Tinker, Tailor, Soldier… Drunk

Who would serve a jug or pitcher of martini at a party?

Oh wait, only Kim Philby, one of Britain’s most notorious traitors.

  
I’ve just read a book entitled “a spy among friends” by Ben MacIntyre. It was the first book I’ve read in a long time that I struggled to put down. It documents the story of Harold ‘Kim’ Philby as he worked his way into the inner sanctums of British intelligence.

He was considered trustworthy for decades because he was seen as a part of the British ‘establishment’ (he came from a reputable family, went to public school, and attended Cambridge University). 

In stark contrast, however, he was a member of the infamous Cambridge Spy Network who wreaked untold damage on Western Cold War activities.

  

Philby was recruited by Soviet agents shortly after he graduated and provided Moscow with extensive British and American secrets for many years. By the time he defected to the USSR in the 1960s it is estimated that hundreds, if not thousands of people had died because of his actions.

The pressures of intelligence work evidently led to heavy drinking amongst most agents (this might continue today – I am not fully aware, although I’ve been told that consumption is a lot lower than it used to be).

The pressures of being a mole in this already stressful environment evidently took a particularly high toll on Philby – as well as his long-suffering family: his mother and second wife both died alcoholics while he himself was regularly seen in an unconscious state of inebriation. 

Despite his own alcohol intake, however, he managed to survive to the age of 76. In the end, he died in Moscow in 1988, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, ending the ideological regime he had believed in so steadfastly; the way of governance he betrayed so much for.

While reading about his eventful life I noticed the reappearance of martinis on several occasions and made a note of each one. Sir Ian Fleming pops up in the stories here and there, of course famous for his creation of martini fan James Bond.

  
A personal favourite was the story involving the cocktail bar in World War Two Istanbul. The lady who ran the bar mixed up “volcanic martinis” for her British officer clientele, then sat back and listened while they drunkenly spilled our state secrets for her to pass on to the Nazis. In vino veritas indeed, or should that be in martinis veritas?

The noteworthy ‘pitchers’ of martini were recorded at cocktail and dinner parties held at the Philby household in Washington DC. Intense drunkenness ensued with sometimes shocking social results.

Such parties involved an even greater level of risk when Philby allowed for the mixing of British agents, American agents and British spies working for the Soviets. I think it’s a wonder he got away with being a spy for so long without letting slip during one of his drunken binges. Evidently his lips were sealed even when he was at his most intoxicated. Stalin would have been impressed.

  
During later cocktail parties at his home in Beirut he taught his young son how to mix up a “fierce” martini for the guests. Start ’em young I say. I was taught how to pour G&Ts and whiskies with water for the family when I was well below drinking age so I don’t think it’s the worst thing to happen. Indeed I enjoyed being allowed to socialise with the adults at that age. It was a privilege for the well-behaved.

  
Ultimately though, Kim Philby’s life appears to have been one of loneliness and an ultimate lack of fulfilment. No-one ever truly knew him. While sexually intimate with several women, he was never psychologically intimate enough with anyone to truly bond or connect with them.

While I use martinis to bond with others, he used them to lull his potential foes and numb the pains of his own personal transgressions.

In the end he died with few, if any friends. He had betrayed most of them for an ideology soon to fall apart. What a terrible use of martinis.

I’ll tell you what isn’t a waste though: this book! 

Drink for Victory! Canapés made from leftover food

Yes, I hate waste, and so should you.


Winston Churchill would hopefully approve of these snacks to accompany a martini, and so would the war office.


It’s basically a dead easy way to turn leftovers into a tasty snack.


You will need some Bamboo skewers


And some cold leftovers, maybe from a roast dinner you made the day before. Essentially you can use pretty much anything that can be safely reheated. Potatoes are ideal. I’ve also used some mushrooms in this instance.

Slice up the goods into bite-sized pieces.

Remember that in many East Asian cuisines, particularly Japanese, a lot of attention goes into preparing food that is already bite-sized, so that the diner can eat one-handed and/or using chopsticks without having to cut things up on their own plate.

This is particularly useful for martini drinking because you will need your other hand free to hold on to your glass.

When you’re ready, thread the pieces onto the skewers.


Add some sort of glaze or flavouring.


Here I used an ancient soy glaze, also referred to in culinary circles as marmite. You can purchase it in specialist food shops such as Asda, Lidl. Vegemite or Bovril can also be used.

In fact, you could pretty much use anything here. Plum sauce, barbecue sauce, honey with salt and pepper, Umami Paste etc etc

Put the skewers in a pan and roast them on a high heat for about 20 minutes, or until fully heated and hopefully crunchy.


