A feet-on-the-ground assessment of my circumstances would have counselled almost any half-sensible course of behaviour other than the one that I now proceeded energetically to embrace. I was thirty-three. Unlike my closest friends without exception (it was a circumstance the significance of which could not be over-estimated and would never diminish) I enjoyed no private income. The ten years of my life over which I might reasonably be said to have had control had yielded nothing by way of recognizable qualification for any respectable revenue-earning occupation. Harry Oppenheimer had generously said that I would be welcome to join some part yet to be determined of his exceedingly large international spread of business interests. The owner of the English prep school to which my recent pupil had been sent, possibly the most esteemed and expensive prep school in the land, had offered me a job teaching French and Latin. Grateful though I sincerely was, I had taken advantage of neither suggestion. Leaving South Africa, I had been given not only a box of 50 Romeo Y Juliet Havana cigars (a taste for which, like Bollinger, I had acquired under the Oppenheimer roof. Tubed, I have two of them still), but a cheque for a sum which, prudently managed, might have provided shelter for the proverbial rainy day that even the most judiciously chosen career would inevitably have entailed. Instead, I bought a little Austin A35, a state-of-the-art tape-deck recorder (the Walkman was more than 20 years in the future) with the BBC in mind and began studying motor routes to Calabria.
Impossible, at this remove, to be sure of the genesis of the idea, but I had recently heard a talk on the wireless about what the speaker had called “unknown” Calabria and it is at least likely that a tortuous process of mental cross-reference had occurred. The name Calabria already meant something to me. Old Calabria was the title of a travel guide by Norman Douglas (a copy is still on my shelves), who had also written the (then) well-known novel, South Wind, a story set in an island which the author calls Nepenthe, but which is obviously Capri. Popularly famous not so much for the novel as for the 1934 song and for Axel Munthe’s phenomenally best-selling The Story of San Michele, Capri held a particular and acutely painful interest for me. The year before, with South Africa and the prospect of six months of separation approaching, I had discovered that a long and increasingly close friendship had become a deeply serious love affair. There had been tears and the tenderest of embraces at my departure. By way of comfort I had said that six months was no time at all: in the autumn, I would stop off on my homeward flight from Johannesburg, she would fly from London and we would have a reunion in Rome, which neither of us had yet visited. It would be very romantic. We would have long dinners in Trastevere. We would throw coins in the Fonte di Trevi (the Academy Award-winning song was barely two years old), thus ensuring a return together. Risking a gilding of the lily, we would take the train down to Naples and the ferry over to the Blue Grotto, Anacapri and the Faraglioni, not to mention Tiberius’s (but not Gracie Fields’s) villa. Capri! It would be the holiday of a lifetime. No need for tears.
In the autumn, the tears had been all mine. Over a candle-lit dinner in the soft evening air of Trastevere she had told me that soon after I had left London she had met someone else. He was almost 40 years her senior, famous in a scholarly profession, star of a popular TV game show, three times married and notorious for his extra-marital liaisons; but inexhaustibly interesting, boundlessly charming and “very kind”: in short, irresistible. She had not resisted. Over dinner on a terrace looking down to Marina Grande on Capri (I had judged it too defeatist simply to return to England directly from Rome, and in my traumatised state hoped for some sort of miracle) she pleaded for understanding. As I had already discovered in our pensione overlooking the Piazza Barberini in Rome, “Noli me tangere” had been the watchword for the trip earnestly enjoined by her new paramour and faithfully to be obeyed; all the same, she insisted, our relationship, though now irrecoverably changed, was and always would be very precious to her. The candles guttered in the evening breeze and I was aware of a loss that seemed more terrible than I had ever known. Now, only a few months later, and whatever the prompting, like a veteran returning to the scene of some near-mortal wartime experience, I had a compelling desire to go south again; but with funds already grievously depleted by car and tape recorder, how to pay for it?
During the long vacation of 1953, Mac and Denise, my wartime Belgian friends, had taken me on a memorable trip to the south of France. In the ensuing Michaelmas term at Oxford, encouraged by my small Undergraduate Page success of 1951, I had again submitted an account of it to The Spectator and once again, to my genuine surprise and no less joy, it had been published. It was the first travel piece that I ever wrote and was to be of seminal significance .
The notice outside the café was pathetically eloquent: “Service à l’intérieur.” It was raining on the Côte d’Azur. It was no isolated phenomenon. If the newspapers were to be believed, the whole of Europe was in the grip of weather, which, for August, could be considered severe. But while in London or Paris or Berlin, it had meant little more than the carrying of umbrellas and the modification of week-end plans, on the Côte d’Azur there had fallen a gloom and a chill which gave the lie to the promises of the travel agents and made nonsense of the brochures of the Syndicats d’Initiative.
The comment of the facteur as he produced the letters from inside his dripping oilskin was briefly to the point: “Le temps est devenu fou.” From the Pyrenees to the Alps all reasonable forecasts had been confounded, all precedent overthrown. From Cannes to Menton and beyond, from Les Iles d’Hyères to St. Tropez, the pleasure boats were hugging the harbour walls and heavy clouds lay low across the hills. At Monte Carlo the beach was deserted. At Villefranche the streets were almost empty. And at Nice, “Jewel of the Southern Coast,” a wind from the sea was driving the waves against the promenade, sending the poor to their boarding houses and the rich to the refuge of the Negresco lounge.
At no point on the coast could the weather have caused any satisfaction, but at Le Lavandou it brought a dismay and a disorganisation which quite overwhelmed the little town. The rain fell upon a region unprepared and unwelcoming. It fell upon the red rocks where, the day before, people had been sunning themselves in between expeditions at pêche sous-marine. It fell upon the gaily-coloured beach tents, upon the white-walled villas and the cushions left lying on the lawns; upon the jasmine and the oleanders and the geraniums in the blue window-boxes. It beat through the pine trees and stirred the needles in their shade; beat upon the rocks and made the lizards scuttle for shelter in the crevices and thick undergrowth; and, higher up, where the ripening vines were watched over by the cypress trees, it fell upon the brown earth so that the dried-up drainage channels began to run again. The rivulets flowed into the gullies, the gullies into the bed of the stream, and the stream flowed down to the coast, gushed out from its grating at the end of the little promenade and sent a great brown stain spreading slowly out to sea.
Although the rain had begun falling long before dawn, neither natives nor visitors had dressed appropriately, for there had been no popular belief that the outrage would persist. Now, when luncheon was already being served, the cafés were crowded with those who had been exiled from the beaches and whose picnic baskets impeded the waiters’ feet as tray after tray of coffee and cakes were brought: “One could not just sit there without having something.” So they sat, toying with unwanted delicacies, subdued and shivering in shorts and slacks and open-neck shirts, wet from their dashes through the downpour, filling the atmosphere with a scent of sodden misery.
