Chapter 5

Monday 15th December

Go for a drink with an friend Gaynor who I had lost touch with for a while. We have a Z-list celebrity moment when Paul Ross, Craig (Big Brother Winner 2000) and Avid Merrian (Bo Selecta comedian) enter the bar. That makes 0.5 celebrity star spot points (Thatcher would get 10.) Anyway, it is nice to see her again (Gaynor that is, not Thatcher) and I make a mental note not to lose contact with so many people next year.

Thursday 18th December

Today I have lunch with a very good friend of mine who works in the fine-wine trade. My company's own Christmas party has been cancelled due to the shock revelation that Santa Clause does not exist, so this represents my only Yuletide celebration and we lunch at "Deca", one of my favourite haunts. A delectable lobster ravioli is followed by a tender entrecote steak with béarnaise sauce - a far cry from yesterday's Kentucky Fried Chicken. For the wines: an unexpectedly palatable Lynch-Bages 1984 and a magnificent half-bottle of Léoville-Poyferre 1959 that has a purity and elegance that is second to none. It all starts going downhill afterwards, once the armagnac and port gate crash the party and we soon found ourselves at the "oh-so-trendy it hurts " Sketch. The bar appears to be modelled upon the Korova Milk Bar and at any moment I expect one of the droogs to run in and attack me with a giant china phallus. I take refuge in one of the toilets: a blackened room with individual white plastic pods out of Barbarella. It is like taking a piss inside a giant egg. Two "Red Samurai" cocktails later and I am back in the office where I stare at the computer screen for a while.

From appreciating the nuances of a 1959 claret I find myself at the dingy, smokey Kentish Town Forum to see the UK's greatest band The Libertines. The NME accurately describes them as "The Jam with Tourettes".

The Libertines

The atmosphere at the Forum is electric. I am with my brother Tom and his mate Ben (both early 20's) and I end up right down the front amidst drunken students and teenage girls with severe 1960's fringes that are current de rigeur. It all kicks off and I find myself amidst the ruck at the front. By the fourth song I am covered in sweat and beer and wondering how many songs I can last. (Mental note: get fit for 2004.) The whole thing ends in chaos as the stage is invaded by the raptuous crowd during the finale of "I Get Along" and it is confirmed as one of the best gigs I've been to - ever. (Photo courtesy of www.nme.com.)

Saturday 20th December

Today is my annual Xmas dinner where a few friends come round and drink some fabulous wines. The tradition began three or four years ago with Vik when we went for a blow-out dinner at the sadly missed "Chez Nico" restaurant in Park Lane. This year I chose to eat "Chez West Norwood" and I prepare a simple meal that adheres to the fundamental rules of cooking: minimal chopping and minimal ingredients. Starter is scallops and king prawns flash fried in sake and main course is lamb shank roasted with rosemary from the garden and red wine. A number of bottles are consumed, including a flamboyant Chateau Lafleur 1985 that is consumed to the sounds of Festive ditties by "Shaking Stevens" and "Boney M". There follows a cavalcade of vinous gems: Chateau Margaux 1947, Cos d'Estournel 1945 and Yquem 1970. The dinner finishes in a haze at 2.00am at which point Joel opens a bottle of Chateau Gruaud-Larose 1979. I vaguely remember its distinct nose of burnt toast before collapsing into bed.

Sunday 21st December

Day spent recovering from last night. Joel is up early like me and he gives me some useful advice for redesigning the website (yes folks, I do intend to make it look less amateurish next year.) He shows me a prototype that he set up himself and I study the computer code that makes no sense at all.
Today is the shortest day of the year and my energy levels are low; there are insufficient hours of sunlight for me to photosynthesise. I ponder whether to open all the remaining windows on my advent calender and scoff all the chocolates inside?
No...Father Christmas would not approve.

Monday 22nd December

The morning post: I receive more Xmas cards from friends I have failed to send cards to. At lunch, Vik and I have our "Xmas Burgerking" in the mock-American diner of the Oxford Circus branch. We celebrate by ordering a large portion of onion-rings along with the double bacon cheese-burgers. We receive free BK tokens for January which augurs badly for Neal's "Diet 2004".

Begin Xmas shopping. The advantage of working in the West End is that I can quickly nip out to the department stores and buy all the presents in a dash. Tom gets a Chris Cunningham (amazing video-director) DVD that I intend to watch with him over Xmas. Simon and John (my two other brothers, numbers 2 and 4) both get "Donnie Darko" DVD's as there is a BOGOF offer at HMV. Basically anyone under the age of 30 will be receiving a DVD whether they have a DVD player or not (you can buy them for 50p at most supermarkets anyway.) Everyone older gets something smelly or something to wear. I buy Tomoko an extra little something to earn bonus-points over Xmas but as she might read this I will not reveal what it is.
I have caught Joel's cold. Tomoko puts on her nurses uniform and makes a hot lemon and honey drink for her poorly soldier.

