Journalists exaggerate, often reaching for superlatives to chronicle mildly interesting events. Even so, there are times when it is necessary to become hyperbolic. 2019 was an extraordinary year. As Chou En-lai might have said, it is too early to assess its significance. We will be doing that for at least the next 20 years. Indeed, it may turn out to be one of the most important dates in our peacetime history.
The new year has also started with a bang. It was cunning of the government to persuade Donald Trump to drive Dominic Cummings out of the headlines, but that will not exhaust 2020’s disruptive potential.
Exhaustion leads one to the end of Christmas. It is extraordinary to think that when I was a little boy, Christmas Day was not a public holiday in Scotland, nor was New Year’s Day in England. Now, the whole country closes down for a fortnight. A chum of mine who runs a big construction company thinks that this is a cautiously good idea. By the end of the two weeks, his employees are fed up with being at home with the family and cannot wait to get back to work. Any loss of output is made up for in no time.
This Christmas, a family I know decided to be original and set the children to do some research on wassailing. ‘Wassail’ is an attractive name, promising hearty Dickensian English jollification, as opposed to the Scots’ ‘Hogmanay’, a sinister pagan word offering a blend of strong waters, Calvinism, deep winter gloom and Walter Scott seeing ghosts in the lightless alleys of the Old Town. Of Anglo-Saxon origin, wassailing had one point in common with Hogmanay. It too involved visits to local households, in this case fuelled by mulled cider. Rather than cold-calling on neighbours, we invited them round. As for the wassail brew, the cider was generally mulled with Calvados. The end product’s quality and potency varied according to who was mixing, in what state of sobriety. Moreover, some West Country ciders pack a pretty strong wallop even before they are enhanced by what the natives call apple jack.
As a result, my patent hangover cure was in demand. Tea for stretcher cases, if possible brought to the bedroom by a brow-soothing female — some chaps are lucky — followed by a stonking bloody for those sufficiently recovered to be classed as walking wounded. There are those who argue that rehabilitation is best concluded by an English breakfast for lunch, accompanied by a full-bodied champagne. I concur.
It is not easy to recover one’s seasonal memories, but two Christmas wines deserve to be disinterred from the bottle bank. The first was a Madeira, which we drank just before midnight on Christmas Eve, towards the end of a lunch party. A Barbeito, it had come from a Fortnum and Mason hamper. As good Madeira does, it cut to the chase. After a day’s bibulousness, it reanimated the palate, and an often-taken but never followed-through new year’s resolution. This has nothing to do with diet: merely the intention that in the course of the year, I will lessen my ignorance of Madeira and increase the pleasure I take from it.
The second bottle was a claret. In the late 1980s, I enticed a girl to come deer-stalking. Ah: to be 40 again. On the way, we stopped at Houston House in Uphall, a superb restaurant with a world-class wine list. She said that she knew nothing about wine, so I treated her to a ’64 Ducru–Beaucaillou: delicious and at its peak. Over Christmas, a friend invited me to his study. ‘Found a neglected bottle in the cellar. Maybe we’ll have to pour it away, but let’s see.’ The same wine, 30 years on. By the time we were on the final glass, it was beginning to fade. By the end of Christmas, so were we all, but let us press forward to the dramas of the coming months.