Chapter 9

Sunday 29th February
Celestins 1988

No hangover, which is a bonus. In the evening David and Phil come round for an impromptu dinner to celebrate David's birthday. I am gobsmacked when David reveals that his Chateauneuf is actually a pristine bottle of Celestins 1988 from Bonneau. Nice.

Monday 1st March

Joy, oh joy! My friend David Pearce e-mailed me today to let me know that he will be appearing on a reality TV show from next weekend. At least I can now become addicted to something that bears some semblance to my real life instead of watching a bunch of vaccuous non-entities prance about for hours on end. Fit Farm is on Channel 4 at 6.00pm daily and will supporting David not only because he is a pal and is someone associated with wine, but because I think he is going to be a canterkerous git who will piss off the other contestants and make entertaining viewing.

Tuesday 2nd March

California Tasting today. For some reason there is a jazz-ensemble tucked away in the corner, so loud that it is virtually impossible to converse with the winemakers. I am always suspicious of gimmicks during wine-tasting. To concentrate I need peace and quiet: not a bloody trumpet solo dancing on the grave of Miles Davis.

Wednesday 3rd March

Meet Nick P for a couple of beers after work. Nick used to be in my class at school and challenged my music supremacy. We were constantly embroiled in competition, who had the coolest new records or latest remix. I can hear him reading this now thinking "it was me, it was me!"

Matters came to a head on two occassions. Firstly when I frisbeed his Pink Floyd CD out of his bedroom window and secondly when we visited a friend on Canvey Island in about 1988. We piled into my second-hand, black-with-a-hint-of-rust Mini Cooper and he inadvisedly began criticizing Prince, whose Lovesexy tape I had just inserted. I refused to drive home until he apologised for his blasphemy and there ensued a stand-off in the drive-way for about thirty minutes waiting for an apology not forthcoming. Puerile, but funny at the time. If I remember correctly he retaliated by throwing my Beastie Boys "Fight For Your Right" seven-inch into the garden, which my dog Pebbles (R.I.P.) caught and ate.

Sunday 7th March

Parents up for the day. Tomoko cooks them an array of Japanese influenced tapas-style dishes that are uniformly delicious, even if mum does want to dump a load of ketchup on the teriyaki chicken. Dad inspects the walls that I am paranoid are rotting away with damp. Good news: I am being paranoid.

David Pearce

In the evening I watch Fit Farm on Channel 4, starring my friend David Pearce (pictured right.) I feel a pang of guilt having cooked him a calorific dinner before Xmas but he seems determined to shed those pounds. However I know he is going to cause trouble and I foresee him pissing off the other contestants and instructors within days. He is already showing signs of recalcitrance, describing the efforts of the life-style guru as "Bollocks". He is correct of course. There is a scene where the fitness instructors discuss how they are going to come down hard on him so they obviously don't know what they are letting themselves in for. But it is good to see a shot of David tasting some one using proper Riedels, even though they were probably wasted on Australian wine.
Anyway, good luck David!

Monday 8th March

Day off work. The previous night I receive a bit of a shock: Sopexa has a file on me. Tomoko was reading the "MetroLife" supplement in the "Evening Standard" when she comes across a surrepticiously taken photograph of me and my long redundant, neurotic Italian assistant at the Sopexa Burgundy tasting circa 1999. Who took this? How many other paparazzi style images of me are lying in dark cellars? For anyone remotely interested it is on page 35 of March 4th issue.

Watch the morning talk-show "Trisha", which this week involves a man who actually looks like a Benson & Hedges. His predicament involves his girlfriend and the minor obstacle of her being a prostitute siphoning off £6,000 from his bank account to pay for her herion addiction. Apart from that and the fact that both appear to have been lobotomised by a back-street surgeon, everything in their relationship is roses. Here he is, asking Trisha whether their relationship has a future?

In the evening I drive down to Brighton to visit my cousin Caitlyn who is the same age as I (21...or thereabouts.) The journey should take an hour but I lose my bearings and end up admiring the sites of neighbouring Rottingdean. I eventually find her flat and she cooks me a delicious meal of garlic chicken atop a hillock of mash followed by pancakes whilst I proffer an Eiswein procured from the friend in the Mosel valley.

Topics of conversation include Reality TV, organic food, a brief summary of old relationships and the attributes of the 1986 Bordeaux vintage. Caitlyn is in fine fettle and she shows me her profile on the dating website where she has just arranged her first rendezvous. Yes, she is one of a multitude of friends seeking love and a meaningful relationship at an age when we are supposed to be providing the next generation. Instead most of my friends' love lives resemble an archipelago of islands, each inhabited by a solitary lonely heart shipwrecked by failed lover and each sending messages in a bottle across the sea in the hope that one lands on "Mr. Right's" island. In order to aid Caitlyn in her quest, I include a photo of her and can vouch for her quick-witted humour, literacy, good-looks and ebullient personality. She is seeking someone who owns a Classed Growth chateau in Bordeaux (so none of you garagistes need apply) whose wines regularly score 90+ Parker points. She is willing to sample the wines on a regular basis, though the bottles would have to be courriered to her address in Brighton.

