Chapter 13

Friday 14th May

Dinner with the suave, the debonair Jean-Antoine Nony of Chateau Grand Mayne and the fragrant Juliette Bécot of Chateau Beausejour-Bécot. Jean-Antoine is a cool customer, laid-back, a guy who takes everything in his stride. Juliette is pretty and dressed in bohemian chic, something of a cross between Parisian chic and Camden Market. An account of the evening will appear in separate articles on Wine-Journal.

Saturday 15th May

"Sunny weekend" ahoy! Instead of soaking up the rays in some idyllic country pub, I am sacrificing my Saturday to attend the Decanter French Wine Encounter at the Landmark Hotel. I make an early start to avoid the hoi palloi and notice that the stands for Grand Mayne and Beauséjour Bécot remain vacated. I assume that Jean-Antoine and Juliette spent the night raving until dawn at an illegal warehouse party in some Hoxton lock-up, but they arrive ten minutes later to set up their stand, by all appearances bright and perky. Obviously the lure of London nightlife failed to ensnare them.

I steal a quick chat with Michael Broadbent. Of course, the last time I saw him was in deepest Tokyo following a delectable Japanese dinner in Ginza. He gives me a headmasterly inspection from head to foot and back again.
"So Neal," he says with a stentorian lilt, scrutinizing his subject over the brim of his half-moon spectacles and barely able to disguise his disprovement. "I see that you are dressed very casually."
I am in my Saturday best: scuffed Merrell trainers (again), low-cut Levi 501's and plain white t-shirt. I feel a sense of déjà vu...I am back at Westcliff High School for Boys, the goggle-eyed Deputy Headmaster bellowing "Martin" down the corridor, mortified at my homeless look circa Dexy's 1982. That now makes two black marks in Broadbent's book: mispelling "Barbaresco" in a fax and my unkempt attire. I will never make it into the freemasons.

Tomoko and I make a quick socio-demographic survey of the attendees. There seems to be a lot of young people here, which bodes well for the future, although we adhere to tradition and line up several candidates for "Prat of the Tasting". Just as the jury convenes for their final decision, in walks one egregious individual who snatches the title away. His haircut looks like something from 1979 episode of Grange Hill, his over-sized round glasses are a forewarning of madness and his purulent skin has been peeled off the face of "The Singing Detective". His navy blazer is replete with gold buttons that are visibly straining to hold the pomposity within, a solipsist convinced that he is the head prefect and us scum are his unruly pupils.

You know these people. You encircle a crowded stand abiding by tasting etiquette and then in barges Mr. Obstreperous, his voice parting the sea of infidels before for him. He walks straight up to the winemaker and hijacks the whole proceedings. We stand incredulous as this panjandrum, this twat, actually walks behind the stand so that he can brag what a talented, knowledgable oenophile he is. Oh, look at me everyone, I can speak A-Level French. His voice is so nauseating that I give Tomoko a knowing glance but her expression says: "No darling, don't use the AK-47 just yet, it will cause a...scene."
I relax my grip on the trigger.

I steal a quick conflab with Andrew Jefford who sits in the main reception signing books whilst mentally composing his next Keatsian article that questions both the mortality of humankind and the ampelographical origin of Harslevelu grape. I have not spoken to him for a couple of years as he must have been absorbed in writing the brilliant "The New France". Thank goodness he remembers me and inquires about my activities these days? I hand him my business card, printed for £4.00 at a machine at Victoria Station whilst arguing with a window-cleaner who moaned I was taking too long. I remind AJ that he owes me an interview since he lumbered me with his unique 25-point system, which has rendered me akin to the last person fluent in an Amazonian dialect with nobody to converse with. I consider him one of the best writers in the UK, one of the few with a career ahead of him rather than behind him. Erudite and skilled as our pantheon of wine-writers are, they all seem to be getting on a bit. Wine-writing needs new blood and that is why I signed up as a donor.

Sunday 16th May

Pub lunch in Sussex to soak up the sun. Forehead gets sunburnt.

Tuesday 18th May

Spend the day at the London Wine Trade Fair which seems to become more corporate/less interesting each year. I guess it reflects that a majority of wine is purchased at supermarkets these days. What is the point of the smaller producers turning up? Still, manage to taste all the Sauternes 2003's at Bill Blatch's stand that will be written up soon(ish).

Wednesday 19th May

Nervously check bank account. I hesitate for a moment before pressing "Show Balance On Screen" and momentarily shield my eyes in fear. Sharp intake of breath as a figure, which roughly equates to an IMF loan for an equatorial African country bankrupted by a despot, appears on screen. Where has it all gone? I have been frugal this month - what was the point? I stare at the screen for a few seconds in some vain attempt to make the figure go down, but it useless. Whatever way I look at it, the ration book will have to be brought out until payday.

