Inside the louchest nightclub in Britain

This is something I wrote for the Telegraph a few years back about going clubbing, for the first time in years, with a club fixer called Richard Walker-Smith.

The nightclub dream is that scene in Saturday Night Fever where Tony Manero (John Travolta) and his crew jump a long queue and walk straight into 2001 Odyssey greeted by everyone on their way in. That has happened to me only once. It was at a nightclub in Leeds called Speed Queen. This was a funky house night with a ‘mixed’ clientele which is code for gays, girls and men who don’t look too straight. Because it was so popular with glamorous Yorkshire girls who wanted to dance unmolested, the queue was always full of hopeful groups of lads in Ben Sherman shirts.  One night I arrived with some regulars. They were dressed up to the nines. I wore a sleeveless neoprene T shirt. We walked past all the hopefuls and straight into the club. I felt like one of the beautiful people. It never happened again. 

Mostly my experiences involved waiting in queues in the rain with a large chance that I wouldn’t get in. The last time I went clubbing was in 2006 at the End just off Oxford Street (a club owned by Mr C from the Shamen which closed in 2009). I found the whole thing so exhausting that I never went again. I remember thinking at the time that there must be an easier way. A young man called Richard Walker-Smith thinks he has found the answer. He’s the founder of Zoolafix a website that hooks you up with fixers around the world who for around £100 promise to give you the night of your life. He offered to show me what he could do.  

I warned Richard that I hadn’t had been to a nightclub in years. I’m now 37, married with a daughter and a very manly paunch. He stheaid that he’d break me in very gently. We’d go to a place called the Box. My wife googled the Box –  apparently it’s the louchest club in Britain. ‘Well you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the Daily Mail’, I replied, ‘they probably just found some single mothers there’. Then I looked it up: it’s notorious for heavy cocaine use, obscene floor shows and orgies.  It’s also famously difficult to get into.

Richard isn’t the only one promising to take the hard work out of clubbing. There’s now an app called with Fixr where you can buy club tickets online, they give you a QR code and then you walk straight into the club without queuing. The people behind Fixr including tabloid favourite Henry Conway all come from West London backgrounds and thought that the clubs they frequented – the sort of places that Prince Harry is seen falling out of – would jump at their app. They didn’t. The reason is the rather sinister sounding concept of ‘Face Control’. Exclusive clubs need a beautiful clientele. If they let just any Tom, DIck and Harry with an iphone, then they wouldn’t be exclusive any more. So Fixr are concentrating on the more commercial end of nightlife.

What should I wear for my night out? I couldn’t squeeze into the old neoprene T shirt so instead wore my Daks tweed jacket. My reasoning was that they’d think I’m one of Prince Harry’s mates and let me straight in. Before I left my wife wrapped me in a scarf, looked me sternly in the eye and said ‘no smoking, you’ll only make your cold worse!’ I met Richard at what looked like a boarded up pub in Dalston called the King’s Head. It’s now a private members club and has been decorated in what can only be described as William Morris meets Mobutu style. There’s lots of patterned wallpaper, antique furniture and taxidermy. I’m not talking a few stuffed owls but tigers, lions and in one room a bloody great polar bear. 

From the King’s Head we went to the Chiltern Firehouse in central London. The bar staff wore white dinner jackets and the waitresses wore extremely flattering red jumpsuits. As with the King’s Head the people on the door knew Richard. I asked him how he had become so well-known so young. He had two bits of advice: go out as much as you can so that your face becomes familiar and wear a big hat. The big hat means you are distinctive so people get to know you quicker. He said the worst thing you can do in a club queue it to try to be unobtrusive. Clubs want colourful people. I made a mental note – buy big hat. 

From the Chiltern Firehouse it was but a short hop to the infamous Box. There were two queues. At the front of one was a Welsh girl pleading with the doormen: ‘please! my friend used to work here and she said that I could come down tonight and you’d let me in. She said to ask for Louis.’ They looked at her with that blank look that they’re taught at bouncing school. There was no way she was getting in. Richard ignored both queues, walked right up to the bouncers, and started talking to them. There was a pause where I thought, I shouldn’t have worn the tweed, and then they lifted the rope and I entered the Box!

Inside there were saucy girls in 1930 outfits who all kissed Richard and said ‘hello darling’. I was slightly suspicious about how easy it was to get it. ‘Surely you must have slipped the bouncers some money?’ I asked him later. Richard told me that he’d ‘never done it and never would. Anyhow, I doubt it would get you very far at the places I like going to. I’ve seen doormen at the The Box not even blink at the offer of hundreds of pounds cash.’ I’ve heard from another source that some staff at the Box aren’t so immune to backhanders. 

We went to the bar where a beer cost £9.50. No wonder cocaine is allegedly so popular here – it’s just much cheaper than getting drunk. I told Richard to find me some drugs immediately. I’m joking of course, but surely it must come up? For many clubbing is about drugs and the possibility of sex. What if your customers wanted you to procure things or people? Richard replied: ‘Guests after that kind of service can expect to be left disappointed. I’m very focussed on building a reputable business.’ Richard has big ambitions for Zoolafix; he wants it to become the Air B&B of nightlife. 

This place used to be Raymond’s Revue Bar, an old school Soho strip club owned by pornography magnate Paul Raymond. The old Soho of stripclubs and sex shops may be dying but money and sex are still intertwined. The club was divided into three groups: down the side were the high rollers in booths that cost thousands necking champagne and all looking very refreshed. On the raised dance floor were the freaks and beautiful people, and then there was everyone else. As someone who remembers the self-conscious egalitarianism of clubbing in the 90s it was strange to see the divisions so starkly defined and ruthlessly exploited. 

Of course this egalitarianism was nonsense at the clubs I went to in Leeds. Your face still had to fit, but now if it doesn’t you can buy your way in by booking a table which costs a lot of money. The Fixer boys are in talks with Prince Harry clubs so that you will soon be able to buy tables for £1000s through their app. Money trumps Face Control if you have enough of it. Of course by hiring Richard you are also bribing your way in. It’s not quite how I saw nightlife in the 90s but I didn’t feel that bad about it. If I was taking a night out with a group of friends – I would hire Richard. I’ve never had a night where everything happened so effortlessly. By about one in the morning I was a little drunk and for a moment almost felt like one of the beautiful people. It wasn’t quite Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever but it was good enough for me.

Posted in Wine articles | Leave a comment

Cin City – judging the world’s best cinsault

Last week a group of highly-respected wine experts and me, blind tasted nearly 40 cinsaults from around the world at The Drapers Arms in Islington. And here are the full results.

Cin City aka the Cinsault Olympics aka the judgement of Islington came about from Matt Walls’ love of this long-neglected variety. The tasting panel consisted of five fellow cinsault-lovers, two masters of wine, Alistair Cooper and Sarah Abbott, Alice Lascelles from the Financial Times, Walls and me.

