Chapter 17

Thursday 2nd July

Tube strike thanks to Rob Crowe and his militant cronies who are demanding a three-hour week, armchairs to be installed into the drivers' cabs and the right for drivers to abandon their train should they spontaneously become scared of the dark. Naturally they co-ordinate their strike with the weather and the rainclouds join the picket line, deluging marooned commuters at over-crowded bus-stops.
Every worker has the right to lay down their work tools; capitalism is built on suppression of the masses and sometimes striking is the only way to redress the imbalance of power. I just resent it when a strike is called to raise the celebrity profile of its union leader.

Today I attend the "Definitive Italian Wine Tasting" at Lords cricket ground (by way of a circuitous route via 300 buses). Perhaps it is an inappropriate title, after all if this is the "definitive tasting" then I assume I shall not bother attending next years event? It is a well-organized, crowded despite the transportation obstacles and I manage to taste around sixty wines, focusing on the southern Italy flight where I spot HRH Jancis. She is wearing limpid lilac. That's what I like her: always colour co-ordinated. During a flight of wines from Puglia I encounter what must be the heaviest bottle ever. I struggle to lift the vessel and pour the wine.
Is it made of reinforced glass on the off-chance that some infidel tries to assassinate the wine inside?
Or does the wine itself contain Nero d'Avola blended with molten lead?
I conclude that should a black hole consume our solar system, this bottle alone would escape its gravitational pull and become the solitary token of civilization, drifting in the cosmos for eternity until an alien discovers the artefact and thinks: "What a bloody heavy bottle of wine".

Saturday 3rd July

A momentous juncture in our lives.

It is: "Mum, dad, you're going to be grandparents" day.

Events kick off promptly at midday with Tomoko telephoning Tokyo HQ to report that she is engaged and that she has a bun in the oven. Her mother's laughing is audible: either she is elated or it means that a Japanese ninja hit squad has already been despatched seeking to avenge the dishonour of the Mitani dynasty. Fortunately she sounds ecstatic and she says something in her native tongue that I assume means congratulations.

Then down to Leigh-on-Sea to inform the Martin household. My mother has waited centuries to become a grandmother and in recent years has knitted a wardrobe of miniture cardigans. All she was missing was a grandchild to wear it. I have forewarned Tomoko that she will have knitted a complete baby-grow before the weekend is over. When we arrive in Leigh-on-Sea, Tomoko is wearing her diamond engagement ring, however mum is too engrossed in reporting upon the 2004 garden vegetable harvest to notice that something is up. I cannot find an opportune moment to segue the conversation from the plenitude of this year's spinach to the birth of your first grandchild.

I decide to tell my younger brother Tom upstairs first and command him to keep stumm until I have informed mum downstairs. After twenty minutes I finally find a lull in the conversation and take the opportunity to inform her of our engagement and she is overjoyed. I give a brief resumé of recent developments and on the cusp of revealing the chapter involving procreation, she suddenly rushes upstairs. John my youngest brother mentions that Tom has already informed the rest of the siblings of our "baby" news and I have to order mum back downstairs to tell her that a stork is booked for next January. She reacts as if she scored the winning goal in an FA Cup Final. I am sure she eyes the needlework basket to check that the knitting needles are primed.

So, after years of waiting the words that she has been yearning to hear are spoken, how should we celebrate?

For some reason we have booked a seafood restaurant in downtown Southend-on-Sea of dubious repute, even amongst the estuary's community of fish and crustacea, let alone human. Mum has a copy of the menu and it does not bode well. It looks cheap and tacky, there is no mention where these unfeasibly exotic fish have been netted and unless a confluence of the Nile has been redirected to the Thames, I deduce that they were freshly caught from Tesco's that very day. I ask my family whether anyone has actually eaten in this restaurant before?
"No," comes their reply.
I ask where it is and I am told that it is near the defunct "Nevernever Land" opposite "Peter Pan's Playground" near the "Golden Mile" arcades. Hmmm...sounds great.