It was a misery which was compounded of disappointment and frustration and, clearly identifiable above all else, a hurt and bewildered unbelief. It was a misery which ousted initiative and decision, leaving only a sad and confused uncertainty. The waiters and the barmen and the longshoremen were asked for their views, and, knowing well that they were expected to give expert and cheerful reassurance, they had at first obliged. “Ça ira,” they would say nodding towards the sea and the sky. “Ça sera vite passé,” as a doctor still groping for his diagnosis might seek to placate the fears of a nervous patient. But as the day wore on without any lightening of the skies they too began to betray a deep concern. Their manner changed from bluff confidence to uneasy doubt and then to ashamed silence, or, if pressed, to an attitude of defence and apology. “Mais c’est jamais comme ça,” they would say. “Je n’ai jamais rien vu de tel.”
Hour by hour there grew in the town a feeling of helplessness and futility. At the bigger and more fashionable resorts there may be many other things to do when the sun does not shine. There are the great hotels and the bars and the cinemas, entrenchments behind which the shadow of a cloud may be ignored. But in Le Lavandou there are few such retreats; they are not desired; one goes there for the simple life – and for the sun. And so, when the sun did not appear, and when the rain fell unceasingly, the brooding frustration grew. One was as if in a theatre where the star of a one-man show had not arrived in time for curtain-up.
If the audience was depressed the staff were no less affected. In the narrow streets shopkeepers stood disconsolately in their doorways, watching the cars appear and re-appear, their foreign number plates somehow reproachful, their tyres swishing slowly and sadly through the puddles as yet another drive was made along the front to look for some sign of a change. Trade was almost at a standstill. At the boulangerie a mound of unsold loaves bore witness to the deserted shore. At the épicerie the wasps had to crawl beneath layers of sacking to find the fruit which should have been in open baskets on the pavements. The ice factory had suspended work. The post office was almost empty, and at the wine merchants, where by twelve o’clock not four litres of rosé had been drawn from the casks, the proprietor was asleep in his office, his apron hanging undisturbed upon the door. There was nothing to be done. That evening Le Lavandou went early to bed, tired with the wasted day, fearful of tomorrow.
During the night the centre of the meteorological depression shifted more than a hundred miles to the northwest and its periphery cleared the coast. At six next morning a mist was rising over the town as the sun resumed its rule. The stream from the hills had shrunk to half its volume of the day before, and the sea was calm. The lizards came out again on the rocks, and in the streets the awnings were drawn out over the pavements. If, in passing, one remarked to a native of Le Lavandou that yesterday had been dreadful, had it not, or that it was good to see the sun again, one would be answered with the sort of smile which admitted nothing, hinted at delusion, implied that the morning sun could be taken quite for granted. “The sun?” it seemed to say. “But the sun, of course, on the Côte d’Azur!” It left the impression that the weather was hardly a topic for conversation, and that one’s own remark had not been in the best of taste. *
* Reprinted from The Spectator December 14, 1953
Going Up Late
The picture (if we may so generously call it) that I found in the overcrowded attic some months ago has been executed on a large unframed canvas board which has obviously been knocking about for some considerable time: the colours of the acrylic paint are dulled and the board itself is warped. Though it is a lamentable piece of work, its crudity cannot conceal an attempt to copy one of the most famous French Impressionist paintings in the world. Without knowing the provenance of the amateur work, the presumption would naturally be that the copying must have been done from a photographic reproduction. The presumption would be wrong; the perpetrator was working direct from the 1882 original. This I know for certain: the hand that wielded the brush was my own.
In December, 1954, J.C. Masterman asked me to come and see him to talk about a job in South Africa which he thought might suit me if I were not already otherwise committed. He had been asked by his friend, Harry Oppenheimer, who had been an undergraduate at Christ Church when “J.C.” himself was a don there, if he could recommend somebody as tutor to a son and heir who needed bringing up to speed in French and Latin before sitting the Common Entrance exam in England. Would I be interested? Wondering whether to spend half a year six thousand miles away from the general run of things in Europe would be advisable for a man who was already a late starter and had a lot of catching up to do, I hesitated over my answer. “The Oppenheimer connection”, interjected the Provost meaningfully, peering intently at me over his spectacles, “is a very large one, Buxton”.
It is not easy, now, to comprehend the extent of the ignorance and lack of worldy wisdom which denied me any but the most superficial and fleeting appreciation of what the Provost had said. I knew (I don’t know how or why: it was just one of the things one did know) that the Oppenheimers were very big in diamonds and gold. I did not know that through Anglo-American Corporation, the company which his father had founded and of which he had become chairman, and De Beers, of which he was also chairman, Harry Oppenheimer controlled most of the country’s diamonds, more than 40% of its gold, half of its coal and nearly a sixth of the world’s copper, owned a stake in a multiplicity of South Africa’s most profitable businesses and was one of the richest men in the world. What difference it would have made if I had known is impossible even to guess.
A few weeks later, I met Harry and his wife, Bridget, at their house in Belgravia, flew to Johannesburg early in the spring to be greeted by Harry at Johannesburg airport with a dark green Mark VI Bentley, which he hoped I would find “all right” for my personal use, was driven back to what might have been an English country house in extensive grounds where the night air was scented with gardenias and was installed in a suite of rooms where his wife hoped I would be “all right”, but if I needed anything I was to be sure to say. The house was Little Brenthurst, the smaller of the two mansions on the Brenthurst estate. Harry’s parents, Sir Ernest and Lady Oppenheimer, lived in the larger one. The painting that had been the subject of my attempt at copying hung above the chimney-piece in the drawing room, where Sir Ernest was inclined to spend more time sitting in a high-backed chair than in his library and where I had first been introduced to him. On that occasion the two of us had been left together while Harry went off on other business. After talk about his adored grandchildren (Nicholas, aged 11, and Mary, aged 13), the conversation had drifted to Sir Ernest’s reminiscences of his early days in Kimberly, which I had found enthralling. When eventually I left to go back to Little Brenthurst Sir Ernest had convincingly said that I would be welcome to come and chat with him at any time. I had done so, had been bold enough to ask if I might try to copy the famous Impressionist masterpiece and had been enthusiastically encouraged in the attempt. Sometimes, I would indeed spend my time at the big house, daubing on my canvas board. Sometimes, the holdall containing my painting things would stay unopened while Sir Earnest talked about the old days on the Rand, fascinating me with his reminiscences of Kimberly when the 790-feet deep Big Hole of the diamond diggings was still no more than a deep depression in the land owned by farmers called De Beers.
