Tristram Hunt has the easy charm, quick wits and good looks that you would expect of a TV historian. His blond hair has the hint of a curl to it and the only surprise about his appearance is that there isn’t a college scarf wrapped round his neck. His Commons office, where we meet, resembles a don’s study, with books piled high on the coffee table, old maps on the wall and a selection of tea-sets on display.
My mum had a friend at university who had been called ‘Pudding’ at school. They’d sometimes be walking down the street, and someone who had known the now-svelte adult as a chubby 13-year-old would say ‘Hello, Pudding’. As I get ready to start at university myself in October, it’s in the knowledge that my schoolgirl self will be even harder to escape.
Reinventing yourself at the end of sixth form was once a time-honoured rite of passage, hindered only by a few easily avoided old acquaintances.
A couple of weekends ago, I went to my 50th wedding. Everyone I have mentioned this to has pulled a rather strange face, as though to say, ‘You count the weddings you go to? What unhinged variety of cross-eyed lunatic does that?’ But like so much of lasting value in life, this began with a conversation in a pub. Back in 1997, I was moaning to my old friend Terence about how many weddings I was having to go to.
When Germany goes to the polls this weekend the question is not ‘Who will win?’ but ‘With whom will Chancellor Merkel govern?’ There may be another CDU-FDP coalition; there may be another Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats. But there is no doubt who will emerge triumphant. All this may baffle Brits: Angela Merkel has spent years sending German taxpayers’ money to bail out various spendthrift European countries and has seemed more concerned about being a good European than a good German.
Andrew Mitchell actually had big doubts about becoming chief whip. True, he had often spoken to friends of being ‘a whip at heart’, and how he’d loved the army-like camaraderie, discipline and intrigue of serving in the whips’ team under John Major. But his regular trips overseas as Secretary of State for International Development meant he didn’t know many of the Tory MPs elected in 2010.
And he so enjoyed being Development Secretary, too, and making a visible impact in one of the few ministries not afflicted by cuts.
A Tory MP bobbed up at Prime Minister’s Questions recently to ask David Cameron whether he was ‘aware that 4 per cent of people believe that Elvis is still alive? That is double the number, we hear today, who think that Edward Miliband is a natural leader?’ The Tory benches tittered, Labour MPs slumped into their seats as if this was a depressingly fair point, and the Labour leader himself tried not to look too hurt.
James Bond’s ‘Vodka martini, shaken, not stirred’ will never be a mark of sophistication for me because vodka and I go back too far. Our association began when I was nine or ten in that brief interlude after the second world war when Russia was still ‘our noble ally’. Vodka was simply one more new thing, marketed when pizza was still called ‘pizza pie’ and the strict law pushed for years by the butter interests was dropped, permitting margarine to be sold coloured instead of white.
Modest about our national pride — and inordinately proud of our national modesty.
I always invest in companies an idiot could run, because one day one will.
I find it easy to portray businessmen. Being bland, rather cruel and incompetent comes naturally to me.
I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realise I should have been more specific.
I don’t work that way .
Until a few years ago, I knew nothing about rum. There was the dark stuff, coveted by the pirates of Treasure Island, used by the Navy for grog on board warships and abused by Churchill in his sarcastic account of naval traditions: rum, sodomy and the lash. At least rum would be preferable to the other two.
There was also white rum, usually the preserve of those too young to appreciate a decent drink, who often mixed it with Coca-Cola.
Ah, this all started out so well, and with such good intentions. This attempt of mine to write seriously and informatively about wine. Well, to write about wine, full stop, really. There was always going to be a problem with someone who rather likes retsina, I suppose. My chief criteria for judging wine is quantity.
The many bottles of Spanish wine arrived. My wife and I sat in the courtyard, at the little iron table.
In a small cupboard at the end of my office sits a bottle of 1995 Lagavulin, distilled in a Pedro Ximénez sherry cask. Just looking at it from my desk gives me immense pleasure. I can open it and smell the cork if I need inspiration. And sometimes, after The Spectator is put to bed, I may take a sip or two. Maybe not even enough to reach the throat, just to moisten the tongue and refresh the palate.
I was taught to admire and respect, even revere, the great red wines of France: the growths of Bordeaux, the crus of Burgundy, Hermitage, Côte Rotie. No one taught me to admire Italian red wines; I simply fell in love with them.
The prelude to the affair was a wine tasting hosted by the occasional group of shippers and experts called Forum Vinorum in London in 1987, masterminded by Nicholas Belfrage MW.
It has become a commonplace fact, beloved of pub quizzes, that an Englishman, Christopher Merret, invented Champagne. There is even an element of truth to it: Merret gave a paper to the Royal Society in 1672 outlining how to make wine fizzy. But he wasn’t the first to induce bubbles in a bottle. In the West Country, scientifically inclined gentlemen had been doing it for years — only they used cider, not wine.
The cellars at Combe Florey, the house in Somerset in which I grew up, were a place of mystery and fear. You walked down wide, shallow stone steps to a large door on which my father had stuck a postcard which read ‘I know who you are’ when, in a fit of paranoia, he decided that a neighbour was stealing his wine. Once through the door, there were more steps down until you found yourself in a large, cool, faintly musty-smelling room.
What a challenge. To travel across Italy in an afternoon of wines. I arrived at the soaring spaces of Lindley Hall in Victoria, where Berry Bros & Rudd had assembled 43 growers from 11 regions for its Grand Tour, Italy 2013.
Master of ceremonies David Berry Green strolled among the tables tasting and gossiping, introducing old friends to new. An Englishman living in Barolo, Piedmont, David is a lean, towering figure who looks like the youthful Jeremy Irons.
Ehe-Gefängnis. The word, strictly speaking (which is how one should always speak), means ‘marriage prison’, and refers to an austere cell maintained in some of the magnificent fortified Saxon churches of central Transylvania. When a local couple decided to divorce, they were first locked in this narrow room for several weeks. There was only one bed: single. There was one chair, one plate, one knife, one fork, one cup.