East of London the Thames broadens dramatically to a surreal waste of mud and sewage-coloured water lined with shipping-container dumps. Here, a row of expensive apartment blocks commands the view as if it were the Loire valley. At 11.30 on the morning of the Friday before last, anyone looking idly out of a window of one of these might have raised an astonished eyebrow. For in the water below, manoeuvring strenuously against an ebb tide and a Pentecostal wind to position her stern against a shipping buoy, was a beautiful, red-sailed, century-old Thames sailing barge. Crowding her deck, moreover, and enterprisingly clad in tweed and waxed cotton, some wearing ties, was a curious assembly of passengers. It would have taken a very wild guess to identify them as the Spectator Wine Club, but if told the guess was correct, our observer mightn’t have been too surprised.
If our observer made up in emotional intelligence for what he or she lacked in aesthetic sensibility, he or she might have perceived that although it was almost noon, none of them had yet had a drink. Nothing you could quite put your finger on —an anxious rub of the chin here, a furtive glance at the watch there, and perhaps proportionately more of them given over to silent, pensive contemplation than would be seen, say, among an equivalent boatload of Chinese tourists.
And if our observer had kept looking, he would have seen a rope finally secure the barge to the buoy and the Spectator Wine Club break out guns and ammunition, including over and under shotguns, a pump-action shotgun and a blunderbuss. Was this England’s Fort Sumter moment, he or she might have wondered? Certainly, if the first shots of the second English civil war were shortly to be loosed off by the Spectator Wine Club, there was a poignant yet apt poetry in their choice of transport, weapons, target and date — Demosthenes’ birthday. And as the Spectator Wine Club stood to arms, then presented, and the old Thames barge’s stern fairly bristled with enormous-calibre gun barrels, these thoughts might have caused our observer to feel anxious for his person and hideous property.
But if our observer had courageously stayed to witness the first volley, he would have laughed. It was clay pigeons and yellow balloons we were firing at, and we couldn’t have hit Diane Abbott’s backside at five paces, not even with the blunderbuss. I would say in mitigation, however, that some of us were gagging for a drink so badly that we couldn’t concentrate.
At last a head appeared through a hatch in the deck and called us down into the hold for lunch. The lunch, I now learned, was in my honour, and everyone present had paid £295 to be there. Incredible. Now I really needed a drink. Happily, the moment our feet touched the planking in the wood-panelled dining room, the boar was released. Gin and tonics and French 75s were rapidly handed out and downed in two, three at the most, as we took our places at two long dining tables. And from that point on, glasses of wine came at me from all directions. The glasses were numbered. The numbers could be matched to a wine list next to my plate and there was a pencil and a sheet of paper for tasting notes. At Greenwich, just before boarding, I had lost my mind on the telephone and had metaphorically slammed it down, as I thought, on the last three years of my life. After a glass or two, a piss-up on an old Thames sailing barge, with a brand new pencil and a blank sheet of paper in front of me, and this sudden undreamed-of popularity, seemed a marvellous start to the rest of it.
‘I like this number four.’ ‘Has anyone not got a number five yet?’ ‘What do you think of number three?’ ‘Not bad but I prefer number six. Excuse me, can we have another number six?’
Of course after number six the tables were in uproar and I didn’t much care what flaming number it was I had in my hand. Nor did I ever fully grasp whether it was the north bank of the Thames or the left that was passing by through the porthole, not even when we passed beneath Tower Bridge, which, I was told, had opened especially for us. And this feeling of privilege, popularity and marvellousness expanded, and kept on expanding, throughout the afternoon and later ashore in the city cellar wine bar, where the wine was awful but at least it was pretentious. And in the bright party pub after that, where I lost my wallet, and in the darkness of the Laylow club after that, and even at the house party after that, which, I think, was in Notting Hill, the feeling of marvellousness was expanding still.
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