Genius chef Paul Kitching has died. I first met him 20 years ago and we bonded over Alan Shearer. I was a Blackburn Rovers fan, he was a proud Geordie, who kept a signed photo of his fellow legend at Juniper, his Michelin-starred restaurant in Altrincham. He was under no illusions, mind, telling me “Alan Shearer is God, but I don’t think he’d like what I cook. He’s a chicken and beans man, nothing fancy. We did invite him to the restaurant, but he couldn’t come. It was a relief really, I was getting dead nervous about cooking for him.”

I was profiling him for the Manchester Evening News because Juniper had just been named the Good Food Guide’s English Restaurant of the Year, eclipsing the likes of the Fat Duck. Irony – Paul’s more playful dishes made him the favourite chef of Heston Blumenthal’s kids; conservative adult diners sometimes baulked at wacky combinations – using ketchup, Horlicks, liquorice, Weetabix – in nouvelle cuisine size portions on glass plates as part of vast tasting menus.

Clad in his inevitable white tee-shirt, he defended himself to me by saying he worked from ‘informed tradition’ just as much as a French master or his culinary hero, Marco Pierre White. “We go funky, but we have a lot of respect for the product. I hate frozen food, fusion food, brasseries that aren’t proper brasseries and vegetarians. Tofu, ugh. Quorn, ugh. I’d like to take a flamethrower to veggies. And organic isn’t everything. I want taste most of all. 

“A diner today said: ‘If I ripped off the sole of my shoe and gave it to you, you could cook it to taste nice, couldn’t you.’ I could. I’m a chef. But if someone brought in an old bleeding dog, I couldn’t. It wouldn’t be fresh. You need freshness.”

So political correctness wasn’t Paul’s forte and he was undoubtedly eccentric, but it served him well on a hard path to the pinnacle. Gateshead-born, after school he drifted into dead-end jobs. Pot-washing at a local Italian ignited his interest in food, but a three year catering course wasn’t a success. His only release was Northern Soul. “I looked rough, angry young man rough, ear-ring, skinhead with a pony-tail. Up there in Newcastle I was nothing, but I got on a coach to Wigan and at the Casino I felt important.”

After the Casino closed cooking filled the gap big time. 23 was a bit old for his lowly commis start in York, but his career swiftly progressed to two-star Gidleigh Park in Devon, where the great Shaun Hill became his mentor. In 1995, the same year Heston opened the Fat Duck in Bray, Paul quit his post as head chef at Cheshire’s Nunsmere Hall to take over at the fledgling Juniper at 21 The Downs, Altrincham. Within three years it won its star, his partner Kate O’Brien had come on board front of house, the number of covers was cut from 50 to 35 and his multi-course, more ‘instinctive’ cooking direction had evolved.

Then after a major revamp only a giant reproduction of Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano remained on the dining room wall. Move forward a decade and in the private dining room of restaurant with rooms 21212 in Edinburgh there’s a blown-up Caravaggio print, signalling the next big step for our culinary Renaissance man… 

So what was it like to work for the inimitable Mr Kitching?

Richard Brown, co-founder of Manchester’s late, lamented Beastro, was only 14 when he started work in the Juniper kitchen. “Absolutely gutted right now. He was a true powerhouse of passion for food, his mentorship second to none and his generosity in allowing me to be part of his team will be a part of me forever. His food and attitude to ingredients and dish creation was second to none and he is a huge loss to the industry and his family and loved ones.”

Tameside-based Iain Thomas of Our Place recalled recently (before Paul’s untimely death): “I was lucky to work with him (at 21212 in Edinburgh), when his food became more adult, I guess you could say. His ideas were brilliant. Sometimes working there was frustrating, as I didn’t quite get what was going on. But the lesson for me was when I left that kitchen and came back to eat there 14 months later and realised what a great chef he was. 

“One thing that chef Paul said to me was ‘there is a reason I don’t cook chicken liver parfait, sauternes jelly and brioche. Anyone down the road can do that…’ and that is why he did things like his event space POD, Paul’s Odd Dining. That is his vision of craziness, and it works.