We drive down to the esplanade, park the car and walk past the algae infested cesspit that is Nevernever Land, the restaurant's overflowing garbage bins into what is ostensibly a goldfish bowl furnished with plastic crustacea. The clientele consists of the short-tempered Southend mafioso with blurred tatoos of naked women, all Tony Soprano without the style and charisma, plus an incongruous Frenchman, who sits in the corner chain-smoking his way through a packet of Benson's which effectively turns this goldfish bowl into a giant bong.

There is a general concensus that the food is at best, rubbish. Out of the eight people digesting what is a lump of batter with a tasteless, unidentifiable fish at the centre, four have upset stomachs the following day. On the way back I recall the delectable shrimp noodles we ate in Japan, which cost precisely one-third of our main course and conclude that despite the purported English having undergone a culinary revolution, we remain a nation that has less epicurean demands than the animals that end up on our plate.

Sunday 4th July

Wake up chez Martin and order my usual full English breakfast and copy of the "Sunday People" to check up on the latest z-list gossip. In the morning I drive into the centre of town with brother Tom and return via Hadleigh Castle, a 12th century fortress that has decayed into blunt molars of crumbling walls, just the barbican and two towers standing forlornly over the Thames Estuary. Obviously the county council in the 13th century was similar to today's, since they never actually completed the construction of the battlements, no doubt electing to spend taxes on Medieval speed-bumps rather than a keep that would protect the community and thwart pirates.

Hadleigh Castle

In fact, Hadleigh Castle jeopardized the existance of wine-journal.com two decades ago, when a teenage Neal Martin decided to climb the ruins and tackle the edifice embossed with a plaque that warned: "Danger. No climbing permitted."
I duly plummeted head first from the top, landing on my right hand which unfortunately twisted itself round a small rock and virtually severed hand from arm. Eight carpal bones form your wrist joint and I broke seven of them and tore every nerve. I recovered my senses and cannot recall any pain, save for the queasy feeling of guilt and stupidity. I had to walk twenty minutes back up the hill to the family who had taken us for a pleasant day out. Clutching my arm, I informed them: "I've hurt myself".

This was patently obvious since my limb appeared to have sprouted two additional joints and was turning deep blue. At the hospital, the doctor told me that the hand was paralysed and that it would be permanently clawed. My fingers had lost practically all sensation and I spent the night with my arm hoisted in the air, watching the film "Juggernaut" starring Richard Harris. (I don't know why that is so indelibly marked on my memory, nor why it was being shown in the Children's Ward, but it still gives me the creeps whenever it is repeated on TV.) With the right hand rendered as useful as an appendix I returned to school, laboriously learning to write with my left hand and I still have school text books written in cobweb-like script.

So how did my right hand achieve such a Lazuras-like recovery? Well, the surgeons set my plaster too tight which eventually left by fingers swelling like balloons. Mum took me to back to the hospital to loosen it up and I can still remember the doctor placing my arm on the table and gripping my poor little fingers, oblivious to the fact that just a fraction of movement would result in seering pain. Not only did he attempt to move them, but he wrenched each digit perpendicular, before mum had could warn him they were actually paralyzed.
It hurt. Screaming agony kinda hurt.
But to this day I am sure that the doctor's malpractice unwittingly resulted in my fingers rediscovering their desire to feel and four months later my hand was in full working order.

The moral of this tale of misfortune is simple. Do not climb walls that say: "Do Not Climb".

Wednesay 7th July

It is time to inform my closest friends, so Vik, her boyfriend Martin (who looks like Salvador Dali had he been a mod), Carolyn and Jude meet in Leadenhall Market for tapas and booze. I wait a couple of hours to spill the beans. Again I am finding it difficult to segue the conversation to engagement/baby but eventually find a pregnant pause to tell them about my pregnant fiancée and there are squeels of delight and shock. Jude in particular has a distinctive "Aaawww" expression which is deployed when she is lost for words. They buy a bottle of champagne and we celebrate, though I wish Tomoko could be here. She is at home battling with eczema which has flared up through pregnancy. I would offer to carry the baby for her, but unfortunately that contradicts the laws of biology. Unless I was a sea-horse of course.