I’ve written an article for Club Oenologique about the tasting so this is just a place to put the full results and indulge in some backstabbing of fellow judges. Only joking! But seriously, there will be some backstabbing.

But first a big thank you to Madeleine Waters and Matt Walls for organising, and to the Drapers Arms for giving us a room and glasses for free. The food and wine list at this place is first rate.

We tasted 37 wines, 22 from South Africa, 8 from Chile, 4 from France, 2 from California and 1 from Lebanon so it’s no surprise that South Africa came out on top. But the sheer quality of the top three South African wines was astonishing. These are gorgeous wines that justify their high price tags. It was also great to see a favourite of mine Domaine des Tourelles from Lebanon placing so highly. Maybe it will convince more Lebanese producers to bottle some cinsault.

“No, I don’t think there’s any reduction,” Alistair Cooper (right) with Matt Walls

France, sadly, did not show well, though I personally loved the Domaine Tiptiri from the Rhone and liked Boulevard Napoléon L`Abeuradou (despite the rather high alcohol). I wasn’t as keen as the other judges on the Chilean wines, some of which I found unpleasantly reductive. They were also very young, as were many of the wines so may well unfurl with more time in bottle and/or decanting. Both Californian wines were superb

Anyway, here’s the top 20 and below that are my own personal favourites:

1AA Badenhorst, Ringmuur Cinsault, Swartland 2019 SA
2Leeu Passant, Old Vines Basson Cinsault, Wellington 2017 SA
3Blankbottle ‘Pseudonym’ 2020 SA
4Domaine des Tourelles Vieilles Vignes Cinsault LEB 2018
Joint 5Birichino, Bechthold Cinsault Old Vines CAL 2019
Joint 5Duncan Savage ‘Follow the Line’ SA 2018
Joint 5Leonardo Erazo Itata Las Curvas Itata CHIL 2019
8Bosman Family Vineyards Twyfeling Cinsaut Bush Vines SA 2019
9Blankbottle ‘Retirement at 65’ Cinsault SA 2020
10Leeu Passant, Old Vines Lötter Cinsault, Franschhoek SA 2018
Joint 11Leonardo Erazo Amigo Piedra CHIL 2019
Joint 11Lukas van Loggerenberg ‘Geronimo’ CHIL 2019
13Scholium ‘1MN’ Bechtold Ranch CAL 2019
Joint 14Kaapzicht, Skuinsberg Bushvine Cinsault, Stellenbosch SA 2020
Joint 14Mount Rozier The Red Snapper Cinsault SA 2020
Joint 14AA Badenhorst, Ramnasgras Cinsault, Swartland SA 2019
Joint 14Miguel Torres La Causa Cinsault, Itata SA 2015
18AA Badenhorst, Ramnasgras Cinsault, Swartland SA 2017
Joint 19Domaine Jean-David Tipitiri Cinsault FRA 2019
Joint 19A los Vinateros Bravos Pipeno Tinto, Itata Hills CHIL 2020
If it’s got a bird on the label, then I’m all over it
1AA Badenhorst, Ringmuur Cinsault, Swartland SA 2019
2Leeu Passant, Old Vines Basson Cinsault, Wellington 2017 SA
joint 3Birichino, Bechthold Cinsault Old Vines CAL 2019
joint 3Domaine Jean-David Tipitiri Cinsault FRA 2019
joint 3 Domaine des Tourelles LEB 2018
joint 3Kaapzicht, Skuinsberg Bushvine Cinsault, Stellenbosch SA 2020
joint 3Bosman Family Vineyards Twyfeling Cinsaut Bush Vines SA 2019
4Scholium ‘1MN’ Bechtold Ranch CAL 2017
5Mount Rozier The Red Snapper Cinsault SA 2020
Joint 6Blankbottle ‘Retirement at 65’ Cinsault SA 2020
Joint 6AA Badenhorst, Ramnasgras Cinsault, Swartland SA 2017
Joint 6B Vintners, Lone Wolf Cinsault, Stellenbosch SA 2018
Joint 7Boulevard Napoleon, `L`Aberadou` Pur Cinsault de Schistes IGP Pays d’Herault 2018 FRA
Joint 7Blankbottle ‘Pseudonym’ SA 2020
Joint 7AA Badenhorst, Ramnasgras Cinsault, Swartland SA 2018
Joint 7Natte Valley Cinsault SA 2019

Looking forward to Cin City 2 which will be even bigger.

Posted in Wine articles | 1 Comment

In praise of Grenache

It’s Grenache day on Friday 17 September so I wrote something on why I love this deliciously boozy grape variety.

One of the favourite discussions that we wine bores have is which grape would we choose if we could only drink one for the rest of our lives. Most people pick Pinot Noir or Riesling. For me though, there can be only one, Grenache. I can’t think of any other varety that makes so many different wines from everyday red and rosé to Port-style fortified wines in France and Australia. You’d never get bored. Native to Aragon (where it’s known as Garnacha), it’s grown anywhere in the world where there’s sufficient heat. It’s the main ingredient in burly reds like Chateauneuf-du-Pape but at altitude produces wines that you might call delicate if it wasn’t for that tell-tale warmth in the mouth. Grenache rarely clocks in at less than 14% ABV, another reason I love it.

It also has a couple of equally versatile siblings: Grenache Blanc and the rare Grenache Gris. Last year I met a fellow Grenache lover, Justin Howard-Sneyd a former Waitrose buyer who now makes wine in the Roussillon. He told me: “you can make everything from plump wild strawberry flavoured rosé through juicy gluggable reds to serious complex age-worthy fine wines.” And indeed he does at his vineyard, Domaine of the Bee. He went on to say: “If you love the perfume and sexiness of Pinot Noir, but appreciate a riper, rounder style of wine, then I don’t think you need to look much further than Grenache.” I couldn’t agree more. 

You’ve probably tried and loved Grenache without even knowing about it, it’s a major component in most Mediterranean rosés, Côtes du Rhône, and traditional Rioja, but it has never had the kudos of say, Syrah. Until now. Sommeliers love it: Merlin Ramos from Gridiron in London said: “Grenache is a grape that despite hard weather, rugged terrain, and bad soil will triumph”; Jean-Baptiste Sory from Helix restaurant at the Gherkin praised Grenache-based wines as “distinctive and so drinkable” And this gets to the heart of it, Grenache unlike austere Cabernet Sauvignon or difficult Pinot Noir, is always fun even when it’s being serious. Now there’s a day devoted to it, 17th September, but for me, every day is International Grenache Day.

Posted in Wine articles | Leave a comment

Zaltotude sickness

This is something I wrote last year on my aversion to ultra-thin fancy wine glasses especially Zaltos, which make me feel distinctly uneasy. Glasses should have a bit of heft to them.