21212 was the next stage in the Paul Kitching saga

In 2008, perhaps weary of not securing a deserved second star, Paul and Katie upped sticks to Edinburgh (it left Greater Manchester with a Michelin-starred shaped hole until Mana won one in 2019). With a new backer they set up 21212 “to offer upmarket hospitality at their towering Georgian townhouse in the verdant shadow of Calton Hill”. It was easy to wax flowery about such a sumptuous retreat with four ultra-luxurious rooms and a restaurant that soon won the obligatory star. It lost it in 2019 while continuing to attract awards, moving with the times in 2018 by switching staff to a four day week without cutting pay to fuel the team’s creative flair and help their work/life balance.

The pair invited us to stay a couple of times and we loved it, fascinated by a new maturity in the Kitching kitchen without it abandoning that innate playfulness. It always tickled us that the Scottish capital also boasted fellow icon Tom Kitchin.

21212 was the original dining formula, where the chef disciplined his hyperactive genius to offer a mere choice of two starters, one soup course, two mains, cheese and two puds. It soon engorged itself to 31313, but it didn’t lead  them to redo the sign outside/website. To me it was all still 10 out of 10.

‘Masterpieces in miniature from a Geordie genius’ 

I plucked another browning cutting from the dusty bottom drawer to remind of our last Juniper hurrah. Presented in an elegiac mood here is a menu snapshot (a modest 15 courses) from a Wednesday evening in March 2008.

An offer of Champagne with Weetabix liqueur set a tongue-in-cheek, demob-happy tone, as did the kitchen’s amuse-gueule take on gazpacho – a shot glass of grape juice, bacon, cornichon and yoghurt,

Certain ingredients such as smoked salmon, celeriac puree and caviar were to reappear in different combinations, so the whole parade of tiny, perfectly formed dishes felt like variations on a theme. On harmonious combo was a knickerbocker glory-style layering of smoked salmon, caviar, tomato jelly, yoghurt and spiced hazelnut powder with spinach. Similarly well-judged (though it sounded odd) was a nugget of smoked salmon with crispy carrot sliver and a miniscule lemon pancake in a garlicky yeast sauce inside a tiny paper cup.

If a mixture of melted cheese and dried fruits doused in Moroccan argon oil was a misfiring conceit on cheese on toast and the Spanish habit of accompanying the cheese course with fruit (quince membrillo) the unlikely Arab-influenced, grainy combo of chicken, crab and lamb ragout was simply stunning. Throughout the chef’s liking for drying to a powder or candying veg and fruit was much in evidence.

Our eventual main was more conventional, though not a strapping course. A slow-cooked fillet of beef, mingled with an intense melange of mushrooms, honey and thyme. Bacon and mushrooms added the comfort factor, a side of sweetcorn a nod to the chef’s own discreet sweet tooth. An assiette of cheese held a dozen stamp-sized examples, soft goat to reserve gruyere, with tomato relish, preserved mushroom and fruit reasserting the variation on a theme feel.

It was quite lovely, as was a substantial crème brûlée. What an ordinary conclusion, you say. Well, not quite. Snickers crème brûlée with popcorn, Hob Nob and peanut ice cream was a quite extraordinary trademark Kitching yoking together of humdrum products to subvert expectations… and delight. What I’ll remember him for.

Just nine months ago came one of my eye-opening culinary moments of 2022. Despite the launch hype, stylish new city hotels are rarely accompanied by a food offering that hollers ‘destination restaurant’. I had high hopes for The Alan, just across from Manchester Art Gallery. I’d tasted head chef Iain Thomas’s food during his fleeting stint at the Edinburgh Castle in Ancoats. Yet even I wasn’t prepared for the series of masterly dishes he rolled out from the open kitchen for my review.

Flash in the pan? I returned, this time sitting at the kitchen counter with a hard-to-impress foodie friend. He was impressed. Not just by the cooking but also by the commitment to sourcing at odds with the corporate bean counters. The indie Manchester restaurant supports its quality local suppliers like a badge of honour – Cinderwood for salad and veg, Polyspore for mushrooms Crafty Cheeseman, Littlewoods butcher’s and the like. Plus his own allotment produce, where possible.

Iain wasn’t missing a trick. Yet by the autumn his time at The Alan was unravelling. At 36, the much-travelled Tameside lad was desperate to do his own thing. Joining him in this dream is David O’Connell, former sales and marketing director at The Alan. Together they have set up Our Place. For the moment it is a pop-up catering operation, espousing the sustainable concerns the duo share.

