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Book One: Chapter 28

Sunday 3rd April

Today I jet off to Bordeaux for en primeur 2005, my annual pilgrimage to sample the new vintage and write a series of tasting notes that consist of various conjugations of "tannic", "blackberry", "cassis" and "balanced". It is my first significant length of time away from Lily, who exacerbates her father's angst by coo-ing, glurgling and smiling, and generally making herself irresistibly cute prior to my departure. She even demurs filling her Pampers with korma-coloured poo, diplomatically waiting until her mother is home alone before letting the bowel doors swing open and erupting like Krakatoa.

I arrive at Gatwick in good time: immediately spotting the "Good Bishop Gill" arguing with the check-in assistant about something or other. As usual, the British Airways counter is completely understaffed, possibly because there is a large B.A. Catholic contingent mourning the death of John Paul II (one of the rare instances where the sequel was superior to the original.) At airports, I am forever paranoid about losing my passport, ticket or brain, so I feverishly recheck my hand-luggage every 5 minutes, just in case something essential spontaneously evaporates.

The departure lounge is full of familiar faces in the wine-trade, in fact we may as well have clubbed together and chartered our own jet. There are the landed gentry, straight from badger baiting in the country attired in tweed; a small batallion of Berry Bro. M.W.'s who all seem gargantuan in size (if they wore puffer jackets that could pass as well-heeled nightclub bouncers); assorted pensioners from the wine-trade, octogenarians bleary-eyed from hibernating over the winter, waking up especially for en primeur like small marsupials...and lil' old me.

Boarding the midday flight to Merignac, it becomes obvious that should this plane crash or disappear in the Bermuda triangle (I have a theory that it roams the Earth: it would neatly explain why my bank cards go missing), the UK wine trade would effectively cease to exist. I meet someone I know who deals in the American market who informs me that there is little interest in the 2004. Maybe we should turn the plane and head back home, after all James Suckling has already tasted the vintage, so what is the point? Or maybe instead of traipsing around chateaux, we could all head to Arcachon and drink tequilas on the sand dunes?

We pass through Bordeaux customs who check hand luggage just in case a passenger is smuggling a bottle of Burgundy or, God strike them down, New World moonshine. Then we have to wait an interminably long time for the car-hire company to sort out some keys, which infuriates the Good Bishop Gill who demands the telephone number of their manager in order to vent some spleen.

Finally, after an hour of waiting, my Clio is ready to whisk me into the Medoc and I load up my CD's ready for the endless hours of driving. This year we have Nick Cave's Abattoir Blues, the Scissor Sisters eponymous debut for some gaiety, The The's splenetic magnum opus "Infected" (which never makes the return journey) and T Rex's "Electric Warrior". I apologize for turning up at several chateau with "Get It On" or "Take Your Mama Out" at 120 decibels, but it keeps you alert.

Monday 4th April

Hoorah! It's primeur! First thing to note is the dominance of the English contingent in Bordeaux. When push comes to shove, when the vintage is not lighting the Americans' fire, the Brits are there like a faithful Bassett hound, supporting Bordeaux through thick and thin.

This has been my first night sans Lily and I should be making the most of it. Alas, I have the most bizarre and vivid dreams, one so macarbre that I awake scared out of my wits, the other starring Gary from 90's sitcom, "Men Behaving Badly", who was in the act of wiring up marshmallows around a tenement building, bidding us to shield our eyes before the confectionary flared up like magnesium in a coruscating flash that lit up the town (Southend High Street near WH Smith.) If any psycho-therapists can work that one out, I would love to know.

So I wake up drowsy and dwardle downstains to binge of croissants and coffee. The first visit is at Chateau Latour at 9a.m. - therefore I have the privilege of being the first visitor to the chateau this week. Then it is on to Lafite, Mouton, Grand-Puy Lacoste, Chateau Margaux and Palmer...all by lunchtime.

All I want for lunch is a fresh baguette, but of course France becomes a deserted wasteland between 12 and 2p.m. and I cannot find one for love nor money. What I do find is the Good Bishop Gill, wandering the Pauillac esplanade in search of fags and all I end up with for lunch is a bloody Twix. So much for lunching at some stately chateau.