I have a guilty secret that I’ve been hiding from the wine world. No, it’s not a sneaking admiration for white Zinfandel, it’s far more embarrassing than that. The truth is that I prefer drinking wine out of cheap glasses. No, I’m not going to defend the Paris goblet, a particularly bad design because not only can you not get your nose in, or at least I can’t, but you also cannot drink out of it quickly; nor am I going to say that the the quality of the glass has no bearing on wine appreciation. I’ll even concede that there might be need for more than one type of wine glass, though I’m not sure one needs a special glass for, say, Sangiovese and Barbera. I just don’t enjoy drinking, as opposed to tasting, wine out of the sort of wafer thin tall wine glasses that get most wine pros all hot and bothered.

In the past, after ordering wine in a restaurant (how exotic those words sound now), I would give an inward groan when the perfectly serviceable glasses were cleared away and out came the goldfish bowls. For me, it’s the biblious equivalent of the waiter interrupting you to explain the chef’s concept. It’s a sign that fun is over, and it’s time for the polishing, fussing and the sheer bloody ceremony when I just want to taste the damn thing. I remember eating a few years back in a posh hotel in Scotland with a load of whisky writers and they couldn’t believe the sheer poncing about that needed to occur before they could have some wine. 

Once your wine is finally poured, you now have a load of delicate glass filled with liquid perched precariously on a thin stem above the pristine white table cloth. It’s like a test for the uninitiated. Rory Sutherland wrote in the Spectator recently on “the ludicrousness of stemmed wine glasses”: “Let’s give it a high centre of gravity for maximum instability, with a base so small and a stem so long that one misjudged gesticulation will catapult the contents into the lap of someone three feet away”’ he wrote. It seems like an extremely bad idea to create something so fragile for consuming what is, though you’d never guess it from reading Decanter, an intoxicant. I’m clumsy sober, so after a couple of glasses, an evening at a restaurant can very quickly turn into a game of Buckeroo. But at least I won’t have to wash the damn things if I’m eating out. At home, I have three Riedel Bordeaux glasses. I was given a set a few years back, quickly broke one, and since then rarely use them.  I’m not one for conspiracy theories but manufacturers of glasses have a vested interest in making them easy to break. Remember, when you are eating out at a posh restaurant, you are paying for all those breakages. 

Just the sound of ultra thin glass clinking together sets my teeth on edge. What I really like to use are the chunky glass goblets inherited from my aunt. These are excellent for drinking rosés, whites and chilled reds. The glass is so thick that the wine stays cool. Often I start in a proper wine glass, scribble some notes then move onto the goblets. I’m a big fan of tumblers, too. I’ve had some wonderful times on holidays with my wife drinking good wine out of Duralex, like a bottle of Morey St Denis from Domaine Fourrier in the Cotswolds or a single vineyard Qupe Syrah in Santa Barbara. I know some wine writers to take their own glasses on holiday.

Now, this isn’t a hill I want to die on. I appreciate that a little swirlage is necessary to properly appreciate wine. One can take unpretentious wine glasses too far: one of my favourite restaurants, 32 Great Queen Street, now sadly closed, only served wine out of tumblers in its early years. Even the Mas de Daumas Gassac. My father used to bring his own glass. I have found the perfect compromise: Dartington red wine glasses. They look like giant copitas: big enough to swirl but hard to knock over. They even fit in our dishwater. Despite their low centre of gravity, I probably break three every year. So if you ever want to know what to get me for Christmas… 

For me there’s an order of importance when it comes to enjoying wine: the company, the quality of the wine itself, the food and, somewhere near the bottom, is the glass. Unpretentious glasses say spontaneity, fun and pleasure while delicate expensive ones say oneupmanship, pedantry and general twattery. They are for the sort of people who say stemware instead of glass, or timepiece for watch. Don’t be a glass bore. Life’s too short.

This originally appeared on

Posted in Wine articles | Leave a comment

The art of Campari

This is something I wrote a few years ago for the Daily Telegraph when Campari put on an exhibition of its posters in London.

You’d never get some the images in the forthcoming exhibition of classic Campari posters past the Advertising Standards Agency. There are figures who might appeal to children, adults who appear to be under 25 and, most shocking of all, images linking the consumption of Campari to seduction. Thankfully there were no such strictures in 20th century Italy when Campari commissioned a series of posters that blurred the line between art and advertising.

Campari has its origins in the heart of industrial Italy, Milan. In 1861, a cafe owner Gaspare Campari created a blend of 68 botanicals, neutral alcohol, water and sugar. That striking red colour came from cochineal beetles. A manufactured product, not governed by the whims of nature like wine nor weighed down by tradition, it was the perfect drink for a young country, Italy had only been unified in 1861, and for mass advertising. It was Gaspare’s son Davide who set about selling his drink first across Italy and then the world. 

The early advertising campaigns linked drinking Campari with glamour and sophistication. A 1913 poster by Marcello Dudovich shows a group of Edwardian ladies in elaborate pastel dresses and hats. It’s a classic image of Belle Epoque bourgeois contentment though one of the men standing with them is wearing a military uniform with sword which gives the poster a melancholy edge when one thinks what would happen the following year.  

Whereas the pre-war posters are fairly conventional, after the war, Campari advertising became decidedly avant garde. Futurism, the Italian artistic movement based on speed and modernity, embraced advertising wholeheartedly. The painter Giacomo Balla wrote: “any store in a modern town, with its elegant windows all displaying useful and pleasing objects, is much more aesthetically enjoyable than […] the grimy little pictures nailed on the grey wall of the passéist painter’s studio.” In the modern world people were not going to have time to stop in museums and look at pictures but will look at art on the street.  

This union of commerce and cutting edge art found its most playful exponent in Fortunato Depero (above). He wrote “the art of the future will be largely advertising” and in 1926 he began his long relationship with Campari. His style is instantly recognisable: monotone abstract images, tribal motifs, slogans and stylised figures collide  in a way that looks like early Russian revolutionary art but with a sense of humour. Most striking of all is his 1931 design for a pavilion, which was never built, where the entire structure is built out of the word Campari. Depero sealed his place in Italian culture with his design for the triangular premixed Campari and soda, the Italian equivalent of the Coca-Cola bottle. 

Campari’s advertising embraced others artistic styles: there was surrealism in the posters of Leonardo Cappiello, sinister-looking clowns jumping through hoops of orange, the dreamlike silhouettes of Ugo Mochi or my own personal favourites, cubist still lifes by Marcello Nizzoli where the Campari bottle takes centre stage (below). This was truly a melding of fine art and commerce.

All this took place under Mussolini’s fascist regime. Initially his vision chimed with the Futurists but following the 1929 Lateran treaty with the pope, Mussolini wanted art to show a Catholic, agrarian and family-orientated Italy. A similar reaction against the avant garde happened under Stalin but whereas Soviet propaganda art of the same period became kitsch, Campari cheerfully ignored Il Duce’s edicts and the adverts continued as before. Advertisers had more artistic freedom in fascist Italy than in modern day Britain.