Thursday 8th July

Drinks in St. Catherine's Dock in the City, mainly to tell my other best friend CJ about recent events. Again there are shocked expressions and numerous, breathless: "Oh my God" reactions. I leave around 9p.m. as I want to get home to see "Big Brother"...and Tomoko of course.

Friday 9th July

Current reading material on the toilet is "Mother and Baby" magazine. Alas, I have to skip past page 34 with its graphic photograph of woman given birth. Being unable to watch even a droplet of blood on film, I admit being apprehensive about my reserved front row seat to witness the miracle of life in all its sanguinary glory. But I feel more confident since sitting through the bloodfest that is "Kill Bill Volume 1" last weekend.

Saturday 10th July

Firstly I must apologize to my local supermarket for stealing a travel-bag that was on sale for £9.99. I did put the bag on the conveyor and inform the cashier (IQ=3) to scan it. I was aware that she was oblivious to my instruction and failed to scan the aforementioned item. I know that I should have been an honest citizen and informed the cashier to rescan the bag. I recognize that fact that as I escaped the supermarket with my stolen goods, I shivered with excitement.
So let me inform the supermarket that the bag was complete shite and fell apart when the handle caught in the barriers at Brixton tube station just seven days later.

Tomoko and I have guests for dinner: David Pope (who graced our £49.99 IKEA kitchen table with the Reserve de Célestin 1988 a few weeks ago) and two of Tomoko's friends who I am not acquainted with. Of course, first time visitors to our abode are usually paranoid about bringing wine, though they forget that just like anyone else, as long as it is wet and fermented, it will do nicely thank you very much. They bring two bottles of Frascati, one of which I open the following day and very quaffable it was too.

Yukio is Tomoko's friend, who is married to John. John has suffered ten years purgatory in the insurance business and is showing first signs of dementia (I can sympathise with him, having spent 18 months myself working at Lloyds, which redefined the word ennui.) John insists on claiming to be a "chimp" during the meal, homemade hamburgers washed down with Chateau Figeac 1983 and Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1992. Indeed, as the meal progresses and more glasses of vino are imbibed, poor John's speech gradually turns somewhat nonsensical, at which point it is time for Yukio to ferry him back to East London. It marks the first occassion when a dinner-guest has confessed to being a primate.

Sunday 11th July
Ricky Butcher

Down to Bordeaux on business today, an annual fixture with important Japanese clients who have become as much friends as business acquaintances. I have to take a circuitous route to Gatwick via Victoria Station on the number 2 bus and then back down to the airport. Upon arriving at the North Terminal I notice that I misread the time of departure and that instead of having hours to spare, milling round the duty free, there is in fact a real chance that I may miss the flight and jeopardize a million pounds worth of potential business. I run up to the Customer Service desk muttering four-letter obscenities under my breath and I literally have to run through customs. I manage to reach my seat just as the gate closes, just enough time to notice that a tanned Ricky from Eastenders is on my flight. I even have time to quickly phone Tomoko, blurt out: "Ricky from Eastenders is on my plane".

The evening is spent in the company of my good Japanese friends, munching away through tiers of crustaceans.

Monday 12th July

Down to business. I enjoy actually working in the wine trade rather than just sitting on a high throne with pen and paper and writing down my observations without getting my hands dirty. Many of the most knowledgable scribes such as Clive Coates and Michael Broadbent spent their formative years working in the trade. It gives you insights that journalists do not see, it provides a constact reminder that vintners make wine to earn of living and that however much we pontificate upon wine, however much we build a romantic notion around a vineyard, the bottom line is to sell your produce at a profit. Of course, the exception are the multi-millionaires buying up vineyards to resolve their mid-life crisis, yet very few are actually involved in the daily running of the estate.

