THE BRITISH INTELLIGENCE DRINKS COLUMN (OCCASIONAL SERIES)
THE CHAMPAGNE CURE
Ist June, 2020
I knew I’d been reading Keats. Completely sober I looked into a rose bloom, a blue moon I’d cut that morning, and composed quite spontaneously:
Would I could while an hour
Inside your scented lilac bower
I could go on but I’ll stop here. I’m no poet: that medium doesn’t look a fun game anymore. Like rock and roll, all the great work appears to have been done, and a long time ago too.
Nonetheless I was in a mood for elation. For I have been depressed (a different state of mind from my usual shoulder gods of comedy and melancholy). Lockdown is morphing into Lockdown 2, a grey and trying time of queues, wrangles and the incessant attempts by statists, leftists and the BBC to turn the country back to 1948. Now if that meant England got writers such as Evelyn Waugh and Julian McLaren-Ross, films such as Passport to Pimlico and Brighton Rock and painters such as the Johns Minton and Piper, then I would be up for it; but the 1948 the virus ultras want is the one full of rationing, cowed obedience, bullying socialism, a command economy and the BBC telling everyone how they should live. The prospect of this or something like it now seems to stretch into the future.
In such times I turn to the bubbles. I went out one evening looking for a bottle of Pol Roger. Some hope round here. However, I spotted and bought a budget champagne. It was not André Carpentier, the classique en miniature I mentioned in last month’s Noble Rot, but Louis Delaunay at about £15. I could be greatly critical about the taste, and this champagne can be a bit variable from bottle to bottle, but the main thing was that on this occasion I was looking for effect more than other considerations.
As I said last month, a half pint taken at speed should be the bringer of Jovian jollity. Given the mood I was in, I hoped for this outcome. While the bottle chilled in the fridge I opened my innings with a bottle of Morland’s Old Speckled Hen, a fine and refreshing ale. Then I poured a half pint of the champagne into an oversize champagne coupe (what common people like me call a saucer) and started making dinner. Experts contend that the best way to appreciate champagne is by drinking it from a tulip glass (a fatter version of the flute). They are doubtless right, and I like a tulip. However, my preference is for the coupe though. Years ago in Kettners, Soho, I was ticked off by a stroppy French barman over asking for coupes, which I called saucers. ‘But you will not get as many bubbles,’ he said dourly. ‘I don’t care,’ I said. ‘Stick a sugar cube in each glass while you’re at it – it’s not like it’s good champagne.’ I can’t stand flutes you see. I don’t really know why. In the Seventies, when I was small, my grandfather always used coupes for champagne at Christmas – I was allowed a taste or two, which I didn’t like but still drank. Perhaps that is it. There again maybe it is because the shape of coupes are said to have been modelled on the left breast of Marie Antoinette. I like to stare into the snow globe world inside a glass of champagne, and this is best done over a coupe.
While I am on the subject of buying champagne in bars it is as well to clear something up. Some people think buying champagne in bars is done for effect, to be ‘flash’. I cannot speak for others but it is not true in my case. Sometimes one simply wants the je ne sais quoi that champagne alone has. But is it really an indefinable quality? Back to cooking the dinner: I had polished off the first half pint and the bubbles were taking effect: for some reason I started to hum then sing The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.
As I walk along the Bois de Boulogne
With an independent air
You can hear the girls declare
“He must be a Millionaire.”
You can hear them sigh and wish to die,
You can see them wink the other eye
At the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.
It emerged unbidden from the mental rotadex and certainly demonstrated a mood change for the better. I was preparing just a little spaghetti with anchovies. If you listen to the music hall artiste Charles Coborn singing the song (which made him famous in 1892: he claimed he’d sung it 250,000 times and could do it in 14 languages) it gets funnier as he starts to sort of slur and roar towards the end. I started to do this too, though on purpose and quite loud. My neighbours give me odd looks sometimes.
Now half the bottle was gone and a rather dull Monday had taken a turn for the better. Then from YouTube I put on Grand Hotel by Procol Harum. Now I knew the bubbles were having their effect. Yes, Procol Harum. Long ago in the Nineties Mark Gullick, of this parish, caught me in a pub with a Procol Harum album; after examining it with a judicial air he returned it and said: ‘I won’t tell if you won’t.’
Despite this warning from one of the most astute rock and roll connoisseurs of this or any other age, I like bits of Procol, one of them being the title track off Grand Hotel. It is a rather extraordinary number, not least because it is one of rock music’s rarer paeans to luxury indulgence. Gilded, over the top and lush, it was just what I needed:
One more toast to greet the morn
The wine and dine have danced till dawn
Where’s my continental bride?
We’ll continental slip and slide
Early morning pinch and bite ‑
(These French girls always like to fight)
Lovers of arcane information will enjoy knowing that Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame dreamt up the concept of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe while listening to Grand Hotel.
Now I was conducting the music between shakes of the frying pan. I am quite an ebullient person and I sing a lot around the house whatever the mood, but this was a great enhancement of that natural state: full Sir Thomas Beecham in the latter stages of the song when it undergoes a key change a semitone higher and the choir kicks in. This could be described as tipsy behaviour, but it would not be right. It is far closer to exhilaration, euphorie as the French have it (the editor of this organ is a French expert so I deploy such terms with caution thrown windward). There ought to be a brand of champagne called Euphorie.
After dinner I found myself doing all sorts of long-delayed minor housework in the kitchen: scrubbing on champagne is a much more enjoyable pastime. Alas, the end of the bottle came too soon but I beguiled a small cheese course with a glass or two of leftover pinot noir.
I slept well that night and woke next morning feeling much improved and well purged of the ebony canine. Talking of which, according to the records held by the champagne house Pol Roger, Winston Churchill, who named his depressive moods ‘the black dog’, drank 42,000 bottles of its vintage champagne between 1908 and his death, aged 90, in 1965. In those pre-EU days it came in pint bottles. For decades he took a pint at lunch and a pint at dinner. I think we can safely conclude he found it more efficacious as a mood corrector than anything to be obtained on prescription. I certainly do.