After the war the adverts change, it’s out with modernism and in with pop art reflecting the optimism of Italy’s post-war boom. It’s advertising for the Fiat 500 generation. For me this part of the exhibition is less satisfying perhaps because the pop art style is already so soaked in advertising. Still there are some great images: a gamine Audrey Hepburn-esque figure (below – much too sexy for the ASA), a quirky image of Depero’s bottle with running legs (these first two by by Franz Marangolo), and a typographical poster that plays with the recognisability of the Campari brand. This last image by Bruno Munari is made of different fonts like a ransom note cut out of a newspaper. Again there’s dramatic irony here has it prefigures the political violence and kidnapping of the 1970s anni di piombo (years of lead) that would mark the end of Italy’s sunny postwar age. 

The golden age of poster advertising too came to the end at a similar time with the rise of television. Posters were now part of a larger multi media campaigns though Campari still aimed for the top: Federico Fellini directed a 1984 television advert. This exhibition celebrates a special moment in advertising history, a time when commercial art could be confident, joyful and beautiful. And effective too, aren’t you now craving the distinctive bittersweet taste of Campari? I know I am.

Posted in Wine articles | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Armenian brandy, the Johnnie Walker Black Label of the Soviet Bloc

This is something I wrote for a new drinks magazine called Tonic that I’m involved with. The first issue is out there, the second is coming and we’re working on the third. You can get a 10% discount off the magazine here with the code HWOB10 at check-out.

Armenian brandy was the Johnnie Walker Black Label of the USSR. If you wanted to smooth a transaction in Minsk, Smolensk or Vladivostock, then a bottle of konyak to the right man would usually do the trick. The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam referred to it as “the golden currency of cognac”. 

The Soviets had a parallel booze economy to the Western one: port and madeira-style wines were made at Massandra in Crimea, sturdy reds came from Georgia, Champanski from Moldova and, of course, Tokay from Hungary. Today Tokay has been revitalised and the Georgians are exporting to America but poor landlocked Armenia, trapped between enemies, Turks and Azeris, has little choice but to stay within the Russian sphere of influence.  Though the Armenians are nothing if not resourceful when it comes to their export markets: by the side of the road in Vayots Dzor province, you’ll see what looks like Coca Cola for sale; the bottles are actually filled with wine ready to be smuggled into the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It’s a mark of how bitterly the Armenians feel towards the Turks, that the Bolshevik occupation from 1920 to 1991 isn’t remembered too badly. In some parts of the USSR, the Russians tried to stamp out local culture but in Armenia, they encouraged it, to an extent. The capital, Yerevan, has many fine Soviet-era buildings that take their cues from traditional Armenian churches; they certainly look better than the kind of Dubai-lite architecture that is now springing up all over the city. 

The Ararat Distillery | Africa Thoughts

Two of these such buildings house the rival Ararat and Noy (Noy means Noah in Armenian and Mount Ararat was where Noah was said to have landed after the flood) distilleries. The former, housed in a redbrick building somewhat reminiscent of a monastery, is described in Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook (published in 1965) as “the distillery on a hill with a clear view of Mount Ararat”. The mountain, symbol of Armenia, towers over the city, but it’s now in Turkey.  

Both distilleries claim descent from the original Armenian brandy which was largely a creation of a Russian, Nikolay Shustov. So esteemed was Shustov brandy that at the International Exhibition in Paris of 1900, his firm won the right to call its product ‘cognac’.  During Soviet times, Armenian brandy was a great favourite of the Politburo. Churchill was said to have drunk it but then again Churchill was said to have drunk everything: no leader except perhaps Napoleon has done more to shift booze. 

Armenian brandy is double-distilled like cognac but from local grapes and aged in Caucasian oak. The cheaper ones are sweet and mellow, a small amount of sugar is added post-distillation, but the Ararat Nairi 20 year old can bear comparison with a good armagnac or cognac. The locals drink it rather as you would a dessert wine with coffee and chocolates. No meal in Armenia is complete until the bottle of cognac is on the table. 

Vasily Grossman wrote “cognac may be a French word but Armenian cognac is the best in the world; no grapes are as sweet as Armenian grapes. . .” Hyperbole certainly but there’s little doubt that even under Communism, it was a fine product. It’s better made today though.  Following independence in 1991, investors flocked in and cellars were modernised. Pernod-Ricard now own the Ararat brand, but it’s still little seen outside its traditional market. In a move the smacks of desperation, one distillery has taken to selling its brandy in novelty bottles in the shape of AK-47s and, oddly, penises. You can’t imagine them doing that in Cognac. 

I’ve just done an internet search and everyone in Britain seems to be out of stock with Ararat, perhaps something to do with Covid and the recent war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Tonic Magazine Ltd. Tonic Volume 1 Magazine
Posted in Wine articles | 1 Comment

Uncle Peter: a life in booze

Bit of a change of pace today. This is something I wrote based on the life of a relative who died a few years ago. It’s very lightly fictionalised. 

Uncle Peter wasn’t really an uncle. The day he called to invite me to lunch at his club in St. James’s was the first time he described himself as such. I told him I could take off an hour and half at most from work. ‘Nonsense my dear boy, we won’t have started eating by then,’ was his reply.

We agreed to meet the following week. I took a day’s holiday. He specified that I wear a business suit. The nearest thing I had was a shiny mohair number that I’d bought from a charity shop. The trousers were extremely tight. It was the kind of thing you can picture John Travolta wearing in Saturday Night Fever. That day the weather was sweltering and, as I sweated, the suit gave off a strong smell, a mixture of mothballs and the previous owner’s armpits. The doorman at the club looked at me sceptically. I almost asked for ‘Uncle Peter’ but at the last moment remembered his surname. I was shown in. The bar was full of men in impeccably conservative grey flannel suits. They looked up at me. My stinky old suit suddenly felt very tight on the crotch. The whole thing had been a terrible mistake.

Then Uncle Peter arrived. He was a handsome man in his early 60s with a big face like a friendly bear. He suggested we drink Pimms. He asked the barman to make it in pewter tankards with ginger ale and a shot of gin in each. ‘Pimms hasn’t been the same since they lowered the alcohol levels.’ I took a sip. He was right. I’d always found Pimms to be an insipid drink but with the gin and ginger ale, it was delicious. He drank his quickly and ordered another, it was a very hot day. He then acknowledged the waves, nods and ‘Peters’ from the other men in the room. ‘This is my nephew’ he said pointing at me, and they all smiled if not warmly then not coldly. 


Peter hunting boar in Poland, before I knew him

We were the last to go through to the dining room. We began with a bottle of Sancerre to accompany our smoked eel followed by the house claret.  I can’t remember what we drank that with. Peter apologised for the quality of the red wine: ‘if I was still working I would have ordered Chateau Palmer’. Afterwards we sat in the lounge drinking Green Chartreuse with a QC who was dying of bowel cancer. 

