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Film and TV This Week I'm Drinking

This week I’m drinking. . . . sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist

Cocktails are a lot of work, aren’t they? They require precision, in fact making a cocktail is much more like baking than say making a stew. If you don’t get the proportions right, it’ll taste all wrong. If you’re doing this at home, it’s fine for the first one or two and then I just can’t be bothered faffing around with a jigger, a pair of scales and teaspoon. I’d much rather pay someone else to make them so I can spend more time unsettling my friends with outlandish conspiracy theories.

Which is why I love vermouth, a mixture of herbs, spices, wine and brandy, it’s basically a ready mixed cocktail. Vermouth is going through a bit of a moment at the moment with new producers cropping up all over the place. There’s even two brothers making an vermouth in a garage in Forest Hill. Perfect for Londoners trying to cut down on their booze miles. This week I’m going a bit more further afield with the delicious Paso-Vermu from Spain. It’s made by an English couple in Somontano who also produce some very well-regarded wine and being sold by Tanner’s at a very reasonable £15.95.  It’s much gentler and more wine-like, you can really taste the wine base, than say Martini Rosso with just a touch of bitterness at the end. It was rather overpowered by the Campari and gin in a negroni but made an excellent Gin and It (equal parts gin and ITalian vermouth with ice and orange.) The best way to drink it, however, is like Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day, “on the rocks with a twist” and don’t care for a moment what the grumpy Bill Murrays of the world might think of it.

 

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Film and TV

Why I love wearing a tie

This is something I wrote last year for Boisdale Life magazine:

I owe my high flying career in publishing to the tie. It was the early 00s and I was a lowly PR assistant at Hodder & Stoughton. I’d been there for three years and I was going nowhere. Senior editors would patronise me, journalists would ignore me and authors would look at me askance wondering what happened to that bright efficient blonde who used to do their publicity. Then one day on whim I decided to wear a tie to the office. The effect was amazing: within a couple of weeks I was invited to meetings because people were interested in my opinion, at parties people would assume that I was in charge and literary editors would seek me out saying that we should have lunch. In an industry as scruffy as publishing wearing a jacket and tie marked me down as someone important even if I wasn’t. Even better, some days I’d wear a suit and tie for no reason at all and then smile mysteriously when people asked if I had a job interview.  A year later I was put in charge of the literary imprint. . . . and it was all downhill from there.

Ties don’t just look smart and mark the wearer out as someone professional but they say to whoever you are dealing with that they are important. The tie has reigned triumphant since it emerged as distinct from the bowtie and the cravat in the 19th century. Everyone used to wear ties. The only time I saw my grandfather without a tie was when he was on the golf course. Now, however, it looks like the tie might be going the way of the hat or the codpiece, once mighty items of clothing that disappeared almost overnight. Wear a proper hat such as a trilby today and it just looks like an affectation, and try wearing a codpiece to a job interview and see how far you get.

Clothes have been getting less formal since the 60s but I think the two harbingers of the demise of the tie were Tony Blair and hip hop music. Before hip hop, even as recently as the 1980s, pop singers, soul singers and the like used to dress up. I particularly liked the funky stockbroker look worn by Alexander O’ Neal and Robert Palmer. Hip hop stars who emerged in the late 80s, in contrast, wore baggy jeans, track suits and trainers. Young people lost their tie-wearing role models. At the same time Tony Blair, the archetypal trendy vicar, ditched the tie in order to be down with kids. His official portrait unveiled in 2008 was the first of a male British prime minister without a tie. Where Blair led Cameron followed. The Notting Hill set look was suit and white shirt worn without a tie which made them look like they’d always just finished work, apt I suppose. Now John Bercow, the pint size Speaker of the House of Commons, has said that ties and jackets are now no longer mandatory in the chamber.

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Businesslike and funky

It’s the end of an era. Now no one wants to look like members of the establishment, especially members of the establishment. People in professions such as advertising would not be seen dead in a suit and tie. You often see them, middle-aged ad men, skateboarding down Charlotte Street in skinny jeans. At hangout for the self-consciously creative, Shoreditch House, they don’t allow ties but they have to allow in the suits to pay the bills for so you have the peculiar sight of dozens of heavy set city types removing their ties as they go in. I fell foul of this rule one night and was told by a doorman to take off my tie. Later the manager came over and apologised, apparently the rule wasn’t meant for me, a trendy type (as I was then), but for the suits.

