Saturday 22 June 1996
Not that Mrs W or I have any connection with the alma maters of, respectively, Shelley and Byron. And we're certainly not going for the quality of the cricket. It is scarcely a needle match. Only four of the last 20 matches have not ended in a draw - and Harrow have not won since 1975. No, the real point of the day is browsing and sluicing. P G Wodehouse noted how "fathers and uncles roll up in droves for lunch, making first for the bar like bison for a water-hole". Though Lord's insists that around 2,000 of its 26,500 seats are taken for the match, there doesn't appear to be even that sparse occupancy after lunch. For future reference, Prince Charles may be pleased to learn that etiquette does not require him to hang around for young Wills' appearance at the wicket.
The occasion does, however, provide an excellent opportunity for viewing the upper classes in embryo. A few sporty types take an interest in the game but behind them loll the putative politicos, with dewlaps already beginning to descend, getting in a bit of practice for the Tory back benches. There are golden-haired charmers heading for the posher, double-barrelled estate agencies, flinty-eyed speculators destined for the Square Mile and rosy-cheeked scions of the gentry who will one day inherit huge chunks of the shires. Last year, I saw one of the latter spring to life when a couple of pigeons fluttered from the pitch. "A right and a left," he muttered, shouldering an imaginary Purdey and loosing off both barrels. There is also a sizeable contingent of juvenile hoorays who appear to have nothing in prospect except another six pints of lager. Usually, they are no bother, but the police had to be called to the ground when the "young gennelmun" got a trifle over-excited a few years ago.
It appears that the main subject taught at our grander public schools is confidence. Everyone at the match has it by the container load. A friend of mine who worked at Lord's Tavern Bar was on the receiving end of the languid disdain which is a speciality of the upper orders. In particular, he recalls one pipsqueak whose eyes barely cleared the top of the bar. "Four G and Ts, ice, lemon," the imp demanded in a fluty treble. "Are you 18, sir?" my pal asked. "'Course I am," came back the squeaky response, as fast as a squash rebound. "Now, where are my drinks? Make them large ones." What could my friend do, except start pumping the optics and pronto?
It hardly needs stating that the whole affair is totally absurd, a bizarrely trivial business to occupy cricket's premier arena, but a summer's day spent observing Britain's future leaders failing to get a result certainly gives you something to chew on. Even if it's only a smoked salmon sandwich.
Until last week, I hadn't entered a Yates's Wine Lodge for over a decade, but I always retained a soft spot for this engagingly archaic institution, with its fusty premises and weird fortified beverages. Decked with improving mottoes ("Wine is a good servant but a bad master"), the decor appeared to have changed little since Peter Yates opened his first outlet, in Oldham in 1884. So I was pleased to learn that, as part of its thrust into the south east, the chain was opening a large branch in Lewisham, not far from Weasel Villas. The shell of a former Co-op (another Lancashire export) has been converted into a capacious boozer at a cost of pounds 2m. Sadly, my visit turned out to be a far from pleasant experience. Since I last drained a glass in one of its houses, Yates's has embraced many of the least appealing aspects of the Nineties.
The bouncers, the vomit-coloured carpets, the lacerating sound-level - all must have the company's founder revolving in his mausoleum as rapidly as a disc jockey's techno-rap CD. Needless to say, it is hugely popular - though I did notice that many of the clientele seemed to be regularly popping outside for a break from the din. They turned out to be using their mobile phones. As a kind of top dressing, this tawdry gin palace retains a sprinkling of the old trappings. Fortified wines are still much in evidence, including a concoction called "Red Biddy", which my dictionary defines as "cheap red wine with added methylated spirits" (Yates's assure me that they use "grape brandy" as the fortifying agent). Drinks are sold using an arcane measure called a "dock" and a few of the old mottoes are scattered about, including "Moderation is true temperance" - though this worthy precept did not appear to find many adherents among the enthusiastic topers of SE13.
However, I failed to see any sign of the select range of groceries which used to be such a delightful feature of the Yates empire. Ever solicitous for the well-being of his clientele, Peter Yates insisted that each branch should stock tea, sardines and flour, so the well-refreshed tippler could be sure of a sustaining snack when he returned home. Staggering back with these provisions after a night on Yates's fortified Original Australian White Wine, the imbiber merely had to commence kneading and baking and, in a little over three hours, he could be tucking into a nice sardine sandwich. No more, I'm afraid. The company, somewhat shamefacedly, admitted that it dropped this policy back in the Eighties. "We have a wide range of snacks and delicious bar meals," a representative pleaded in mitigation - but it's hardly the same. I mean, who would want to take home a soggy order of fried onion rings or deep-fried potato skins for a post-pub munch?
While reluctant to trespass on the territory of my chiffon-scarfed colleagues in the Books Section, perhaps I might draw your attention to a novel just published in the United States by Martin Cruz Smith, best-selling author of Gorky Park. According to a review in Time magazine, Rose is "the most interesting and richly textured crime story of the season". The setting for this yarn turns out not to be post-Communist Russia but Wigan. How peculiar, then, that Time, renowned for its immaculate accuracy achieved by teams of fact-checkers, should describe this south Lancs community as a "Welsh coal-mining town". Maybe Mr Smith was so entranced by the exotic euphony of the name "Wigan" that he used his authorial licence to transplant it into Wales. I can hardly wait for the book's UK publication in order to find out.
What goes around, comes around. Traces of the world's oldest wine have been found in a 7,000-year-old Sumerian jar from the Iran-Iraq border. Judging by the yellowish residue, which includes resin from the terebinth tree, experts believe it would have tasted somewhat like turpentine. In this respect, the venerable vintage is closely akin to many fashionable wines from France, Australia and the United States. Over the past couple of years, the inexplicable penchant for "oaking" wines has meant that many whites and quite a few reds are more or less undrinkable. Even if a "trace of oak" is promised on the label, chances are that it will taste like retsina. For myself, I'd be more than happy if this trend were to disappear for another seven millennia or so
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