They told me stories about the wild days of the club in the 1970s which were hard to follow but contained memorable lines such as: ‘do you remember that time when you fell asleep on the mantlepiece?’ or ‘and then I threw a stool at the Belgian ambassador’s chauffeur.’  Apparently the new members were terribly boring; Peter told me that when he was practising law, his working day would start work at 7am, he’d work until 1pm and then spend the rest of the afternoon at the club. 

That first  time we went to lunch, I hardly knew him. Peter appeared in our lives all of a sudden but very quickly it seemed like he’d always been there. My aunt had moved in with him when a house she was meant to be buying fell through and she found herself homeless. She had intended to move to France to eek out her meagre pension. 

She was a real aunt, my mother’s older sister, a rather grand lady in her 60s. She spoke like Katharine Hepburn but with rolled ‘R’s in the manner of her home city of Aberdeen. Years came out ‘yars’ and stereo was ‘steerrrrreo.’ In my teens I found her rather embarrassing and would try to avoid going for lunch with her. She’d never married. There had been boyfriends and proposals but none were good enough for her according to my mother. 

Though they never explicitly stated it, I gathered that she and Peter had been lovers back when he was married. Eventually she did buy a place in the Languedoc but carried on spending most of the year with Peter. They had rekindled their romance by this stage. He became her, I suppose the only word for it is, boyfriend. Not a very good word for a man of his age though there was something boyish about him. He brought out a girlish side to my aunt too especially when he teased her. She didn’t take teasing from anyone else. There are holiday photos of the two of them in the France, next to a huge plate of oysters and bottle of Picpoul de Pinet, looking like a couple of teenagers. She was nearly seventy at this point. 


Peter and my aunt Marianne on their wedding day

Peter lived in a flat at the top of a building near Marylebone High Street. The next door’s flat used to belong to Ringo Starr. It was five floors up and there was no lift. The first time I met him, I was still recovering from climbing all those stairs when a beaming Peter, cigarette in hand, handed me a negroni. I’d never had one before. It tasted like the most alcoholic thing imaginable. Peter made them very large. We had two and then moved on to wine. I noticed that he got into a panic if he saw anyone’s glass getting low, ‘Maria!’ he’d bark at my aunt, ‘look at his glass, it’s almost empty.’ With the constant topping up of glasses, I  became very drunk. We all did. My aunt forgot to put the food on so we just carried on drinking. Again I began to have trouble following the conversation; Peter though just became more loquacious, his stories funnier though increasingly convoluted. 

Eventually supper was ready. Something involving duck, as I recall, but by this stage we are all much too far gone to care. The giddy atmosphere was only spoiled by a chart on the wall of the kitchen from Peter’s doctor with a step-by-step program to wean him off the drink. At the end it said ‘and then no alcohol again ever!’ This statement was underlined three times. It was really the only sign that he had a problem apart from the sheer amount that he drank. That and the odd lustrousness of his hair. Funny how alcoholics can be like that. You’ll see some old geezer on the streets, looking like he’s on his last legs, but with hair that most middle-aged men would kill for. About an hour after eating a look of deep melancholy came over Peter’s face and my aunt signalled that it was time for me to leave. 

Whenever I met Uncle Peter, we’d always drink. He loved old-fashioned boozers of the sort that are now dying out in London. One of his favourite pubs was a notorious place on Hackney Road called the British Lion. It was the sort of place where men in football shirts stand outside smoking aggressively and glaring at passers by. It didn’t intimidate Peter though. Whilst my aunt was at the nearby flower market on Columbia Road, Peter would drink Stella Artois with a whisky chaser and talk about racing with the locals. 

Despite his cravat and panama hat there was a classlessness about Peter that disarmed people. It helped that he knew his horses (though the time he gave me a list of tips for Cheltenham, none of them placed. ) He’d owned racehorses in the past. One of the happiest photos I have of him is with one of his horses at Aintree, whispering into its ear and looking absolutely at peace with himself. 

Peter loved all forms of gambling. He claimed to have paid his way through law school by playing poker. Later he gambled professionally in Las Vegas. One evening over drinks he leaned over to me and said: ‘if you want to stay up all night playing cards, never, ever take cocaine, promise me you won’t take cocaine, I’ve seen people lose their lives on cocaine. When I wanted to remain awake gambling, I stuck to whisky.’ He paused for a couple of seconds, then added ‘and Benzedrine.’ 

I laughed but when I look back now, I’m not sure his stories were meant to be funny. He wasn’t a raconteur, his conversation was always in earnest. One story in particular stayed with me: when he was at boarding school, Peter saved up and bought a bottle of whisky at the local pub. He told the landlord it was a present for a teacher. Peter then went out to the wood, built a fire and drank the whisky. A look of pure happiness came over his face as he reminisced. I asked him who he drank it with. ‘Oh no’ he replied ‘it was just me, the fire and the whisky. Mmmm bliss!’ There was a melancholy there so profound as to be unfathomable. Drink was the only thing that helped. He once managed to remain dry for a year whilst living in America, doing physical labour and taking antidepressants but he found life without alcohol intolerable.

Eventually the trips to the pub, the club or the East End became rarer and then dried up completely. It was all those stairs. He became housebound and, bored and irritated, he would drink more. He stopped eating. In the space of two years, he aged about twenty. The big bearish face became gaunt. The flat began to feel claustrophobic.  Far worse was the smell of stale alcohol and decay. The only trips out were to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington when he would have to be carried down the stairs on a stretcher. 

Increasingly when I saw him, he talked about death. He would promise us paintings from the flat and then not remember next time we saw him. He wanted me to join his club. It was important to him that someone from the family continued the tradition. His own children had no interest. What kept him going was the thought that on his 70th birthday he’d have a big party there. It would be a last hurrah or as he described it, ‘one almighty piss-up.’ 

This didn’t always seem such an unlikely prospect. Some days he would rally and be like the Peter of old, full of stories and bonhomie. Fortunately one of these up days coincided with his marriage to my aunt. The ceremony was conducted in the flat which was packed with friends and family. Even Peter’s children attended. There was a seemingly endless supply of Pol Roger champagne. We all drank whilst Peter held court in the corner like a Mafia Don. Everyone came over to pay their respects but also, without quite realising it, to say goodbye.

The last time I saw him, my aunt invited me to share some foie gras she’d brought back from France. I came over to the flat with my wife and recently-born daughter who Peter doted on despite her terrible baby acne. He dug out some good claret, Chateau Gloria, though he stuck to whisky. For an hour we ate and Peter drank. 

He looked terrible. His skin yellow as if it had been rubbed with turmeric. Strange noises emanated from his stomach. Soon he grew tired, excused himself and went to bed. He didn’t rest quietly though, throughout the evening we heard him crying forlornly for my aunt to make him a negroni. He sounded like a frightened child.