Friday 21st May

Tomoko is ill. There is no sign of a fevered brow, no rashes or limbs falling off at inopportune moments. But she has "gone off" wine. I wave a glass of Margaux under her nose but there is negligble reaction. Distraught, I drive her to the A&E department in Croydon and demand to see a doctor in the "Oenology Dept." but nobody seems interested. No wonder the NHS is up the creek.

In the evening I stay up to watch Jools Holland because this evening the show is deigned by the presence of HRH Morrissey, who squirms all the way through a stilted interview at the piano. I have always been a massive, but not obsessive, Smiths/Morrissey fan and it is heart-warming to see this iconic/laconic man back to his best. He finishes with an anthemic "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" which goes well with the remains of a Chinon 2000 from Charles Joguet. I wonder whether Morrissey is into wine? No, probably drinks Ovaltine before he goes to bed.

Saturday 22nd May

Watch the FA Cup Final on TV: Manchester United vs. Millwall. Of course I am supporting Millwall since they are my local team. But the match fails to deviate from the script and after Manchester score the inevitable goal it becomes boring, save for watching Denis Wise set a glowing example to his teammates by kicking any player within reach of his belligerant leg. Afterwards I cook my first risotto ever, which represents one more thing I can tick off the list of epicurean to-dos and fall asleep like some somnolent pensioner.

Saturday 23rd May

Picnic in Highbury Common to celebrate Cath's 21st birthday (pictured right.) I stock up on provisions at M&S: one packet of tortilla chips, one BBQ sauce and one cheap bottle of Chilean Gewürztraminer. Not very original and everyone duly arrives with an identical pack of tortilla chips. Can you imagine the biblical three kings exhibiting a similar lack of originality, the trio all arriving with gift-wrapped myrrh that Mary would have to fob off to a relative, lest of course they kept the receipt and she could exchange it for some incense or a nice cardigan.

The problem with consuming a fair modicum of cheap plonk in a wide-open space is that you soon need to go to the loo and unfortunately the nearest facility is located in a pub so distant that Frodo's journey to Mount Doom was less arduous. But it is nice to absorb some rays, chat to my friends, eat a K2 of tortilla chips and I am safely home in time for Songs of Praise.

Monday 25th May

Another Reality TV Show that will eat-up my spare time begins; this time "Hell's Kitchen" featuring the placid über-chef Gordon Ramsay. Naturally I am glued to the television, though I cannot help thinking that Ramsay has become a charicature of himself. I can imagine the producer instructing him to blow a gasket and spew a stream of expletives whenever the viewing figures dip. Of course with a title like that, they should have filmed it in my own kitchen in West Norwood, the culinary Hades.

Although my cooking skills have progressed since the "Golden Crisp" era (1989 until 2002) I am still cocking up instead of cooking up recipes and fiegning skill like most Englishmen. I mutter "plus de sel" or "moins de poivre" and you might assume a certain level of competence. But it is a charade, I am just mimicking Jamie Oliver's pseudo enthusiasm. Aspiring domestic goddesses copy Nigella's salacious escapades over the Aga and likewise us males copy Ramsay's testosterone-fuelled, pugnacious approach to cooking and whereas Ramsay admonishes his sous-chef, we amateurs yell at the cat when we burn the soufflé.

Tuesday 26th May

Black day. I find out that a friend and colleague in the wine-trade commited suicide at the weekend. I had seen Dylan only the Friday before when he arranged interviews with Jean-Antoine Nony and Juliette Bécot. I am midway through writing the said piece when I am told the tragic news and it is difficult to focus for the rest of the day. I write a small notice of condolence at the beginning of the article and recall what a naturally gifted taster he was, identifying a Sassicaia 1991 completely blind without second-guessing a couple of years ago. How many wine experts could pull that off? How many would brag about it afterwards? Not Dylan. My other memory is just a few days earlier both inebriated over a bottle of Lynch-Bages 1990 and Dylan heaping praise on the wine-journal and encouraging me to keep writing. On the walk home, I told Tomoko how much his opinion meant to me and how his words made it all seem worthwhile. What a terrible loss.

I am assuming that God has connected Heaven up to the internet (hopefully Broadband) so Dylan can continue reading my meandering prose an inane articles. What is wine except birth, life, love and death?

Wednesday 27th May

I forgot to mention last night's manic round of tastings. Firstly down to Parliament Square for the CECWINE tasting that included a quintet from Domaine Leroy (report will be written up soon.) Having completed this, a brisk walk through Green Park, a quick "hello" to the pelicans and then up to the Institute of Directors for the Comte de Vogue vertical. I remain reticent during the wines, still in shock over Dylan's passing and because one of the egocentric participants monopolizes debate. Again, I consider employing the AK-47, tucked discretely within the pages of the Evening Standard but I decide that it would disturb procedings.