In the months that followed I was treated as something between a member of the family and a house guest, with tutorial sessions almost incidental. When Harry and Bridget went south to Cape Province to visit friends they took me with them, thus introducing me to Cape Province and Cape-Dutch architecture. In some of the most elegant dining rooms imaginable belonging to some of the loveliest houses on some of the loveliest estates in the world (ghosts of their 17th-century past still haunted them, I swear) I tasted wines from vineyards of scarcely rivalled beauty. Travelling now and then with my host on his business trips, I saw something not only of the Rhodesian Copper Belt but of the alluvial diamond territory of German South-West Africa. At the sorting belts near Walvis Bay, on the desert Atlantic coast of the future Namibia, they gave me a little chamois leather bag full of agates and garnets segregated from the more valuable spoil of the mechanical scoops. At some expense in London I had half a dozen of the larger and prettier stones polished and set as handles for coffee spoons. The beneficiaries of my injudicious largesse have long been forgotten, but occasionally I come across an errant garnet or two in a seldom-visited drawer of odds and ends. The trip subsequently provided the subject of a conversation at the Oppenheimer table with the majority shareholder of one of the world’s largest shipping lines. Enthusing about his love for deserts as well as the claret that we were drinking, he told me about metabolic water; the means, he said, by which many desert creatures and migratory birds survived. Such dinner table small talk, my own contributions rarely more than that of supplying an eager audience to the knowledgeable expositions of others, memorably included a measured rubbishing of Ernest Hemingway by an American Democratic Presidential candidate, a diatribe against publishers and literary agents by a man who was shortly to become the author of a world best-seller, a rhapsody in praise of orchids by a Knight Commander of the British Empire (DSO), who had been a major-general in the British Second Army and was now a helicopter salesman, and a dissertation by a high-ranking policeman about illegal diamond buying in Sierra Leone. The head of one of Britain’s secret services gave me his card and encouraged me to give him a call some time.
We flew by private aircraft for family picnics to an isolated ranch on the high veldt, where I was entrusted with the care of my adept pupil when he pleaded to be allowed to go hunting with an air rifle. Only when I had children of my own was I fully to appreciate what such trust must have entailed on his parents’ part. They had a racing stable and from time to time his mother would tell me that I had done enough tutoring for the day and would take me with her to see one of their horses running. Once, looking with her at the contestants for the next race parading in the paddock, I thought that the animal we had come to see was simply more handsome by far than any of the others and said that I proposed to back him to the tune of a fiver. “I forbid you”, she said charmingly but seriously. “Tim (the trainer) says he’s only running him to give him a feel of the course and that he can’t possibly go the distance”. The horse was first past the post. That evening an envelope was delivered to my room with cash amounting to what a fiver would have earned me at a starting price of twenty to one.
They were six never-to-be-forgotten months and for the most part memory has not failed me. I worked a little in the most enviable of circumstances and spent much of my off-duty time in the mostly attractive, high-flying, high-achieving sort of society that went with the territory, wondering sometimes a touch wistfully what the eventual and inescapable coming down to earth would be like. It was autumn when I got back to Sussex, and although the mists and mellow fruitfulness were all very well I knew that I was going to miss the Mark VI Bentley, the Bollinger and the crisp dry air of the Rand.
Going Up Late
It is a day in summer, 1955. In the dining room at Oxford’s 149, Banbury Road, which is the largest room in the house, sheets of hardboard have temporarily been laid over the long dining table, at which I am working with an electric iron and several great rolls of polythene, each about a yard wide. My task is to join 12-foot lengths of the plastic together, side by side, so as to make individual sheets measuring 12 x 9 feet; the dimensions dictated by the practical working space available in the room, not by the use to which each sheet will eventually be put. It could hardly be called highly skilled work, but must be carefully done, since any incompetence will eventually prove catastrophic. The joining process consists of positioning the sheets of polythene so that they overlap laterally by about an inch, covering the overlap with newspaper, then slowly tracing the now hidden and protected overlap with a hot iron. If the iron is at the correct heat the loose union underneath the newspaper will become an airtight weld. Too little heat, and the weld will not be effected. Too much, and the plastic will simply melt, uniting polythene, newspaper and hardboard. When a sufficient quantity of 12 x 9 feet polythene sheets have been manufactured, the owner of the house will take over the iron and with myself manoeuvring the plastic under his anxious direction will with the dexterity and judgement of which he is a master, and with a precise understanding of what he is intending to achieve, will fashion a very large envelope destined to be filled with air heated by a large gas burner, thus acquiring a buoyancy which will carry it over the Oxfordshire countryside at heights and for a distance which, even with its creator’s scientific abilities, are unpredictable. Which is half the fun. (Years later, he will buy a proper hot air balloon and fly it himself).
The owner of the house and sole instigator of the present activity is Dr.E.T. (“Teddy”) Hall, whom I have known for only a few months but in whose company I find myself spending increasing amounts of time. He is one of the five statutory senior members of the Gridiron Club (“The Grid”), the undergraduate wining and dining club to which I belong. Which may be how I first met him, but I think it was otherwise. Hall is just nineteen days older than myself. After Eton, he joined the RNVR, served in landing craft as an ordinary seaman, went up to New College, Oxford, and won the first of his many academic distinctions with an aegrotat honours degree in chemistry. An aegrotat (the Latin word means literally, “he is sick”) can be awarded when a candidate is prevented by illness from sitting an examination which, in the opinion of the relevant academic body, he would otherwise have passed. Such a degree is officially unclassified, but Hall’s subsequent performance left little doubt that in the ordinary course of events he would have achieved a First. Switching from chemistry, he gained his D.Phil in physics. Before his untimely death in 1971 he will have become the founder of the Oxford Research Laboratory for Archeology and the History of Art, the Emeritus Professor of Archaeological Sciences, a Trustee of both the British Museum and the National Gallery, a member of the Advisory Council of the Science Museum, an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy, a CBE and a Fellow of my own college. Briefly, he will have achieved popular fame for his part in the exposure of the Piltdown forgery and the definitive dating of the Turin Shroud. I suspect that the cause of our meeting was the Piltdown affair.
It was an affair that shook the very foundations of paleontology. In 1912, on Piltdown Common, in Sussex, a skull and jawbone had been discovered which a number of eminent anthropologists declared to be the link, hitherto missing, between ape and man in the story of human evolution. Huge excitement and international controversy ensued. In the one camp were those who believed Piltdown Man to represent one of the greatest advances in knowledge ever made. In the other were those who considered the “discovery” to be part of a gigantic hoax. There was no entirely convincing proof one way or the other until in 1953, using carbon dating, Hall and his colleagues were able conclusively and incontrovertibly to declare for the unbelievers. It was all rich material for cartoonists and others who saw the funny side of it. Encouraged by my earlier success as a freelance contributor, I sent The Spectator an appropriate piece, which the magazine published as a letter to the Editor and paid me ten guineas for. Unquestionably, Teddy Hall would have seen it. That my invitation to dinner at 149 Banbury Road was a consequence is more likely than not.
It was now that I was richly compensated for my failure in Prelims and subsequent rustication. I had missed the Trinity term in 1952 and even though I had passed Final School in 1954 was obliged to come up for the following (Michaelmas) term in order to make up in statu pupillari time. I had no tutorials or lectures to attend, no essays to write: simply a lot of time to be filled in. What was I to do with it? “Teddy”, said one of Hall’s oldest and closest friends, “always liked to have something on the go”. The balloon project was one example. Close on its heels, the West Country cannon excursion was another. The scene is the spacious grounds of a large mansion in Cornwall. Lying on its side is a medium calibre, 18th-century cannon. Gouges in the turf of the otherwise well-groomed lawn would appear to suggest that recent firing and recoil have forcibly removed the heavy barrel of the weapon from its mountings. Loosely grouped around it in the early summer twilight, wearing evening dress, champagne glasses in hand, are half a dozen men and an equal number of girls who a short while before were at table in the large dining room that overlooks the lawn until disturbed by an explosion that shook not only the windows and themselves, but also (though no one present knew it until later) a number of Boy Scouts sitting round their camp fire in a clearing of a wood a thousand yards or so away.