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“You are important”

Some of the last holdouts for ties are not in traditional gentleman’s clubs, many allow you just to wear a jacket, but in service industries. Waiters in smart restaurants wear ties as if to say that your pleasure is a serious business. And a tie is still part of the uniform for professionals such as lawyers and accountants. When I meet with my fund manager, it’s reassuring to know that my money is being slowly lost by an ex-army officer in a suit and tie.

Not all ties, however, are so respectable. In the 70s the enormous kipper ties worn by Noddy Holder from Slade parodied the sobriety one associates with tie-wearing. How you wear your tie says a lot about you. Schoolboys subvert the tie by wearing theirs either very long or very short. And if a tie says trust me then estate agents with their enormous Windsor knots in shiny pink or silver say the opposite. The Duke of Windsor never actually tied his tie in a Windsor knot, his were just made of very thick silk so he had a naturally large knot. In From Russia with Love Bond has his suspicions about a British agent because of his tie: “Bond mistrusted anyone who tied his tie with a Windsor knot. It showed too much vanity. It was often the mark of a cad”. The Windsor wearer turned out to be a Russian spy.

For me a tie should always be tied in a schoolboy knot, it should be silk, not too thick and hang down to the belt, not inches below like George W. Bush. The right tie can lift an outfit. At Hodder most of the time I wore a rather shabby corduroy jacket but with a splendid tie. A tie is one of the few ways that a buttoned-up Englishman can express himself. I have a magnificent blue and red polka dot Chloe tie that belonged to my grandfather. He was a rather forbidding figure but that tie showed that he had a playful side.That’s what I love about ties, they are a way of dressing up, showing off and being a bit of dandy without looking like a ponce.

Ties tell a story. There are old boys ties, regimental ties, livery ties and club ties. I know a few people who would kill to have an MCC tie.  They can have sentimental value too. As well as a number of my grandfather’s I have an old Oratory tie that belonged to a favourite uncle. As I didn’t go to the Oratory, I’m probably not supposed to wear it but I haven’t been pulled up on it yet.

Finally there’s a secret about the tie which the tieless hoards are missing out on, far from making you look stuffy and pompous, women love them. Very few women pick up on an expensive watch but I’ve lost count of the number of compliments that Chloe tie has received. If she plays with your tie, you’re probably in luck and a tie is custom designed for pulling you in for a kiss. Ties are sexy, dammit. We’d be mad to let them go without a fight. So wear a tie, even in fact especially when it’s not necessary. You’ll be happier, wealthier and sexier.

 

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Film and TV This Week I'm Drinking

This week I’m drinking. . . . a very nice South African Chenin

In Blackheath there are two clothes shops: one caters for Richard Hammond, all expensive jeans and mid life crisis leather jackets, and the other for James May. I often wondered who is buying all the paisley, surely even millionaire former Top Gear presenters can’t buy that many shirts. . . . . and then I went to the New Wave South Africa tasting earlier this month.

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It took place in a warehouse/ nightclub type venue in Shoreditch, the PA was playing Led Zeppelin at deafening volume and everywhere you looked there were middle-aged men in floral shirts like the one above.

Never mind the wines where good. South Africa has long been my least favourite large wine-producing country but the new wave Rhoney blends from Swartland have a verve to them (and not a single stinky red at the whole tasting, hurrah!) that makes me want another sip and then another. They’re real drinkers wines. One producer described his Cinsault as “smashable” which seems about right to me though whether the general public is happy to spend £17 on a wine for knocking back is another matter.

As good as the reds were, and some were very good indeed, it was the whites however that stole the show: vivid appley Chenins with magical acidity and textured Cape blends of Chenin, Viognier, Grenache Blanc etc and a couple of Palominos that were like flor-free Manzanillas if you can imagine such a thing.

