Here lies the Fair's charm, of course. While all the stallholders are only too keen to proffer samples and extol their wares, you do not buy directly from them, but from a counter at the back, where a few aged gentlemen lounge around in morning suits. Although this arrangement spares blushes and obviates the need for the hard sell, it does have one drawback: it's too discreet. I would love to tell the rather downcast chap proffering four modestly priced wines that I want a case of his Cab Sauv, just to hear his grateful cries of "Gaw'bless you, Madam!" Cripes, I'm feeling very expansive all of a sudden. Two gulps of champagne and I turn into Jilly Goolden.
Or rather I don't. My tasting sheets never feature the gooseberries, custard-creams, freshly painted windmills, lemon-peel, nylon stockings and shag-pile carpets which make up the Goolden palate. My pencilled comments are confined to "fruity", "very fruity", "yum", and "yuck". This year, bitter experience has led to the formation of a strict timetable: 9.30am, stomach-lining breakfast, followed by walk to venue; 11am-1pm champagnes, fizzies and whites; 1-3pm reds; 3-4pm port, sherry, stickies. Positively no cigars, snuff or clay pipes. Drink lots of water. And while I would love to be able to follow the advice given to girls everywhere - Spit, Don't Swallow - I can't bring myself to, for fear of the inevitable crimson strings dangling from my lower lip and long stains down the front of my T-shirt; so I must just steel myself to throw unwanted wine away after one sip.
And all goes to plan. The event seems a lot quieter than last year, when games and frolics were the order of the day and a cartoonist was despatched round the room to caricature rosy-nosed punters. However, there is a demonstration: the art of removing a champagne-cork with one blow from a cavalry sword. I once saw this trick pulled off in Paris, by a lunatic bar-owner who knelt on one knee on our table, brandishing the bottle in one hand, whirling the sword round our ears with the other, before walloping the top of the bottle with a wild cry; the cork, wedged in its glass sphincter, still in its basket and foil, flew through the air, bounced on the table and ended up in my pocket. So this staid gentleman standing a safe distance behind a trestle-table can't really compete, but the loud pop and orgasmic arc of spume get a roar of applause all the same.
All this brings back happy memories of the best temp job I ever had, a halcyon fortnight spent in a wine-shippers' office under a malodorous railway arch in Clapham. To get to my desk I had to edge past fabulous, dusty cases of Margaux and Pomerol; sticky rings covered every surface. Duties were light: I answered the telephone and typed the odd apologetic letter. One began: "Dear Lord X, So sorry that you only received 10 of the 12 half-bottles of champagne you ordered. It was a hot day and we just couldn't resist drinking the other two ourselves."
Around 10am the staff would start to drift in bearing genteel hangovers, swapping accounts of the previous night's parties and pathetically grateful for cups of tea. One young gent retired to the toilet every morning at 10.30 prompt with the Times, and emerged half an hour later, saying proudly: "I wouldn't go in there for a while if I were you!" Shortly after this, the boss would look at his watch and mutter: "Well ... I think it's about time, don't you? Shall we ...? There's some rather interesting stuff here ..." and the bottles would come clinking out. With a temp's diffidence, I kept on dutifully typing or scribbling, but soon a friendly hand would plonk a glass of wine down on top of the typewriter. Analyses of terrifying profundity and detail would float over my head while I sipped, and when they all schlepped off for a bibulous lunch I would rest my dizzy forehead on top of the machine.
The fortnight culminated, after days of updating mailing lists, gumming envelopes and collating RSVPs, in a grand wine-tasting at the Turf Club. I was instructed to stand at the top of the grand staircase, welcoming guests and ticking them off the list. The first man to leap nimbly up the stairs wrote something illegible - "Z" - in the book. I squinted at it and said, "Would you mind putting your address?" "That is my address," he said testily. "I am the Earl of Z." After this shaky start I quite got the hang of this, gleefully summoning frisky nobles: "Oi! Lord Linley! Can I get you to sign the book, please?" "Oh, ra-ther."
This happy reverie about days gone by is rudely interrupted by two very drunk women, who have been reeling around the Fair, complaining about the lack of "goody-bags". I watch them sidle up to the unattended champagne stall and stuff a bottle apiece in their bags. One of them catches my eye and gives a little shamefaced giggle; then they both stagger off to the exit. Nice, middle-class ladies too, the sort who no doubt slag off the underclass and the young for their dishonesty. This sour little sight reminds me that we are all, to some extent, freeloaders today. Must order those Cab Sauvs.Reuse content