Christmas Eve - Wednesday 24th December

Christmas Eve has long been one of my highlights of the year, primarily because it was the day when old school acquaintances would congregate down the pub to gossip, bitch, get drunk and then snog someone you would regret the following morning whilst unwrapping those presents amidst a hangover from hell. "The Grand" in Leigh-on-Sea is one of those dying breed of public houses that is yet to succumb to fake Irish accoutrements festooned around the walls or serving up overpriced gastro-food in the evening. It has remained unchanged since I was a teenager, it is just that there are a dwindling number of people my age who still drink there.

But tonight, for the first time ever, the Grand is shite. Firstly there are two threatening bouncers on the door in their black puffa jackets, regulation skin-heads and neanderthal intelligence, whose day-jobs must be extortionists for the Southend mafia. For some inexplicable reason, anyone wearing a hat is barred and they order us upstairs immediately. We ascend the stairs to the 80's disco (tickets a bargain ten quid each) and as soon as we enter the absence of Xmas Eve euphoria smacks us in the face like a dumped girlfriend. I am told that half the bar-staff have failed to materialise and after thirty minutes vainly waiting for a beer I begin to contemplate evacuation. I spot an old friend slouched morosely near the loud-speaker blaring out Madonna's Holiday, his face conveying a man who feels that he is getting too old for this. Tomoko's eyes begin to redden with the cigarette smoke and I decide to abandon tradition and leave The Grand with my cousin Katy and head for another inn. I can sympathise with Joseph and Mary searching for refuge 2003 years ago. I check the stars and I see one twinkling brightly in the direction of "The Peter Boat". We head forth.

We walk down to the "Old Town", a quaint collection of pubs, cobbled streets and cocklesheds that overlook the mud-flats of the Thames Estuary, the home of the jellied eel. There is always a whiff of sea in the air and the hypnotic, soothing clinking of rigging in the wind. Alas "The Peter Boat" seems to be swarming with 16 to 19-year olds re-enacting "Lord of the Flies." We sit on an outside bench amidst carnage and mayhem and a palpable atmosphere of menace. Every other minute a glass is smashed nearby and on the neighbouring table some moron screams "I'm drunk" before losing his balance and tumbling to the ground. Another guy is dressed as Scooby-doo and is mooning to anyone interested before getting into an altercation with one of his mates (not Scrappy-doo unfortunately.) I recall Andrew Jefford's articles earlier this year concerning alcohol-abuse in the UK: this does not bode well for the next generation. Samuel Johnson once wrote that "a man who exposes himself when he is intoxicated, has not the art of getting drunk." He must have been a regular here in the 18th century.

We abandon ship at an early hour and Tomoko and I walk back through Tony Blair's Britain, carefully avoiding the drunken fights and see in the Christmas Eve at home with a glass of Baileys.

Christmas Day - Thursday 25th December

Wake up in my recalcitrant 19 year-old brother's room that permanently reeks of Lynx deodorant. This is my youngest brother who in a most munificent gesture once bought his three elder brothers a £4 HMV voucher that was to be shared between us. Since then I have never received a gift of equivalent value i.e. £1.33.

I wish Tomoko a "Happy Xmas". She mumbles some amorphous response and disappears under the duvet. I go downstairs around 8.30am to find my parents in the kitchen. Mum admonishes my habitual visit to the "Grand" and suggests that I should have been at home with my 2.4 children, hanging sacks round the chimney for Father Xmas. Should Saint Nicolas have witnessed the depravity down the pub last night he would have turned Rudolph round in disgust.

The Martin family's Christmas day rituals have been in existance longer than Christianity itself, the exception being 1994 when I was living in Tokyo and we gathered round a bucket of KFC instead of a freshly cooked turkey. In the morning, Tomoko and I take Frank "the world's most stupid dog" for a walk down the beach. For some reason Frank is obsessed with chewing small stones, which he subsequently gobs out onto your lap as a demonstration of his intelligence. He remains on a leash, lest we lose the family dog on Xmas Day and put a dampener on things. At midday my cousins' family come round for a couple of drinks, the champagne that I spent days deliberating over is used to make bucks fizz and I realise that I forgot to bring a decanter or decent glasses. This means that over lunch we resort to mum's abominable 1970s stemware that would have Mr. Riedel reaching for his gun.

