It's a disgrace. Here we are in the late Nineties, all of us living embodiments of the fin de siecle, and we're denied access to the most characteristic liquid of the 1890s, the fluid essence of the decadent Naughty Nineties. They called it "the Green Fairy" in those days, when the poets and dreamers of Paris and London thought nothing of knocking back 68 per cent proof Pernod all evening. The best way of appreciating it, say aficionados, is to get a teaspoonful of sugar, drench it in absinthe, set the spoon alight, drip the resulting fondant concentrate into a small glass of absinthe, put to lips, drink. According to my sources, this method renders you comprehensively plastered in 45 seconds flat. Less heroic souls take it with water, like ouzo or Ricard, but there comparisons end. For absinthe has mystical properties that go well beyond liquorice-flavoured digestifs. As its sexy green heart turns a clouded, opalescent white, it reaches parts of your psyche left undisturbed by, say, gin and tonic. Ernest Dowson, in his poem "Absinthe Taetra", writes about a troubled man who "drank opaline./And that obscure night of the soul, and the valley of humiliation through which he stumbled were forgotten. He saw blue vistas of undiscovered countries, high prospects and a quiet, caressing sea. The past shed its perfume over him, to-day held his hand as it were a little child, and to-morrow shone like a white star ..."
Whew. You can see why I need to get my hands on a slug. But it was precisely the wild, hallucinogenic qualities of the stuff that got it banned in Switzerland (in 1908), then France in 1915, followed by Great Britain. They said it rotted the brain, made you go blind, or sterile, or mad. In the 1890s, they blamed it for the fecklessness of Bohemian society and the excesses of modern art. Remember Degas's picture, "L'Absinthe"? It's got nothing to do with the drink at all. Degas called it Au Cafe, and painted a man and woman having a coffee. But when it was exhibited in London in 1893, the critics decided it must be a damning indictment of where low habits get you ("a study of degradation, male and female" - Walter Crane) and preferred the invented title. "L'Absinthe".
Tantalised beyond endurance, I rang up Berry Bros & Rudd, the fantastically posh wine merchants in St James's, and asked if they could get me a couple of cases. A receptionist steered me to their buying department in Basingstoke, where a charming chap said kindly that no, since it was 68 per cent proof "and would simply blow your head off", it's still illegal, but a weakened version exists in the form of "Anis del Mono". He put me on to Ehrmanns, a supplier in London W1, who transferred me to a wholesaler called C&D Wines, where a bloke called Jose with a mobile phone put me in touch with Products of Spain, a shop in Charlotte Street, where a Mr Lopez...
Oh, to hell with it. Give me bona fide absinthe or nothing. Short of travelling to Prague (where I hear that enterprising distillers are making and selling gallons of the stuff every week), how or where can I get some? I simply want to try the drink that made Hemingway perform tricks with knives, while in its grip. I want a glass of the tipple that encouraged Van Gogh to hack off his own ear. I want the real absinthe, with wormwood, not aniseed, in it. That's its real secret ingredient - wormwood, the bitter herb that can drive the unrighteous mad. Why, the very name trembles with mystic weirdness. Bible students will recall that, in Revelations, it is prophesied that a great star, called Wormwood, blazing like a torch, will fall from the sky on a third of our rivers and springs, and many people will die of the bitter waters. The Russian word for "wormwood" is, of course, Chernobyl.
Tomorrow, Patek Philippe, makers of the world's most expensive watches, go in search of new customers through the pages of a mag. A couple of years ago, Conde Nast, owners of Vogue, Tatler and Vanity Fair, linked up with Forward Publishing, who specialise in creating magazines for consumer firms to send their clients as a "customer loyalty device" - and last October, they launched Patek Philippe: the International Magazine. I have the second issue here: a wildly glamorous production, designed and laid out in Tatler-ish style, crammed with fancy prose (William Shawcross, Alain de Botton, Jonathan Keates, Susie Boyt) and offering the kind of piss-elegant features, on jade figurines or Japanese furniture, that get leafed through by superior dames in American soap operas. So it's surprising that the marketplace into which the well-heeled time bandits are now hoping to break is ... China.
"We have a huge presence in the Far East," breathes Kristen Harbin, who is overseeing the China launch, "and we've a print run of 15,000 to send to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore-" Yes, yes, but China? "We've reserved 5,000 copies for the Chinese mainland," she said. "Mostly Shanghai." Did she think a natural marketplace existed in the last great redoubt of Communism, among the sampan franchisers and the wok moguls, for, say, the Neptune ladies' gold watch with pearl and diamond bracelet (price pounds 17,370)? "It's a communications initiative," she replied shortly. "I think the chairman, Philippe Stern, wants to be the first luxury manufacturer to show confidence in the Chinese." "Show confidence in" is marketing- speak for "tempt". I hope the billion-odd huddled masses are grateful for Mr Stern's kind condescension.
Dame Rumour has been busy lately about whom Faber & Faber, one of the few wholly independent publishing houses left, will take on as its new editorial director. After Robert McCrum left last year, to be literary editor of some Sunday rag, the job went to Julian Loose, a commissioning editor on the Faber staff. But now, it seems, they're hungry to appoint another McCrum-style swashbuckler from the larger publishing world. Lately they've been "looking to America" - a phrase that's taken to refer to Peter Straus, the wolfish boss of Picador Books, who legged it to upstate New York some months ago, in pursuit of love. How logical, everyone said, how right, that Straus should come back and run the noble house of Faber. But they were wrong. Faber have, I hear, persuaded Bill Buford to leave his unimaginably cool position as literary and fiction editor at The New Yorker, relinquish his Greenwich Village apartment and return to rainy London to mastermind the company's future output. The bearded Californian, founder and ex-editor of Granta, will be welcomed back with hugs and kisses by the London literati; but many, I'm sure, would pay a large percentage of his salary to be a fly on the telephone during his final chat with Tina Brown.Reuse content