Thursday 28th May

To lift the spirits I purchase all six Smiths CD's at HMV for six quid each. There is no better cure for the blues than drowning yourself in music that is even more depressing than how you feel. A dose of "Girlfriend In a Coma", "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" and "Never Had No-One Ever" leaves me feeling optimistic and positive because my girlfriend is not in a coma, I am not miserable and I am not a virgin.

Saturday 29th May

It is time for a weekend break, so Tomoko and I are off down to economically titled village of "Lee" just west of Ilfracombe in North Devon. Naturally it takes several parsecs to venture further than Clapham Common since London's arteries are clogged with families with similar intentions. We eventually manage to extricate ourselves from the metropolis but the further west I drive, the more I become perturbed by ominous signs warning of "Long Delays M5 - Junction 15-22", which roughly translates as "You are heading towards a 60 mile car-park, you muppet." In a moment of inspiration I decide to bypass the motorway and head off into the country towards Bath. But again I am thwarted by millions of other motorists who had the same ingenious idea.

After driving through picturesque Bath we are truly heading into rural England. We pass a hand-painted advertisement for: "The Wurzels: June 16th" that must mark the Somerset border. The countryside is idyllic, particularly "Cheddar Gorge", zig-zagging through a vast fissure of granite as if the next stop is the centre of the Earth. After a quick ice-cream we finally find ourselves back onto the M5, which to my chagrin is not bumper-to-bumper with cars. No doubt the motorway was empty, perplexed at why nobody is using its three lanes of tarmac.

The journey across North Devon is much further than I anticipated, fifty miles of tortuous, twisting roads including a 1:4 incline that upsets my Renault Clio. Still, the views of the Exmoor Hills cascading into the Seven Estuary are quite stunning though by now, Tomoko has tired of the journey and has fallen asleep. This is most disappointing. She is supposed to be my map-reader. I make a mental note to fire her from her position and install a satellite navigation unit instead. At least that won't fall asleep.

We finally reach our destination of "Grey Cottage" (pictured right), which is as beautiful as it is secluded, buried deep in the Devon countryside. The landlady Julia makes us feel welcome and after making ourselves comfortable we head into Ilfracombe for a bite to eat. The Spanish tapas are acceptable, the service unusually excellent and we retire around 11:30, exhausted from our travels.

Sunday 30th May

You just cannot beat an English Breakfast. I usually opt for the "extra-cholesterol" gutbuster fry-up with a side-order of lard, but here in the midst of some of the finest agricultural land Britain has to offer, my plate is crammed full of sausage that tastes of meat and eggs still warm from the chicken's bottom.

We head off down to Wollacombe Bay along with 3 million families and 1 million "surfer dudes" who could not afford to get down to Bondi this year. Now here is a proper beach, unlike the one in Southend which is practically a sand-pit garnished with a bit of kelp. Here in Devon, the soft sand stretches for as far as the eye can see. I can almost imagine Peter O'Toole shimmering on the horizon on top of a donkey

I can understand why the surfer dudes are drawn towards this particular beach as the Atlantic waves offer some fabulous surf. Alas I cannot find any expert surfers performing death-defying stunts on the crest of a wave, but there are plenty of middle-aged, balding men, squeezed into unflattering wetsuits trying to recapture their youth in front of their embarrassed offspring. It would seem that however powerful the wave, it can only support so much weight and the sea devours their egos, leaving them flapping like beached walruses on the sand.

We leave Wollacombe around lunch-time and head for a drive over the hills Exmoor, but our attempts to find a picturesque café selling cream tea proves futile. Exmoor must be ideal if you are a walker or a sheep, but it is a desolate place. We turn back towards Ilfracombe and end up in Morteloe (pictured left): a charming rural village with rickety old pubs, a medieval church and a magnificent view over the north Devonshire coast. We share an obligatory cream tea under in the afternoon sun and then return to the B&B for a walk down to the secluded bay in Lee. We return after an hour or so, whereupon Julia cooks a delicious three-course dinner using local ingredients: tender lamb, an aubergine and tomato bake and a chocolate cake that necessitates a diet for the next three years. This is accompanied by a bottle of Duhart-Milon 1990, which somehow found its way into my travel-bag.

Monday 31st May

Drive back from Devon in about half the time it took us to get there. We have had a wonderful, relaxing weekend break and it is worth travelling all that way just to sample Julia's cooking. Contact details below.
Tel: 01271 864360 and ask for Julia.

The evening is spent in deep discussion and you may have spotted the clues already?

Thursday 3rd June

The afternoon is spent visiting various wine merchants, including Christies auction house where I am bidding for some ludicrously rare bottles of DRC. Auction houses are fascinating places to visit. Any Tom, Dick & Harry may walk inside and witness bored housewives frittering away their husband's multi-zero City bonus upon an Japanese Edo-period urn, a Warhol lithograph or a reinforced toilet-seat that Elvis once sat on. I take a few moments to inspect the Monet coming up for sale, but no, it would not match the carpet. My travels around Saint James Street also spring forth a bottle of Vieux-Chateau-Certan 1993 that leaves a lot to be desired.

