Bitter memories: my craving for a pint

30 May 2020

9:00 AM

30 May 2020

9:00 AM

It is enough to drive a man to drink. The most glorious weather, so suitable for white Burgundy on a picnic in a meadow-full of wild flowers, for rosé almost anywhere: above all, for beer. A few weeks ago, I wrote longingly about the thought of a pint of beer. Time has passed; the craving has intensified. Nor am I alone. Chatting to a friend about fine vintages being used as palliatives — these bottles I have shored against my lockdown — we agreed that there are moments when a foaming beaker of English wallop would hit the spot more satisfyingly than the most awe-inspiring bottle from Bordeaux or Burgundy. In my youth, there was a jingle about a pub with no beer. We little thought that it would turn into a prophecy. I wonder how many million gallons of bitter have gone undrunk over the past two months; how many million thirsts have gone unslaked. Bitter: that is indeed a bitter reflection.

This long meandering phone call then moved on to drink in politics. Obviously, there are no reliable statistics, but we both felt that there was less of it. In the 1980s, before a ten o’clock vote, a large number of MPs were visibly and audibly well-dined. On the Tory side, a lot of them were in black tie. In those days, the whips had a task which is now much less important: to scrutinise their flock and spot those whose wish to address the House should not be encouraged. There would then be a quiet word around the Speaker’s Chair to ensure the member in question was not called.

Sometimes, there was a deliberate mistake. One evening, a bumptious young backbencher was trying to catch the Speaker’s eye. Because he was so cocky, the whips decided to teach him a lesson and not to save him from himself. He spoke. The Hansard writers have long practice in imposing coherence on the most unpromising linguistic material, so the wine-glass stains would have been removed from the printed text. Even so, the young MP cannot have enjoyed the first part of the next morning. A hangover, no doubt, plus the realisation that he had spoken in the House. What on earth had he said? Finally, there was a summons to see the Chief Whip for what the army would call an interview without coffee. No names, no pack-drill: suffice it to say that the fellow in question has had a long and distinguished career, without ever repeating that early mistake.

These days, that could not happen. Any MP who behaved in such a fashion would see his career swept away in a tsunami of execration. Jokes have followed drinking: the Commons is a much more po-faced place than it has been since Oliver Cromwell. Does this mean that we are better governed? Or does it merely encourage a puritanical assault on public freedom? I fear the latter.

Apropos being driven to drink, I remembered that I had a rare and special bottle from Gigondas, whose name expresses qualities much needed in the Tory party now. This 2009 Hominis Fides from St Cosme was superb: a subtle, complex blend of minerality and fruit, with endless length on the palate. This was the first time that I had tasted it: something to be rectified. By the final mouthful, it was so good that I had stopped worrying about politics.

On the subject of faith, in The Spectator’s letters pages the Revd Sam Aldred pronounced a commination on me for fake news, in referring to Laudian cruelty. But I was not doubting the Archbishop’s aesthetic sensibility. Unfortunately, that is not a sufficient condition for statesmanship (cf Charles I). Although Laud was kind to buildings, he was cruel to theological opponents, which helped to ensure his execution and also discredited his own views (cf Mary Tudor). Ah well, time to martyr another —albeit lesser — bottle from Gigondas.

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