidentally stray coming back from JFK Airport in Queens.

Although he's a bond trader on Wall Street, one of the people whom Wolfe dubs "The Masters of the Universe", rather than a property speculator, McCoy belongs to the same glitzy, greed-fuelled world of eighties New York as Donald Trump. It must be almost twenty-five years since I read it, but given that quite a few of the novel character's are based on real people - such as the Rev. Bacon, a thinly disguised Al Sharpton - it might be worth a flick through its eight hundred or so pages to see if I can spot the Donald.


Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Grim news

The monks at Grimbergen Abbey just north of Brussels apparently want to start brewing again, in part because visitors to the site are always asking them if they can take a look round the brewery.

There are two types of monastic beer in Belgium, those with the Authentic Trappist Product logo which have to be brewed within the walls of a monastery, albeit often by secular workers under the supervision of monks, and Abbey beers which are normally contract-brewed by outside companies on their behalf.

Trappist beers have a deservedly high reputation internationally, but some of the Abbey beers are up there with them in quality, notably the Sint Bernardus ones brewed in Watou. One of the Trappist breweries, Chimay, went through a spell of producing poor-quality beer with cheap ingredients a decade or so ago, although they have supposedly improved since I tried them then. I've also tried a couple of Grimbergen beers and found them, well, grim.

Grimbergen was first contract-brewed by the Maes Brewery in 1958 (when I went to Belgium in 2015, Maes Pils seemed to be the beer old blokes drank in cafes first thing in the morning, the equivalent of John Smith's Smooth in Wetherspoons here) before it was taken over Scottish & Newcastle in 2000, who were then taken over themselves by Heineken and Carlsberg in 2007.

The only snag the monks at Grimbergen have hit is that they can't find the mediaeval recipe for their beer and a team of researchers is now going through the documents in their library in an attempt to find it for them. I'm not sure it's that big a deal: they know from invoices what types of hops and malt were used in it, if not the exact proportions or how it was brewed, and they can just say, as other breweries have, that it's "inspired by" rather than a replica of the original. Whatever they come up with must be better than what's produced in their name now, and it's not as though anyone who drank the original beer is still alive to dispute its authenticity.