Hence the series of supper clubs they are staging as guests of waste campaigners Open Kitchen at their cafe and bar in the city’s People’s History Museum. The first is on Tuesday, December 13 at 6.30pm, priced at £35 per ticket. Do check but this seems to be sold out. Never fear, there will be a further 10 there before the end of April. Monitor their site and social media for other Our Place events.

Before this public launch I was lucky enough to be invited to a private Our Place event at The Perfect Match in Sale. Shortlisted for Neighbourhood Venue of the Year in the 2022 Manchester Food and Drink Awards, it is run by Andrea Follado, from an Italian family of  Prosecco makers, and Jazz Niven, once a teen prodigy in the Midland Hotel kitchens, where she worked with Iain. On the night, though, the menu was all of Iain’s making – a melange of ox tongue with Polyspore mushroom, Yorkshire Pecorino and pearl barley; cured rainbow trout (main picture) with Hyde beetroot and nasturtium; shoulder of cull ewe cooked in hay and hispi cabbage; Macondo 60% chocolate parfait and mulled fruit.

The seeds of Our Place were sown during the lockdowns when Iain, without any furlough safety net, found a sense of purpose in the community growing hub that is the Hattersley Projects in Hyde.   Following on from that gorgeous taster meal I quizzed Iain about his plans and their genesis…

Tell me about your allotment and what it means to you. Obviously how it helped during lockdown but also how it influences your food. 

“The allotment is a place that I have a lot of passion for. It is a piece of land that has done some good in my local community, but it could do so much more. I look at people like MUD (Manchester Urban Diggers) with awe and what they have achieved, and I ask why that cannot happen in my part of Manchester? I have realised that we have an amazing piece of land, we have great volunteers, but it breaks my heart that we cannot get the investment we might if we were in a more fashionable part of Greater Manchester.

“The lockdown was a weird time. I wasn’t permitted to see my family in the early lockdown. However, I was allowed on the allotment in a polytunnel with other people as we were technically food producers. So in a similar way to David’s situation in London, I ended up with a chosen family that supported me through the hard days of being alone.

“The revelation for me was the true meaning of seasonality, and how climate change is impacting that. I have worked in restaurants such as 21212, and Rocca in St Andrews. Whatever we wanted, we picked up the phone to a supplier and it could be with us from anywhere in the world. 

“In lockdown, not being on furlough and having virtually no money coming in, I was heavily dependent on the vegetables I was growing. If there were no onions growing or in season, I had no onions. At the moment we are coming into winter, and it has been a mild winter, so I have loads of nasturtiums and globe artichokes coming through… it shows the effect of global warming, as they should not really be thriving in the UK at the moment.”

Explain the Open Kitchen link-up and you and David’s commitment to sustainability.

“I had worked with a friend at the Devonshire Arms by the name of Shawn Lee and, after speaking with him, found out about the sustainability behind Open Kitchen. They are food interceptors, and for example they take food from supermarkets that was bound for landfill; for example, they recently had a crop of cauliflower come in that was not the right shade of white for the supermarket contracted with the farmer. 

“Tons of perfectly good food would have been binned straight from the field, were it not for the work of people like them. So although it is not the same kind of sustainable food that I pursue, it was something that David and I were attracted to when deciding to work with Open Kitchen as a venue.

“I think our passion and commitment to sustainability is born out of the working relationship we had in our prior positions. We had never met until January 2021, when I came on board as head chef in a hotel in town. David had come up from London the summer before, and we were hired to make reality a sustainable business. However, it soon became very corporate and we were doing and saying things about being sustainable, that were not truly in the spirit of being sustainable. We both decided that we had had enough of working for other people, and toeing the party line. We wanted our own place, to make our own decisions.”

Was the dinner you served at The Perfect Match a typical example of Our Place’s ethos?

“Yes it was. While Open Kitchen’s way of being sustainable is based on ‘what food is available that would otherwise go to landfill’. I am very much about: what food does the butcher, the farmer, the grower have right now and what can I do with it? What do I fancy cooking today? It can cause David some headaches; as a sales and marketing guy, he is used to telling guests what they can expect to eat. I want to cook what I want to cook, based on my mood and what is available and in season. For example, sustainable meat is a process. When I was prepping for the meal you enjoyed, it was a two month process discussing the cull ewe for the main dish.”