Anyway, the morning is spent in big meetings with negociants. At the first, I am wary about their chairs, which have a tendency to flip over if you lean slight forwards since its centre of gravity is somewhere over the other side of the room. Indeed, during one meeting I suddenly disappeared under the table and had to sheepishly take my pew back like Mr. Bean.

We also have a tasting of a number of wines, a simple (but delicious) lunch and then the afternoon is spent touring the Right Bank with visits to La Dominique, Nenin and Chateau l'Arrosée. Naturally we are late for every appointment, as is customary in Bordeaux. During the traversing of communes, it comes to my attention that I know the location of chateaux better than the negotiant chauffeuring us around. Perhaps I should start giving tours round various landmarks in a double-decker bus?

The evening is spent at dinner with some splendid wines (one of which I manage to identify correctly), a few cigars and convivial conversation. Tomorrow: more of the same.

Tuesday 13th July

Wake up and watch a bit of Sky News in the hotel. They are obviously trying to be more "funky" than the BBC, although the reports are constantly interrupted by half an advert every two minutes. My hotel is in central Bordeaux, a well-heeled four-star accommodation whose deferential staff is courteous, multi-lingual and wanting to help in any way. I like staying here. Its luxury makes me feel important and I strut in through the front entrance as if I am some Russian oligarch who is in town to close of multi-billion dollar deal, instead of some geek whose bathroom is already fully equipped with this very hotel's towels, bathrobes and soaps.

The morning is spent at Chateau Latour in the company of Frederic Engerer, who gives us a guided tour of this gilded palace. For once the designers have imbued a little atmosphere in the place: so many chateaux are refurbished and end up like an office in Croydon. You cannot redesign atmosphere. I have been here countless times now, so we get straight down to talking and tasting, including an interesting flight of the last four vintages.

Next is at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. We are escorted through an amazing dark vinotheque cellar, our guide lighting a candle to illuminate our way through a corridor of vintage wines that just beg to be opened. There is some 19th century Haut-Brion hiding under layers of black mould and they silently yell: "Neal, Neal. Free us from the cold dark cellar. We have been captive here since 1874."
But I have to ignore the pleas for liberty and the iron gate closes behind me.

Lunch is in one of the chateau out-houses, a simple round table set up in a room adorned with decorative art, including two Mouton rams that eyeball the food throughout the meal. Disconcertingly it is Pauillac lamb. Estate manager Hervé Berland tells us that the baronesse purchased the twin rams from an auction catalogue, expecting them to be a few inches high and was rather taken aback when the life-size replicas turned up at their new home. Of course, I am always experiencing similar problems with IKEA's self-assembley furniture that never quite fits into its intended space once put together. Although Mouton is an ostentatious chateau, Monsieur Berland is the opposite: garrulous, surprisingly down-to-earth and brimming with vignettes about the stellar cast of artists who have been commissioned to paint the label. I tell him that one of my early works was displayed in the Gallery on BBC1's "Take Hart" in 1982, a masterpiece far superior than that John Huston rubbish. But alas my felt-tip scrawl of two caged parrots will not be appearing on the 2003 vintage.

The evening is spent dining at Chateau Lynch-Moussas in the company of its proprietor, Philippe Casteja. I struggle with the starter of cold fish, but the tender beef for the main course is sumptuous. After a couple of brandy's we drive back to the hotel and my Japanese colleagues retire to bed.
I decide to have a quick beer before turning in for the night. There is nobody in the bar when I arrive, except a lone bar-tender in a freshly pressed green jacket and tie. He seems to have been expecting me.
"What can I get you, Sir?" he inquires.
I check the wall to see if there is a black and white photograph of a 1920's party with me at the centre, staring back like a wide-eyed lunatic.
"A beer please."
I take a seat, the solitary customer in the bar, the barman tending to his optics, wiping ashtrays and waiting patiently to see if I need anything else. The silence is deafening. I feel anger bubbling, frothing and fomenting inside.
Why am I sitting here alone in the bar?
Why am I always working?
And Tomoko. She is always distracting me from my work?
I should sort her out. I'll do it when I get home.