The evening is spent in a very different world: Brixton Academy. Courtesy of Gaylene Thompson (thanks Gaylene), I have two tickets to see one of the most important bands to have graced this planet. No, not "The Wurzels" (though I forgive you for thinking so) but "The Pixies", who have reformed after splitting in 1992. There is an electric atmosphere in the auditorium, thirtysomethings revisiting their favourite student indie-band and younger kids wanting to witness a legend.

The quartet nonchalantly sashay onto the stage and unleash an awesome set of classics..."Where Is My Mind" and "Monkey Gone To Heaven" standing out amongst two-dozen three-minute slices of visceral guitar-rock that confirm that this band belong in the pantheon greats, even if the lead singer is now fat and bald. We catch the number 3 bus back home and upon passing the venue, a sixteen year old girl whines "Pixies, who the f**k are they. Those people look like freaks." I am about to admonish her for her ignorance but after deciding that her mates would knife me, keep stumm, for she will never know the joys of Doolittle.

Friday 4th June

I am currently addicted to Prêt-a-Manger. For the last four days I have found myself eating their "turkey, cranberry and cheddar" sandwich and I am starting to exhibit withdrawal symptoms. Cold turkey. This utopian sandwich contains all the ingredients that inevitably leave me £2.95 poorer each day but at least I am ingesting carbohydrates from the bread, fresh veg from the tomato and rocket, meat from the turkey and fruit from the cranberry sauce. In other words: a balanced diet.

Saturday 5th June

Taking it easy this weekend. Highlight of the day: shopping in Savacentre in Sydenham. In the evening I cook a juicy sirloin steak with red peppers and mushrooms whilst listening to "Virgin 80's Classics" on the radio. What would Saturday night be without hearing "Men At Work", eh?
Later we watch "Finding Nemo" of DVD, which boasts some eye-popping animation and witty repartee. The imaginary kids find it enthralling, though remain eerily silent throughout.

Sunday 6th June

Spend the morning watching the D-Day celebrations and a steady stream of aged war-veterans redefine the word self-effacing with riveting tales of heroism and valour, recounted as if they were shopping for bag of chips at Asda.

In the afternoon, Tomoko and I drive down the A13 to Leigh-on-Sea to visit the family and join them for a lamb roast. Frank shows no signs of intelligence above plankton, whilst mum insults my plate with a mound of vegetables which I refuse to eat, just like I did two decades ago. Fortunately, this time I am allowed to leave the table after prodding the courgette a couple of times and deploying my most pained expression. We head back in time to watch the final "Hell's Kitchen" and watch the pixie-like Jen win the competition with her chateaubriand. I am concerned that the only television program Tomoko and I have in common has come to an end. I spend the remaining evening thinking of ways to fill the 9 to 10 o'clock void.

Tuesday 8th June

The evening is spent chilling in my minute garden soaking up the evening's rays. My lawn is roughly the size of Le Pin though without the terroir and it is constantly blemished by a colony of mushrooms whenever there is an inkling of moisture and a bag of compost dumped by the rose bush three years, a relic of my futile attempt to become Capability Brown. Incapability Neal does not possess green fingers. Plants take one look at me and commit Waco-like mass suicide. The only species that inexplicably thrive is mint, which is harvested every weekend to flavour the boiled potatos. In fact, the mint's growth is so vigorous that I cannot boil enough potatoes to keep the mint in check. Perhaps I should sell bunches outside my front door every Saturday morning?

Alas, whilst Tomoko and I finish off a bottle of Muscadet, we hear groans of passion from our libidinous neighbours. After 1 minutes and 37 seconds the job seems to have been completed and we are able to enjoy the remaining contents of the bottle in peace.

Wednesday 9th June

Boilers are the bane of my life. This morning, "Martin Towers" is without hot water and so I have to call out a plumber tout de suite. Tomoko cannot survive without her daily hairwash and she is immediately contemplating emergency measures to cope with the crisis (which usually involves getting the first available one-way ticket back to Japan.) Fortunately I manage to get somebody out, who looks at it, taps it, talks to it and then tells me he cannot get the part until tomorrow (this is all at £55.00 per hour plus VAT.) Bugger.

Thursday 10th June

Boilerman Part II. He returns with the faulty part: a black rubber diaphragm that cost around £1.29. The boilerman is very polite, especially when he asks for the cheque. I spend the evening considering a career move: plumber, electrician, plasterer - any of these tradesman jobs which suddenly appear so lucrative. I then remember I am crap at DiY and decide to stick with wine.