Often in advertising, with a pitch looming for a wine, spirits or beer brand, the frazzled account director will charge round, asking the team to list their ‘alcohol experience’. I would jot down drinks brands for whom I’d shuffled out an ad or two. Shared with the potential client, I doubt this information made us the least bit more compelling.
Advertising might appear, at frequent intervals, to run on alcohol, but it also has to sell the stuff. Some of my associations with booze brands have been enormous fun. Others less so. As far as the business went, alcohol lubricated so much of what used to happen, loosening tongues and losing the plot of so many afternoons. In the series Mad Men, much like the earlier Dallas, it’s easier to count scenes where the actors aren’t holding a glass. The show winked at drink as an advertising lubricant. Its later portrayal in other dramas – seen from a distance – hints at a darker dependence.
When I started work, the daily point of greatest sobriety in the agency was around 1045am. Recovery from the previous evening would nip in just before a fresh sortie, usually from the Traffic Department, nipped out for ‘Earlies’, as the local hostelries opened. It was a hazy existence and, with a rearview lens, both health-threatening and life shortening, but there were genuine moments of inventive endeavour to accompany the chink of glassware around the Edgware Road. Such intelligence as we had appeared to work even when dissolved in liquid.
My first conscious memories of alcohol’s existence were the Grants of St James deliveries to Little Downham, when I was about four. The two cardboard boxes of wine my father would order were so thick, they appeared to be made from kevlar and resistant to surface-to-air missiles. Inside were bottles of dark red something that he venerated for months, sometimes years, before they disappeared mysteriously when guests came to dinner and we were asleep.
Aged sixteen, I was granted summer work at a hotel in Machynlleth, mid Wales, thanks to a distant cousin who ran the place. The Wynnstay Arms was the most remote Trust House Forte outpost in Britain. It was a few miles from the border with Gwynedd, a ‘dry’ county on Sundays in the Seventies. Our sabbaths were bedlam, as dozens of thirsty Gwyneddites crammed into the back bar, emptying pint after pint before closing time, as if beer was going out of fashion. I would help haul several of them to their feet at periodic intervals to continue their labours. On quieter evenings, under the watchful eye of Margaret, my fabulous, Joyce Grenfell-like commanding officer, I served lager to fisherman dynamiters who threw gelignite into trout pools, one missing several fingers, another a hand. When not working in the bar, I was sent to help in the kitchen. It was run by a complicated chef with a large moustache that waggled as he described how he made porn movies to supplement his income. (“My two girlfriends do it for twenty-five quid a time and Darren does it for free”, he reported, enthusiastically.) In my brief employment, he was fired for gross misconduct and replaced by a tall Scot called Brian, who displayed the grace of Andy Murray as he flew around the kitchen, putting just the right amount of topspin on his omelettes. Delivering the Blue Plate Special menu to the dining room – a three-course lunch was £1.39 – I managed to spill an entire bowl of scalding mushroom soup into a pensioner’s lap. The old boy looked agonised but was more apologetic than I was. One Saturday, I took a bottle of champagne and two glasses to a newly wedded couple in their room on their honeymoon night. The man smirked and gave me me a five pound note as a tip. “Do you really want to give me this?” I asked, incredulously. He looked at his new wife and then at me. “Well,” was all he said, as he walked towards me and took it back. I left, tipless.
For two Christmases, as a student, I worked in Victoria Wine at Hazlemere crossroads. It was managed by Mr Muskett, a prototype Wallace (of Grommit pairing) in a burgundy, bri-nylon coat. He wore heavily framed bifocals and his expressive eyebrows agitated at the base camp of a gleamingly bald forehead. The thin fringe around the back was brilliantined and carefully combed. He drank tea incessantly. Arthur Muskett (only Mrs Muskett called him by his first name) had a peculiar way of expressing weirdly superior servility to his customers, honed to a mesmeric degree. As I loaded shelves with magnums of Don Cortez Spanish plonk, bottles of Emva Cream, Martini Rosé and Stone’s Ginger Wine, I’d listen to him agreeing that somebody’s choice of Liebfraumilch was the perfect drop to go with fish fingers. “Oh, yes, Sir,” he’d say with savage relish. “Marvellous, it is. The perfect selection.” With familiarity, these exchanges became unconvincing. A close inspection of his beady, glittering eyes suggested he wouldn’t care two hoots if Sir or Madam was approaching the till with a bottle of Paraquat weed killer. Mr Muskett, like his loyal, shrunk-washed wife in her canary yellow work coat, did not drink alcohol at all. When the returning peal of Bells’ whisky customers, their faces ravaged by over-enthusiastic ringing between visits, staggered into the shop, Mr Muskett would mask his features with a joyful grimace at the potential takings, whilst radiating bat squeaks of furious disapproval at the same time. I always felt that, deep down, he would have been much happier selling bathroom fittings, say, or guns.
I moved on from Victoria Wine to holiday jobs in a pub. John Allnutt was the landlord of The White Lion at the top of a long, exhausting hill just outside High Wycombe. Small, pugnacious and very funny, there was a touch of Oliver Reed about him. When I repeated a girl’s order back to her at the bar one lunchtime to confirm her request, he overheard me say: “Cointreau and lemonade.” He stormed through from the back with a withering look. “God,” he groaned, staring at her, “How Luton!“, before disappearing again.