Two days before, Hall had been showing me a piece of equipment that he had recently acquired and was eager to try out. What appeared at first to be an unexceptional container on wheels, some seven feet long, six feet wide and two or three feet deep, opened up into a canvas-sided shelter. It was a very early example of the now commonplace and much refined trailer tent. Camping was not of itself one of Teddy’s preferred forms of recreation. Characteristic, on the other hand, was his readiness to experiment with anything that seemed to offer itself as a useful accessory or addition to his current interests. Whether the cannon or the trailer tent came first in order of inspiration I am unable to say, but over a drink one day Teddy proposed that he and I should drive down to Cornwall where during the coming weekend a friend of his would be entertaining a house party. On the lawn there fronting the dining room, pointing out over a ha-ha, looking seawards, Teddy said, was a cannon of which his friend was very proud. It would be fun to drive down the day before, camp overnight somewhere near the estate, wait until dinner time on the Saturday evening, then set off the showpiece gun with as noisy a charge as we might safely contrive. There were four berths in the trailer tent, so we could collect a brace of girls to join the expedition. As an ex-gunner, I would be just the man to supply any technical advice, if it were needed. (This, tongue in cheek: elementary technical contributions from others were rarely needed in any experiment with which the holder of a D.Phil in Physics was involved.)
At his boyhood home near Ewelme, not far from Oxford, Teddy said, they kept a supply of gunpowder for the excavation of old tree roots. Discreetly, we could obtain a sufficient quantity of this to make propellant charges. He knew that a number of cannon balls were piled ornamentally beside the gun. All we would need by way of tools would be a good hand-drill to unblock the touchhole of the weapon and some sort of a reamer to clear out any debris that might be found in the barrel. This, Teddy himself, who was skilled at metal working, quickly fashioned in the estate workshop, using a length of iron rod which he made into a giant corkscrew fastened to the end of an old broom handle. Organising the girls and camping gear took a little longer, but less than a day and a half after the idea was mooted we were ready to go. Packed in a biscuit tin along with bags of silica gel (a desiccant) was a pound or two of black powder that I had crammed into several of Teddy’s old socks. Everything went wondrously well. We had sent one cannon ball over the wood and were preparing a repeat firing when Teddy’s friend burst onto the lawn, soon joined by his fellow diners. For the perpetrators, the amazement, admiration and delight were very satisfactory. Champagne was fetched and eventually dinner resumed with four extra places set. Next day there was a visit from the local constabulary. The night before, a troop of Boy Scouts, camping in a clearing, had been considerably alarmed when the sound of an explosion had been almost instantly followed by a crash and a shower of leaves and branches immediately behind them. It was, the complaining Scoutmaster had reported, as if they had been under shellfire. Weeks later, Teddy’s friend, prominent in Cornish society, was told that a prosecution for “illegal discharge of ordnance” would not, after all, be pursued.
Thus time in the summer of 1955 never hung heavily on my hands. The workshop in which the reamer for the cannon had been manufactured soon came to be of a significance even greater than that of featuring in so memorable an escapade. At Littlemore, on the outskirts of Oxford, Hall at this time acquired the house which was to become his lifetime home. The premises embraced an outbuilding in which he proceeded to install the lathes and other items of professional metal-working machinery which had been at Ewelme, and others, newly acquired, together with a full-time machinist. “On the go”, currently, and in particular, was the design and construction of a meter for the continuous measurement of the average speed of a moving vehicle. When he ruefully remarked how expensive it all was I suggested that his accountant might be interested in the thought of establishing a company that would own and operate the whole caboodle: setting costs against tax, and so on. What about “The Littlemore Scientific Engineering Company” for a name? His accountant approved. It was the beginning of the company that was to make not only the average meter as its first product, but an invalid chair incorporating a respirator, freeing its user from confinement to bed. Originally designed and built exclusively for a close friend, it was the prototype for a device that revolutionised the lives of numberless severely disabled people and inspired the foundation of an entire charity in aid of them and their families. The Littlemore Scientific Engineering Company (ELSEC) flourishes today under the ownership of William Hall, one of the founder’s two sons. The average meter caught the attention of the rally team belonging to one of the world’s largest motor manufacturers and its cars were fitted with the instrument. Trouble came when it was found that a certain spindle had a tendency to snap if it was incorrectly fitted. Time before a crucial race was desperately short. Rigorously instructed by Teddy in the proper procedure, I was despatched to the team in the role of mechanic extraordinary to save the day by working late into the night. Memory has nothing to say how the team fared.
Such activities represented opportunities that I welcomed. Among the extravagancies that Teddy could amply afford but I could not were dinners at the Bay Tree in Burford or PK’s, a restaurant near Henley that was not only by far the best in the county but one of the most expensive. PK himself had a genuine affection for Teddy as a customer who was as gastronomically discerning as he was agreeable to serve. Our visits there were frequent enough for me at times to at least go through the motions of resisting them; gestures which Teddy treated with the argument that since he enjoyed our dinners together it was “pretty unfriendly” of me to object to them on the purely selfish grounds that I couldn’t afford them. It was much the same with the Bay Tree, where the ambience and food were particularly agreeable and service was by girls handpicked to match. Teddy had immense personal appeal (“charisma” would be today’s word), faultlessly carried, and there were evenings when I would return alone to Oxford in the Delage and he would follow by taxi, or I might fetch him, next day. To have taken resistance to his unpretentious generosity beyond the decency of an occasional gesture would have been a kind of vulgarity which he would have found intolerable, and to have risked that most heinous of all social offences – being “boring”. I was comforted by making myself useful from time to time.
Going Up Late
My pleasure at the publication of my piece in The Spectator far outweighed the disappointment of seeing it pedestrianly entitled Going Up Late, instead of the (as I thought) cleverly punning Getting Up Late that I had been so pleased with. In time to come I was to learn that editors do not thank writers for gratuitously submitting titles to their own contributions. Meanwhile, I basked in a brief sunsplash of glory. It was a satisfaction, I suspect, that would have been much modified if I could have heard the comments of my elders and betters. Sententious might have been too harsh a judgement, but were the sentiments expressed a suspicion too self-satisfied, a trifle too virtuous? I present it again in these present pages because, for all its faults (Oscar Wilde might have said it was not the least of them) it was written with sincerity and faithfully conveys the attitude of mind with which I not only approached the university but also spent my time there.