Serve with a martini and make Churchill proud! You’ve also done that little bit extra for sustainability.

In addition, I even tried making a tapas-inspired equivalent. The above consists of some of the skewers plus some other bits and pieces I found in the fridge, re-hashed into something new.

I took cold leftover chicken, mixed it with yogurt, mustard, lemon zest, a splash of vinegar, salt and pepper and spread it over bread. I even… oh my god this sounds horrendous… spread leftover cold vegetarian lasagne over bread. I then toasted both of these things and Lo! they were not terrible. I served it with a potato and lettuce salad and the whole thing actually fed three people as a full dinner and nobody died or complained. One doesn’t like to blow one’s own trumpet but Mum said they were nice.

So there you go. Enjoy Winston!

The Skylon Bar, London 4.5/5

If you’re in London, treat yourself. It’s not that expensive and you’re guaranteed a good quality cocktail in an excellent setting. 

 

This is a lovely bar in a wonderful, all-welcoming part of London. The brutalist Southbank Centre with its grand but minimalist polished concrete slabs enjoys a wonderfully soft form of acoustics. The diverse array of visitors range from pondering thespians to the philosophical homeless, their intriguing conversations all muffled into soporific unintelligible whispering by the imposing edifice of the building itself. It’s an ocean of calm just a few steps from the virulent masses thronging the banks of the River Thames. Wander around the building and you might stumble across a cultural performance by Zulu warriors or perhaps a fierce debate on the topic of lesbian poetry from the 1980s. Whatever you find, you will likely leave feeling a strange, deep connection with your fellow humans.

Anyway, one of the things situated in this strange, post-war monument to what communist Britain might have aspired to be, is a peculiarly yet perfectly juxtaposed bar and restaurant, very firmly on the free-market capitalist side of the fence.

  
The Skylon itself, after which this bar/restaurant was named, was a stylised metal structure erected during the Festival of Britain, a nationwide event held in 1951 commemorating science, art and architecture in an attempt to lift the national mood in the gloomy post-war years. With a very unstable economy, the loss of vast swathes of the British Empire and extensive, enduring human and infrastructural damage suffered during the war times were still very tough in the country.

  
As illustrated in John Ritchie Addison’s photograph above, the Skylon piece cut quite a striking image over the southern banks of the Thames. It was one of many features of art and design erected for the festival but its image remains one of the most enduring.

Nonetheless, it was seen as too costly for the government to bear. The re-elected prime minister Winston Churchill, who knew a thing or two about martinis, also reportedly hated it as a socialist symbol erected by the Labour government which had defeated him in the post-war election.

So naturally he had it torn down and sold for scrap.

  

Oh Winston.

However, while he may have hated the Skylon sculpture, I hope he would approve of the martini served in the nearby restaurant which has taken its name.

Apart from sometimes getting busy (for evident reasons) the only other downside of the bar was the fact that their diverse and highly creative cocktail menu didn’t actually have a classic martini option on it. I would recommend they include one in future as the one they actually served me was almost perfect.

 
I apologised for asking the waitress for an item not on the menu but she asked her manageress and returned to ask whether I would prefer mine made with gin or vodka, and if I would prefer it classical or dirty.

Excellent, I though, and ordered a classic martini (with gin, obviously).

It arrived in a small, but perfectly formed and indeed very elegant martini glass. Lemon peel had been squeezed into the glass and the lemon garnish was artistically cut and fastened onto the rim. I don’t think either the glass or the gin had been kept in the freezer but effort had clearly been put in to chilling both before serving.

  
I also took a moment to admire my friend’s choice of cocktail – the Jamaican Fury. Beautiful and creative, the smoke swirling in the bottle smelt simply of cigarettes, but when decanted into a glass it added a rich, savoury aroma to the otherwise sweet and powerful cocktail.

  
Moments later we were served a bowl of Japanese rice snacks for free. This may sound very simple, possibly even gimmicky, but it’s a vanishingly rare phenomenon in British drinking establishments and adds so much to the martini drinking experience.

Skylon gets 4.5 out of 5 for its martini. It was cold, lemony, in a martini glass, served with nibbles, with an additional selection of good food available on the menu, while the service was friendly and attentive and the setting was relaxed, ambient and stylish (and in one of my favourite buildings in London). For £12.50 I also thought the drink was very good value for money, certainly by London standards and in such a central, prominent venue. I would recommend booking in advance though as it will get crowded.

  
Otherwise, a victorious crowd pleaser. Well done Skylon, long may you reign over the banks of the Thames – but please put the classic martini back on your menu for good.