I noticed that The Wine Society is doing one of my favourites for only £11.95:

Tania & Vincent Careme Chenin Blanc Terre Brûlée 2015

This is made by a Loire producer so you’d expect they know their way around Chenin. It smells sweet, like cooked apples and cake, it’s very ripe but balanced by a bracing acidity – it’s a made to make your mouth water.

I left the tasting with my ears ringing and my eyes assaulted by paisley but my palate thoroughly refreshed.

Categories
Film and TV Recipes

Jonathan Meades – the Plagiarist in the Kitchen

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The tributes to AA Gill who died earlier this year tended to focus on his humour, his famous rudeness, and his ability to write movingly about those on the margins of life. But for me what made him compulsively readable was the sheer certainty of his views. The thrill of his spat with Mary Beard wasn’t saying that he said she was ugly but the audacity of a hack like Gill with no formal education taking to task a Cambridge classics professor on the subject of the Roman Empire with such elan.

Gill’s schtick never really worked on television. He just came across as a bit of an arse. His counterpart as restaurant critic at the Times from 1986 to 2001, Jonathan Meades, however, is an auteur of the medium. In his idiosyncratic programmes, Meades made use of his seemingly bottomless well of opinions not just on food and architecture, his specialities, but also Mussolini, the fate of the Algerian pied-noirs and why Essex is unfairly maligned. Sometimes I struggled to keep up but they make such a refreshing change from the “join me on my journey” school of BBC documentaries.

Now Meades has written a cookbook, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, the title a knowing rip off of Julian Barnes’ The Pedant in the Kitchen. Its premise is that all cookbooks are attempts to pass off borrowed or stolen recipes as your own work (I know having contributed to one.) “In the kitchen there is nothing new and nor can there be anything new. It’s all theft” as Meades puts it. Part of the joy of the book is the glee with which Meades tramples on foodie (a word I imagine he loathes) shibboleths:

“The olive oil trade is just as rackety and bent as the wine trade. Which is a boon to those who dislike the peppery throat-assault of the echt product. In olive oil, as in life, the impure is more satisfying than the pure.”

Or

“‘Homemade begs one question. Whose home? Have you ever actually seen people’s homes? Why should biscuits made at home be better than those baked in a factory, a factory that specialises in biscuits? I’m thinking of Nairn’s Oatcakes, Rakusen’s Matzo Crackers and Carr’s Water Biscuits. We don’t seek treatment from amataur surgeons.”

The short bibliography is telling because alongside the likes of Simon Hopkinson, Elizabeth David and Fergus Henderson, there’s Inside Mr Enderby by Anthony Burgess and the not to be missed Testicles: Balls in Cooking and Culture by Blandine Vie. As well as recipes there are strange unhelpful illustrations, anecdotes about Jane Grigson and some top pop trivia:

“Hardly surprisingly, Jacques Brel’s favourite dish was mussels and chips. However, he once claimed that the single best meal of his life was a ham sandwich he ate on the train from Paris to Brussels; he had just secured a recording contract.”

But asides aside, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen is actually a very thorough cookbook taking in classic French food as well as Italian, Spanish, North African, Scandinavian, German and British recipes. There’s perhaps more on eels and tripe than you might want but on the whole it’s surprisingly user friendly. His risotto milanese recipe is particularly good “the risotto will take about 30 minutes (many recipes state 20 minutes; they are wrong. . .” and “do not add grated cheese. It fights the flavour the saffron. . .” For all his humour, Meades is deadly serious about food. The books shows a deep understanding of cookery.

In an age of instant internet criticism this sort of rigour is bracing. You get the impression that he has thought everything through from first principles. He doesn’t take the easy option of contrarianism nor does he see things through a political filter ie. environmentalism, soft-left activism or post-colonial theory. With most writers you can guess their views on everything after reading a couple of articles, with Meades it’s not so easy.