All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Neal a dull boy.

Rest assured, when the lift opens, there is no tidal wave of blood flooding reception. But that axe looks mighty tempting.

Wednesday 14th July

Return back to Blighty from Merignac Airport in Bordeaux. For some reason, something always goes tits up at this point of business trips.
Last year the check-in computer crashed the moment our tickets were issued and they had to delay our plane while they rectified the problem. This precipitated an economy cabin full of evil stares when we belatedly boarded, but don't blame me, blame the computer system. The previous year the check-in girl forgot to return our passports, which sent my pulse racing to cardiac arrest levels whilst I frantically ran around the departure lounge trying to think where I could have possibly mislaid them.

But things seem to be going smoothly. Ricky is not on the flight home, probably having some bust-up with Bianca, but our flight is a veritable airborn kindergarten. I am hemmed in by irritable, catawauling infants and I as submerge myself in a magazine, I treat this ninety minutes as forerunner for what lies ahead.
The evening is spent at a Japanese restaurant being proffered a smorgasbord of Japanese delicacies that prove a welcome relief from such calorific French cuisine. This is washed down with a pretty, though insubstantial Chateau l'Eglise-Clinet 1978 and a spineless Les Grandes Murailles 1982.

Thursday 15th July

More meetings. Things are going well: a lot of cases are being sold, a lot of Mild Seven cigarettes being smoked. I do believe there is a direct correlation between the two. One duty free box and we meet our monthly target.

Lunch is spent in the dining room of a Justerini & Brooks drinking some marvellous wines. The fine wine trade is still a bastion of the upper-class. Everyone is predominantly born with a spoon in their mouth of differing degrees of silver, usually the landed gentry who own vast tracts of farmland in Northumberland or indeed, own Northumberland itself. Their speech is inflected with a public school patois and they are ineluctably caucasian. Spawned from a trenchent middle-class family with ineluctable working class roots, grandparents a butcher, a postman, a fireman and a home-help, our subcultural differences lie just below the surface. I speak like a BBC announcer from the 1950s in such dignified company, but the nasal Essex twang returns when ordering a pint down the pub in Southend or asking for 8mm screws at B&Q. Still, it is remarkable how the subject of reality television transcends social barriers so that even the most salubrious private dinner will be gate-crashed by a passionate debate upon the nomination for eviction on this week's Big Brother.
That is me. Bringing down the tone of conversation wherever, whenever.

Tonight is spent in the private dining room of The Square, a bibulous evening thanks to a ravishing Lafleur 1983 and copious Dom Perignon. For some reason, our congenial hosts become embroiled in a heated debate about child pornography on the internet. I consider this an inappropriate topic of conversation to so commence a one-sided conversation with my Ducru Beaucaillou 1961 until the debate inevitably veers back to Big Brother.

Friday 16th July

Final day of the business trip. Lunch is at "Clarks" in Kensington, homely eaterie imbued with River Cafe charm. The wines a suitably memorable: Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc 1964 defying time itself and a regal Richebourg DRC 1961 that defies superlatives. But I have to curtail lunch and bid farewell to my Japanese friends as I have to meet Tomoko at Kings College Hospital for our first meeting with the midwife. Unfortunately I arrive just after it has finished, thanks to the London traffic, though Tomoko reliably informs me that the midwife was Lucy Lui's mother.

Lui Snr. has presented us slim-line tome ingeniously titled &qupt;The Pregnancy Book", a fossil straight out of the mid-1980's. Page 65 features a squatting woman attired in white dungarees with three-quarter length trousers that was so de rigeur in 1983. She is supported by her over-coiffured husband who looks like an extra in a "Depeche Mode" video circa Construction Time Again. I hope that all the money Tony Blair is spending on the NHS will be invested in updating this superannuated guide for mums and fathers-to-be. I am just surprised the guide does not come with a free flexi-disc of birthing positions.