Christmas: without being grand and Proustian, this is a season when time present inevitably takes one back to time past. When we are very young, despite the grown-ups’ best efforts to promote moral uplift, Christmas means presents. I remember being given King Solomon’s Mines when I was nine or ten. No book has ever thrilled me with more sensual pleasure and I devoured all of Rider Haggard’s related oeuvre. The other day, I came across a shelf-load in a friend’s house. They did not work. The magic could not be reconjured. For me, the Haggards ride no more (though at least the Rudyards have not ceased from Kipling). But I hope that today’s boys will still follow Allan Quatermain and Umslopogaas, and be awed by She. It should be part of a gradus ad Parnassum.
When I was five, there was a Roman coin in my stocking. What a delight. That gift went on giving: the beginning of a lifelong flirtation with numismatics. So I have just bought a denarius for a bright four-year-old. I look forward to his excitement. Time present also leads on to time future.
The other day, someone asked his fellow diners an amusing question: what was the most irreligious Christmas we had ever spent? I had to think hard. There has always been some tincture of Christianity, if only the King’s College choir. But there was one exception: in the USA, oddly, and not because I was becalmed among liberals. For journalistic reasons, I spent the Christmas of that great year, 1980, in Washington, and was invited to a house party in the boondocks of North Carolina. My hosts owned a sprawling farm complex, in part antebellum. They were delightfully right-wing. The outgoing president, Jimmy Carter, had once been a peanut farmer, a post within his competence. The paterfamilias had produced a bumper sticker: ‘Roast Jimmy’s nuts.’
After arrival on Christmas Eve, the visitors were presented with a stonker of a Tom Collins and asked whether they shot. I said I did, fully up to RSPB standards. The home team was not deterred, even when the reference was explained. ‘Tomorrow, y’all goin’ to shoot some doves.’ I could not think of a finer way to help inaugurate the Reagan era.
But there was a bit too much vinous inauguration until well into the small hours. The next day, not enough people were up in time for a shoot. So the doves were granted a stay of execution until Boxing Day. In symbolic terms, they were disappointing, for they were not pure-white, Jean Cocteau-like birds of peace. I think that they may even have been some variety of pigeon. But I seem to remember that they flew enthusiastically, and were good eating. There were also quail to shoot, and whitetail deer. There was even talk of a bear, although in the event none appeared. ‘What is the shooting season for bear?’ I enquired. Although my hosts were suffused with southern courtesy, I formed the distinct impression that this was an irrelevant query.
With two exceptions, I do not remember what exactly we drank. But after one dinner, an evil-looking bottle was produced. We were advised to treat it with caution. Our hostess’s grand-father had enjoyed distilling his own hooch, and we were told that this, the final survivor, was pre-war — probably referring to a world conflict, rather than the one between the States. Before or since, I have never come across a palatable homemade spirit, and grandad’s was up there among the worst. It tasted as if it would drill holes in the stomach lining.
So had he made it as a means of evading prohibition? More irrelevance. Old Joe had never evaded anything in his life. Prohibition, closed seasons, automobile licences: if the authorities got up to some nonsense, he just took no notice. In recent years, the Appalachians have received not only a bad press but, worse still, a condescending one. This purports to describe a region in which life expectancy, the economy and morale have declined, while drug use has sharply increased. My friends moved ages ago and I have not been back to the area for decades. But 40 years ago, it really was the home of the brave and the land of the free. I hope that is still true.
Yet curiously enough, there was little mention of God. That might have been a matter of convenience. The nearest chapel was miles away over icy roads. In any case, assuming the Almighty was a Republican, there was little for Him to do. As the White House was passing into sound hands, He could concern Himself with less fortunate regions. Perhaps my hosts were following the new president’s example. It is clear from books by John O’Sullivan and others that Mr Reagan was deeply religious. But he made little public mention of it. Unusually among American politicians — many of whom are far too ready to boast about the number of times they have been born — he seemed to belong to the Church Reticent.
The other memorable drinking experience was at a neighbour’s dinner party. Despite my — sincere — protestations to the contrary, I had been bruited abroad as a wine expert from Limey land. I was told that the neighbours had a few fine old bottles. Their only fear was that they had gone over the hill. That fear was groundless. In those days, the house of Robert Mondavi was one of the most celebrated growers of Cabernet Sauvignon in California. I knew that 1973 had been an outstanding vintage. Anxious about my appraisal, the neighbours produced some Mondavi reserve from that year. It was full of fruit, structure — and unripeness. Immensely promising, it would not have been cheap. But it was far too young. Drinking it was like eating green strawberries. It would probably be delicious today.
Needless to say, I told the bottle’s owners what a pleasure, what a privilege, they were providing. I think I persuaded them, against their instincts. In those days, it was virtually impossible to convince Americans that when it came to wine, newer did not necessarily mean better. An unwritten item in the US Bill of Rights runs as follow: ‘This year shall be better than last year, and next year shall be better than this year.’ That may be a fine way to run an economy. With wine cellars, matters are more complex.
Anyway, it was a splendid Christmas. I hope that all our festivities will be equally merry this year.
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