House sherry

7 November 2013

3:00 PM

7 November 2013

3:00 PM

The Speaker was in trouble. I do not refer to Michael Martin or John Bercow, the two worst Speakers in living memory, who have fallen well beneath mere trouble, into contempt. This was Jack Weatherill, a decent man and a decent Speaker, if not a great one. Even so, his toenail clippings would have made a better Speaker than either of the afore-mentioned.

But Speaker Weatherill had committed an offence of which we have all been guilty at some time or another. He had rewritten history; he had retold an anecdote to put himself in a better light. Unfortunately for him, this involved putting Norman Tebbit in a worse light. There had been a dis-agreement: I forget about what, and it is no longer relevant. Anyway, Jack told my then colleague Don Macintyre that he had chucked Norman out of his office. Don believed the Speaker and wrote the story. That caused a problem because it was not true. Although there had been an argument, Norman had left of his own volition at the normal time. But he had a reputation to keep up. No one chucks him out of anywhere, ever. The word ‘defamation’ was used.

The Speaker was like a savoury under the grill: cooking, defenceless. Don was unhappy. I told him that even if he were imprisoned in the Victoria Tower for contempt of Parliament, his stay would be brief and the victuals would probably be adequate. But Don, an honourable fellow, notorious for never consigning a story to print unless he had at least eight sources, was vexed with himself. He did protest that if a hack could trust one single source, it ought to be the Speaker.

Norman, sardonic, vulpine, enjoyed his adversaries’ discomfiture, and was surprisingly lenient when it came to the surrender terms. These were negotiated by Jonathan Aitken with silken dexterity. I was invited to Speaker’s House as a participant. Cannot recall why: I suppose that my well-known peacemaking skills made me indispensable. The mediation process was assisted by sherry: the finest I have ever encountered. A pale yellow liquid, probably a Manzanilla, it was wondrously subtle and complex on the palate. The taste went on for ever.

‘Mr Speaker,’ said I. ‘This is splendid. What exactly is it, if I may ask?’ In so doing, I had two motives. The first, successful, was to encourage a second helping. But I also wanted further and better particulars. Jack could not provide them. He thought that it was a present from the Speaker of the Cortes. I meant to phone his secretary the next day, to find out what we had been drinking, in the hope that it was available to those who are not grandees of speakership. But I forgot.

I was reminded of this the other day when drinking a couple of outstanding offerings from González Byass. The first was a Fino, Una Palma. These are special bottles, produced in small quantities, from carefully selected barrels. As well as the flintiness of a good Fino, there is more breadth and generosity in the accompanying tastes. At the other extreme end of the range was a Pedro Ximenez, with huge sweetness, almost as if it were made from figs rather than grapes. If it is a wine which has not come your way, rectify that. PX is not easy to get right. I have met some which almost toppled over from excessive sweetness. As in everything else, González Byass is to be trusted.

Should you be in Edinburgh, as I was recently, there is an excellent bar and restaurant on the way from Waverley to the Royal Mile. The bar is called Rioja, the restaurant Iggs, but do not be put off by the banality of one name or the eccentricity of the other. In Rioja, you can watch bullfighting while eating good tapas and experimenting with a range of Spanish bottles. The results of my recent Hispano-oenophilia will require a further column.

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