In the afternoon I visit countless more chateaux. I abscond from Ducru Beaucaillou with a bundle of Ducru-tattooed pebbles (decoration for the shop), whilst at Montrose I am given a hardback monograph. This only intensifies my guilt since I had just written a less than glowing note. Perhaps they took a peek over my shoulder and thought that the book would sway my judgement? Unfortunately non.

Alex at the pumps

(Alex fills up with 4-star at the Montrose pumps.)

I bump into Alex Hunt at Cos d'Estournel, whose iron gates take about three weeks to swing open once you have convinced the intercom that you are not a part-time member of Al-Quaeda and that Cos is the bestest chateau in the world ever. At the toytown of Montrose, which is bears semblances to Trumpton, I persuade Alex to pose by some petrol pumps that we discover near the chai. I meet Mme Gasqueton at Calon- Segur who amazingly looks younger than when I last saw her. Finally to Pichon-Lalande where I savour the vista over Latour.

The evening is spent with the boys from Index, plus Victoria who vainly tries to keep them all on the straight and narrow (some hope.) We dine at a restaurant called Saint Julien (which coincidentally happens to be in Saint Julien) where 18 wines have been amassed, ready to be sacrificed in the name of Bacchus; exceptional wines that deserve their own article.

The Good Bishop Gill sits opposite, pardoned from mourning the passing of the pontif and no doubt jetting off from Bordeaux directly to Rome for the conclave. However even his evangelical presence cannot help the salacious topics of conversation, the like that has probably never been heard in the Saint Julien restaurant. I recall soundtracks to porn movies being mentioned quite early on...it descended from there really.

Saint Julien restaurant

So it is a good job that the chef's grasp of English is minimal, for he accompanies us at the table around wine 15, soon to be joined with his army of sous chefs and haranged waitresses who sit with jaws agape at the wines on the table. The chef himself looks as if he has undergone a couple of rounds of gavage, ready to be served up for an epicurean feast. Slice him in half and I am sure you will find him to consist purely of fois gras.

The Good Bishop Gill is vexed about his chariot home since there are only two taxis south of Paris: one is on strike and the other has mislaid his keys as a token of solidarity. Fortunately the chefs offer to take us back to the hotel, though since it is only 2a.m., they open up a bar on Pauillac esplanade for some late-night beers. Don't they know I have an appointment at La Mission at 9a.m.? Tomorrow is going to be a long day.

Tuesday 5th April

Today is devoted to the Union de Grand Cru tastings splattered around Bordeaux, but not before driving down to Pessac for rendezvous at Ch‰teau La Mission Haut-Brion, a journey that was all going to plan until I hit the Bordeaux orbital, the purgatory of tarmac known as the "Rocarde" that limits every vehicle down to an average vehicle speed of 1.5 mph. It would be quicker in reverse. Consequently I arrive 20 minutes late, although it appears that I was not the only one cursing the embouteillage as just three of us enter the tasting room, sympathizing with those whose fate lies in the hands of an overwhelmed Bordeaux infrastructure.

From there I head south to Pessac for the Graves tasting at Ch‰teau Smith Haut Lafittte. It is a long-held tradition that I miss the turning for Pessac and end up being sucked into Bordeaux central in a whirlpool of impatient, cursing Gallic drivers, two of whom make a very upsetting gesture as I am consumed by an eddy of cars at a roundabout. Ten disorientating circuits of that and I finally fathom precisely which direction I should be facing. Back on track, I taste a gamut of Graves wines, including a pointless Pape-Clˇment Blanc with the clarity of a maudlin rain-cloud.

Food, I need food. Fortunately, the ch‰teau obliges with welcome buffet under the marquee outside. Alfresco Š I approve. It makes a gastronomic improvement on yesterday's "Twix". I lunch with Alex Hunt, returning to the buffet one more time to load up on rice before curtailing post-prandial conversation to drive up to the UGC tastings on the Mˇdoc.

En primeur tasting is no jaunt: it is an exhausting, never-ending series of curlicued car journeys; jostling at stands; scribbled illegible notes on Cabernet speckled booklets and of course, ensuring that your faculties remain intact so that you can drive without careering off into a vineyard. Contrast this with journalists who ride in golden chariots, pulled by a legion of semi-clad slaves to luxurious tasting rooms where they recline in velvet chaise-longs and taste samples from silver goblets (Riedel of course.) Oh, how the other half live.