(NB: Culled ewes are retired breeding ewes that for one reason or another have lambed for the last time. They generally come into us between 4-6 years of age, having lived out a happy retirement out on the lush grasslands of Scotland. The meat therefore is complex, gamier in flavour than lamb.)

Who will be your main suppliers? 

“I love the work done by Marcus and the team at Littlewoods, and it will be local butchers like them that I work with. I love the idea of talking in October about an animal with the butcher, hearing about the progress on the farm, and being a part of the story from field to plate. You have passionate individuals like Mike at Polyspore, doing great things with mushrooms in Altrincham and Crafty Cheeseman; two sets of people doing what they love and enjoying life. 

“When it comes to vegetables, we have some great producers in the region. Cinderwood Market Garden are doing great things; their recent celtuce crop has been the talk of the town lately, and David and I were very lucky earlier in the year to be on their plot and see the crop being sown. You also have suppliers like Manchester Urban Diggers, Organic North, and then of course my own garden and plot on my allotment.”

Davey Aspin and Paul Kitching are obviously inspiring chefs you’ve worked with. What have you learned from them? Any other heroes?

“Paul Kitching is very eccentric. What I learned from him? How to word it is very hard, I need to pause a minute and think about this one. People always say to you: ‘What is a restaurant you would like to eat at blah, blah, blah’ and one for me would be Juniper (in Altrincham). Gutted I never got to eat there. As a young chef, I kind of knew about it and I hear lots of crazy stories about ‘not mushroom’ and some out there stuff. 

“I was lucky to work with him (at 21212 in Edinburgh), when his food became more adult, I guess you could say. His ideas were brilliant. Sometimes working there was frustrating, as I didn’t quite get what was going on. But the lesson for me was when I left that kitchen and came back to eat there 14 months later, that I realised what a great chef he was. One thing that chef Paul said to me was ‘there is a reason I don’t cook chicken liver parfait, sauternes jelly and brioche. Anyone down the road can do that…’ and that is why he did things like his event space POD, Paul’s Odd Dining. That is his vision of craziness, and it works.

“Without Davey Aspin, I would be flipping burgers. I was just a chef at The Midland until I worked with him. He is very underrated in my opinion and it breaks my heart when the Michelin Guide comes out that he doesn’t get a star. The man touches a piece of food, it is beautiful and deserves recognition. He treated me like a brother and a part of his family, and taught me 90 per cent of what I know, to be fair. David likes to tease me, after an instagram message from Davey, that my lamb fat cabbage is thanks to Mr Aspin.”

Is the ultimate plan to have your own restaurant? I presume at the moment it’s safer not to have responsibility for your own bricks and mortar?

“100%, but David and I are two lads who met in a hotel, and don’t have the money yet. For the first time in a while, we both felt that there was no ulterior motive and we could trust each other. David and I want to pursue the things we are passionate about in hospitality, but making them feel accessible. We want to really be real, not just say ‘we are real’. We want to showcase artists and creatives that are challenging and interesting, not just say we champion them but go for the more commercial avenue when it doesn’t make money. I really want the food I serve to be local, seasonal, and sustainable. Not just say it as a marketing ploy… I will never use an avocado for example.”

Tell me about Our Place’s commitment to helping the homeless into work.

“That is really an idea down to David. At first I was sceptical, as I can imagine it is not an easy process to help someone from the street to a stable life. David talks a lot about his mum, who you can tell was a rock for him. The one thing you pick up from him is how his mum believed in loving people; the least, the last, the lost. It is a phrase David always uses when talking about Betty and his upbringing with her. 

“When she died just before the pandemic, he was alone with her and there was no one who could or would come out to help that last night. It had a real impact on David, and he was diagnosed with PTSD. Of all the people that approached him at his lowest point in lockdown, and dared to intervene and ask ‘how are you?’ It was a homeless person on Mare Street, Hackney who helped David. I think he just wants to repay that.”

At the Perfect Match David stressed the community aspect, featuring artists, musicians, spoken word etc at your events. How is this coming together?

