I recently posted on Twitter a copy of Patrick Forbes’ Champagne; The Wine, The Land, The People which I had just bought second hand. Inside was a dedication above, dated 1970.
In the absence of a great deal of wine to write about during lockdown (short of emptying the stocks at at an inadvisable rate), I thought I would offer something a little different. Presenting Foiled, a short work of non-fact.
It was with some astonishment that I saw your picture of a copy of Patrick Forbes’ Champagne; The Wine, The Land, The People, and the note dated 1970 inside the inner cover:
For your collection, and for your study.
I met Jonathan Stiff at Cambridge in 1968. Both our families lived in Holland Park, so we used to get together outside of term time in order to do the sort of things we thought smart men-about-town should be doing. We both appeared to be on our way to promising legal careers, which meant we could evade holiday employment by landing the odd ‘internship’. Most of these, however, amounted to little more than fathers-of-friends-of-friends dishing dirt on the judiciary over a steak sandwich in one of the claret-and-sawdust wine bars of EC1.
I got to know the Stiffs fairly well over a series of teas and biscuits during the summers of 1969 and 70 (there were even a few dinner invitations towards the end, although these were only extended when it ‘made sense’ – if we were off to a law society social or some such thing). I liked Jonathan’s mother very much. She was a born diplomat, with a deft finger on whichever faint pulses still murmured through the household. Jonathan’s father, who I believe was fairly high up in a large accountancy firm, was by contrast a taut, conflicted man with a disposition of long-sufferance that never quite convinced. The sort who would reach for the decanter at the earliest opportunity whilst giving an earnest impression of acting under duress, or grill a young man on his career prospects for a good hour before announcing, without warning, of course there’s more to life than work, they tell me and ejecting himself from his armchair as if bitten on the arse by a horsefly.
Unbeknownst to his parents, Jonathan had postponed his hard-earned pupillage at a prominent legal chambers that autumn. Instead, he resolved to spend his time strengthening his shaky foothold in what he saw as the upper circle of society, a glimpse of which he had been granted by his association with a young lady of considerable means. An invitation had arrived to join her and her friends on a three-month trip around Europe that September, paid for by her family as a graduation present. Jonathan intended to accept.
This trip evidently held more appeal than sitting in dusty chambers making tea for some stout Q.C. Admitting this to his parents, though (with the kicker that he was being bankrolled by the young lady) was out of the question. His solution to this dilemma came via an impressive leap of logic; the only way he was going to be able to gain approval for his planned disappearance was to gently drop hints that he was being recruited – or at least courted – by the secret services.
If it sounds absurd, it probably was. However, like most of us at twenty-one, he possessed a well-calibrated sense of his parents’ shortcomings (if not their strengths), which he believed included naivety, paucity of imagination, mistrust of foreigners and an inflated belief in his own gifts. If a well thought-out campaign of disinformation were conducted, an announcement declaring he had been called away could be made at the start of September and no questions would follow.
It almost worked.
We spent the second half of August preparing the ground. I remember Jonathan writing to Post Offices in unlikely parts of the UK – Llandudno, Bournemouth, Inverness – enclosing payment and requesting blank tourist postcards in return, sealed in an envelope and sent to my address. I would then write them to him in oddly-stilted English, courtesy of fictitious ‘Cambridge friends’:
It is cold here, but the wind has been surprisingly strong. There have been no reports of any change in the forecast. Kindest,
(When I pointed out that these would still be postmarked by London sorting offices, he insisted that this would make them even more suspicious. We only needed to be as competent as the characters in the second-rate spy novels that gathered dust on the family bookshelf, after all. Anything more was effort lost).
Another of my jobs was to drop odd books through the letterbox, complete with cryptic dedications. There was even a complicated dance with small coloured stickers placed under the foil lids of milk bottles, accompanied by a new enthusiasm on Jonathan’s part for collecting the milk (and the post) before breakfast.
His new band of high-rolling friends had a part to play, too. A string of lavish gifts arrived for his birthday in the middle of the month – a Montblanc pen, some aviator sunglasses and two bottles of champagne (one I cannot remember, and one Bollinger 1959). These, together with the odd weekend away, probably did more to arouse suspicion in his parents than the other trickery. By hook or by crook, their questions about some of the odd goings-on started to ease. He took this as a good sign.
Then calamity struck. A genuine letter arrived just after his birthday, written in a delicate hand that was beyond even my invention. The love affair was over, and the invitation politely rescinded. As I had suspected, his female acquaintance kept men like swarms of bees, never far from a stifling puff of smoke.
In addition to being genuinely hurt, Jonathan faced the problem of how to wind down the grand illusion a little sooner than he had hoped. It was typical of his inventiveness to perceive, in this unfortunate twist, a final opportunity to throw up the the dust he saw settling on his future self. The key was in what we would today call ’emotional blackmail’; if he could engineer a situation whereby his father would inadvertently sabotage his activities, ending his fledgling espionage career before it had even begun, he felt sure he would be able to extract from him license (and funds) to return to Cambridge for postgraduate study by way of apology. He had been asked to turn down his pupillage by MI5 in any case, and there was nothing much he could do about it now.
At the very least it would be a moral victory over the old man. A consolation goal in the stoppage-time of youth. The plan was as follows:
He had purchased a miniature cork-sealed vial from a junk shop on Portobello Road, in which he would seal a small piece of paper. Written upon this in neat, indelible ink were five Russian-sounding names. He would then uncork the cheaper of the two bottles, drop it in, and reseal it before adding a green steam-shrinkable foil (the sort you used to see on bottles of sparkling elderflower at a village fête), bought from a homebrew shop in Earl’s Court. This looked fairly ridiculous to me, but neither he nor his parents were knowledgeable about wine – I don’t think I ever saw a bottle in the house – so we decided it would probably pass.