Tuesday 9th March

Wake up early coccooned inside a musty old sleeping bag buried underneath a thick duvet. There is something invigorating about waking up in a clear sunny morning in Brighton with squawking seagulls dive-bombing overhead. I depart early around 9 o'clock, have a quick shower and then head off to Lords Cricket Ground for the "France Under One Roof" tasting. Malcolm Gluck is collecting his coat as I enter and still appears to be prime candidate for "What Not To Wear", his lurid, platted cerise shirt looking like something picked up then rejected from Oxfam. The tasting itself is interesting though I cannot find Jancis.
I am concerned.
I have not spotted her for a little while.
Maybe she is avoiding me?

I have a chat with Slyvie Cazes from Chateau Lynch-Bages and I always make the mistake of assuming she is Jean-Michel's wife rather than his younger sister. Meanwhile some pissed-up berk (love that word, we should use it more) is accosting some poor girl at the Chapoutier stand. I evesdrop into his conversation, which is predictably nonsensical. I give her a smile of support and all she can do is pour more Hermitage La Sizeranne and pray he will bugger off.

I make sure that I am home to see how David is doing in "The Fit Farm". Good, he is shaping up to be the enfant terrible of the camp and the instructors are still suckered into believing that they can curtail his pugnacity. Flick over to watch Man Utd screw up in the Champions League whilst alternating with "Brat Club", a docu-reality-drama on six teenagers who serve as a pertinent reminder for contraception, packed off by their weeping parents to the Utah desert for character realignment. What intrigues me is the fact that their suffering is not caused by camping in sub-zero temperatures or eating cold gruel for days on end, but the purgatory of having their tongue-piercings removed. I am going to come straight to the point: tongue-piercings make you look like a twat, so if any Slipknot obsessed adolscent is reading this, get a Prince Albert instead.

Thursday 11th March

What the hell is going on with our youth culture? So much for the revolution being televised. Nowadays the charts are infested with snoozathon jazz albums by Jamie Callum and Norah Jones. I can imagine a dinner party from hell: Callum and Jones with Winehouse and Melua. The conversation is all nods, winks and whispers, everyone talks in hushed tones, Melua strums her acoustic guitar whilst Callum claps along using just two fingers, like you did at school to avoid disturbing the neighbouring class.

If I want to listen to music like this (and admittedly sometimes I do) then give me Charlie Parker or Miles Davis, not some accountant's daughter whose definition of the blues is finding their Laura Ashley frock has sold out. Unless you are an insomniac then I cannot see the point of these young jazz impressarios. Please, just pack up your instruments and buy a one-way ticket to Eastbourne.

Saturday 13th March

Today is a momentous day for the Martin family: our first holiday together since two rain-sodden weeks in Inverness in 1987. We are bound for Paris, home of Victor Hugo, the Museé d'Orsay, le Pont-Neuf and most excitedly for my mother, the Francophile version Marks & Spencers. As a child, whilst friends spent their vacation on the pistes of the Swiss Alps or bronzing themselves in some island paradise, we remained with our feet firmly on British soils, habitually South Devon or the "Moon and Sixpence" caravan site somewhere in belly-button of Suffolk. So the fact that my mum is venturing outside the barbed wire fence that marks the Essex boundary is something of an event, even if it is for a single night.

We meet at Waterloo station, the only train terminal named after an Abba song, and my family troupe down five minutes after we arrive. We bid "bonjour" to the Eurostar train crew, decked out in their recently redesigned uniform that is inspired by a camp Oliver Twist and take our pew in the far carriage behind a family that have "Wandsworth: Nappy Valley" written all over them. As we hurtle through Ashford my mother proffers a leaking thermos flask of weak tea and a box of flapjacks that effectively super-glue your teeth together.

Arriving at Gard de Nord just before midday we encounter our first conundrum in finding a taxi to chauffeur us to our hotel (the cheapest one I could find on the internet, but the photos looked fine.) We order two taxis, one of which bullshits my father into a ten euro minimum charge, getting hot under the collar like Parisian taxi-drivers do. Stepping outside I am reminded that romantic Paris is a mine-field of dog excrement and has a faint odour of pee-pee. But the hotel is absolutely fine, conveniently located in a culinary cul-de-sac of charcuteries and patisseries although for some unknown reason Elton John's "Sacrifice" is pumped through an al fresco sound system 24/7.
Perhaps there is a Reg Dwight block party planned for tonight?