As I suppose it to be in all great centres of learning, the Oxford that I knew embraced numerous loosely delineated social enclaves (“sets” or “cliques” would be pejorative and wholly misleading terms), not self-consciously aware of their particular identities, not defined by any coherent criteria or regulated by any codifiable qualifications for membership, but nonetheless individually recognizable. The nucleus of the one in which I moved consisted of fewer than half a dozen members of my own college together with perhaps as many from other colleges. The great majority of those who comprised it had much in common. They came from at least comfortably monied backgrounds in which —not arrogantly, not as of a perceived right, but as a customary stage in a person’s normal progression from birth to adult independence— higher education at the university (which in mid-20th century was still to say Oxford or Cambridge) was more or less taken for granted. Not to have been at one or the other would have constituted a considerable aberration. With rare exceptions, their upbringing had been based upon that expectation. Their 6th form curricula had been devised to that end.
I was six or seven years older than all of them and apart from having been to a minor public school (in the scholastic hierarchy Eton was at the top, the ISC not far from the bottom) shared almost none of their conventional middle class characteristics. For me, Oxford was not the fulfilment of orthodox expectations, a step towards the realisation of practical ambitions, a means to the achievement of material success. It was no more than a fancy that I alone had concocted and was now enacting. Small wonder that I was never wholly to be free of an awareness of being the odd man out. At first a sort of wary formality appeared to condition our exchanges; but my history tutor in college, who was only a year older than I, had been in tanks and Normandy in the summer of 1944 and I imagine that it was through him (two or three of my closest friends in college were also reading history) that it came generally to be known that I also had served there. However it was, I soon became aware that a subtle shift had occurred in my relationship with my fellow undergraduates. What might have been diagnosed as a certain reserve seemed to have been ousted in favour of the unthinking acceptance to be expected among equals. It was as if I had been forgiven for my unfortunate peculiarities of age and experience and been accorded something like a bemused respect.
If a single over-simplification of our compatibility had to be offered the best might be that we tended to be amused by the same things. Not a man among us was by nature frivolous, but it was almost as if it would have been considered bad form to be anything but light-hearted. Though they seldom wore the universally famous old school tie which consists of a narrow light blue diagonal stripe on a black background, several of our number were entitled to do so and I have sometimes wondered whether our aversion to earnestness was an infectious, particularly Etonian thing. To see it carried to the nth – and on occasions tiresome – degree one cannot do better than to read Brazilian Adventure, One’s Company and News from Tartary, the hugely entertaining early works of Peter Fleming —Eton and Christ Church College, Oxford— in which he effectively apologises for taking anything seriously’.
Besides myself, most of the others had done their national service, almost all with commissions in the Rifle Brigade, the Brigade of Guards or the Royal Artillery, something that had undoubtedly meant much to all of them (two had seen active service in Korea) but was not publicly so acknowledged. Rare reminiscences of army days were invariably about some ludicrous military catastrophe or other: an uncontrollable fit of sneezing when trooping the colour; the battery of guns arriving on the firing ranges at Sennybridge only to find that their ammunition consisted of coloured smoke, not high explosive; the convoy intended for Swanley in Kent directed instead to Swansea in Wales. I was never encouraged to talk about my own time in uniform. Though it was known that I had seen some of danger’s wartime faces I was never questioned about such encounters and we never talked about the war; to have done so would have been to break a spell; to have identified a difference far greater than age; to have acknowledged an unbridgeable gulf.
It is, perhaps, a clue to the character of this nebulous fraternity that it did not own to a single member of the Bullingdon*, nor in any respect conform to the largely fictional idea of an unjustly privileged elite. We wined and dined respectably; sometimes elegantly. We drank mostly in moderation with occasional excesses when striving to make the most-acclaimed (and in the early fifties fashionable) dry martinis. Even then, we trashed no restaurants or caused any kind of public disturbance. There was no vomiting through college windows à la Brideshead Revisited, no crying on staircases. And no teddy bears. To a man, nobody I knew, or nobody I regarded as an Oxford friend, would have been seen dead with a stereotypical decadent from the pen of an Aubrey Beardsley or Evelyn Waugh.
Everybody worked, some harder than others; a few (notably those aiming for the Foreign Office exam) with conspicuous diligence. Of the plausible excuses for the marginal 3rd class honours with which I eventually came down from the university the best is possibly the necessity of generating income in the vacations instead of reading for my degree. I canvassed for new members of the Conservative Party, a deeply dispiriting exercise that convinced me that I could never be a successful sales person or politician. I translated texts from French to English for a Brussels advertising agency. “Jamais deux sans trois” was a phrase that occurred in one piece of copy, which ingeniously (as I thought) I rendered as “It never rains but it pours”. The account director thought otherwise and withheld payment. It was never easy money. Masquerading at a Newmarket house party as a footman for an exclusive domestic servants bureau, I was recognised by one of the titled guests whom I had deeply offended in my time as an ADC and denounced to her hostess as an imposter. Chauffeuring a rich but singularly unprepossessing 60-year-old and her octogenarian mother from London to Nice, I was confronted by the daughter with a choice between being tactilely “more friendly” or being abandoned in Beaune. I settled for dinner alone in the capital of Burgundy and the train home. A moment of inattention on the bottling line of a famous wine firm whose slogan for their best-selling sherry was “A Gracious Welcome for your Friends” resulted in a batch of some 500 bottles emerging with egregiously less charm than the vintners claimed and their monitors demanded. My Christmas bonus was not paid.
Nor was my academic performance all plain sailing. In a battered box file, coming apart at the sides, untidily and inaccurately labeled “OXFORD & AFTER”, I have found a buff-coloured postcard. Printed in faded red on one side are both an indecipherable coat of arms and a 2p postage stamp bearing the head of King George VI. The postmark reads “OXFORD 5.15PM 28 MCH 1952”. In my own handwriting, the card is addressed to me in London. The reverse is rubber-stamped EXAMINATION SCHOOLS, OXFORD. Centred in the otherwise blank message space, written in ink by a hand far neater than my own, is one word: Failed. Known colloquially as “Prelims”, the exam in question had been taken by me a week or two earlier. Looking for “Prelims” on Google today, I find: At the University of Oxford, prelims are a first set of examinations, normally during the first half of the degree course for some courses … (and) must be passed in order to progress to the final years of courses, known as the Final Honour Schools. I had thus been required to sit Prelims at the end of the Hilary term, 1952. The Latin paper had been my Waterloo, with the consequence that I had been “rusticated” (expelled) for the Trinity term, but given the statutory chance of sitting the examination again before Michaelmas. It was back to intensive tuition at Davies’s; back to boots, boiler and best Darjeeling tips. In September I sat Prelims again, and passed. Now, Oxford could be resumed. I had lost statutory undergraduate time and would therefore be obliged to stay on at the university for another term after my finals in order to qualify for matriculation and my degree. In 1952 the fact seemed catastrophic, but the time was to come when I saw that my failure in Prelims had been one of the most benevolent ill winds that had ever blown my way,
The Bullingdon. Social club notorious for its loutish excesses.
