This week I’m delighted to have writer, man of the cloth and most notable ambassador for the double-breasted blazer since Jerry from The Good Life as guest on World of Booze, Fergus Butler-Gallie. You might know him as one of the funniest people on twitter, he recently created an infographic to show how far on foot each C. of E. Diocesan Bishop has to walk from his cathedral to the nearest Nando’s, important stuff, I think we can agree. By day he works as a curate in Liverpool while finding the time to write two books: Field Guide to the English Clergy, an extremely funny look at the great eccentrics from the Church of England, and Priests de la Resistance, about the clergy who fought fascism. The former is one of those books perfectly-formed books that you’ll keep wanting to read bits out to your wife/ life-in-lover/ congregation, and it’s so good that she/he/they won’t mind. Favourite entries include the Right Reverend Howell Witt who entertained his rural Australian parishioners by dragging up as the Dowager Duchess of Dingo Creek, and the Reverend Harold Davidson, the lady-loving Rector of Stiffkey, who was eaten by a lion at a circus in Skegness. As you might expect, there’s quite a bit of booze, so I thought that the author would be just the person to talk to us about drink.
HGJ: When did you first realise that wine was something special? Was there a particular bottle that was an epiphany?
FBG: There was, I remember a particular bottle- a deep brown Australian pudding wine (its provenance beyond those details I forget) which I pilfered from the back of the parental drinks cabinet whilst I was at school and then drank with my friends (as was our custom instead of, well, doing any work). I remember it being such a marvellous change from the warm gin and half-curdled limoncello that such heists normally provided us with; warm raisin flavours with all the datey stickiness of a nursery pudding. I suppose that was, in its own way revelatory, but it didn’t stop us from returning to the warm gin and bootleg whisky the following week.
HGJ: Did you have a similar epiphany about becoming a priest?
FBG: There was no burning bush moment for me, rather a slow, dawning sense that this was a vocation I should take seriously (a task I am still working on if I’m honest). It was something I would joke about but, as I became more convinced of the claims of Christianity, the joke, as is so often the case, became a reality. There are various points where that sense became clearer- experienced everywhere from Kent country churches and soaring Oxford chapels to the back streets of Prague and freezing French mountainsides. My conversion though, perhaps unusually, was always in head before heart, and it’s something I hope I’m still working on. They say God calls those to priesthood whom he cannot save by other means, and, whilst slightly facetious (and exhibiting a profoundly dubious soteriology) there’s an element of that which rings true for me.
HGJ: How does one become a priest?
FBG: Blood, sweat, tears etc. Really it’s a series of initial hoops to jump through, followed by filling in the same form multiple times, being locked in a retreat centre/borstal in Staffordshire for three days, followed by three years at a theological college (though one can get time off for good behaviour). Then it’s up to the bishop and the imparting of the Holy Ghost.
HGJ: What’s your favourite hymn?
FBG: This is a tough one- I’m afraid I’ll have to be very C of E and not commit to one but rather provide a list: Thine be the Glory for Easter, When I survey the wondrous Cross for Lent, Lo, He comes with Clouds descending, for Advent, All Praise to Thee my God this night for the saintly insight of Bishop Ken, Jerusalem the Golden for its vision of the Heavenly City, And can it be for Wesley’s ingenious distillation of the miracle of Grace. Frankly, as befits an innately negative person, I actually find it easier to name my most hated rather than my best loved.
HJ: Who was the booziest clergyman you encountered in your research?
FBG: Plenty of live ones, but I feel I ought to redact this part of the answer for legal reasons. In terms of the dead rather than the quick it was either The Reverend Dr Edward Drax Free, who locked himself in his rectory after stripping his own roof of lead to cover gambling debts, and only came out and surrendered to the Bishop of Lincoln when his wine cellar ran dry or Canon Felix Kir, a Roman Catholic cleric of Dijon who drank so much blanc de cassis that they simply cut out the middleman and named the drink after him.
HGJ: I like to imagine being in the Church of England is a bit like the scenes in Father Ted when Ted goes to Dublin ie. lots of excellent port. Is it anything like that?
FBG: Ha! The reality is a little more prosaic- especially up here in Liverpool where there’s a little more ‘front line’ work to be done than elsewhere. That said, there are moments where a nice glass of something can be enjoyed- I was recently sent a bottle of 1977 port (so encrusted with cellarial goodness that the label had malted off, but I am assured it is good) from the Dean of Emmanuel College in thanks for giving a talk to the clergy of the parishes where they are patron. I’m hoping to enjoy that soon.
HGJ: Does the C. of E still have cellars of old wines like Oxford colleges or gentlemen’s clubs?
FBG: I fear these days it’s more a case of grabbing a Pinot Grigio from the inside of a fridge at the end of a long day for many clergy! That said, I’ve rarely been served bad wine when dining with clerics. I know an archdeacon with an excellent collection and we try to serve decent wine when we have events at Liverpool Parish Church. We are lucky to have a first class wine merchant round the corner who does us excellent deals on various bottles.
HGJ: Do you still get offered sherry when you visit parishioners?
HGJ: Where do you buy your wine from? Do you have a favourite merchant?
HGJ: I use Berry Bros in London and both Cultural Wine and R&H Fine wines here in Liverpool. Cultural Wine introduced me to Txakoli (perfect for a working lunch) and converted me from Rioja sceptic to fan and R&H have some of the best priced Sauternes I have ever encountered, as well as being my source for the odd bottle of really farmyardy Jura.
HGJ: What’s your favourite region?
FBG: Depends- I love a white Burgundy. I was in Chablis last summer and could have quite happily drunk myself to death there. Red wise, I adore any of the heavier, tanniny, headache inducing left bank clarets. A proper hangover soup.
HGJ: What were the highlights of your Christmas drinking?
FBG: I actually didn’t do a huge amount of Christmas drinking! The job rather prevents too much of that. That said, my sister recently returned from the Lebanon and so my parents sourced some Chateau Musar from her which I had a tipple of on a brief New Year visit home. It was sublime. Otherwise I spent Christmas with some parishioners who furnished me with excellent champagne all day and then on Boxing Day evening I visited some friends and had a glass of a positively geriatric armagnac, whose appellation escapes me, it was nectar.
HGJ: Where’s your favourite place to drink in Liverpool? Or anywhere really.
FBG: Too many places, arguably! The city is awash with absolutely first class pubs- Ye Cracke, The Roscoe Head, The Baltic Fleet, Peter Kavanagh’s, The Belvedere Arms- all are on my standard tour of Liverpool for a newcomer. Otherwise it is the Artist’s Club on Eberle Street- a venerable city institution where an afternoon can easily dissolve into a bottle of excellent red. Otherwise, the Rose and Crown in Oxford was my go to for my student years- I still kiss the threshold on arrival. In town I have a softspot for the Prince Arthur, tucked away in a housing estate north of Old Street, Kentish ales on tap and where the regulars have named chairs, the French House in Soho for as many Pernods as is necessary to get me speaking French, The Southampton Arms in Kentish Town, for pork sandwiches, beer after beer and hours lost to endearingly stupid arguments among friends or the Pride of Spitalfields, a proper boozer I’ve only recently been introduced to but think very fine.
HGJ: And finally, can wine or drink in general bring you closer to God?
FBG: If Christ saw fit to make wine his Blood and to turn mere water into booze (when, as the Gospel reminds us, they were already well drunk) then I think the answer must be an unequivocal yes.