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Like a fine whine

3 October 2019

From The Times Literary Supplement:

Looking back over my career to date, and at all the people I have insulted, I am mildly surprised that I am still allowed to exist”, wrote Auberon Waugh in 1980. For the remaining twenty-one years of his life he took pleasure in adding to his list of victims. Feminism and AIDS were bracketed together as “plagues”, ramblers were “semi-uniformed thugs”, the “lower classes” appeared “ugly, boring, humourless and desperately conceited”, and the female delegates at a Labour Party conference struck him as “either hunch-backed or hairy-legged or obviously lesbian”. It’s natural to associate such views with an age now pretty remote. But Waugh was born in the same year as John Cleese and Margaret Drabble; he was younger than Jilly Cooper and Vanessa Redgrave, John Prescott and David Dimbleby. Were he still alive, he would not yet be eighty.

Having published his first novel, The Foxglove Saga, at twenty, Waugh continued for more than a decade to dabble in writing fiction, but found his métier in journalism, practising what he called “the vituperative arts”. The objects of his savage riffs included cant, political rhetoric and parliamentarians, as well as other kinds of bossy legislator whose exercise of power was a means to “compensate for their personal inadequacies”. At the same time he stood up for free speech, along with causes with which one wouldn’t immediately link someone of his stripe (the magazine Viz, the European Union, Martin Amis) and several less defensible groups, such as adulterers and drunk drivers. As the child of Evelyn Waugh, he inherited vendettas, mainly among what he considered the literary world’s “great armies of militant atheists, leftists and modernists”, and he was pleased to keep up old antagonisms.

. . . .

The trouble with being a vituperator is that your writing is likely to lose its zest as soon as your objects of opprobrium recede from view. When your medium is journalism, that is inevitable; themes endure, but specific targets are ephemeral, and today’s urgent peeve is the stuff of tomorrow’s cumbrous footnote. George Orwell is remembered because he engaged with fascism, imperialism, language and the national character, not because he thought scrubbing brushes had become a bit pricey or reviewed a curious book about ants by Caryl P. Haskins.

. . . .

Nearly half the book consists of “Pulpit” essays for the Literary Review, on matters such as the “raucous trivia” that fills the heads of teenagers, publishers who don’t send out review copies promptly, and the “baneful influence” of people called Jenkins.

. . . .

The durability of a few of Waugh’s claims is hard to assess. For instance, do the “semi-professional poules de luxe on the fringes of café society” continue to disappoint their admirers by failing to serve good vintage port? Yet much remains as it was. Dry white Bordeaux still doesn’t have a great following in Britain. Neither, more regrettably, do the best German wines. It is true that in America “only obvious alcoholics drink anything like as much as the ordinary English professional”. The British still go on holiday to France and return full of hyperbolic enthusiasm for some local plonk that they have been inspired to import in large quantities – only to find, once it arrives in Blighty, that it is no more potable than the contents of a fish tank. There is a certain prescience, too, in Waugh’s remark that the best wines are, increasingly, beyond English pockets “shrunk by the growing indolence, incompetence and indiscipline of our island race”.

. . . .

But what of the fermented juice itself? Waugh was conscious of the perils of writing about it, yet baulked at the starkness of Kingsley Amis’s observation “You can call a wine red, and dry, and strong and pleasant. After that, watch out”. In the 1970s there was a revolution in wine writing, in which anthropomorphic language gave way to a vocabulary that recognized wine as an agricultural product. The new wave found its most influential expression in the writings of the former Baltimore lawyer Robert Parker, typified in a note such as this, about a legendary Pauillac: “A dark, opaque garnet colour is followed by a fabulous nose of cedar, sweet leather, black fruits, prunes and roasted walnuts, refreshing underlying acidity, sweet but noticeable tannin, and a spicy finish”. Waugh was inclined to mock such geoponic rigour and even found another American wine writer absurd for likening a pinot noir to cherries. Yet he could still refer to an Italian red having a “beautiful hare’s blood or red garnet colour and a fragrance of freshly cut pine”.

Link to the rest at The Times Literary Supplement

While the post immediately below this one (which PG posted earlier. In WordPress World, things that were written earlier are seen later.) caused PG to despair for the present state of British intelligence and literary style, Auberon Waugh reminded PG of the glory of acid and skeptical British commentary on almost any subject.

Long may it reign.

Non-Fiction, Non-US

2 Comments to “Like a fine whine”

  1. PG, You posted this just for the word ‘vituperator‘, didn’t you?

    • Ah, the pleasure of actually using one of the words you know you’ve never been able to acknowledge in public.

      There must be a name for it.

      I still notice when that happens, and thank people who make it possible.

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