Going Up Late
The exuberant delight with which Annabel had received the account of my interview with the Provost of Worcester College (“You’re in! I know it!”) had been a classic example of counting chickens long before they were hatched. I was ‘in’ provided that I could pass both university and college entrance examinations. Latin was compulsory for both. It had been at least twelve years since grammar school had ended and I had become a boarder at the Imperial Service College. Consistent with its foundation in 1874 as a school for the sons of serving army officers, the ISC was academically more concerned with entry to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, than with any higher, more classical education. At Windsor I had flourished in French, floundered hopelessly in German and won prizes for English. Caesar’s Gallic Wars were all Greek to me. As the Provost had cautioned, I could be ‘in’ only if Davies’s private tutors could teach me enough Latin for the university exam (‘Responsions’) coming up in December, 1950, and for college entrance in March the following year and if I could find the means to pay for the tuition.
Unable to lay my hands on any new money, my only recourse was to make what little I was already earning go further. Hence the living-in job as boiler and boot boy. The Latin made infinitely greater demands, but now the modus vivendi which I had been obliged to adopt at the Shell Film Unit came into its own. In the morning, when I was not in the local library or browsing in the bookshops of the Charing Cross Road, I took care to be seen about the office, thus at least legitimising my lunches in the canteen. In the afternoons I borrowed the key to one of the boardrooms from a friendly janitor and retreated there with Kennedy’s Latin Grammar. Shell Mex House: how benevolent the part that you played in my life! And with so little return! When the time came for me finally to leave Shell and the genial head of Publicity, shaking my hand, said he hoped that I would let him know when I came down from the university so that he would see where he might be able to “fit me in”, I was as embarrassed as a dinner guest with a conscience when thanked by his hosts for coming, knowing all the while that he has pocketed the spoons.
Boiler and boots were not the end of the money problem. Paying for Latin tuition was one thing; paying for three years at Oxford would be quite another. The post-war concessionary period for ex-servicemen’s educational grants had expired, yet without a government subvention for fees and subsistence at the university the Latin would be an irrelevancy. To Latin nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs, declensions and conjugations, the perfect, imperfect and pluperfect was now added a plethora of correspondence between myself and the Ministry of Education, sundry ex-schoolmasters, sometime commanding officers and anyone else whose words might plausibly carry weight and might endorse the proposal to pursue my private fancy at the public expense. Past achievements were exaggerated, failures conveniently forgotten, confirmation of academic intentions frustrated by distinguished military service imaginatively, if not mendaciously, supplied.
Fortune and the Ministry of Education (Awards Branch) smiled. Before the leaves were falling in Temple Gardens and Guys and Dolls had opened on Broadway I had been informed that, subject to proof of university admission, for three academic years from the autumn of 1951 until that of 1954 I would receive a grant of £265 per annum. Now, the study of the Venerable Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica (a certainty for the Examination Schools) assumed a realistic urgency of purpose and I dared to picture myself in gown and mortarboard (during the whole of my time at Oxford I doubt if I ever wore one). I seemed to be getting my ducks in a row.
Tempus fugit (as they say at Davies’s). It is early October, 1951, and I am sitting on the edge of my bed in my Walton Street lodgings, Oxford, almost opposite the entrance to Worcester College. I was 27 last birthday, but have been weeping as bitterly as a small child who has suffered some catastrophic disappointment or loss. It is not the first time that this has happened since the letter came this morning and I know that before the day ends it is likely to happen again. I must, must, must get a grip, I tell myself. Over and over in my head, mantra-like, with its own dynamic, is running the cliché ‘tout lasse, tout passe, tout casse’, with the optimistic afterthought ‘tout se remplace’; a threadbare philosophy and feeble anodyne, but there is no other. Alcohol, as I learnt definitively seven years ago, may anaesthetise; but there must always be the moment of coming round. What then? There is no readily compassionate shouIder: if I weep, I must do so in private.
Though the tears, heaven knows, are heartfelt, there are no bitter thoughts. The timing was cruel, but when would have been a better time? When might it have hurt less? Anyway, as Annabel herself said, it was not until a few days ago that the man she is now engaged to delivered his ultimatum: “Give me a straight answer now or finita la comedia”. He has known her far longer than I have, is in his early thirties, successful in the City and has been very patient. Also, she loves him. She loves me too; but “in a different way”. Being in love with her is all very well, but I know, and she knows, that I am no more at the marrying stage of my life than a learner-driver is fit to race in a grand prix. Marriage has never entered my head. Eventually, the misery is contained. I breathe evenly. Sluicing my face in cold water, I tidy up and walk across to supper in hall. Over the past year or two Oxford had seemed to have become something of a joint venture; now, I feel terribly alone.
Less than a week later, my father died. For some weeks he had been in hospital, following a stroke. I had visited him the day before leaving Sussex for Oxford, and although his speech had been seriously impaired he had been able to tell me to do my damnedest. Now, he had suffered another, and worse, attack, and was not expected to live. I arrived at his bedside in a general ward in time only to hold his hand while he tried vainly to speak, struggling desperately for breath. My mother, who had been with him for some hours but had left his bedside for a few minutes, returned too late for the end. He was only sixty-seven. Back in Walton Street, after his funeral, I sat on my bed and cried again until it seemed that there were simply no more tears to be shed. “It is bound to affect you deeply”, the Provost said, “but if there is anything that I might do to help I trust that you will keep me informed”. Did he sense that with my father’s death Oxford might have lost something of the purpose with which, unknowingly, I had invested it? The emotional consequences were indeed deep; most painfully, grief that a life of unremitting effort for the family he loved had ended so mercilessly and so untimely. I took no oaths, experienced no epiphany, but had no doubt as to what his fundamental values had been and thereafter was seldom tempted to forsake them. “This above all…”, and all that.
At about this time, too, “J.C.” effectively scotched any lingering ideas that I might have had about reading Law. If I wanted to become a solicitor or a barrister, he said, I could always, with or without a degree, take the specific examinations attached to qualification for those professions; meanwhile, he wondered if Modern History might not suit me better. For the Provost to “wonder if” was as good as a command and in due course I was to learn that “modern” did not exclude some knowledge of the mediaeval Exchequer and the Pipe Rolls.
Though fancies about chambers in the Temple had been laid to rest, those concerning a literary life had not. The Spectator magazine was then, as now, one of the leading magazines of current affairs in Britain. The leading magazine, some would say, and then, as now, an author earned modest kudos by being published in its pages. At the time I went up to Oxford there was, moreover, a Spectator Undergraduate Page, to be published on which was a feather in any young person’s hat. Greatly daring, halfway through my first Oxford term I submitted a piece to which I naively gave the (as I thought) catchy title of Getting Up Late.
GOING UP LATE
from The Spectator December 4, 1951
“But haven’t you left it rather late?” The question was often put to me before I arrived in Oxford, and it has been repeated many times since. A few weeks ago I could not be certain of my answer. Now there is no doubt at all. That there should have been some uncertainty was hardly surprising, for at rising twenty-eight, after five years in the Army and four in the City, one could not be completely confident that in going up to Oxford one was doing the right thing. Three years as an undergraduate! Three years of long scarves and learning and very young men fresh from school or conscription. Would it be worthwhile, and – in any case – could one go through with it? Older men had done it, of course, but they had, with few exceptions, done it in the years immediately after the war. They had come in their thousands, comfort for one another. They had come even with their wives and children, and – official recognition of the strangeness of the times – without Latin.