Having completed a round of about 50 or 60 wines, I drive to Ch‰teau du Tertre for a meeting with Alexandre Van der Beek, who guides me round the property. Du Tertre is one of those names that has risen phoenix-like after millions of Euros rained down from above. Of course, the danger is that you can spend a fortune on some stucco interior only for it to resemble All Bar One or the Croydon branch of Habitat. The dˇcor is tasteful, perhaps a little soulless, but adorned with an ostentatious slither of a swimming pool resplendent with a naked woman at the far end, something that you never found at Belfairs Swimming Pool/veruca incubator when I was a doggy-paddling pup.

I am shown around the ch‰teau before hordes of guests arrive, courtesy of the negotiant hosting the dinner. It is one of those occasions when I am unacquainted with virtually everyone, so whilst they jabber on about this and that, I take a cheeky snooze on a creaky, leather armchair in the corner. A very aristocratic couple approach me for small talk but flitter away once they catch a whiff of lower-middle class for alas, I cannot regale the latest victory of my local polo team nor the last Rembrandt I bought at Christies.

The dinner is fine, including what ostensibly tastes like a posh KFC for main-course (and I do not mean that pejoratively.) But I must make my excuses after the fromage accompanied by a rather moribund Du Tertre 1982 that belongs to bygone era. I am nervous about not finding my hotel in Saint Emilion and becoming lost in the single country lanes somewhere east if Libourne, such as Beaune...or Budapest. But to my pleasant surprise it is remarkably easy to find, although the Bonsai Hotel is disappointingly devoid of its namesake. While I ruminate about bonsai and wines I type some notes on the laptop whilst Liverpool vs. Juventus play in the background.

Wednesday 6th April

A good night's slumber, although the mini-series of surreal dreams keep plaguing me. The latest installment is psychologically damaging to such a degree that I subconsciously my erase it from my cerebral hard-dive before awake and yet I have the residue of feeling disturbed. Is this the first stage of becoming a psychopath?

After a quick shower, I pop downstairs to load up on flaky, self-destructing croissants that end up strewn over the table cloth, check out and head off up to Chateau Cheval Blanc for my first appointment at 9.15am prompt. From there it is back through Medieval Saint Emilion to its rival Chateau Ausone that still resembles a building site. One expects to see Alain Vauthier crouching down with a spirit level and cement trowel, his backside poking out from the top of his trousers. It is difficult to tell exactly what they are constructing although it would appear that Thunderbird 2 will be residing beneath the chai.

Last year, Alain Vauthier had a small goodie-bag of signed case front-ends plus an info pack. This year, the case front-ends are unsigned and lack the personal touch, though there is a very nice illustrated brochure on the chapel that overlooks Ausone like a peeved nun. Whether these items will attract as much interest on e-bay remains to be seen. I can envisage a day when all the ch‰teaux will resort to goodie-bags like the Oscars, where you would leave tastings laden with Troplong ties, Suduiraut socks and a Montrose mug.

Next on my itinerary is Ch‰teau Pavie. As I enter the driveway I keep my eyes peeled for armed guards patrolling the perimeter, just in case HRH Jancis attempts to taste the wine. I spot a couple of aggressive looking sniffer dogs specially trained to sniff out English female MW's with OBE's and any other acronyms of grandeur. Rumour goes round that HRH is actually disguised in a burkha and passing herself off as Iraq's new Minister of Wine. Who knows?

The Good Bishop Gill has parked the pope-mobile outside and is busying himself with Gerard Perse's dainty little clarets. At least this year there is no muzak pumping through the in-house sound system. I am burdened with yet another info-pack, scoff the cheese (no sausages on sticks unfortunately) before heading up to another intimate tasting in the village of Saint Emilion, where I chance upon a gaggle of garagiste wines effectively halving their availability by sacrificing one bottle.

I proceed to the Pomerol UGC tasting at Chateau La Conseillante accompanied by a warbling Nick Cave on the car CD-system, where I load up on foie gras and a complementary salad leaf. I almost miss my next appointment with Alexandre Thienpont at Vieux-Chateau Certan. I park the rented Renault Clio on a grass verge that is far steeper than anticipated and the vehicle lurches at such an angle that I risk rolling over completely into the peripheral vines of Cheval Blanc. How would I explain that in my business report? I have succeeded in marooning the beleaguered vehicle and I can smell burning rubber as it tries in vain to extricate itself from its predicament, a plume of blue exhaust smoke visible in the rear-view mirror. So this was the catastrophe that was lurking round the corner, biding its time until I dropped my guard. After three increasingly anxious attempts, the carÕs wheels touch tarmac and we are speed off to meet Alexandre.