“With the artists, it is slowly but surely coming together. There is a really vibrant community of young artists and creatives in and around Greater Manchester, a lot of whom David was working with in his last role. The challenge is that there is not a lot of money in art, especially when you are at the start. We want to introduce and connect people.

“We believe that post-pandemic, there is a desire for community. However, we also want to make sure that we are bringing people together from different places and backgrounds. We want anyone to feel comfortable eating with us. You do not have to be educated, you do not have to be cool and hip. You just need to have respect for others, and enjoy really good food that we hope will save the planet one dish at a time.”

Here are my favourite food and drink books published in 2022 with something to suit everyone’s prezzie stocking. I make no apologies for kicking off with a couple addressing, in their different approaches, a wellbeing approach to eating. The health of our planet seems inextricably bound to the healthiness of what we eat.

Food For Life by Tim Spector (Jonathan Cape, £20)

Initially sceptical about yet another nutritional gospel, I was won over by the famous epidemiologist dissing ‘superfoods’ and proclaiming his own food passions, which include dark chocolate, red wine and butter alongside all those key ferments, kimchi, kombucha and sourdough bread. Such food choices for health? Im with him all the way.

The new tome is an upgrade on his The Diet Myth, (2015), which popularised the idea that each of us has a unique and constantly changing gut microbiome that is crucial to our health and 2020’s Spoon Fed, in 2020, which debunked a legacy of food misinformation that encourage us to consume many products that are of scant nutritional value. The microbiome continues to take centre stage but the research message is that each individual’s ideal diet is different and common sense should prevail.

Healthy Vegan Street Food by Jackie Kearney (Ryland Peters & Small, £20)

A key element in Spector’s message is the importance of plant-based while avoiding the trap of vegan ready meals. He is keen on spices too, so Jackie’s latest book, revisiting her food discoveries across South East Asia, is a natural companion in the stocking. The former MasterChef finalist expounds on the health value of these tasty cuisines in my recent interview with her. What really impresses is, seven years on from her debut cookbook, the lack of recipe duplication alongside the lessons she has learned about the health value of ingredients as she tackles he own auto-immune issues.

Rambutan: Recipes from Sri Lanka by Cynthia Shanmugalingam (Bloomsbury, £26)

Like with buses, you wait around for ages for a definitive book on Sri Lankan cookery and then two come along. Compendious indeed is Hoppers, from the London chain name-checking the savoury rice crepe synonymous with the island, but I prefer this more narrative-driven alternative with its 80 attractive recipes, including fabulous mutton rolls. Coventry-born Cynthia’s family hails from the northernmost tip of Sri Lanka – Tamil territory – and the book does not shy away from the terrible conflicts as it explores the ravishing culinary culture. Above all, it is a celebration of a family in exile maintaining its links via food.

Notes from a Small Kitchen Island by Debora Robertson (Penguin, £26)

Now for a read that is less dramatic but with it own distinctive, domestic voice. The chapter names reveal the wry take on food from this erstwhile Daily Telegraph columnist: No one wants brunch’; ‘Why everyone hates picnics’; ‘How to survive having people to stay’; ‘unInstagrammable, that’s what you are’. Like Nigella Lawson, I am a fan of this diarist, whose kitchen apercus straddle Co Durham and the Languedoc. 

Here’s Debs on Roast Lamb with Durham Salad: “ My slow-roast lamb is luscious and garlicky, which would probably have offended my northern antecedents, who greeted the arrival of garlic in the trattorias and brasseries of County Durham circa 1970 with no small amount of suspicion, bordering on disdain. My mother, being a free spirit and one of the first people in the county to wear cork wedges, suede trouser suits and, famously, a crocheted bikini made by my Auntie Dolly, was an early adopter and always loved, and still loves, garlic, so this is for her.”

Cooking: Simply and Well for One or Many? by Jeremy Lee (4th Estate, £30)

Distinctive voices? Well that surely bring us to ‘national treasure’ candidate Jeremy Lee, whose debut cook book has been rapturously promoted. For once, happy to endorse; this really is an instant classic – my prime Christmas prezzie recommendation. I devoted a whole article to his recipe for salsify but in my heart of hearts would settle for the signature sandwich at his Soho restaurant Quo Vadis – smoked eel.