Both Meades and Gill are/ were autodidacts. Meades’ writing displays his love of learning and the even greater love of showing off that learning. With food, he clearly know his onions but what about everything else? Does he really have a deeply-held original point of view on Charles de Gaulle or does he sit up all night honing opinions on the matters of the day? I suspect that as with Gill there’s a fair dose of prejudice in there but importantly, they’re his prejudices. The trick that both Meades and Gill mastered is never to explain. In prose and on television, Meades simply states his opinions and moves on. The Plagiarist in the Kitchen is full of gnomic statements such as:

“So far as I can recall I have not eaten guacamole.

or

“I can’t think of any circumstances in which I’d use oregano.”

Crucially he’s not on twitter to battle the outraged keyboard warriors. AA Gill too prided himself on not doing “the internet” as he put it.  In an age when even the President of America argues on twitter, this aloofness makes Meades one of the last of a breed.

The Plagiarist in the Kitchen by Jonathan Meades is published this month by Unbound

This article originally appeared in Spectator Life 

 

Categories
Film and TV

SS-GB – The Hoarse Whisperer

This is a slightly longer version of something that appeared in the TLS a couple of weeks ago:

Typical, you wait years for a World War Two counterfactual drama and then two come along at once. In 2015 Amazon launched the Man in the High Castle an adaptation Philip K. Dick’s novel. It is now on its second series. Then last month the BBC broadcast the first parts of a mini series based on Len Deighton’s SS-GB. It’s tempting to see this as a reflection of today’s troubled times. Certainly a rabble-rouser in the White House, a possible (likely?!) Front National president in France and the return of anti-Semitism on the Continent certainly gives these programmes an added frisson.

In all the inevitable contemporary comparisons, however, we shouldn’t forget that counterfactual stories are a perennial favourite. They turn the conventional British and American triumphal history narrative on its head and ask difficult questions: would we have saved our Jews like the Danes did or collaborated enthusiastically like the Petain government in France? And on a more base level: swastikas sell. In recent years there was Robert Harris’s Fatherland made into an HBO film in 1994 with Rutger Hauer and Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America. More obscure is the 1978 BBC drama An Englishman’s Castle set in a fascist German-dominated Britain. Or on a similar theme, It Happened Here, a film shot in the 60s over the course of eight years by two teenagers with amateur actors and a miniscule budget.

It’s a far cry from the glossy  productions of SS-GB and The Man in the High Castle. The opening of SS-GB features a Spitfire (from a later year as history buffs  have gleefully pointed out) landing by a bombed-out Buckingham Palace all rendered in slightly queasy CGI. Technology has progressed to the point where one can easily drape London or New York in swastikas which might be why both adaptations have only appeared now; these would both have been very expensive series to shoot 20 years ago.

SS-GB is set in 1941, the Germans won the Battle of Britain and successfully invaded. Churchill has been shot and the King is being kept in the Tower of London. Sam Riley plays Archer of the Yard (as the tabloids call him) a fresh-faced detective superintendent. Though nominally independent he reports to an SS Gruppenfuhrer Kellerman. In the opening episode, a body with mysterious burns on it is discovered in a dingy flat in Shepherd Market.

Len Deighton based his novel on real plans drawn up by the Nazis for how they would have ruled Britain. The scriptwriters Robert Wade and Neil Purvis (the team behind the last five Bond films) have stuck closely to the novel which isn’t necessarily a good thing. There’s a typically labyrinthine Deighton plot involving rivalry between different factions of the German armed forces, nuclear secrets and schemes by the British resistance to involve the neutral Americans in the war. The opening episodes will be hard work for anyone who hasn’t read the book. Intelligibility isn’t helped by Sam Riley speaking in a hoarse whisper much of the time.

SS-GB is firmly rooted in the wartime London that Deighton grew up in. Here the BBC adaptation struggles to convince. None of the characters feel like Londoners and they’re not helped by a clumsy script with lines such as: “get your hand off me you bloody Gestapo bastard” or the inevitable “you just don’t get it, do you?” Both Riley and Kate Bosworth, who plays an American journalist, Barbara Barga, who Archer falls in love with, are curiously inexpressive so much so that Bosworth in her pink suit reminded me of Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds. If the Allies are wooden, the Germans have the opposite problem. SS Standartenfuhrer Huth arrives in the first episode looking like Herr Flick from Allo’ Allo’ flicking his gloves and camping about in a tight leather overcoat.