He waits in the darkened chai. Alexandre is tall and lanky, reminds me of a young missionary, especially when he starts talking passionately about wine. He extols the virtues of "natural" winemaking and denounces the excessive use of modern technology. I think he can detect the odour of Pavie on my body, hence the tacit admonishing of vulgar, modern techniques.

This afternoon is a family affair, for it is just a quick drive over to Le Pin to meet his cousin Jacques. This is my first visit to this iconic vineyard and the only reason I am able to locate it, is by recognizing the ramshackle abode from the photo that adorns this very site. I can confirm that Le Pin is not a garage wine: there are no jam-jars of marinating paint-brushes rusting away in vintage white spirit, no tools of indeterminate purpose, no floor stained in motor oil or no car batteries stacked up in the corner with acid leaking into the Earth's crust. Jacques flits from barrel to barrel with a glass pipette, creating an inpromtu Le Pin 2004 cocktail for me to sample. He remains reticent, concentrating on assembling the most representative blend whilst I simply marvel at my good fortune standing in Le Pin.

The day is over. I drive back into Bordeaux, stranding myself in the hemorrhaged traffic, desperately hoping to locate my hotel for the night and naively banking on intuition to locate my abode, a strategy that backfires spectacularly for an hour. Eventually my accommodation rears into view so I shower, change clothes, phone the other half to check she has not shacked up with the milkman, then spend the evening dining with a group of Americans in the opulent surroundings of a merchantÕs palatial abode. I should mention here, that although the fermented grape juice is very fine, including a truly outstanding Ch‰teau Angelus 1990, it is the delicious main course of canard that is etched in the memory. And to think, Colonel Sanders didn't even have anything to do with it.

I leave at 1 a.m. Tomorrow is my final day.

Thursday 7th April

Wake up 8ish and saunter down for victuals: croissants au naturellement. Although the Bordeaux traffic system grinds to a halt every rush hour, I must complement Bordeaux City Council on their carparks. Unlike the British ones where you pay an extortionate amount to park in a giant concrete toilet, the oh-so-chic ones in Bordeaux are a paradigm of what car parks can achieve. The increasingly battered/distraught Clio is stationed in a multi-level subterranean cavern that has been excavated below the main esplanade. Spotlessly clean, complete with the latest technology, it appears to have been designed by John Galliano.

I could have spent the morning admiring the car-park, but I have a rendezvous at Chateau L'Eglise-Clinet with Denis Durantou. I pull up in the torrential rain and greet Denis in his art studio/tasting room. The first thing Denis does is present me with a double-CD entitled "Bordeaux Rock", a compilation of the region's local post-punk rock bands. I have only had the chance to listen to couple of tracks, but will present my full appraisal in due course. For the record, if any other chateau proprietors would like to offer me a CD when I deign them with my presence, gifts will be gratefully accepted.

I mention a dodgy half-bottle sample I tasted the previous day. It was actually Chateau Lafleur, possibly my favourite chateau (unless I am speaking to the intercom at Cos d'Estournel.) Denis remedies the situation with a quick call to Jacque Guinaudeau and five minutes later, the owner of Chateau Lafleur calls back and says it is fine to pop over.

It is just 2 minutes away and as we pull up the drive, I am relieved that the photo I took of Chateau Lafleur, is Chateau Lafleur and not a neighbour who has since been besieged by Japanese tourists wanting to take a photo of their front garden. Jacques is finishing the tasting with another person, so Denis takes time to explain the vineyard and take a peek at the kitchen, where chickens must have clucked around many moons ago.


We then enter the small chai where I meet the magnificently moustached Jacques Guinaudeau and his wife Sylvie who fortunately speaks very good English. I feel as if I am in Burgundy rather than the corporate world of Bordeaux. Jacques would not look out of place on a Hebridean trawler in a yellow sou'wester. He asks whether I would like to sample the vintages back from 2004 to 2001. Well, how could I refuse?