He died the following week. Years later now, I still think of him often. Though I try to recall the Peter of our first lunch together, I can’t forget that the lost frightened voice of that last dinner.  And on a hot day, I order Pimm’s with an extra shot of gin though I try to limit myself to one. 

Posted in Wine articles | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

A visit to Zorah wines in Armenia

I wrote this for the Spectator a few years ago but it doesn’t seem to be available online anymore. Perhaps something to do with Turkish computer hackers waging cyberwar on Armenia. Or perhaps a cock-up at the Spectator. One of the things that struck me when I visited back in 2016 was that the feeling among the people I spoke to that at any moment the country’s enemies would attack. They sounded paranoid to someone with my pampered English upbringing but as last year’s war with Azerbaijan backed by Turkey showed, the danger is very real. Anyway, hope you enjoy the article, and do try some of Armenia’s excellent wines.

Every 100 metres or so on the main road to Iran that runs through the Vayots Dzor province of Armenia there is a stall selling tomatoes, watermelons and Coca-Cola. I was with an Italian-Armenian businessman Zorik Gharibian and his wife Yeraz, and they suggested we stop at one. On closer inspection those bottles didn’t contain Coke, it was red wine cunningly packaged to smuggle into the Islamic Republic of Iran. We went into the nearby house and there was the winemaker, Haykaz Karapetyan, cigarette in mouth making that year’s wine in plastic bins. “No chemicals” he said. This was proper natural wine.  It smelt good, like a young Beaujolais with the same floral quality.  We then went into his cellar to try some older vintages. The 2015 had a distinct tang of vinegar. The 2012 tasted of old socks.

Diaspora Armenians

The Gharibians make wine too and from the same grape, Areni Noir, but it is rather different. Their nearby winery is called Zorah and their red, Karasi, costs about £25 in London shops. They are both diaspora Armenians, Zorik brought up in Italy, and Yeraz in London and New York. They wanted to buy a vineyard in Tuscany but following a visit to the mother country in 1998 decided to make wine in Armenia. “It was like I’d come home” as Zorik described it. Around 2000 they came across the region around the town of Areni (after which the variety is named) which turned out to be a viticultural paradise. It’s phylloxera free (though other parts of Armenia are not); there’s plenty of sunshine but the grapes preserve their acidity, “freshness comes naturally because of altitude” Zorik told me.  

Armenia is littered with the most amazing churches (photo from Liberty wines)

The landscape with its precipitous cliffs, caves and ancient monasteries would be the perfect setting for a new Indiana Jones film. The arid mountains are peppered with bright spots of cultivation including Zorah’s main vineyard thanks to a recently constructed irrigation pipe built with money from the World Bank. After they bought the land, experts in Armenia and back in Italy advised them to plant Cabernet Sauvignon.“When we said we wanted to do something with local varieties people were laughing at us.” Italian oenologist Alberto Antonini, though, saw the potential in Areni Noir. After years of experimentation with different Areni clones, they planted the vineyard in 2006. 

The first vintage was 2010. Straight away they knew that they had made  something exceptional but it hasn’t been easy. In the early years they made wine in a garage. It took an age to built their new winery because in Zorik’s words “the locals still have a Soviet mentality.” Apparently in their province there is only one cement mixer. In order to make wines to their exacting standards, they import almost everything, the presses, the fermentation tanks, the barrels, even the bottles, labels and the boxes, from Italy. The Gharibians had no idea how much they have spent on the project, “in winemaking you don’t do the maths” as Zorik put it. 

6,000 years of wine making

As well as local varieties, they wanted to use traditional Armenian winemaking techniques including ageing in amphora, Karasi in Armenian. Initially they aged some of the wine in barriques which imparts flavours from the wood but now they just use amphora and Italian botti (giant wooden barrels that don’t add any flavour). You can taste the results, the recent vintages have a whole new vivacity.  Zorah make a special cuvee, called Yeraz (after his wife, the word means dream in Armenian), from an unirrigated abandoned vineyard 1600 metres above sea level and around a hundred years old. It’s a good 45 minute drive up the mountain in a 4×4. Actually vineyard isn’t quite the right world as the Areni vines are basically growing wild amongst boulders and walnut trees. “So exciting when we discovered the vineyard. Zorik and Alberto were like kids in a sweet shop” Yeraz said. The yet to be released 2014 is undoubtedly one of the finest wines I have tried this year.

Zorik Gharibian in the winery with his amphorae

From the Zorah winery you can see a gaping cave in the cliffside. Here archaeologist Boris Gasparyan has found evidence of winemaking from about 4,000 BC. He showed me around the partially excavated site, it is not open to the public, and pointed out the jars that looked uncannily like Zorik’s amphora. He then pointed to other jars which contained traces of bones and blood probably from human sacrifice. Or a party that got out of hand.  Evidence of Armenia’s ancient wine culture is everywhere. There are grape motifs on monasteries, churches and even  on Soviet era buildings. I saw wild vines, vitis sylvestris, growing by a river and dotted around the country, by the side of the road, in restaurants and family houses, are amphora like the ones at Zorah winery.  

Regaining Armenia’s vinous roots

Nobody uses them for making wine anymore. Nobody even knows how to make them so the Gharibians dig them out of people’s basements. Armenia has lost touch with its vinous roots. Following the World War One and the massacres by the Turks, Armenians scattered around the world or were reduced to this mountainous country which was then invaded by the Bolsheviks. Armenia “caught between the hammer and the anvil” as the saying goes. It gives you some idea of how the Armenians suffered under the Ottomans that they aren’t particular bitter about Russian rule. But it was disastrous for wine. “Soviets broke link completely” Zorik told me. Central planning designated Georgia for wine and Armenia for brandy. Zorah have an amphora made in 1957 but shortly afterwards people stopped making them and then their own wine. 

There was more misery to come (something of a theme in Armenian history) the 1988 earthquake, and, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. It still feels like a precarious country. People half expect Turks, Mongols or Persians to come charging through at any moment. Nevertheless, Yerevan does have much of the trapping of a modern city with free wi fi, craft beer and wine bars. At one, Wine Republic, I tried a selection of good simple wines from small producers including Van Ardi and Sarduri. Quality wine of this sort has only been made in Armenia since the late 00s. “You couldn’t drink this stuff five years ago” Zorik said pointing to a bottle. Wine bars, though, are only for the well off.  Bottled wine is too expensive for most people.

The Gharibians aren’t the only diaspora Armenians involved with the wine business. Vahe Keushguerian, originally from Lebanon with spells making wine in Italy, runs a wine consulting company based in Yerevan called Semina Consulting. They have recently set up a nursery to supply Armenian winemakers with native varieties. But his biggest project, Karas, is based largely on international grapes and despite the name does not use amphora. It was set up by Eduardo Eurnekian, an Argentine-Armenian who made his fortune in airports including Yerevan’s. Superstar French oenologist Michel Rolland is also involved. The 2013 Reserve, made from Petit Verdot, Montepulciano and Tannat, I tried was not one of his finer efforts being rather overripe and over-oaked.  

