The bottom line on perfect presents

December 18, 1998

Enterprising academics are turning specialisms and hobbies into Christmas gifts. Julia Hinde samples fruity perfumes and chessmen.

Why did medieval ale-testers wear leather trousers, and which country's 17th-century Temperance Order permitted no more than seven glasses of liquor at any one time?

Answers to these and other intoxicating questions can be found in a new book by Charlie Bamforth, deputy director of Brewing Research International in Surrey, who is upping sticks this Christmas to take up a post as professor of brewing science at the University of California, Davis.

For those of us left Christmassing in Britain, Beer: Tap into the Art and Science of Brewing, could provide plenty of after-lunch entertainment. The book blends the science of obtaining a perfect pint, including a touch of biochemistry, chemical engineering and microbiology, with folklore, anecdotes and details of traditional brewers' arts.

"It also contains lots of statistics on who drinks what in the world," says Bamforth. The Czech Republic leads the way, with the average Czech drinking 159 litres of beer a year - the equivalent of three-quarters of a pint a day. The Germans are not too far behind, downing on average 137 litres a year each, well ahead of Brits whose average annual consumption is 100 litres.

Bamforth also reveals that leather trousers were the perfect tool for checking whether a pint was properly fermented. In medieval London, beer was spread on the bar and sat on by the ale conner. If his bottom stuck to the beer, that would suggest that not all the sugar had yet turned to alcohol, and the landlord would be in trouble.

*Beer: Tap into the Art and Science of Brewing, Plenum, Pounds 16.95

* The British Museum's Incredible Writing Box is the brainchild of Irving Finkel, assistant keeper in the museum's department of Western Asiatic antiquities. The writing set, complete with calligraphy brush, slate grindstone and hieroglyph stencil, shows children how to send messages or secret codes using Chinese calligraphy, Egyptian hieroglyphs and even the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian script, Cuneiform.

Aimed at children aged eight and over, useful phrases, such as "Sisters, keep out!" and "No entry. Girls only permitted!", are among the first messages to be learned. "It's all about phonetic writing," explains Dr Finkel, who co-authored the accompanying book with Oliver Moore, lecturer in Chinese art at the University of Leiden, Holland. Full of historical information about the development of writing, the enclosed Incredible Writing Book is packed with cartoons. Each chapter ends with a code chart showing how English sounds can be written using one of the three scripts and showing children how to get to work on their messages using the modelling clay, ink stick and stylus provided.

"The book deals with important historical and writing questions, but hopefully in a fun way," says Finkel.

Inspiration came from teaching a Cuneiform class at the museum. "No other books give this sort of information. Kids adore it. No one else, unless they too have the box, can read what they write."

*The Incredible Writing Box, Pounds 14.99, from the British Museum Shop, Great Russell Street, London. Not available via mail order.

* Irving Finkel has also turned his creative skills to story-telling. The British Museum first published Finkel's children's book, The Lewis Chessmen and What Happened to Them, in 1995. This year the museum is selling the book in paperback along with a tape of the book read by David Attenborough. The book follows the history of the walrus-ivory chessmen discovered on the Island of Lewis in 1831 but possibly dating from AD1150.

"I have been captivated by the chess pieces held at the museum since I was a child," says Finkel, who was responsible for reuniting the 67 Lewis chess pieces held at the London museum with 11 pieces kept in Edinburgh in a 1993 exhibition.

"It was while we were setting them up that I got the idea of writing the book," he explains. "I literally wrote it one weekend. I wanted something accessible to children, but also respectable archaeologically."

The book, full of pen and ink illustrations, tells the story from the viewpoint of the chessmen, from the time of their discovery on Lewis to their eventual reunion at the London exhibition.

The Lewis chessmen book and tape, as well as a replica chessman, Pounds 9.99, from the British Museum bookshop, or via mail order, 016 606 088.

* The Subtle Knife, the second in the highly acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy by former Oxford lecturer Philip Pullman, is set to top children's book lists this Christmas.