Despite being rather broad at times, SS-GB does show some of the complexity of relationships between occupier and occupied. Archer’s boss Kellerman wears tweed suits like a parody of an English gentleman. Meanwhile Archer’s son asks his father with awe whether he works for the Gestapo. Archer is caught between trying to do his duty as a policeman whilst avoiding being drawn into open collaboration or resistance. The Resistance can be as cynical and ruthless as the Nazis but what SS-GB lacks and, this is a fault of the novel, is any sense of Nazism finding a fertile soil in Britain. The premises of It Happened Here, An Englishman’s Castle or Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta, are far more unsettling because the real enemies are British.

I can’t help thinking that SS-GB would have worked better stripped back into a taut feature film a la Ipcress File or Deighton’s novel used as a starting point for a longer series like Amazon’s the Man in the High Castle. As it is SS-GB doesn’t really get to grips with the full horror of occupation and collaboration. Instead we’re just left with an unusually confusing police procedural.

 

 

 

 

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Film and TV Wine articles

Nelson, Marsala and the Mary Whitehouse Experience

I wrote something for History Today magazine on perhaps my favourite place in the world, Sicily, and Marsala, its rather forgotten fortified wine. There an extract below which you can click on it to read the entire thing. This probably dates me terribly but I can’t think of History Today without thinking of that sketch from the Mary Whitehouse Experience:

Anyway! Here’s the article. . . .

Dotted around the vineyards of Trapani province in western Sicily are ruins that look so Georgian they would not look out of place in Bath. These are the remains of baglios, or wineries, from the marsala industry. They are a reminder of an almost forgotten moment in history when the British occupied Sicily.

Sicily has had more than its fair share of invaders: Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Normans, Spaniards, Venetians and Neapolitans. The British were there briefly, in the late 18th and 19th centuries, but there was talk of the island becoming a British colony, like Malta or Cyprus. ‘It would be the jewel in the Empire crown after Ireland,’ one commentator remarked, which seems ironic considering how British rule in Ireland is remembered. Beyond a few ruins, there is very little to see from Sicily’s British moment, but you can taste it in marsala wine.

 

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Books Film and TV

Why writers love booze (and it’s not just because they’re often drunks.)

So closely are some of the giants of 20th century literature associated with alcohol that modern readers might think that a serious booze habit was once the equivalent of a degree in creative writing from Iowa or UEA. It’s not surprising, therefore, that alcohol permeates the work of writers such as Kingsley Amis, Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker. They were writing about what they knew. Alcohol, however, in fiction doesn’t just reflect the lifestyle and times of the writer, its role is more complex and interesting than that.

I’m currently reading a collection called “Shaken and Stirred: Intoxicating Stories” (Everyman). In many of the short stories featured, a drunken incident is the motor of the narrative. For example in Alice Munro’s “An Ounce of Cure” a lovestruck teenager gets paralytic whilst babysitting and becomes an outcast at school ‘but there was a positive, a splendidly unexpected, result of this affair: I got completely over Martin Collingwood.’ In Frank O’Connor’s “the Drunkard”, a boy’s disastrous encounter with a pint of porter  prevents his father going on a long-anticipated drinking spree. Both stories pivot on alcohol, the effect in Munro’s is cathartic, she purges herself of her infatuation; in O’ Connor, it’s a reversal of fortune.

Shaken and Stirred features an extract from The Lost Weekend by Charles R. Jackson, another one of literary America’s great boozers. Drink enables Jackson to show us the innermost thoughts of the protagonist, Don Birnam, a failing writer. After a few glasses of rye consumed in a bar, he starts to daydream of literary success. He veers between giddy optimism and neurotic self-doubt. Without the drink, it would seem clunky, but having his thoughts come out in a progression of alcoholic intoxication draws the reader in. ‘Suddenly, sickeningly, the whole thing was so much eyewash’ he thinks after another drink. Something all writers and day dreamers can sympathise with not just drunks.