As it is their inaugural visit to the capital we undertake the obligatory tour of the Eiffel Tower in the afternoon. This marvel of human engineering has been the source of many stressful days, the first in 1990 when my ex-girlfriend fainted whilst attempting to walk up the first stage. I had suggested the elevator but she liked a challenge. She wilted into a star-shaped sprawl across the stairs midway between the ground and first tier, irate French families complaining sotto voce as they stepped over her motionless body. My dilemma was whether to walk up for help or stay put whilst she regained her faculties. I chivalrously remained by her side before she awoke like Sleeping Beauty and like Hilary and Sherpa Tensing, we managed to reach the summit...well, at least the first stage for some steak and chips.

Fourteen years later, it takes about four days just to purchase a ticket whilst we fend off unscrupulous street sellers flogging plastic Eiffel key-rings for a Euro. They work in hordes up and down the snaking queues until you go so insane that you buy one for yourself and the other for your nan, a tactical mistake as you are then besieged by all his mates. When Mon. Eiffel sat at his drawing desk, he must have spent countless hours designing the queueing system and decided to split it into three insufferable segments as you ascend each tier of the tower and are battered by ever-increasing Arctic winds. But we reach the top, admire the view for a full five-minutes and then do the whole thing in reverse on the descent.

In the evening we venture to "Victor", a restaurant I booked the previous evening lest we traipse the streets of Paris in search of something that serves gammon and chips. The restaurant is excellent albeit empty and I somehow imbibe a bottle of Corbiere by myself. Dad disowns the veal whilst John complains that the steak and chips are no different to those served in the UK (so why order what is ostensibly and English dish John, why?) My duck is superb although the ice cream seems to have drowned in kirsch. The taxi ride back to the hotel is magnificent, passing the luminescent Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysees and les grands boulevards of Paris. Tomoko and two of my brothers spend the remaining hours in a local bar drinking Leff beer, whilst I am too pissed to realise that the barman is short-changing me. Bon soir.

Sunday 14th March

Wake up around 8'ish and settle the bill. After a couple of croissants we split into two parties, my brothers heading for the art galleries (although they fail to make it inside the Louvre) whilst we head for the boutiques of the Marais, stopping for elevenses at an al fresco coffee bar. My mum purchases some wool and I pray that she is not intending to start knitting on the return Eurostar journey. After reconvening at Notre Dame we vainly search for somewhere to lunch, a difficult proposition for a party of seven with a pot-pourri of dietary regimes that effectively prohibit any dish with a modicum of flavour. But eventually we find a bistro serving something vaguely recognisable that my family reluctantly accept, by which time we are due back on the 5.12pm to Waterloo.

Once back in Old Blighty, we have a enjoyable journey home in the drizzling rain where South-East Trains courteously maroon us at Clapham Junction due to "engineering work". We are forced onto a bus that leaves us at Balham where we have to wait with 300 marauding American students for a train that deigns to bring us home. It takes ninety minutes to travel approximately four pathetic miles.

In the evening I watch a fabulous South Bank Show featuring John Lennons's jukebox, with interviews with the artists whose songs captured the future Beatles' heart. What fascinates me the most is how much of Lennon's revolutionary song-writing was borrowed from classics of the 1950's and early 1960's, the most familiar being the ecstatic whoops on Twist 'n Shout lifted directly from the Isley Brothers. Time for bed.

Tuesday 16th March

Now addicted to Brat Camp though its putting me off having kids. But at least I now know that if they become wayward then I should pack them off for a year's hard labour in a Siberian salt-mine.

After that I listen to Xfm on the radio. Every few years I chance upon a song that sends a shiver down the spine: The Verve's "The Drugs Don't Work", Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", Frankie Knuckles "Your Love", Prince's "If I Was Your Girlfriend" to name a few. This evening I catch another epochal songs by "Wolfman featuring Pete Docherty" (of the Libertines) new single: "This Is For Lovers". I turn up the volume so that I can absorb myself in its plaintive melody and wistful lyrics. If anyone here is under the misapprehension that Katie Melua or Norah (yawn) Jones is more heartfelt than this, then you have my sympathies.

Wednesday 17th March

Today is Tomoko's birthday. I give her my gift: a dog from Clinton Cards, which barks and wags its tail when you squeeze its tummy. She loves it.

In the evening we venture to Zaffaranos in Knightsbridge, probably the best Italian in London. I recognise the two people sitting next to us, a couple of Americans we met at an offline last year and unfortunately they cannot help trying to takeover our light-hearted blind tasting ritual that we play at every meal. Tomoko gets annoyed and being a little tipsy, makes it clear to the couple that this is a private matter and they should "butt out". Alas the very expensive Lafleur 1970 is corked, but not severely enough for us to finish the bottle and get fairly wasted. The Americans must have heard her earlier rebuke and donate an unfinished bottle of vin santo at the end.