Butter: A celebration by Olivia Potts (Headline, £26)

Jeremy Lee prefers light, unsalted butter for cooking and baking. In her debut cookbook Spectator magazine `Vintage Cook’ columnist and former barrister Olivia begs to differ. Salted is her go-to in th fridge. Who’s to argue with a cook devoting 350 pages to the glorious (and healthy) key to so many culinary delights. I’ve been cooking from it ever since it dropped through my letterbox – most notably a Wild Mushroom, Tarragon and Mushroom Pithivier.

A Dark History of Sugar by Dr Neil Buttery (Pen & Sword, £20)

Sugar – now there’s another much-debated kitchen essential, this time with a troubled history to match its place on the table. I interviewed the Levenshulme-based (and yes sweet-toothed) food historian about his research which encompassed the murky worlds of both slavery and later, teeth-rotting commercial exploitation. Dark stuff indeed, but this is a delightful read, if not for the squeamish.

The World of Natural Wine by Aaron Ayscough (Artisan, £31.99) and The Wine Bible by Karen McNeil (Workman, £31.99)

Two very different approaches to wine writing, each to be treasured, both authors from the States. Natural wine proselytiser Ayscough is based in Beaujolais, the crucible of the natural wine movement thanks to certain key figures over the past four decades. Across 400 pages he traces that timeline in depth, exhaustively explaining what make this alternative ethos superior to mainstream ‘manipulative’ winemaking. 

Karen McNeil’s encyclopaedic tome runs to 700 pages and embraces the mainstream. The first two editions have old more than 800,000 copies. This updated third now has the advantage of colour and whole new chapters on Great Britain, Croatia, and Israel. he chapters on France, Italy, Australia, South America, and the United States are greatly expanded. What I like are the little sidebars on regional food or culture anecdotes. A great, approachable yet opinionated entry in the ever-evolving world of the grape.

Fen, Bog & Swamp by Annie Proulx (4th Estate, £16.99)

In my intro to my food and drink book recommendations I traced links between the health of our food and the wellbeing of our planet. Ecological devastation is now a subject occupying so many creative minds. So it is no surprise, with this slim volume, to see Pulitzer-winning novelist Annie Proulx enter the field – or should that be wetland? The book’s subtitle says it all: “A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis”. If that sound a bit grey, don’t worry. The glorious prose that infused novels such a The Shipping News is still present. The 87-year-old, now based in Washington State,  is particularly acute in her lament for the draining of the UK’s own Fenlands. Such an eco-system, if treated better, they prove vital to the world’s salvation, she argues.

Ephemeron by Fiona Benson (Penguin pb, £12)

Poetry is so often a celebration of the natural world. Prime contemporary example: Alice Oswald’s Dart. I hugely admire the work of our current Oxford Professor of Poetry but there are the other outstanding female voices out there. Devon-based Benson has garnered awards for her previous two slim volumes but this is  a step-up, bravely and tenderly confronting family shibboleths, the love, the fear. Central to the volume is her ‘Translations from the Pasiphaë’, which violently re-tells the Greek myth of the Minotaur, as seen from the point of view of the bull-child’s mother – the betrayed and violated Pasiphaë. Hard not to weep when she calls for her lost son: “They took him away from me/and they killed him in the dark, for years.”

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (Faber, £10)

Forget Sally Rooney, Elmear McBride, Anne Enright, the finest Irish female fiction writer de nos jours is Claire Keegan. If her miniaturist tendencies suggest a lack of ambition, consider what resonates most when reconsidering Joyce – Ulysses or Dubliners. Her latest work, a novella really, clocks in at 110 words but within is a whole universe of nuance. The story ought to major on the shame of a Magdalene Laundries discovery but at  its core is a small town coal and timber merchant, disaffected with what life and family expects of him. Genius.

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart (Picador, £16.99)

The New York-based fashion designer turned chronicler of the Glasgow of his youth has sold more than 1.5 million copies of his debut novel Shuggie Bain on the back of its Booker Prize victory. Superficially this follow-up might sound more of the same, especially with it depiction of a gay boy dealing with a feckless mother he loves. It has it own strengths, though, charting first sexual awakening against a backdrop of sectarian violence. The fishing trip to a Highland loch is a tour de force of numbing exploitation.

