During the Middle Ages, some of the monastic halls which evolved into Oxbridge colleges allowed their younger inmates to indulge in jocundus honestus after the evening meal. There is nothing monastic about the clubs around St James’s, least of all at their dining tables. But there is still plenty of jocund. Honestus? That is another matter.
The other evening, in a gathering well-equipped with bottles and glasses, someone remarked that we were still in the last lap of Lent and then asked an improbable and unexpected question: ‘So what have you given up, Anderson?’ I was pleased with my reply: ‘Hope.’ That provoked table-wide groans, from those who feared that we might be about to discuss either Brexit or the current state of the Tory party, neither of them jocund topics.
To avoid this peril, we discussed hope and Lent in wholly non--political contexts, leading on to Eliot’s ‘Ash Wednesday’. I found a surprising amount of agreement with the proposition that it is his greatest poem; a work of subtlety, power and majesty, a transcendent fusion of lyricism and intellect. It begins ‘Because I do not hope to turn’, from which one might assume that it would be a threnody, mourning a lost pilgrim doomed to Lent without end. But hope is always there. The dark night of this soul will end in dawn, as expressed in the final line: ‘And let my cry come unto Thee.’
One of the delights of such clubland conversations is their meandering unpredictability. ‘Ash Wednesday’ is much influenced by Dante’s ‘Purgatorio’. Fortified, perhaps, by Eliot’s passage through his own purgatory, we were finally able to brace ourselves and contemplate the Tory party’s… inferno? Let us hope not, though at present there is a distinct hint of lasciare ogni speranza. Everyone who has been canvassing in the local elections has stories of normally friendly doors being slammed in their face.
In these times, Lent or no, morale must be maintained. The Royal Navy — when there was one — used grog. Nothing wrong with decent rum, but we concentrated on white Burgundy. Two were especially worthy of mention. Jean-Marc Pillot is a grower whose reputation is growing. His Chassagne-Montrachet ’12 helped to explain this. Inevitably, it was outgunned by a Premier Cru from Fontaine--Gagnard, one of the finest Burgundian growers. Their La Boudriotte ’13 was delicious and will remain so for years to come. As always with serious Chardonnay, it benefited from decanting. But it is worth looking out for Pillot wines, especially as they will be considerably cheaper than the stellar Fontaine-Gagnards.
Another superb grower enhanced Sunday lunch. The Famille Perrin are among the best wine-makers in the Rhone region. Their white Côte de Luberon ’17 should have been a modest wine. They do not do modest wines. For the Paschal lamb, we had their Coudoulet de Beaucastel ’09, technically the second wine of Beaucastel. As the bottles disappeared, it was suggested that this Coudoulet should adopt the Coldstreams’ motto: nulli secundus. Obviously, it is not as good as Beaucastel itself — but it is jolly good.
De Gaulle once drove past a rabblement of leftie demonstrators, one of whom had a banner reading ‘Mort aux cons’. The General’s comment: ‘Vaste entreprise.’
It is almost blasphemous to compare that with another vast enterprise, but my friend Alexander Sherbrooke, widely held to be an outstanding pastor, always says that he prays for me. It cannot do any harm. On Sunday, I received his Easter text: ‘Christ is risen.’ So heartfelt, so moving: surely the greatest single theme in post-classical civilisation. Among the works I have read or listened to recently, the B Minor Mass, Parsifal and ‘Ash Wednesday’ all proclaim that simple message.
Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. But only almost.