After a second tasting at the Pomerol UGC it is time for one final round at the Circle de Rive Droite shindig. Having added a few more chateaux, it is a drive back to Merignac airport, where I bump into the Good Bishop Gill in the departure lounge who seems determined to polish my shoes. I type up some of the notes on the way back to Blightly, then suffer the horrendous ordeal of buying a train ticket at Victoria Station, during which a kind member of Network Southeast's staff informs me that I am blind and stupid for not buying my ticket at the Gatwick Express counter.

Eventually I arrive home, where an exhausted wife and a bawling baby are there to welcome me.

Friday 8th April

Day off work, a day to give Tomoko respite from motherhood. We head down to Purley Way to buy a baby monitor for Lily, whose expansion means that she has outgrown her crib. Alas, we cannot find the model we want and end up spending the money on a case of cheap wine at Majestic. Looks like she will be in the crib for a little longer.

Monday 11th April

Lily takes her revenge. We are bathing together, Lily wedged between my splayed legs so that I can wash her back. She loves baths, it is the only time you can guarantee that she will not cry, it is the time we chat together, put the world to rights, discuss the life ahead of her. Then I notice "it" skimming along the surface of the bath like miniature faecal torpedo, a small brown "present" from my daughter. "Shit" I exclaim both expletively and descriptively. Then I spot another...an even more deadly floater that is about to dock with my right foot. Lily splashes...what fun! Where has my dignity gone, where's it gone???

However, how can you hold grudges against an angel as cute as this?

Tuesday 12th April

So I am sitting at my desk, which currently looks as if civil war has erupted between the in-tray and the magazines. I am flicking through the latest copy of the wine trade magazine Harpers that is currently degenerating into a soap-box for Malcolm Gluck to vent his spleen against his erstwhile employers, wine-scribes, Tim Atkin MW or anything that irks him in this God-forsaken world. Anyway, I turn to the interview pages and I am suddenly faced with a full-sized black and white photograph of my wife's Gallic ex-paramour, grinning about his new sake company. I read the prose to see if I can find anything eluding to past relationships, something along the lines of "It was after the break-up of a particularly tempestuous relationship that I threw myself into my career."

There is no mention, but I do discover that their new range of sake is adorned with labels, sporting narcissistic facial sketches of him and his partners. Bloody great. Can you imagine: Tomoko and I book an expensive restaurant for a romantic night out, we order a pre-prandial sake and "Bonjour, c'est moi ma petite cherie" smirks from the label. I make a mental note to carry a thick black marker pen with me, just in case.

Wednesday 13th April

Hear the new Oasis single "Lyla": another one chord dirge that is a sonic photocopy of all their previous singles. I listen to "Supersonic" when I return home, to remind myself what an essential band they were.

Thursday 14th April

Today I attend a "Biodynamic Tasting", the most tree-hugging event I have been to since that bongo drumming seminar on Brighton esplanade a few years ago. To my pleasant surprise, Lalou Bize Leroy herself is here with four of her wines. She is exactly how I imagined: petite, wily, piercing eyes and a mannerisms of a ravenous bird of prey. I make a useless attempt to converse with her in French: she is friendly and inquisitive, almost glazy-eyed when I approach the topic of biodynamism.

Later I strike up a conversation on a similar theme with Olivier Humbrecht, the stocky, tall, broad-shouldered Alsace vigneron who has been spreading the gospel of biodynamism for many years.

But my tete-a-tete is thwarted by a diminuative woman who has walked straight out of the pages of Gulliver's Travels and has pinned Humbrecht against the wall with hubris, ignorance and a perfume restricted to the over-65's. She sashays up to the stand, introduces herself without showing any interest in him, before declaring that she is on the verge of establishing a nationwide wine merchant that will revolutionize wine distribution, perhaps revolutionize the world itself. All from the library room of her stately mansion just outside Cirencester.

"I simply must have your wines directly" she implores, as Olivier introduces his defence shield a.k.a. his UK agent. As her perfume permeates his fragrant wines, the harridan's assistant squirms with embarrassment, wishing the world would swallow her up. She eventually waltzes away convinced that a fax will inevitably be sent forthwith, signifying that henceforth the entire production of Zind-Humbrecht will be in her capable, manicured hands for the next 25 years.