This use of alcohol to reveal narrative is particularly useful for writers of detective fiction. Fictional detectives spend a lot of time in pubs and bars not just because they like drinking but because that’s where they find information. One of the novelist’s problems is finding something for his characters to do when they are thinking or engaged in conversation. Giving them a drink and a cigarette is makes it appear natural. Drink oils the cogs of the plot.

A good example occurs in The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. Philip Marlowe, a private investigator, meets one of the principal character, Lennox, in a bar. Lennox explains his problems with his wife and we learn that she is terrified of something. Soon afterwards she is found dead.  If they had this conversation on the street, it would look staged. In a cafe it wouldn’t work either. Alcohol has to be around so that it seems natural when characters open up and tell stories. Drink is a good way for novelists to tell rather than show without the reader noticing.

Part of the reason fictional detectives have drink problems is because it gives them an air of mystery. Think of Rebus in Ian Rankin’s novels or Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s. Cocaine serves a similar purposes in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Detectives solve crimes but they are also trying (and always) failing to solve themselves. Alcohol is an outward symbol of their inner turmoil.

In Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton drink is synonymous with mental illness. Written in the 1930s and set in a grim, smoky Earl’s Court. The hero George Harvey Bone is hopelessly in love with Netta, one of the great monsters of English literature. The more he drinks, the more he is prone to moments where a switch flips in him. In these moments he sees clearly that he must murder her and move to Maidenhead. When these episodes strike, the narrative on the page is disrupted reflecting the Bone’s mental disintegration:

‘He still had the gin bottle in his hand. Watching her carefully, he held it by the neck behind his back. Now! Now! Now! He thought. ‘

The drink of choice in Hangover Square is gin. Gin has a special place in British literature. The very word gin is a byword for particular kind of British frustration. It’s tied up with boarding houses, borrowing money, dead-ends, broken dreams, and unhappy pubs. Think of the works of Graham Greene or Julian Maclaren Ross. The gin-soaked colonial type is a fixture of English literature.  Here is Flory the hapless hero of George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days: ‘I can never get it into my servant’s head that SOME people can exist without gin before breakfast.’ Orwell’s description of the taste of Victory gin in 1984 is a masterclass in squalor:

“He took down from the shelf a bottle of colourless liquid with a plain white label marked VICTORY GIN. It gave off a sickly, oily smell, as of Chinese rice-spirit. Winston poured out nearly a teacupful, nerved himself for a shock, and gulped it down like a dose of medicine. Instantly his face turned scarlet and the water ran out of his eyes. The stuff was like nitric acid, and moreover, in swallowing it one had the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club. The next moment, however, the burning in his belly died down and the world began to look more cheerful. “

Ahhh the magic of gin.

Drinks can provide the opposite function, however.  In Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms  the constant listing of drinks such as Marsala, Cinzano, Asti Spumante, and Martini, serves as a reminder that there was a normal life before the war and will be afterwards. For Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, “this Burgundy seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant reminder that the world was an older and better place …” A sip of good wine can take you away from the horrors of war.

In the same novel, alcohol plays a less benevolent role, as a weapon in the snob’s arsenal during a scene where Charles Ryder has dinner in Paris with Rex Mottram, an arriviste Canadian businessman and his love rival. Ryder orders a cognac which is dismissed by Mottram as “the sort of stuff he puts soda in at home. So, shamefacedly, they (the waiters) wheeled out of its hiding place the vast and mouldy bottle they kept for people of Rex’s sort. ’That’s the stuff,’ he said, tilting the treacly concoction till it left dark rings round the sides of his glass.” Evelyn Waugh wants us to see Mottram as a vulgarian and Ryder as a man of taste but also reveals his own prejudices.

The ultimate boozy status seeker is James Bond. This is from Casino Royale:

Bond insisted on ordering Leiter’s Haig-and-Haig ‘on the rocks’ and then he looked carefully at the barman. “A dry martini,” he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

Here’s a man who knows what he wants and knows how to get it. We’re meant to admire Bond, I think, for his discernment but you could just see him as a bit of bore. It’s only a short leap from Bond to horrendous characters in Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho:

“Van Patten,” I say. “Did you see the comp bottle of champagne Montgomery sent over?”