This year mum has bought a "legless turkey", not one that was drunk when beheaded, but one that seems to have been genetically modified to facilitate carving. Pah, and they say advancements in bio-technology cannot revolutionize our lives.
My siblings are the nemesis of the "Slow Food Movement" and have developed a similar form of mastication to that of a pelican swallowing a fish so that by the time mum sits down at the table, they are already mopping up a sea of gravy with their mashed potato or secreting vegetables to Frank under the table. There follows the traditional standoff over exactly who will do the washing-up, which must be completed before the Queen's speech at three o'clock.

After this we gather around the Xmas tree where the presents have accumulated under a layer of molting pine needles over the last few days. They are distributed one by one, an exercise that takes around ninety minutes due inter-genus exchange of gifts between our menagerie of pets. This year, Frank is particularly generous to the three cats with his gift of feline haute cuisine sachets and the cats themselves are bestowed with various toys from the local feline community. The family sit bemused as without a hint of irony mum declares: "This is from Sooty at number 24 to Tigger" and so on and so on, until you wonder when Dr. Doolittle will enter the room. I can only assume that Hammer the tortoise must have done his shopping down Southend High Street before he hibernated under the stairs. Thank God the tropical fish don't buy for each other. We would be here until Easter.

My presents are acceptable this year: my requested CD's from Tomoko, various culinary tools from my parents and the ubiquitous socks that should see me through until 2005. Only John screws up by buying me a CD that I already own (foolishly ignoring my request for the "Kill Bill" soundtrack) and perhaps mum who naively bought kites for her sons emblazoned with the rainbow emblem recognised by gay communities around the world. Flying it on Hampstead Heath would be tantamount to signalling my availability to any male within a mile radius. All kites are rejected.

Like most families in the UK, the evening is scheduled around the television. Unfortunately this year it mostly consists of reconstituted drivel with the exception of Eastenders that never lets you down. However after Kat has married Alfie there is a dearth of entertainment. No wonder the Virgin Mary gave birth on Christmas Day, there was probably bugger all to watch on the TV. An unbelievably mawkish "Only Fools and Horses" is followed by an hour's worth of futile channel surfing. In the next street some twattish family is letting off fireworks until midnight by which time I am the only person left in the living room engrossed in "The Thomas Crown Affair." The embers turn to dust and another Christmas is over.

Boxing Day - Friday 26th December

Southend Pier

I have a cold, my throat feels like Krakatoa and it means that for the first time ever I am unable to consume any alcohol over the festive period. On a plus note, it means I am excused from the Martin family's annual 1.3 mile frog-march up Southend Pier (the longest pier in the world - see left.) I have vague memories of the pier in its halycon days before a tiny cigarette butt turned the Victorian folly into cinders in 1976. Since then, the structure has remained in a moribund state and the 1.3 mile walk to the end leads you to a charred rib-cage of timbers, a deserted room of arcade games bleeping to each other and a coffee bar whose raison d'etre is to resuscitate bodies for the long walk back. Of course, you could catch the tram, but that's cheating.

These charred remains symbolise Southend's illustrious past as a premier seaside destination and the impotent bureaucratic council that has failed to restore the pier to its former post-war glory, when millions of Londoners descended upon the attraction. The decline in visitors helped turn the once vibrant High Street into a haven for "pound shops", whose centrepiece, the grand department store "Keddies", now has the largest "Clintons" card-shop in Europe dancing on its grave.

Morrissey had Southend-on-Sea in mind when he penned the magnificent "Everyday is Like Sunday" with the refrain "This is the coastal town, that they forgot to close down." He paid the town the ultimate insult by not even turning up to appear in the video when it was filmed on Southend beach. I am not traducing Southend-on-Sea, I just wish that the incompetent bureaucrats had not let the town go to seed.

Saturday 27th December

Return back to London, my heart leaden with the fact that Xmas is over for another year. Chill out during the day and watch the final episode of "The Office". It is like watching Shakespeare doing Fawlty Towers. Fact.

Sunday 28th December

These are days lost in no-mans-land, sandwiched between Christmas and New Year. I guess most people frequent the sales, scrabbling for "half-price" bargains whose prices were jacked-up 50% in December. I spend the day doing odd-jobs around the house, pretending I know something about DiY when in fact I simply stare at the problem before phoning the oracle i.e. dad. Unfortunately grammar school education regards Latin conjugations more important than repairing rotting window frames.

Monday 29th December

Today I have given up reading A.N. Wilson's "The Victorians" and decide that the only way to educate myself is by watching two-part costume-dramas of ITV. We try out the new steamer I bought Tomoko for Xmas and the mange-tout come out soggy. Watch one of my favourite films of all-time, "Great Expectations" and make a note that David Lean modelled "Mr Jaggers" upon wine-merchant Bill Baker.