All that has changed. During the months that preceded my arrival I was assured by kind friends, who thought thus to sustain me in my resolve, that the universities were rapidly returning to normal; and last year, seeking admission to university and college, I was obliged to make Kennedy’s Primer and Caesar’s Gallic Wars the objects of seven months of study. At the end of the war some hundreds of undergraduates were over thirty. Now a man is getting on at twenty-three and nineteen is common.
Yet, if undergraduates are very young, Oxford is very old, and in becoming aware of the world which is Oxford I have almost lost sight of the other world which I so recently left. How quickly it has fallen way! A few weeks ago there was no other. Now I am reminded of it only by the daily arrival of The Times, and even this, which was an indispensable part of my London day, no longer keeps its former place in life. The personal column is ignored, the crossword undefiled. It no longer has its old significance, but comes as might a postcard from a distant relative, of whose existence one is thus reminded, but for whose activities one feels, for the moment, no responsibility.
In these few weeks I have found more than I dared to hope for, and my fears, with a few unimportant exceptions, have been proved liars. When I had contemplated the living again of a corporate existence there had been some anxiety. I remembered school and Army days, and dreaded having to face once more the rigours of competitive living. I visualised remote and inadequate bathrooms and the need for early rising if one wanted a place at a washbasin, hot water and a reasonable shave. I had, in my deep and fearful ignorance, imagined the old and typewritten notices pinned to the doors – “Baths may be taken only between the hours of –.” Yet I have found none of this. The competitions that I feared do not exist. My scout calls me gently at eight, the bathroom is across the landing and the water is always hot.
Indeed, corporate living as I have found it here, far from being the ordeal of imagination, is a great improvement upon the sort of life which I have known during the past few years. Luncheon in the City was a vulgar affair involving books of tickets, long queues and a descent into an underground inferno of glass-topped tables and metal trays. One ate joylessly and much too quickly, and got out. But in college one is able once again to take one’s meals in comparative comfort and decency. Here is no maze of heat and sound. No “daylight” lighting. No surrender of perforated coupons. The wooden tables are long and polished and the places are neatly laid. The food, surprisingly good, is served by the white-coated “scouts”, and conversation is no longer a physical effort made against an endless din of clattering cutlery. Better, too, than those improvised and solitary suppers taken in the kitchen of a bachelor flat are dinners in hall. Called by the lodge bell, we stand to our places. Chatter dies as the dons walk to the high table. Two blows of a wooden hammer sound upon its surface. The great doors are shut. A third stroke of the hammer falls, and Latin grace is recited quickly by one of the scholars. We eat and drink and talk, and all the while the portraits of great men look down upon us from the high walls.
Even the discipline of undergraduate life is not, as I had feared, hard to undergo. Indeed, such as it is, it seems to be for me a source of pleasure rather than a cause for discontent. Long ago, for example, it was clear that freedom to worship or not to worship was essential to adult existence. Compulsion, one had decided after the last church parade, would never again be tolerated. True to one’s principles, one was not compelled, and despite parental sighs went to church only at Easter, Harvest Festival and Christmas. Yet now, when one attendance at chapel is obligatory on Sundays, I feel no irritation. I remember that even at school it was not an unpleasant ritual. I have been for a walk by the river and have had tea here in my room by the fire. Again the bell sounds from the lodge, monotonous and insistent. I put down my book, put on my gown and join the other men who are hurrying under the old arches towards the light that comes from the chapel door. It is good, I find, to be summoned in this way. Good to be there in company with a hundred others reciting the old prayers, singing loudly the familiar hymns, whilst all the while it grows darker outside and the windows seem to grow dusty.
This rediscovered pleasure is not confined to the institutions alone but goes much deeper, is more personal. I had feared that as a freshman I should be imprisoned by my extra years and forced to choose between solitary confinement and the tortures of an ebullient Junior Common Room. In this, too, I was greatly at fault. There is no lack of pleasant company. Some of the dons, for instance, are only a little older than myself, and I have met one who served with me in Normandy. I have found them generous with their coffee and their conversation.
In any case, I had no need to fear that the difference in our ages would isolate me from my fellows; that their youthful company would prove intolerable. They do not spend their time in climbing monuments or making apple-pie beds. Their rooms are not full of bottles and cigarette smoke and shrill voices raised in argument as to whether the table is. There are, of course, little affectations – “I know all about art, but I’ve no idea what I like” – but for the most part their talk is diverse and entertaining, and of no less a quality than that which is to be found in the bars of Threadneedle Street or Cornhill, where men of more maturity and substance hold court.
I have not found here the time for loneliness and boredom. After all, one has one’s work to do, and in that, above all things, one may find the greatest delight of all. Before coming up I had feared that my studies might prove too difficult. I might not, I thought, be able to bring to them the mental ability and powers of concentration which might be required. These might have been fatally impaired by the years which the Army and the City had eaten. I was wrong. I doubt if I shall get a First; I should be surprised and grateful for a Second; but reading is at least no longer an affair of tube trains and papers and an occasional weekend in the country. From being an infrequent and restricted relaxation, it has become a regular and illimitable virtue. It could scarcely be otherwise. There are the Bodleian and Rhodes House and the Radcliffe libraries, and – “you may browse all day if you wish” – there are the bookshops in the Broad. I have become aware of books as never before.
In becoming aware of what Oxford has to offer, I have become conscious, although as yet imperfectly, of what Oxford is. It is old and wise and kindly and rich in those things for which, in this fretful age, one might search longingly and in vain elsewhere. It is contemptuous of none but is tolerant of all men and of all ages. Better by far that one should have come to it late than never have come to it at all.
NEXT FRIDAY, 3 May, The Fading Margin, Serial 22: Chapter Twelve, Going Up Late, Part Four.
Standing on the Boulevard de la Trémouille in Dijon, capital of Burgundy, on a fine, clear day, looking south to the hills of the Côte d’Or, it is possible to entertain the happy illusion that by continuing straight ahead one must surely be able to walk unhindered into the vineyards of the Côte de Nuits. An illusion it must remain. Where vineyards once almost hugged the walls of the city, suburbs now sprawl for some two or three miles before more than a few isolated and uninspiring plots of viticulture are reached. Untidily interspersed with patches of maize, assorted vegetables and fruit trees, limited on the one side by the unlovely building developments bordering the Dijon to Beaune road and on the other by the nondescript slopes of the Hautes Côtes, they have nothing of the dignity to be found further south along the Côte d’Or. Later, after Fixin say, the vineyards are recognizably the be-all and end-all of local existence. Here, even around Marsannay and Couchey, where red, a little white and a famous rosé wine are made, they might be mistaken for an afterthought, incidental to ever-spreading urbanisation. At Chenôve, once a country village, are nevertheless the beginnings of tracks that enable the walker to set off southwards without braving hard-top roads and backyard dogs. There also are the much-photographed wine presses of the Dukes of Burgundy, which may help to sustain a romantic idea of wine and wine-making in an increasingly technological age. Many a modest stone-built outhouse of the Côte d’Or shelters an old press, still in use, that functions according to the same mechanical principles.