With the ether still reeking of her eau de toilette Olivier and I discuss the process of burying mulch-filled cow horns in the vineyard. I suddenly become aware how surreal, how insane this conversation must sound to a passer-by. All I need is a chillum and a bag of weed and we could be back at Glastonbury sitting on a bale of hay, two ideological stoners deep in cannibus-fuelled discussion. I have to confess that although I remain open-minded about the virtues of biodynamism, it just seems so...ludicrous. I have to contain my mirth, prevent myself from collapsing on the floor in fits of laughter crying: "Cow horns, wha d'ya mean, cow horns?" Anyway, rest assured that having supped some stupendous wines from the likes of Leroy, Leflaive and Zind-Humbrecht, I will be composing a sober, balanced article on biodynamism in the near future.

Saturday 16th April

Today we drive down to Leigh-on-Sea, to dump Lily with her grand-parents and make the most of our valuable time sans bundle of joy. Despite Lily being the cutest baby in the world (expect an entry in the next Guiness Book of Records) with her china cheeks, heart-melting smile and marshmallow centre, members of the Martin clan show reluctance to hold the poor creature. Each brother, even dad, squirms when I offer them Lily. I resort to plonking her down on their laps and deserting them in the hope that some kind of tactile relationship will bloom. Once settled on a lap, Lily is forced to apply for squatter rights and her human sofa suddenly contracts severe rigor mortis. They panic whenever she does something unpredictable. Like crying. Or moving. (It should be noted however that by the end of the weekend, my dad has got the hang of babyhood after a break of 18 years and is looking for any old excuse to hold her, even though he is covered in more cat hairs than the cat itself.)

The afternoon is spent at the rectory of the Reverend Miller's. Yes, Tomoko and I are getting married... properly this time. Our blessing will be an international affair, with her mother and brother jetting over from Japan (they refused my offer of a third class ticket on the Trans-Siberian express.) In addition, a small but expandning batallion of friends are driving in from all over the country. Over the next six weeks, you will be able to follow the trials and tribulations of organising the important day, which has ballooned from a discrete ceremony into a full-blown soiree for 120 people. Doing that on a budget of five quid is proving a challenge.

Anyway, when we arrive at the rectory we are told by a scatty old fellow painting a fence, that the Reverend had to suddenly leave. I speculate upon the reason why she would miss our meeting. It must be serious? A passing of rites for a local parishioner? A smudge resembling the Virgin Mary appearing on the mudflats in the estuary? She bids us a cheery hello as she steps out her car: "Sorry I'm late," she calls. "Long queue at Tesco's."
It was serious.

The meeting goes well. She is outgoing, witty and not over-burdened by religious dogma (I uphold the view that religion should be a celebratory affair rather that threats of eternal damnation if one should blaspheme.) She adumbrates of the ceremony, we choose hymns and readings (the passage is an obvious one when you think about it, think "Jesus", "water", "wine") and offers a BOGOF deal by offering to christen Lily as well. She then gives us a tour around the church, which stirs a whole host of memories since I spent most of my childhood there as a Cub, Scout and reluctant Sunday School pupil. The building has changed a little, though its smell unchanged. Buildings never change their odour.

Having watched "Strictly Come Dancing", Tomoko and I venture off on our own, leaving Lily in the hands of mum. Naturally we make the most of a few precious hours, by going for an Indian with Vik, Martyn, Holly, Justin and Carolyn and getting completely drunk on three, or was it four bottles of Macon. We meander home and crash out in the spare room, whilst Lily sleeps oblivious to her parents' inebriation in mum's bedroom.

Sunday 17th April

A beautiful Sunday morning means a walk along the cinder path that hugs the beach between Chalkwell and Old Leigh. Lily sleeps all the way, refusing to open her eyes and set them upon the sea for the very first time. After a customary roast dinner, we head back to the metropolis we call London, feeling refreshed from a healthy intake of sea air with a scintilla of raw sewage.

Monday 18th April

Christ, this blessing malarky is a lot of work and demands a lot of time I simply do not have. Millions of invitations have been sent across the world for the blessing of the year (and that includes Charles and Camilla.) On top of that I have catering to sort out; the venue, flowers, rings, and disco to worry about. But at least the invitations are all written and are winging their way to recipients as I write.

Tuesday 19th April

Vik e-mails...she informs me that our invitations are bereft of RSVP address. Bugger