My heart’s in the Highlands

Zorik is fiercely opposed to non-native varieties. On my last night in Armenia I had dinner with the Gharibians, Boris the archaeologist and Marina Dallakyan and Iskuhi Manukyan from Yerevan University who are cataloguing indigenous grapes. They were appalled that someone is planning on planting Chardonnay to make wine for the Russian market.  Their hope is that the international success of Zorah will inspire others to capitalise on Armenia’s viticultural riches. It’s a rich country in other ways with ancient monasteries that anywhere else would be thronged with visitors, great food, and fiercely proud friendly people. 

After dinner Boris stood up and glass in hand, made a toast, that ended, much to my surprise, with a Robbie Burns recitation: “my heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.” It reminded me of a line from a short story by William Saroyan about how Armenians carry their country within them and “when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” Zorik and Yeraz have done just this with Zorah. It could be the start of viticultural revival or, as Zorik said cheerfully, “it could all disappear tomorrow.” It is Armenia after all.

Waitrose have the latest vintage of Zorah Karasi in stock.

Posted in Wine articles | Tagged , | 1 Comment

You say Pinot Noir, I say Spätburgunder

This is something I wrote for a now defunct website a couple of years ago. Thought it held up quite well so I’m republishing it.

Germany makes wine from the most revered red grape in the world but you won’t see the words Pinot and Noir on the label. Whilst every other country uses variations on the French, trust the Germans to have their own word: Spätburgunder, meaning late (ripening) Burgundian (they also have Weissburgunder and Grauburgunder which are Pinots Blanc and Gris respectively.)

This idiosyncratic labelling is perhaps why few people realise that Germany is the world’s third biggest grower of Pinot Noir; one region, Baden in the south west of the country, grows more Pinot than New Zealand.  But these wines are also obscure because the Germans like drinking them so much that they are rarely exported.

Pinot Noir, sorry Spätburgunder, has been planted for so long in Germany that it is thought of as a local variety. It originated in Burgundy but probably came to Germany some time in the Middle Ages with Cistercian monks.  From Baden in the south to Ayr in the north, Pinot Noir is grown all over the country. Even in the the Mosel valley, Germany’s coldest region, very much Riesling central, they grow Pinot Noir. 

Anne Krebiehl , a German Master of Wine, told me that Pinot Noir was once widely planted in the Mosel but was outlawed in 1937 though nobody is quite sure why:  “most people jump to the very easy explanation “The Nazis outlawed it.” But it is incredibly difficult to find the substantiating paperwork” Kriebel said. Riesling was very valuable at the time so perhaps it was just a way of maximising returns from the land but it wasn’t banned anywhere else in Germany. Pinot Noir was only officially readmitted in 1987. 

The vine growers in the Mosel (above) are now making up for lost time. Martin Lehnert at Lehnert-Veit has planted some of his best vineyards with Pinot Noir instead of Riesling. In the Mosel’s cool climate only the steepest southern facing slopes that get the most sunlight will do for this often tricky grape. You might think therefore that the wines would be skinny, like an English red wine, but they are vibrant and ripe with an almost New Zealand intensity of fruit – perhaps not such a surprise as Martin Lehnert has worked in New Zealand.

In warmer regions such as Baden, Pfalz and Ayr, the wines are richer, sometimes positively overflowing with ripe fruit. Reds from Germany used to be a bit of a joke but now a German Pinot Noir is generally a much safer better than anything of equivalent price from Burgundy. “So far climate change has been good for us” Martin Lehner told me. But improvements in German reds are not just down to global warming. Producers are (re) discovering the best sites for red grapes, learning how much oak to use and planting better quality clones (there are different types of Pinot Noir.) Martin Molitor uses cuttings taken from from Chambolle-Musigny in Burgundy and I heard a rumour that one producer even pinched some cuttings from Domaine de la Romanee Conti, the world’s most expensive estate. 

Not everyone is so keen though. One of Germany’s biggest producers, Ernie Loosen, told me “Pinot Noir in the Mosel is like Shiraz in Burgundy”. He grows just a tiny bit which he makes into a sparkling rosé. Shiraz might be a bit outlandish but producers are seriously thinking about how the climate might change. Jan Matthias Klein at Staffelter Hof is hedging his bets with Portuguese varieties, Maria Gomes and Ariento.  “Maybe we’ll have to plant Cabernet in future” Peter Lehnert joked with me.

That’s a long way off though, I tried a Merlot, a variety that ripens before Cabernet, from the Mosel which tasted more like you’d expect a German red to taste i.e. a bit green. But I had another that wasn’t made from Pinot Noir that really impressed me. Made by Louis Klein, it was a Pinot Meunier, the least feted of the Pinot family. Naturally the Germans don’t call it anything as simple as Pinot Meunier, no way Josef, it’s Schwarzriesling – black Riesling. Those crazy Germans!

Posted in Wine articles | 1 Comment

Bomber – Len Deighton

With the news that Penguin is reissuing the Len Deighton back catalogue with snazzy new covers from April this year, I thought it was as good a time as any to post this article I wrote for Slightly Foxed on one of my favourite Deighton novels, Bomber.

Whilst reading Len Deighton’s Bomber, I was reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s line to do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good.” Bomber is a novel about the area bombing of Germany. Targeting German cities and civilians is a part of Britain’s war that is still extremely controversial. It doesn’t fit into the heroic narrative of the Battle of Britain, D Day or the Blitz. Almost alone amongst British forces in World War Two, bomber crews were not issued with a campaign medal when the war ended. The debate as to whether area bombing was a necessary evil or simply just evil inspires historians and writers to this day.

Deighton is perhaps uniquely placed to answer this question. After completing Bomber, he probably knew more about the entirety of the bombing campaign from both Allied and Axis perspectives than any man. It is based on years of research. The acknowledgements give you some idea of how much work Deighton put into the book. He flew as a passenger in a Heinkel so he could understand the experience of German fighter crew. He spoke not just with veterans and historians but also, in order to get the details right, to “Don Elms and Mike Wooller (who) helped me to find Anglo-American and German popular songs.” 

Bomber takes place over over 24 hours in June 1943 in three main locations: a British bomber airfield in East Anglia, a German radar station in Holland and a small German town called Altgarten near the Dutch border. The cast is vast but there are a few principles around whom the narrative is anchored. On the British side there’s Samuel Lambert who pilots a Lancaster bomber known as “the Creaking Door”. Despite captaining the plane, he isn’t an officer. In fact Lambert is disliked by some of the senior officers because he’s not what would be described now as a “team player.” Literally in this case, it is his refusal to play for his squadron cricket team despite his skill as a bowler that so annoys the Group Captain, a man fond of sporting metaphors. He says at one point: “cricket’s a little like flying in combat. . . . long leisurely times in the pavilion followed by brief moment when a chap faces some fast bowling.” There’s something of the Angry Young Man about Lambert in his disdain for this public school insouciance. 

