Someone came up with a century-old quotation plangent with irony and sadness: ‘The year 1916 was cursed: 1917 will surely be better.’ That was Tsar Nicholas II. Poor fellow: tragedy for him and his family, tragedy down the decades for tens of millions of his subjects. Its spectre is still haunting Russia.
Although we raised a toast to the tsar’s memory, tragedy was far from our minds as we welcomed the latest New Year in a mood best described as eupeptic pessimism. Not hard to do: Dorset is one of the least dyspeptic places on earth. My friends who live there sometimes try to discourage me from praising their sweet especial rural scene. They fear that it will only encourage others to move in and they want to keep this heaven on earth to themselves: a hundred miles from the 20th century, let alone the 21st. Elsewhere, the world might be too much with us. Down here, pessimism could easily be kept over the horizon. For us, the last Trump was nothing to do with any confrontation between the new president and the heavenly host — merely an occurrence at the bridge table.
On New Year’s Eve, there were assembled seven dogs and 15 children. All of them were delightful company and quite astonishingly well-behaved. Martha and Paddy had been instructed by their parents — gallivanting elsewhere — to be in bed just after midnight. I said that, if interrogated, they could always plead the Fifth. Others wondered whether the US Constitution could be invoked by ten-year-olds in Dorset. At least away from the hunting field, it is not a county notorious for human rights. The parents were eventually informed that their offspring had gone to bed, on 1 January.
During daylight, other youngsters solicited grown-up volunteers to supervise the use of recently acquired firearms. In Dorset, Santa Claus is inter alia a gunsmith. A youthful enthusiast with a first gun, awed and thrilled to be joining the fellowship of the shooting field, that Burkean partnership between the generations: it is an enchanting spectacle. That said, stepping westward into Somerset, our neophytes were having their eyes comprehensively wiped. With his new .22, young Charlie, the doyen of the junior Bottles, killed 13 grey squirrels on Boxing Day. At the end of the shooting season, his father always thins out the deep freeze to produce a world-historical pie. It contains everything except four-and-twenty blackbirds (unless Ed is pleading the Fifth). Charlie wants to add some of his squirrels, but Dad assures me that gastronomy will prevail over paternal pride. Two or three, perhaps: the others have already gone to the dogs.
Back in Dorset, there was some excellent drinking which inspired another New Year resolution: enjoy more sherry. We awarded laurels to Palo Cortado, a wine of such subtlety as to elude classification. Is it dry or sweet? Answer, both. This is a Sydney Barnes of sherries. It can spin the ball at pace. The 12-year-old Leonor was excellent; the 30-year-old Apostoles, superlative. Although it worked well with foie gras, this is a wine to drink on its own, for there are complexities to be savoured. Apostoles repays concentration and contemplation.
Apropos subtlety, there are plenty of years when Bordeaux seems to achieve that gracious outcome almost effortlessly. 2003 was not one of them; the weather was too hot and too dry. At that level of intensity, heat and dust repel harmony. Yet there were successes, and we drank one of them: the Pontet–Canet, which was more than useful. I wondered whether age would bring further improvement. The experts are agin me. But though I do not generally share Michael Gove’s view of experts, I am not sure that these ones are right. It is certainly a wine worth revisiting.