His parents’ wedding anniversary was approaching, for which Jonathan would plan to be away. He would make a generous offer to his father before departing; having observed his mother enjoying a glass of champagne at a recent garden party (and considering the difficult time she had been having since the death of Rupert the spaniel in June), would he like to open one of his champagnes for her that evening before they went out? He should be careful, though, to avoid the bottle with the green foil, for that one was the cheaper of the two and really not up to much. They could save it for a lesser occasion.
Of course he knew that his father’s puritanical streak would lead him to pick the cheaper bottle in order to make a show of restraint to his freewheeling son the next day. The discovery (and possible opening) of the vial would then provoke a panicked response from Jonathan upon his return, rehearsed this down to the finest detail; he would immediately run to the nearest phone box, asking his father for change. Certain possessions would have to be gathered up and driven off to an address (mine) that night. Letters would be posted. It would be a coup too perfect to imagine; a legitimate chance to hold his father’s miserliness to account and an appeal to pathos for the cruel and undeserved torpedoing of a prestigious opportunity.
There was some risk, it seemed, that his father’s frugality would lead him to shun the offer of champagne altogether. To reduce this, Jonathan began a second campaign. This began to resemble a siege by starvation.
When everyone was out in the mornings, Jonathan would pour away small quantities of gin, whisky and vermouth from open bottles on the drinks trolley, diluting them back with equal quantities of water. If managed carefully, his father’s drinking routine would hopefully start to leave him just a shade under-cooked each evening whilst stopping short of raising suspicion. Nothing more than a 10-15% dilution could be attempted. Any increase in the number of tumblers poured would certainly be noticed by Jonathan’s mother – a risk his father was unlikely to take – so the effect seemed likely to be a general thirst which would look for any legitimate opportunity to sate itself.
The scheme was not without merit. It underestimated, however, the finely-tuned empirical faculties of the hardened spirits drinker. Later that week Jonathan received a note from his uncle on his mother’s side who worked as a chemistry teacher in Notting Hill. Framed as a benevolent word of warning to a favoured nephew, this explained how his father had been enquiring as to whether the laboratory owned any equipment with which it would be possible to determine the alcohol content of a bottle of Famous Grouse and, if so, whether he might pop in and run a quick test. He suspected foul play at home, but required evidence.
It was at this point that Jonathan received his first real stroke of luck. The next day his father informed him that Mrs Donegal, their cleaner of over ten years, had been let go due to suspected alcoholism. Mr Stiff had long found her effortful, harried demeanour irritating in any case, and was all too happy to be rid of her.
This was what a snooker player would call a shot to nothing; if Mrs Donegal was indeed the culprit, then the issue was resolved. If, as would have been extremely disappointing, Jonathan was the culprit, then he would consider himself rumbled. His mother was not told the real reason for Mrs Donegal’s sudden departure due to the risk of her assuming the second scenario and protesting the situation. I imagine that Mrs Donegal herself was not told, either.
The final week in August saw the plan put into action. The business with the champagne bottle was not without its difficulties, chief amongst which was the unforeseen problem of getting the mushroom-shaped cork, which expanded after opening, back into the bottle. After some considerable faff involving coarse grade sandpaper, vaseline and a rubber hammer, the bottle was satisfactorily re-corked and wired and the green foil shrunk fairly cleanly over the neck using steam from the kettle.
The offer of the champagne was made the next day. This was reported to have been received with genuine gratitude (maybe having even been interpreted by his father as a peace offering, and thus an admission of some guilt in the matter of the diluted spirits). The anniversary dinner was booked for Friday night. Jonathan went away to visit a friend in Ascot, planning to return on Saturday lunchtime to enact the final scene in his grand commedia.
When he did return, however, all was calm. His father had gone to catch the start of the cricket at Lords, and his mother was perched on the end of the chaise longue, clasping her hands. Jonathan was surprised to see a brittle-looking Mrs Donegal sitting in the armchair opposite.
….now we all know that Lawrence can be a huffy so-and-so at times, Eileen…sometimes he drives me to distraction. I really don’t know what got up his nose this time. There’ll be no changing his mind I’m afraid, but I just wanted to call you back to apologise on my behalf…
Mrs Donegal emitted a sort of burbling noise, somewhere between gratitude for the sentiment and disappointment that the decision was not being reversed.
…as I say I’ve never been anything other than extremely happy with your work. But things are as they are. You still have a few items in the cupboard – please don’t forget them. I imagine whoever he manages to find next will have their own supplies.
At this point, Mrs. Stiff gazed uncomfortably towards the dining table. Upon it was a bottle of champagne, sealed with a green foil. She looked over to Jonathan and shot him a little glance which seemed to say sorry, you don’t mind, do you? before slowly walking over to pick it up.
Oh, and here’s a small something to say thank you, from us. It’s really nothing much, but our son assures us it’s very good, don’t you Jonathan?
By mid-September I had been offered a job in the legal department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where I spent the next twenty years before deciding to do something worthwhile (writing about wine). My family moved out of London in 1973, and Jonathan and I had lost touch by the middle of the decade. The last I heard from him, sometime in 1974, he was working in television production.
I bought him what is now your copy of that very fine book at the start of September 1970. It was, of course, a joke. However, I found myself reading it, cover-to-cover, in the days before handing it over. Jonathan’s leaving gift to me? That bottle of Bollinger 1959.
It was the first wine I ever knew anything about.
Alistair Reynolds MW, May 2020