January really is the cruellest month. No wonder some fortunate friends have dodged the column of dreary weather and short days, seeking asylum in the Southern Hemisphere, or at least the Southern Mediterranean. Not that the British winter climate is all bad. Brisk clear days promote mental rigour. Barry Smith, a historian from New Zealand and an early evangelist for that nation’s serious wine, once wrote that Prime Minister Lord Salisbury had a mind like a clear blue winter day. That is not indispensable for statecraft; it could never be said of either Churchill or Thatcher. But it helps to promote an unillusioned realpolitik: the wisest approach to human affairs.
Some readers might be surprised when I cite another statesman who lived up to the Smith description: Alec Douglas-Home. I am ashamed to admit that until I met him, I had assumed that the adolescent satirists of the early 1960s had been right; Bernard Levin notoriously described him as a cretin (Bernard later grew up). What nonsense. It took about five seconds in Lord Home’s company to realise that his mind was as incisive as his manner was modest.
But the current London weather could take the edge off the sharpest wits. A grumbling sun can barely be persuaded to turn up for his brief shift and sets about his duties with all the vigour of a trade unionist working to rule during the Winter of Discontent. One’s mood is hardly improved by Brexit fatigue. Lamenting over some misery, real or imaginary, an Irish parliamentarian once said: ‘Ireland’s cup of troubles is running over — and it is not yet full.’ You realise how bad things are when you are tempted to sympathise with Irish woes.
So if there were ever a season for a decent convivial bottle, this is it. A 2002 Ducru-Beaucaillou was as excellent as it should have been. I have already extolled the merits of a slightly lesser St Julien, the 2001 Léoville-Poyferré, and a 2004 Domaine de Chevalier was not far behind. There can be one trivial problem. Some friends have committed themselves to a dry January. I always argue that such good intentions surely cannot apply to classed growths and this almost always prevails — until the husband returns to the domestic hearth. I am in trouble with a couple of wives.
Clubs are also a reliable refuge in midwinter. Towards the end of the first world war, some young officers found themselves eating iron rations in a shell-hole, under fire. A cartoonist of the day drew two soldiers cowering in a similar location, one addressing the other: ‘If you know a better hole, go to it.’ The officers resolved should they survive, they would find a better hole and a good dinner. They did, and the result was Buck’s Club, named after H.J. Buckmaster, one of their number. Almost all clubs are fun, which is why they exist, and Buck’s has retained the gaudeamus igitur ethos of its founding members. Like all good clubs, it also attracts a superb staff, at least one of whom deserves an especial mention.
Ian Smallbone has not only been the Club’s sommelier. He has had a lot to do with choosing the wine. His taste buds are formidable and his knowledge is extensive. On Burgundy in particular, few people from these islands could match him. Anyone in Ian’s position has an almost insuperable problem: the members. The better he is at his job, the harder they make his life. As soon as the fruits of his expertise are on the wine list, the members drink them. Ian has just about managed to stay at the head of affairs and his list remains enviable. He is now stepping down from the full demands of his current role to the salutations of a grateful membership. If only Clubland sommeliers could find their way to the Honours List.