Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Hugh Johnson, the world's bestselling wine author

'I remember being foxed by tort law'

Jonathan Sale
Thursday 17 January 2008 01:00
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Hugh Johnson, 68, wrote his first book, Wine, in 1966, and it is still in print. The World Atlas of Wine is now in its sixth edition, and Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book has been published annually since 1977

When I was eight, I boxed for Arnold House, a private school in St John's Wood, London. We had a formidable instructor called Gutteridge and I was so frightened of him that I fought for my life! I was presented with a prize by the then Minister of Transport.

I then went as a boarder to Forres School in Swanage. I'm told I ran away on various occasions; I think it was the food. Anyway, I was there for a couple of years before going to a more academic school, Tormore, in Upper Deal, Kent. We were kept on very short rations (there was still rationing in those days). My father used to put strong peppermints in with his letters, and the headmaster used to remove them and give them back to me at the end of term.

The school was pressurised and aimed us towards Westminster School scholarships, but the head thought I wasn't up to its standards in classics, so I took the scholarship exam to Rugby and got a place. My housemaster there, Jim Willans, was a languid Wodehouse figure who was quietly watching and very wise. He taught me English as did Tim Tosswill, who was completely different, a martinet and an inspiration, and what could be called "a cracking good beak".

I played rugby in the front row of the scrum – a hooker. There was a famous cross-country run, "The Crick", a 14-mile mini-marathon. In my last year, I was needed instead for a house hockey match – not that I would have won the race.

There were people at Rugby who went on to the wine trade. Steven Spurrier, for example, opened a wine store in Paris and organised the famous 1976 blind tasting at which a French jury gave top marks to Californian wines – to their chagrin! Following the success of the wine film Sideways, a film is being made about him [Bottle Shock, with Alan Rickman playing Spurrier].

I did English and French at A-level and got a place to read English at King's College, Cambridge. In my third year, I had a set of rooms with Adrian Cowell, a member of the University Wine and Food Society. He came in after dinner with two glasses and said, "Come on, Hugh, are they the same? Or different?" Both were, I am sure, red Burgundy, but one was magic and one was ordinary. This caught my imagination. It was my Damascene moment.

We had such grand rooms that, when I joined the Wine and Food Society, the committee got us to entertain wine merchants and, better, producers from France and Germany. Under the pretext of our annual tasting match against Oxford, members went on a punishing training programme, tasting everything on offer.

In those days, King's and other colleges had a Keasbey Bursary, or good living allowance. Keasbey was an American who had been entertained here during the war and so loved it that he had given some money so that young men could live better than they would have done otherwise. It was awarded in conjunction with your headmaster: a somewhat mysterious process, but it gave me £200 a year.

I got 2:2s with great consistency. My father, a barrister, was keen that I should read law, and after my second year I changed from English. I'm sure it was to please him, though he wouldn't have put me under pressure. I remember being foxed by tort, and realised that I would never pass a law exam. I returned to English for my Finals.

I passed the time by reading, mooning around, dreaming, holding hands with girls... Wimpish things like that. And I wrote poetry, which I still think wasn't all rubbish.

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