Saturday, September 14, 2013

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Bookshelf: Lunch with the FT

Yuko Tojo,
granddaughter of
executed war criminal
General Hideki Tojo
The first inkling Yuko Tojo 
had of what really happened to her grandfather 
was when she was in fifth grade at school. 
Gripping her small white hands around her neck, 
the 65-year-old re-enacts the classroom scene of more 
than half a century ago when a boy stood on a chair 
before leaping to the ground with the cry: 
"Tojo hanged." 

The young girl looked up the strange word, 
kohshukeiin the dictionary 
and found a description next to the picture of 
a hooded man with a rope around his neck. 
'Then I knew the meaning,' she nods, 
releasing her grip 
to continue the dissection 
of her lamb fillet. 

~ David Pilling
'Let sleeping gods lie' reprinted in
Lunch with the FT: 52 Classic Interviews 

You might never guess it from the newspapers's terse Twitter feed, but London's Financial Times publishes great articles on art, literature, movies, music...and food. Some of the most enjoyable weekend writing tackle each week arrives on those peach-colored pages. Honestly, it's mystifying that the vibrant Weekend section gets such short shrift when it's one of the better reasons to read the paper.

Watson (minus Crick)
Financial updates aside, one of the best reasons to read the paper is the Lunch with the FT column, a regular piece with a simple premise: different journalists interview some well-known person over lunch. The Financial Times picks up the tab, except when a few feisty subjects simply refuse to let another pick up the bill. Subjects include politicians, actors, industrialists, musicians, writers, artists, war criminals, and their family members. Some are profiled early in their careers, others toward the end...and then there's the poet whose lunch with interviewer Nigel Spivey was among his very last. "Gavin Ewert is dead," wrote Spivey in one of the reprinted interviews.
The poet's death, last week, was hardly the consequence of lunch with the Financial Times. But, with hindsight, we gave him a grand send-off. 
He had just recovered from a prostate operation when we met in high summer. But intimations of mortality were not apparent. Far from it. 
Aiming to arrive on good time at the Cafe Royal, I found him already settled at the bar, fondling a large pink drink. Ah,' he said, without guilt. 'There you are.' 
'I say,' I said, with anguish. 'That can only be a Negroni.' It was indeed a Negroni, the gin and Campari mixture with a velocity of intoxication that is both feared and loved by those who know it. This lunch would be, in the poet's own phrase, 'a thick one'.
Diddy: "If I endorse a candidate right now,
I mean the race would probably be over."
And so is the book. I rarely board planes with printed books these days, but on flights in the last few weeks to Denver and Kansas City, I made an exception for Lunch with the FT, a birthday present. The articles are revealing and engaging, the subject a mix of those I recognize, some I'd never known existed, and others who could rise the ire of some readers.

There's a young(ish) Angela Merkel interviewed years before she became Germany's chancellor; Chinese novelist Yu Hua; painter David Hockney; Sean "P. Diddy" Combs (who refused to endorse a candidate during a 2004 interview because "It would sway people. If I endorse a candidate right now, I mean the race would probably be over."); Stephen Green, executive chairman of HSBC and an Anglican priest; Jennifer Paterson, one of the Two Fat Ladies cookery program; and the famously demanding British chef Marco Pierre White.

Others include George Soros, Twiggy, Queen Rania of Jordan, F. W. de Klerk, Dolce and Gabbana, Paul Krugman, Michael Caine, Jeff Bezos, Saif Gaddafi, Martin Amis, Steve Woziak, Martin McGuinness, Donald Rumsfeld....52 in all.

In a volume packed with fantastic one-liners and bons mots, one that sticks with me is from James Watson who, along with Francis Crick, discovered the structure of DNA in 1953. Nearly every high schooler knows the name, but few could pick him out of a lineup. When interviewer Christopher Swann asked back in 2004 whether a lack of public recognition ever bothered him, the scientist gave a rueful smith and admitted that "discovering the structure of DNA did little to help him propagate his own genes. 'There were no groupies,' he says. 'Well, I suppose there were two but you wouldn't have wanted to get too close to either of them.'" Of course, the co-father of modern genetics goes on to say that if technology permits it, women ought to be able to abort homosexual fetuses.

Jimmy Carter mulls political torture
over iced tea in Plains, Georgia.
Revealing and engaging, I said. Didn't say it was always palatable.

Through them all, there's food, cocktail, and wine. Whether it's Watson slicing into veal or Jimmy Carter hunkering down over a bowl of green tomato soup, food and drink are the excuse to conduct all the interviews. Some of these subjects are dead, some restaurants undoubtedly closed, but the prose remains. Cheers to Lionel Barber for pulling them together and James Ferguson for his illustrations.

Lionel Barber (2013)
Illustrations by James Ferguson
Lunch with the FT: 52 Classic Interviews
352 pages (hard cover)
ISBN: 1591846498

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