Wahey! We love booze and books in equal measures here at It’s Nice That, so it’s our pleasure to introduce Simon Lyle and his five favourite books to you today. Simon is the editor of Hot Rum Cow, the printed publication containing the hottest news on all things booze – from cocktails to beers and from bartenders to barflies, this magazine’s got it all. Here he is on which publications have inspired him along the way to becoming editor of Hot Rum Cow…
Alasdair Gray: Lanark
It took me almost as long to read the sprawling Lanark as it reportedly took Gray to write it (more than 25 years in his case) – but it was worth the effort. I love a good dystopian future. The more bonkers the better, and you would be hard-pressed to find one more bonkers than Lanark. The stories of two versions or eras of the same person (probably; and also probably a version of the author) are woven together through four books presented out of chronological order and full of politics, madness, art, sex and sickness.
It’s a book that’s so weird, unsettling, subversive and full of ideas that I couldn’t even conceive writing a paragraph of it, never mind 600 pages. I love Gray’s striking illustrations which adorn his books and are peppered around the west end of Glasgow, they are even better on a grand scale and in the flesh.
Edward Lear: The Quangle Wangle’s Hat. With illustrations by Helen Oxenbury
Truthfully, my reading habits have been pretty dreadful in recent years and I hold my small children responsible for that. Hence, The Quangle Wangle’s Hat by Edward Lear. This is my childhood copy from the early 80s. Often, when reading for kids, rhythm trumps narrative. And Lear hits good rhythm here.
There’s a handwritten note on the opening spread of my copy from someone called Eric telling me how kind my mum is, so that’s a winning start. This version features some splendid (and occasionally creepy) illustrations of Lear’s mad animals by Helen Oxenbury. I’m particularly fond of the Blue Baboon who played the flute – he seems like the heart of the party on the Crumpetty Tree scene.
Primo Levi: If This is a Man/The Truce
This is not my copy of If This is a Man/ The Truce – Primo Levi’s account of his incarceration in Auschwitz. This is the copy that I bought my dad to replace the copy I loaned from him and helped destroy. I first read it while trekking up a volcano in Costa Rica. When I moved on to The Truce I’d talked about it so much that a fellow trekker ripped the book in two down the spine so that he could start If This is a Man immediately. Both halves passed through several more hands during that trip, which seems like the best reason for vandalising a paperback I can think of. I obviously can’t add anything to Philip Roth’s description: “One of the century’s truly necessary books.”
Don McCullin: Don McCullin
A collection of brilliant, terrifying photography from the acclaimed war photographer, Don McCullin. It traces McCullin’s career from 1950s Finsbury Park to Cold War era Berlin and on to the many conflicts he covered, including Cyprus, Biafra, Vietnam, Cambodia and Beirut. Completely dispels any misplaced sense of romance around war reporting, as does the fascinating documentary about his work by Jacqui Morris and David Morris, also called McCullin, in which the weight of what he has witnessed is so painfully etched on the photographer’s face throughout.
From a personal point of view, as a Northern Irishman, it is still jarring to see photographs from Derry in 1971 sandwiched between photographs taken in wars in Biafra and Cambodia, and acts as a reminder that while things aren’t perfect now, they have come a long way. McCullin will always be best known as a war photographer but the collection is book-ended by a selection of his landscapes. In interviews he has spoken of how he tried to take landscapes earlier in his career but failed because he was too “geared up for war." While he often found beauty in the terrible scenes of conflict, I think he finds something unnerving in these naturally beautiful British landscapes.
Alfred Barnard: The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom
The Bible of Victorian whisky distilleries. A painstaking documentation of all of the 161 whisky distilleries in Scotland, England and Ireland between 1885 and 1887, all visited by the author on the first whisky odyssey. A travel journal and exercise in distillery bagging way ahead of its time and the inspiration for a feature in the latest issue of Hot Rum Cow.
We loved how Barnard veered from wisecracking Victorian gadabout while recounting his time on the road, to being a complete anorak when he enters the distillery. Parts of the book are unreadable as he becomes obsessed with the capacity and lengths of pipes and equipment, but still manages to avoid any information that might be of use to the modern drinker – such as how the whisky tastes. But it’s full of anecdotes, illustrations and adverts that give a fascinating insight into a bygone era.