Two things will inevitably ruin any mint julep, the first of which is too much sugar, the second too little whiskey
Saturday 25 May 1996
It all stemmed from my sudden urge to adopt the persona of a gentleman from the southern states of the US - maybe I'd seen John Ford's 1953 paean to the old South, The Sun Shines Bright, once too often. Though tempted to convert Weasel Villas into an antebellum mansion, complete with columned portico and rocking chairs on the veranda, I limited my transformation to wearing off-white suiting and repeatedly addressing Mrs W: "Well, I do declare Miss Sadie, you're the belle of the ball." A welcome enough comment, you might think, but it prompted a well-aimed fusillade of unripe Californian plums in my direction. The one consequence of my new-found southern gentility which drew unalloyed applause was my mint julep. For guidance in the construction of this iced mixture of bourbon, sugar syrup and mint leaves, I turned to The Mint Julep by Richard Barksdale Harwell (University Press of Virginia, 1975). He quotes one authority on this "quintessence of gentlemanly beverages" to the effect that "two things will inevitably ruin any julep, the first of which is too much sugar, the second too little whiskey". It was universally agreed that the formulation I adopted suffered from neither of these failings. The result was refreshing and delectably addictive, with the minor defect that imbibers were jaw-achingly drunk after a single glass. "Ver' naish," they would croak through fixed grins, with eyeballs bulging like peeled lychees. "Any chansh of 'nother?"
As with many cocktails, the mint julep is a deceptive seducer, lying on the palate as innocently as mother's milk, but with a thump like a blackjack as soon as it hits the bloodstream. It comes as little surprise that the Kentucky Derby, where mint juleps constitute the traditional refreshment, is described as "decadent and depraved... 50,000 people, most of them staggering drunk" by no less an authority than Hunter S Thompson. Perhaps the best way to deal with the drink is provided by the final recipe in The Mint Julep, which, after insisting that the mint should be "gently plucked just as the dew of evening is about to form upon it", concludes: "Pour the whiskey into a well-frosted silver cup, throw the other ingredients away and drink the whiskey."
We in south London love a good sendoff - and I'm not referring to the ref's red card appearing after a cynical tackle on a Millwall stalwart. I mean funerals, which traditionally involve a good deal of pomp and circumstance south of the river. As I suspect many others do, I spend a fair amount of time envisaging my own obsequies. Though I would prefer it to be a rather cheery occasion, I don't entirely object to the idea of there being a sizable contingent of attractive blonde mourners, svelte in black and weeping inconsolably at the graveside. Anyway, I was able to add a new detail to this touching scenario the other day. I saw a sign in our local undertakers advertising horse-drawn hearse funerals. "Ask inside for details," it said - so I did.
It turned out that the classic London cortege, with black-plumed nags towing you on your final journey, is enjoying something of a renaissance. You'll recall that the spectacle is celebrated in the piquant music hall song Ain't It Grand To Be Bloomin' Well Dead: "Look at the 'orses, bloomin' great feathers..." Apparently, a team of four will add a further pounds 1,000 to the overall cost of the event. This sounds rather a lot, but cheapskates should not be tempted by a team of two, which, far from being half-price, will set you back pounds 750. Either way, you'll bowl along in a fine, glass- sided carriage-hearse with plenty of gold trimmings.
Then there's the coffin. Though tempted by the top-of-the-range "Premier" ("solid mahogany casket with hand-rubbed finish") for pounds 3,600, I'd be quite prepared to settle for "Last Supper", which boasts a "dark stain hardwood casket with Last Supper picture inside of lid", for a mere pounds 2,250. Frankly, the exterior doesn't matter too much, since I trust it would be camouflaged by the elaborate floral tributes which are traditionally regarded as de rigueur round these parts. Often the blooms spell out the name of the deceased (eg queenie), though a more economical mum is also regarded as acceptable.
But by far the best of these flowery epithets I ever saw was at the lavish funeral of a former Deptford totter, who had developed a lucrative sideline by collecting and selling the manure generated by his team of horses. His resulting nickname was fragrantly spelled out over the hearse in foot-high letters: dungy bill.
It still comes as a surprise not to see the peculiar, straddle-legged gait of Francis Bacon - he was once described as "the only man who walks on dry land as if he were at sea" - on the streets of Soho. Though he died in 1992, the old reprobate is still much in evidence. The artist hit the headlines last week because Lord Gowrie refused Arts Council support for Love is the Devil, a film planned about Bacon's tormented affair with George Dyer. At the National Portrait Gallery, an exhibition of photographs by the late John Deakin has Bacon's fingerprints (literally) all over it.
And at the Queen Elizabeth Hall next Thursday, there is the premiere of Blood on the Floor by composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, inspired by Bacon (among others) and named after one of his paintings. This work is irresistibly described as "an evening-long exploration of urban alienation and drug addiction". It is unlikely that Bacon, a renowned bon vivant who described himself as an "optimist", would have relished his association with this austere entertainment. He resented attempts to impute dark meaning to Blood on the Floor: "I don't know how that painting came about," he insisted. "I think I just dropped some paint on the floor, and I thought I'd draw blood on the floor. It's just... well, it's just blood on the floor."
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not usually the type to kick up a stink about incorrectly articulated vowels - people can go to hell, or indeed Hull, in their own way as far as I'm concerned - but I do wonder if the BBC's famous Pronunciation Unit has fallen victim to Burtian downsizing. This thought was prompted by recent reports on the fires sweeping through the empty plains of Mongolia and encroaching on Ulan Bator. It may not be the current most pressing concern for Mongolians, but broadcasters have consistently mispronounced the name of their first city. Contrary to what might be presumed from the spelling, Bator should be pronounced "batter".
The common error so irked one Oxford academic specialising in the area that he was inspired to pen a corrective clerihew:
On the High Mongolian platter
Lies the town of Ulan Bator.
The lamas there are much holier
Than anywhere else in Mongolia
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