“Really?” Van Patten asks, leaning over McDermott.

“Let me guess. Perrier-Jouët?”

Bingo,” Price says. “Non Vintage.”

“Fucking weasel,” Van Patten says.

Wine connoisseurship plays a narrative role in two stories in the Shaken and Stirred.  In Edgar Allen Poe’s 1846 story “A Cask of Amontillado”, Montresor lures a rival Fortunato down to a deep cellar with the promise of old amontillado sherry which was much-prized in the 19th century. Many sherries were sold as amontillado but they weren’t the real thing. To have the genuine article was unusual. Along the way Montresor gets Fortunato drunk and bricks him up alive in a wall. The mystery which is never solved is why he does this.

The plot of Roald Dahl’s short story “Taste” hinges on identifying a rare Bordeaux but the real amusement comes from the pretensions of the wine taster: ‘a prudent wine. . .  rather diffident and evasive but quite prudent’ he says at one point. Waugh too in Brideshead Revisited has enormous fun with wine connoisseurship. In a famous scene Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte try to outdo each with their descriptions of a wine:

: ‘…It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle.’

‘Like a leprechaun.’

‘Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.’

‘Like a flute by still water.’

‘…And this is a wise old wine.’

‘A prophet in a cave.’

‘…And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.’

‘Like a swan.’

‘Like the last unicorn.’

The miseries of the morning after are even richer ground for comedy. PG Wodehouse’s descriptions of the aural misery of the hangover will surely never be bettered: ‘the Cat Stamped into the Room’ and ‘the roaring of the butterflies.’ It’s no surprise to find in Shaken and Stirred probably the best hangover description in literature from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim:

“The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad”

With a hangover there’s that awful sickening moment when you wake up and then start to have an inkling of how badly you behaved the night before. Dorothy Parker skewers the paranoia expertly in the short story “You were perfectly fine.”  In it a young man, Peter, wakes up in a the flat of a lady friend and she recounts what happened the night before: “she thought you were awfully amusing. . . . she only got a tiny little bit annoyed just once, when you poured the clam juice down her back.”

Whatever you want to do in fiction, alcohol can help. It can move the plot forward, it provides comedy, tragedy, explication, it’s a window into a character’s soul and a signifier of turmoil and mental illness. Raymond Chandler wrote that if you’re stuck writing a novel, “have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand” but a drink might work even better. If only real life was as simple.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Guardian

Categories
Film and TV

Why are wine lovers so easy to fool?

Sour Grapes: The Rudy Kurniawan story is now available on Netflix so I’m republishing this thing I wrote for the Spectator back in September. The documentary is well worth seeing. I also wrote a more in-depth thing on it for Tim Atkin

Rudy Kurniawan Evidence 300x270 Rudy Kurniawan Sentence 10 Years in Prison From Wine Bars to Jail Bars

Last week a Hong Kong-based wine professional  posted a bottle, a 1959 Richebourg from Henri Jayer, on twitter. It’s worth thousands of pounds but more importantly for a Burgundy lover, tasting it should be the experience of a lifetime. Maureen Downey, an American expert in wine authentication, confidently tweeted back, it’s a fake.

Wine fakes are in the news at the moment with the imminent release of a documentary Sour Grapes. It’s the story of Rudy Kurniawan, an Indonesian national, based in California who was convicted in 2013 for faking some of the world’s great wines. Between 2002 and 2012 Kurniawan sold about $100 million worth of wine.

Maureen Downey who had her suspicions about Kurniawan way back in 2003 told me that people “should’ve seen a 20-something kid suddenly selling cases & cases of the rarest wines & posed a question or two.” Why they didn’t might have something to do with the crowd that Kurniawan moved in.  Kurniawan’s cronies included American author Jay McInerney who features in the film sockless and showing a lot of ankle, fantastically louche-looking filmmaker Jeff Levy and Arthur M. Sarkissian whose oeuvre includes Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2 and Rush Hour 3. Another of their number, auctioneer John Kapon, made a fortune from selling Kurniawan’s wines and not asking too many questions. For these men drinking ultra rare and expensive wines was a form of willy-waving like having a Porsche or model girlfriend. Downey describes the scene as one of “greed, and hubris and disgusting male posturing.”