With questionable assumptiveness, I ran the Brasenose College Wine Society as a student. We organised a trip to Lamberhurst in Kent to see (Lord) Alfred McAlpine’s retirement project and appreciate his clean, luminous and Germanic white wines in thrilling brown bottles, marshalled in immaculate, concrete buildings that were more NASA space age than English wine experiment. There was a tantalising, yeasty smell of vineyard promise, with operations that spoke of Teutonic efficiency. It was all deeply impressive. Back in Oxford, I presided over a tasting evening where, of all possible contenders, we had invited Showerings. The valiant and long suffering rep talked us through the various sugary versions of Babycham and Cherry B as we hooted cruelly with laughter. Awash at the conclusion, I took him and his rather fabulous assistant to dinner at the Randolph Hotel. Walking them back to their rooms in college, she kindly offered to take me to her bed. Instead, dazzled, I stumbled off to find my own. At yet another event – the BNC Wine Society’s credentials were dubiously classy – we were privileged to enjoy a generous Martini & Rossi evening, with boil-in-the-bag pasta dishes reheated for the occasion to accompany the Rosso, Bianco and – hello old friend – the Rosé. It was later that night that I realised only nuclear winter can truly remove the smell of vermouth once it’s been sicked up on a pair of slightly pink wool flares, veneered with stale, catering parmesan.
Of considerably more civilised promise, my presidency granted me access to a remarkable wine tasting at Balliol. It was conducted by the exceptional Richard Peet, of Corney & Barrow, and attended by a squadron of university dons with considerable heft in their college cheque books. I was one of only four students present. Richard ‘showed’ around forty different clarets. As an ignorant arriviste, I watched carefully, to get the hang of protocol. Those silver fountain things were spittoons. You should only pour yourself a very small measure. Don’t drink more than you can taste. And, whatever happens, don’t try the lot. I watched in fascination as around forty old, white men waltzed around a long, bottle-strewn table. Within twenty minutes, the Regius professor of Medieval History (who had better remain nameless) was spitting magenta coloured rivulets down his tie rather than into the spittoon. There were some deeply red faces. Muttered giggling. Stumbles were evident. Wombling spread. Richard Peet looked on, with twinkling amusement. I remember, vividly, tasting what really good claret should taste like, with a particular Chateau Cissac. Richard Peet explained it to me without complication, fuss or being in the slightest bit patronising. It was an olfactory sensation, a great waft of something bigger, more expansive, altogether more epic. After the cheap, student wines we bought from Oddbins in the High (Street), it was like walking out of a shed and into a cathedral. Dispensing with all the cigar, cedar, leather, vanilla and oak descriptive verbiage, my fizzing brain told me – somewhat crudely – that it was just balls-out, brilliantly better.
All manner of beers, wines and spirits have cropped up in my working life. Oranjeboom, Long Life and St Christopher’s ahead-of-its-time, alcohol-free lager from Allied Breweries at McCormick’s gave way to Kaltenberg, Mackesons and, later, Boddington’s at BBH. Martin and I nearly trashed our careers weeks into our association with a subjective camera cinema ad for Beefeater Gin. Looking at it now, it comes across like a poorly translated piece of French surreal cinema, just before the actor murders the film director. I was sitting opposite Martin when he wrote “Big and horny” against his swift drawing of some antlers. It became a poster, all over London, for Whitbread’s Moosehead beer. The Glenlivet was a joy of a brief. Black Tower – a black glass bottle of industrial, lightly alcoholic German promise about as enigmatic as a Henry Cooper punch – was more challenging. (Graham Watson managed to wangle a bottle/glass/table top shoot for the stuff in the Seychelles. “Lovely light,” he claimed.) There have been all manner of drinks requiring an advertising shunt in the years since and the chance to write longer form for some truly fabulous brands, particularly The Macallan. The most characterful and carefully curated of all Scottish whiskies, the people who look after it are an especially admirable tribe.
Martin once produced a magnum of Chateau Latour from the late 1970s when he and Rosie came to have supper with us in a Hope Cove rental house. However much it was worth, it tasted even better. The wine had been gifted to him by the wonderful Terry Lovelock (‘Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach’), who had been handed it by Frank Lowe, the prescient overseer of not just Collett Dickinson Pearce’s incredible advertising output, but its outstanding, tax-defying cellar. And during my stint in Paddington at Boase Massimi Pollitt, I bought a case of wine from the inimitable John Webster, for three years in a row, at £4 a bottle. The godfather of so many universally loved commercials – Smash Martians, the Hofmeister Bear, Courage Best ‘Gertcha’, John Smith’s, The Guardian’s ‘Points Of View’ – I particularly liked his take on the rough, likeable red. “We work all our lives to earn enough to own a small country property with a tiny vineyard and the chance to live like a French peasant,” he said, “When we could, of course, just go off and live like a French peasant in the first place.”
With a frustrating break this last year, for obvious reasons, we have bottled two 34 litre demijohns of prosecco for the last decade and more, under the close tutelage of Italian friends and neighbours in Cirvoi. Valdobbiadene, the epicentre of proper prosecco production and the Glera grape, is about forty minutes away. We pay the princely sum of €2 a litre to a grower there and squish metal grip caps onto eighty-five sterilised bottles a day or two later at home. Flat, slightly sweet and about 8% alcohol when bottled at some point before Easter (always – critically – on a rising moon), three months later it is sparkling, dry and about 10.5% abv. It’s not exactly the height of sophistication, but the cloudy glasses of joy fuel conversations noon and night with all and sundry in the year that follows.
Like mine, I’m sure everybody’s ‘alcohol experience’ goes on and on, in very different versions of very different lists. I think this has rambled long enough. Time to open the bar.