It was a fine morning in April when I set out. Impatient to get well beyond the petrol stations and housing estates, I set a good pace, wanting to reach Gevrey-Chambertin, more than two miles away, before everything shut for lunch. Not only had I ideas of visiting the château, I also needed to shop for a picnic. Reluctantly, I hurried through Fixey, with its very prettily placed Romanesque church, and through Fixin (pronounced ‘Fissin’), which in retrospect seems to nestle among cherry and plum blossom, reaching Gevrey-Chambertin as the clocks struck twelve.
The château was closed all that day, but I was able to buy what I needed for lunch, including wine. Notwithstanding the locality, I had intended nothing out of the ordinary when I chanced across a serious-looking corner shop with a well-known wine-maker’s name over the door. I expected it to be locked, but it was open. The interior was attractively Dickensian and silent. After a little while a grandmotherly person appeared, apologising for keeping me waiting. “Les jeunes”, who really looked after the shop, were all “à table”. It was clearly not the occasion for tasting or deliberation, so with some extravagance I bought a cellar-cool bottle of the proprietor’s three-year-old Gevrey-Chambertin AC. As soon as I had left the shop I tucked it down inside my shirt, buttoned and zipped everything else over it, and went on my way hoping that nobody would remark my curious anatomy and that by picnic time my expensive acquisition would be agreeably ‘chambré’.
In his autobiographical book, A Traveller’s Life, Eric Newby tells of asking Evelyn Waugh to write an introduction to A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Newby’s classic of travel writing. In the course of the brief correspondence that followed, he had occasion to point out that there was no such wine as the ‘Clos de Bère’ which features in Brideshead Revisited. Waugh apologetically replied that it was a misprint for Clos de Bèze. Newby got his introduction, and as a gesture of thanks sent Waugh three magnums of Clos de Bèze. Newby and I were friends. We had talked about the incident, and about Waugh, and (as always in Newby’s company) had laughed a lot. Such were my slender motives for wanting to sit with a glass of burgundy overlooking the Clos de Bèze, though I had never tasted the product of its precious 15 hectares.
Taking the tarred minor road that leads up the hill out of Gevrey into the Bois du Forey, I came to a track running between the topmost vines and the wood, just below the 300 metre contour line. Two or three minutes more brought me to a little grassy recess in the bank that formed both the border of the track and the margin of the wood. “The Grand Crus shelter under the woods of the Montagne de la Combe Grisard, a good barrier against the winds from the north,” notes Serena Sutcliffe of the highest vineyards of Gevrey-Chambertin, in my dog-eared and wine-stained copy of her invaluable Pocket Guide to the Wines of Burgundy. With the north wind sighing in the trees, I gratefully shed my pack, settled myself comfortably, and there above one of the most celebrated of all the Grands Crus ritually poured a little of the Gevrey-Chambertin AC onto the ground. Not ten metres below were the precisely ordered, immaculately tended vines of the Clos de Bèze.
It is not the recommended treatment for any decent wine that it should be translated from cellar to luncheon underneath the consumer’s thermal vest in the course of a purposeful 1200-metre walk; nevertheless, the little burgundy seemed to have taken no harm. It was a trifle too young, I thought, and still a touch too cold; all the same, it was better than drinkable right from the start, and much better half an hour later, and by the time I reflected that half a bottle would have been absurdly too little I began to think also that Serena Sutcliffe’s remark about the top wines of the appellation combining “finesse with power” might not be inappropriate for the humbler ones as well . What a delight it was to sit in that privileged place, watching cloud shadows passing over the burgeoning vines of Grands and Premiers Crus, looking at the map and noting that the good, wide track ran southwards all the way along the edge of the wood and out into the vines, except for the wine villages and the Château du Clos de Vougeot, promising fine, steady walking with not a dwelling (and so probably not a dog) in sight.
Later, I was sitting looking at my map on a low stone wall between the vines of Romanée-Conti and Romanée-St Vivant when a middle-aged man who was driving slowly along the track in a modest Renault stopped to enquire if I needed help. I said that I had been given the address of a certain well-reputed wine-maker in the locality and that I was now trying to find him. What was the wine-maker’s name, the man asked. “Trapet”, I told him. “Well”, he said, “you’ll have no difficulty in tracking him down because he’s talking to you. Put your pack on the back seat and jump in”.
Thus I made the acquaintance of one of the best-known wine-makers of the Côte de Nuits. His car was modest. His wine-making premises, like those of so many others whose names are music to a wine-lover’s ears, would be unlikely to attract so much as a passing glance, nor were they tricked out with any of the refinements so frequently to be found in a business that is only too aware of the value of appearances. There was no rustically elegant, candle-lit tasting cellar gleaming with polished oak and sparkling glass, no poker-worked wooden boxes of wine for VIP guests. There was oak in plenty, the deliciously fragrant new oak of neatly marshalled rows of casks stained purple around the bungs by young wines, but we tasted by electric light, spitting into a plastic bucket. “Violets, perhaps”, Monsieur Trapet replied thoughtfully when I asked him to give his own impressions of the ‘nose’ of this wine or that, “and red berry fruit. Épices, of course. Spices”. Admiring the very beautiful colour (‘robe’) and limpidity of the sample in the glass, I asked how much he filtered. “Very little”, he said. Too much filtration could take the heart out of a wine.
It was the easiest and most agreeable of marches into Nuits-St. Georges thereafter, so that I was already reviewing with satisfaction my 10-mile day on the Côte de Nuits and looking forward to the Côte de Beaune. Nuits-St. Georges only sustained and improved the mood. On a previous visit a year or two before I had stayed grandly as a paying guest in the house of the Comtesse de Loisy, where dinner had started with truffled eggs and the lamb that followed had been accompanied by a superb Nuits-St. Georges from the very distinguished house of Faiveley. Now, I lodged less nobly and chose to have dinner at a hugely busy, ordinary restaurant in the centre of town. The three-course menu cost what one might expect to pay for the soup in London’s West End, and was wholly acceptable. There were house wines at charitable prices, and when the bustling, good-humoured patronne told me, sotto voce, that there was a bottle or two of ‘réserve spéciale’ left if I would like to try it, I gladly accepted and found myself drinking a wine which, although no Richebourg or Romanée-Conti, was far superior to the sort of burgundies that I might normally afford. What exactly was it, I asked. Ah, said the patronne, she couldn’t tell me that, though her husband might know; but at any rate it was from “d’ici quelque part”, somewhere around here. It went wonderfully well with the chicken and chips.
I am sorry to disappoint our eager readers, but ‘Margin’ has unavoidably been marginalised again this weekend. It will be up and running again in a day or two; meanwhile, keep an eye on this space for a seasonable account of a fine spring day among the vineyards of Burgundy.