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Visiting Burgundy from my hospital bed

The medics were pumping me full of antibiotics. I was determined to co-operate. But there’s no rule against reading…

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

There have been some splendid rumours about my health. According to the most exotic, I was cas-evacked from a hill in Scotland, flown to St Thomas’s by private plane and then tested positive for Chateau Lafite. The truth is more banal — and much more reprehensible. I had neglected an infected foot: what an idiot. Finally, it came out in revolt. By the time I did turn myself in to Tommy’s, I was not far from being seriously ill.

That has had one advantage. I think that it put me off the booze. The medics were pumping me full of antibiotics and I was determined to co-operate. One or two rakes have offered to smuggle in a bottle of hooch; I adamantly declined. Nothing would come between me and the cure. More-over, I did not feel like a drink. It is 18 days since I had one and there is no sense of deprivation. This has a further advantage. I have to diet, and the only regime which has a hope of working is an Atkins variant, allowing a fair ration of red meat and red wine. But they all have an entrance fee: 14 grog-free days. That is no longer a problem for me.

Until now, I had given little thought to health. Now that it has forced itself on my attention, one conclusion is unavoidable: the crucial importance of ethos and morale. At Tommy’s, over-hearing the handover from the night staff to the day staff is a life-enhancing experience (for some patients, it may also be a life-prolonging one). The kids going off duty sound tired, as well they might. But it is a fulfilled tiredness. They are determined to ensure that the new team are fully briefed. Inspiring stuff.


Like most hospital patients, I have resorted to escapist literature. Unfortunately, my copy of Jasper Morris’s book on Burgundy is many miles away, but a friend brought me the latest edition of Clive Coates. One might have thought that it would be a dangerous present for someone in my condition. How many pages of Clive could one read — how many lines — before succumbing to an overwhelming thirst?  The antibiotics carried me through.

To his task, Clive brings joie de vivre reinforced by decades of experience and a conscientiousness worthy of St Thomas’s Hospital. The result is a magnificent combination of history, science, personalities, anecdotes and judgments. This is his homage to Burgundy. It is a worthy one.

It will remind you of long-consumed bottles and meals. That can have a melancholy aspect. Inevitably, some of one’s fellow roisterers have now crossed the Styx. Reading the section on Le Musigny, a remarkable day came flooding back to memory. I had been staying with a girl who was then the American ambassador to Luxemburg. Significantly well off and equally well educated, she ran her embassy in some style. We spent most of a day with old friends of hers, a retired Dutch diplomat and his wife, a principessa; both, alas, fin de ligne.

They had devoted their lives to aesthetics, in a small manor house full of delights. Our host — wish I could remember his name — talked me through his Delft plus other blue-and-whites. In the grip of a collector’s fervour, he had spent decades stalking some of the pieces he coveted.

At dinner, the wines matched everything else, but I can only remember the solitary red, a Le Musigny from the mid-1960s. I thought that it was superb, just about as good a Burgundy as I had ever tasted, and said so. Afterwards, I felt uneasy. This was a household founded upon discrimination in which approval was weighed on Troy scales and praise came dropping slow. My comments had surely lacked sophistication.

Now I am relieved. Clive Coates avers that Musigny at its best can be as fine as anything from Burgundy. If it is good enough for him…


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