Tuesday 30th December

At last, Tomoko and I pack our worries away and venture to the beautiful Brecon Beacons for a short break. Gone are the days of seeing in the New Year in the clinches of a strange girl fuelled by alcohol and recreational drugs. Nowadays I celebrate through more sophisticated means, usually a special bottle of claret stashed away for the occassion, though the eventual mental state has barely changed over the years.

We set off down the M4, making a stop at an extortionately priced service station where I note that the double bacon cheeseburger meal is £1.20 more expensive than the regular branch. I will discuss this with Vicky next week.

Glangrwyney Court

The hotel, Glangrwyney Court (see right) near Crickhowell is furnished in a cosy Regency style replete log fires and five obese black Labradors waddling out to sniff the new arrivals. It is perfect. Our room has a mullioned window overlooking the idyllic Usk Valley with its winding river and desolate snow-capped Black Mountains. Since I spend one-third of my life within 50 metres of Oxford Street, the serenity is more arresting than ever. Tomoko and I compile a list of good and bad things in 2003. Fortunately the "good" things outweigh the "bad" by about 2 to 1. In the evening we drive to the "Bell at Skenfrith" that has a renowned wine list that is certainly worth the drive, although it is a shame that the interior resembles a bucolic "All Bar One".

New Years Eve 31st December

Last year's New Years Eve was spent aimlessly driving around the Brecon Beacons and then on to the Pembrokeshire coast where we found some insane adrenaline-junkies surfing in sub-zero temperatures. This year we drive into the netherworld of mid-Wales, between the national parks of Snowdonia in the north and Brecon in the south. I love this kind of wilderness, less touristy than the conservation areas, unblemished by the 20th century save for country lanes and the odd secret MoD bunker worming its way hundreds of miles through the granite. The mountains are covered in powdery snow and we stop in a lay-by to chuck a few icy chunks at each other. After nearly 100 miles of driving we end up in Aberystwyth on the western coast, stop for ablutions in their local Somerfield and then head back. We take an even more circuitous route back and by chance find ourselves in Llandewi Breffi, home of the only gay in Wales (those fans of Little Britain will understand.)

In the evening, Mrs Stockwell, the local taxi-driver chauffeurs us to one the best restaurants in Britain, the Nantyffin Cider Mill. The food is cooked to perfection with the most tender piece of venison I have ever eaten and Tomoko and I do the honourable thing and drink copious amounts of wine. We see in the New Year back at the hotel, by which time Tomoko's inebriated state is stretching away from my own. To the background of Welsh fiddle music on BBC Wales, we bid adieu to 2003 with a bottle of Chateau La Croix du Casse 1995. I am paranoid about spilling red wine on the bed so I furtively relieve Tomoko of her glass whose contents are about to decorate the room.

Another year over.

My resolutions for 2004:

1) Approach Mitchell Beazley or any other notable book publisher to suggest that wine-writing needs to be a little more engaging and entertaining if they want Joe Public to expand their horizons beyond Jacobs Creek.
2) Approach any publisher, mooting the idea of turning my diary into a Brigitte Jones style million seller that Richard Curtis will beg to buy the film rights for. Hugh Grant will play yours truly with Lucy Lui playing Tomoko. Jancis will be played by Jody Foster, Andrew Jefford by Elijah Wood, Robert Parker by Marlon Brando, whilst Gerard Depardieu will play the roles of all the chateau-owners like Alec Guiness in "Kind Hearts and Coronets" or Eddie Murphy in "Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps".
3) Finish the neverending task of completing the chateaux profiles for the website.
4) Redesign website so that is displays some degree of professionalism. Most hard-core pornographic sites look better than mine.
5) Join the select band of the "Circle of Winewriters" as I have never been a member of a "Circle" before.
6) Attempt the elegant prose of the Wordsworthian Andrew Jefford.
7) Visit the following wine-regions: Alsace, the Rhone Valley and the Loire. Also the following chateaux: Haut-Marbuzet, Figeac< and Lafleur.
8) Be less disparaging about sommeliers, dentists etc.
9) Speak to Jancis Robinson rather than loiter about like a bashful teenager summoning the courage to ask a girl for a date.
10) Work on the garden that now resembles the post-vandalised Blue Peter sunken garden.
11) Finish A.N. Wilson's "The Victorians" at an opportune moment.
12) Buy furniture not sourced from IKEA and named after a strain of the ebola virus.
13) Change underwear daily rather than when Tomoko notices.
14) Manage financial affairs more competently than Enron and start a pension (my present contributions mean that I will be living on £3.00 per day.)
15) Visit Italy. I cannot believe I have never been there considering the amount of pasta I consume.
16) Eat more carrots and cut down on Burgerkings.
17) Build up my DVD library which currently stands at just two DVD's (filed alphabetically of course.)