But it’s not only testosterone-fuelled fools who fall for fakes. That 1959 Richebourg drinker is not only female but a Master of Wine, a qualification that takes years of intensive training. There are only 354 in the world. If she couldn’t spot a fake, then what chance does that give the rest of us? With wines this rare and old nobody really knows what they are meant to taste like. Kurniawan’s recipe for 1945 Mouton-Rothschild was 50% 1988 Ch Cos d’Estournel, 25% 1990 Ch Palmer and 25% 2000 California Cabernet. There’s a fake I’d like to try!

The trick Kurniawan mastered was to mix in fakes with genuine bottles at tastings and then rely on peer pressure to silence any sceptics. British Master of Wine Jancis Robinson has written of how she had her doubts about the authenticity of wine provided by a Danish collector Rene Dehn but didn’t voice them.

It’s impossible to know how widespread fakes are. In the film Laurent Ponsot, a Burgundy producer who proves Rudy’s nemesis, alleges that most pre-1980 Burgundies sold at auction are not genuine.  I spoke with expert on forgery Nick Bartman who told me of Chinese counterfeiters who “take the blueprint of Kurniawan and put it out on a much bigger scale.”

Maureen Downey runs a series of training days where one can learn how to spot a fake. Her advice is “if it looks too good to be true, it is.” The trouble is that when confronted with a really rare bottle, most wine lovers switch off their critical faculties which is why Kurniawan got away with it for so long.  

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Film and TV Wine articles

Did King Arthur’s father sell dodgy wine?

On holiday I watched Monty Python’s Holy Grail for the first time in years. Unlike most of their stuff, it’s actually still very funny. Whilst watching the taunting Frenchman bit below, I had a bit of an epiphany. Elderberries were traditionally used to bolster the colour in wine. If your vintage was a little week, a load of elderberries would quickly make the wine appear much richer. Port was often bought on colour alone so eldeberries were a good way of tricking (usually British) merchants. In 1757 the Portuguese Prime Minister, The Marquis of Pombal, passed legislation that made it illegal to plant elderberry bushes within the demarcated port region. It wasn’t just in Portugal, however, these berries were commonly used by merchants in Bordeaux and London to make weedy claret look better. So perhaps the Frenchman in the Holy Grail was actually accusing King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, of selling dodgy wine, a grave insult in France. No idea about the hamster thing though.

Categories
Film and TV Wine articles

These wines are Absolutely Fabulous

Many writers will be using the release of the Absolutely Fabulous movie to reminisce about the crazy 1990s: cocaine, clubbing and Kate Moss. Drink writers will be going on about Bolly and Stolly which Eddy and Patsy put away in heroic quantities. There is one episode though, where they try something a bit different. It’s the one where they have a Withnail and I esque holiday by mistake in the South of France. There’s no light, food or power but there is plenty of local wine which they proceed to tear into with abandon.

If you look carefully at the labels you’ll see that they aren’t just drinking any old plonk. No, they are drinking Chateau La Canorgue, an extremely good wine from Provence. stocked by more than reputable West Country wine merchants Yapp Bros. It comes in all three colours, all of which are usually excellent: the red is a blend of Syrah and Grenache and tastes like a particularly fragrant Cotes-Du-Rhone, lots of fruit and wild herbs; the rose is classic Provencal but with a bit more body than some, it’s a wine that can hold its own against some quite serious food; the white is a blend of Grenache blanc, Clairette, Roussanne and Marsanne and manages to be fresh and floral but with a good nutty weight to it. All three are serious wine but also manage to be very drinkable (as you can see from the photo above.)

Rather appropriately I first tried these wines whilst visiting the house of a top television producer who had more than a hint of Patsy about her. She had designated room for yoga complete with healing crystals and an enormous statue of the Buddha. After a hard day’s schmoozing, she’d come home, do some eastern chanting and then crack into the Provencal rosé