Published in hardback last September, it was released in paperback three months ago and will be creeping into Christmas stockings the country over. With rave reviews, from both adults and children, the trilogy starts in Oxford, but then weaves in and out of our world and another, following the exploits of Lyra and Will.

Until two years ago, Pullman, who has been writing books for the past 30 years, combined his writing with lecturing on the BEd English course at Westminster College in Oxford. Formerly a school-teacher, he left the classroom 13 years ago to set up a language centre at the college, serving English teachers throughout Oxfordshire. But soon he moved to part-time lecturing, teaching future teachers about the Victorian novel. He divided his time between teaching and writing until the demands and rewards of His Dark Materials trilogy left him no longer dependent on a lecturer's income.

"I found I could not afford the time any more for marking and the general attention you need to give to your students," explains Pullman, who writes three sides of A4 by hand in his garden shed each day. "But I miss the students and the gossip and the common room."

Having previously written for adults, Pullman - with around 20 books under his belt - made his name in children's literature, with Northern Lights, the first in His Dark Materials trilogy, winning the 1996 Carnegie Medal. "It's such fun writing for children," he explains. "You can skip from one genre to another."

Despite the fantasy setting for parts of the trilogy, Pullman is keen to stress that he is concerned with real life subjects such as growing up. The third book should be finished by the end of the century.

*The Subtle Knife, paperback price Pounds 5.99, Scholastic.

* Twenty years ago Ann Richards was a biologist, researching water pollution at Chelsea College. She now teaches part-time on the woven textiles degree at Surrey Institute of Art and Design, and also runs a weaving studio specialising in scarves and other accessories.

"I started weaving in my spare time and it simply got out of hand," explains Richards.

"I went initially to do metal work at evening classes. I felt upset I had not been able to do that at school. But I saw the weavers and they got me in the end."

After three years of weaving as a hobby, Miss Richards, then in her early thirties, left her research job and returned to college for three years of study.

"It was wonderful," she says. "It transformed my life." After working for herself for several years, Miss Richards fell into freelance teaching on the institute's woven textiles degree. The post became permanent this summer, with three days in college and two days working on her own designs at home.

"My work is very textured," she explains. "I have been very much influenced by the textiles of natural things."

She uses Italian crepe silk yarn for much of her weaving, which is mostly done by hand. The yarn, which is tightly twisted, lies flat as she weaves, then it is dipped in water and pleats spontaneously.

*Scarves, from Pounds 100 to Pounds 200, from the Crafts Council shop at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Also from Contemporary Applied Arts, 2 Percy Street, or the Livingstone Studio, Hampstead. Scarf pictured here Pounds 135,

* For a particularly sweet-smelling Christmas, a trip across the Channel may be in order to pick up a new range of perfumes which go on sale in France this week. University College London's Luca Turin is the art director for the new Fragonard range of perfumes.

Dr Turin, whose research in the department of physiology investigates the relationship between molecular structure and smell, reviews perfumes as a hobby. He has written perfume guides in his native French and is working on an English guide due out next year. This year he has helped create his first range of perfumes.

"I was asked by Fragonard whether I would like to be the art director for a new range of perfumes - to decide their general orientation," explains Turin.

"The brief was that they were to be aromatherapy perfumes, with four types corresponding to the four seasons - one smells fresh, one fruity, one floral and one oriental."

"I had in mind the general effects I wanted," says Turin, who suggested the raw materials for each of the scents.

"For the fresh perfume, I wanted a very waxy green effect. I wanted a mineral sort of smell, but also lemony. It's half-way between rocks and lemon."

His fruity perfume has an unusual touch of apple and the oriental scent has "earthy, autumnal notes", while for the floral scent he wanted "to pull out all the stops".

He describes a "giant lily of the valley smell, with something interesting - a note of aniseed".

*The perfumes are not available in the UK, but are available mail order from 20 Boulevard Fragonard, 06130 Grasse. Pictured are perfumes from the new Absolus Aromatiques range.

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