As with other Deighton novels such as The Ipcress File (memorably made into a film with Michael Caine), class permeate the interactions of the British. The RAF is presented as snobbish and hidebound by rules: “the English believe that only gentlemen can be leaders” a character says at one point. But the class system isn’t Lambert’s only problem, early in the novel, he speaks out against bombing civilian targets and is quickly slapped down. Far more to the taste of the senior officers is Captain Sweet, an unpleasant scheming figure who lacks both Lambert’s experience and leadership qualities but was “regarded as office material from the day he joined up. He had a clear, high voice, energy, enthusiasm and an unquestioning readiness to flatter and defer to the voice of authority.” 

The German scenes revolve around Auguste Bach, a widower and commander of the radar station in Holland, whose young family are over the border in Altgarten. He is falling in love with the children’s nanny, Anna-Luisa, who is barely out of her teens. Initially she is portrayed as a dreamer and a naif but she’s not quite all she seems. The other principal Germans include the mayor of Altgarten, the Burgomaster, who is more preoccupied with organising his birthday party than the war and Lowenherz, a ace fighter pilot whose job it is to intercept RAF bombers. He’s from an old military family and torn between doing his patriotic duty and speaking out against the full horrors of the Nazi regime. 

The German sections are often the richest because we see more of the family life of the characters. There are no caricatures of heel-clicking Germans. Even the characters who commit the worst deeds are humanised and even made appealing such as the amoral Viennese doctor Hans Furth. Deighton  has done this before in his novel Winter: a Berlin Family 1899-1945 where the only Nazi in the Winter family is also the most charismatic character. 

The main plot is simple. A huge force of British aeroplanes, some 400, fly over to Germany to destroy the industrial city of Krefeld. It is the job of the Germans such as Lowenherz and Bache to stop them. Such bare bones don’t do justice to the swirl of subplots beneath the surface. Characters scheme, plot, fall in love, have personal triumphs and failures, and all the time we never forget that every single one of them is a human being. Bomber’s enormous cast includes airmen, soldiers, firemen, nurses, doctors, wives and civilians of all descriptions.  Deighton’s skill is in sketching them so deftly that the reader is never confused. For example Reinecke, Bach’s senior NCO, is both a “senior NCO of the old school” and a keen bird watcher. The first half of the novel is involved in establishing the characters.

It’s not only the characters who have back stories. The sleepy German market town of Altgarten is given such a rich history that you will be surprised to learn that it is not a real place. Deighton is particularly good at writing about inanimate objects. Each Lancaster bomber, such as the aptly-named “Creaking Door”, has its own personality. Julian Symons, a crime writer and contemporary, once remarked that Deighton was the only person he knew who actually liked machines. In Bomber the men are merely tiny cogs in a fighting machine. “It’s as though the plane goes to bomb Germany of its own predatory volition, as though it takes us along just for the ride” as a character notes.

Men and machines come together in a cinematic climax. The cuts between Germany, Holland and Britain that had taken place over chapters now take place over paragraphs or even lines. Deighton describes aerial combat as “three groups of men using every device that science could invent began to grope around the blackness like gunmen in a sewer.” If intercepting aircraft is a haphazard affair then precision aerial bombing is a chimera. Quickly the British plan unravels. A German fighter shoots down a light British aircraft, a Mosquito. The crew jettison their marker bombs over Altgarten rather than on the industrial city of Krefeld: “by now attention has centred on Altgarten and the plan had began to go terribly wrong.” The British were convinced they’d got the right target because Altgarten’s greenhouses looked to radar like “enormous factories”. 

The dry weather and wind whip the partly wooden town into a fireball. The portrait of a town being destroyed building by building is a tour de force. Area bombing as practised by the Allies is presented in horrific detail: “even after the last of the bombers had departed the effectiveness of the fire-fighting and salvage teams would be hampered by the delayed-action bombs. They would continue to explode for two more days.” Even those that survive are terribly damaged: “for some survivors it was the beginning of a mental breakdown from which they would never recover.” 

Rather as in Game of Thrones, characters with which we have become invested in are discarded with shocking suddenness and often appalling violence. The death of Kokke, a German pilot, killed by a bird through the windscreen, is described like this: “it was impossible to distinguish where the bird’s remains ended and Kokke’s face began.” A major character survives the raid and then dies in a motorcycle accident after he has landed.  Deighton follows his characters’ thoughts right to the bitter end; there is an epilogue where the surviving characters lives are sketched in a way that is both bathetic, humorous and peculiarly moving: “Peterson lives in Montreal and is vice-president of a small company that makes camping equipment.”

It is at times a very funny novel: “you don’t believe in this war” Cohen says. “Believe in it? . . . you make it sound like a rumour.” Lambert replies. It’s endlessly quotable: Hans Furth is described as “nibbling the German language like sachertorte. . “ For Gerda Pippert crashing the Burgomaster dinner is “the most exciting prospect she could remember since her holiday in Heidelberg in 1938”.  Voss, a German tailor, thinks: “some people said things against them, but the Nazis had done wonders for the uniform business, whatever other faults they might have.” 

We are used to World War One art being bleak but the popular view of the British role in World War Two is largely a creation of stirring films such as The Dam Busters or sentimental songs. In Bomber there are no patriotic cliches, nobody is ennobled by war. Sweet is still an unpleasant fool (spoiler alert here) as he crashes into the ground at 300mph. When an unnamed airman dies we are told that “they never mentioned his name again”. Ruth Taylor, Lambert’s wife sums up the antiheroic ethos of the novel: “Disgrace is only for men. Save talk of that for your schools and your clubs and your old comrades’ dinners. Save talk of disgrace until you lose your cricket match or for your next hesitant hero.”

Apart from the epilogue, the novel ends with the return of the surviving British bombers to East Anglia. The crew congratulate themselves on a job well done but a lowly WAAF corporal looks at the photos taken from the aircraft and realises that they have missed their target. It’s then that you realise that the men are going to have to go back on the next clear night and finish the job. This ending reminded me of Solzhenitsyn again, this time One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. All that struggle and to survive one day in the Gulag; Bomber shows only one day in one small corner of the war. Tomorrow there will be more bombing raids over Germany, occupied Europe and Japan. The horrors of a botched raid on a town such as Altgarten won’t even get a mention in histories of World War Two. Deighton leaves the reader to make up their own mind about the morality of area bombing. He is simply saying, this is how it was, and it’s impossible to argue with. 


Posted in Books | Tagged , | 4 Comments