Act of Oblivion By Robert Harris (Hutchinson, £22)

I felt I ought to include a genre fiction best seller. The obvious choice was Ian Rankin’s A Heart Full of Headstones, but there was a melodramatic edge to it that seemed strained, as crime lost out to historical fiction in the shape of Harris’s gripping, at times hallucinatory account of two Roundhead colonels being hunted own across an untamed 17th century America. The fugitives’ crime that has put a price on their head? To be complicit in the execution of Charles I. It’s all based on real characters, though Richard Naylor the regicide fanatic on their trail, is an invention of Harris’s.

The Escape Artist  by Jonathan Freedland (John Murray, £20 )

Another true story of escape and redemption that is all the more amazing for not being fictionalised. Aged just 19 in April 1944, Rudolf Vrba and a fellow inmate became the first Jews ever to break out of Auschwitz against terrible odds. The Slovakian had committed to memory every heart-wrenching detail of the camp and his mission was to alert a world that must be told the truth. Painstakingly researched and utterly gripping, it us up there with the great Holocaust accounts of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.

Endless Flight by Keiron Pim (Granta, £25)

I’ve finally got round to reading The Radetzky March (Granta, £9.99) thanks to the spur of the first ever biography in English of the Austro-Hungarian writer Joseph Roth. The novel, his greatest, is a lament for the old Hapsburg order, banished forever by the Great War, in which Roth fought. His middle years were spent restlessly reporting from the frontline as the Nazis rose to power. From Jewish peasant stock in Galicia, he used Vienna as the launchpad for a lucrative but spendthrift journalistic career that took in Berlin, Prague, Moscow and finally Paris. Living in hotel rooms, taking root in bars, coping with his wife’s schizophrenia and his own infidelities, finding his fictional voice late. Apt then the title of Kieron Pim’s exemplary account of an undervalued genius. Roth died, an alcoholic, aged 44, in a Paris pauper’s hospital in May 1939.

Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self by Andrea Wulf (John Murray, £25)

Jena has always felt under the shadow of Weimar in the timeline of German culture. Think again. In the 1790s this tiny university town was the cradle of th Romantic movement with poets, critics and philosophers engaged in a free spirit whirl of relationships, both intellectual and sexual. My personal hero from this romp of a book is the more buttoned-up resident, Friedrich Schiller, who was addicted to the smell of rotting apples – “without it he couldn’t live or work,” his wife Charlotte told his literary soulmate Goethe, retching after discovering some in a drawer.

The Real and the Romantic: English Art Between Two World Wars by France Spalding (Thames & Hudson, £35)

It started with Eric Ravilious joining Paul Nash and Lucian Freud in my pantheon of 20th century English painters. I passed hours of lockdown dreamtime in their company via surveys by the like of Alexandra Harris and Martin Gayford. This substantial summing up is the icing on the cake, introducing me to some lesser-known byways of the English artistic landscape. Critic Herbert Read thought the Twenties and Thirties “more vital and experimental than at any time since the Renaissance.” 

Faith, Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave and Sean O’Hagan (Canongate, £20) 

Disaffection ought to be at the core of Nick Cave, coping with the untimely accidental death of his teenage son Arthur in 2015. The demons are all confronted in his remarkable Ghosteen album. But here in this extended ‘conversation’ with veteran journalist and mate Sean O’Hagan he finds solace in grief and traces the visionary, redemptive paths of his now epic musical career.

Holding Tight, Letting Go by Sarah Hughes (Blink, £16)

A book about terminal cancer that celebrates life. Sarah was one of my dearest friends and this posthumously published series of articles, full of her distinctive voice, resonates on every page. I could never share her passions for horse racing, bonkbusters or shoes; her hugely popular Guardian blogs about Game of Thrones and Line of Duty passed me by because I never fancied the programmes. Maybe I should have listened to her. In her 40s Sarah lived with terminal metastatic cancer for over three years and died in April 2021. Throughout that period she hymned all the small wonders and joys that made holding tight so important. Forensically she charted how the topography of her body altered during chemo. Dresses she fancied would now fit her! How rare to find a book with such an inevitable denouement bursting with such laughter and joy.