Sunday, 17 October 2010

48. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch - 'The Mont-Bazillac' (1913)

'Here was another thing - I'd never been drunk before, and I haven't been drunk since: but all the same I knew that this wasn't the least like ordinary drunkenness: it was too - what shall I say? - too brilliant. The whole town of Bergerac belonged to me: and, what was better, it was lit so that I could steer my way perfectly, although the street seemed to be quite amazingly full of people, jostling and chattering. I turned to call Jinks's attention to this, and was saying something about a French crowd - how much cheerfuller it was than your average English one - when all of a sudden Jinks wasn't there! No, nor the crowd! I was alone on Bergerac bridge, and I leaned with both elbows on the parapet and gazed at the Dordogne flowing beneath the moon.'
(Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Selected Short Stories, Penguin Books, 1957, pp.112-3)

'Besides, the Conservative blogger Iain Dale has examined the TV schedules during this year's Lib Dem spring conference, when this incident is supposed to have taken place, and found that Strictly Come Dancing was not being shown - and nor was Strictly Dance Fever or any other such programme.

If this fable is typical of the communication agency's strategic advice then Campbell would do well to think twice before accepting it.

It is hard to imagine him prospering with an approach that treats any sign of education or enthusiasm for the finer things in life as a guilty secret to be hidden from the electorate.'
(Jonathan Calder, 'Let Ming be Ming', The Guardian, 31 July 2006,

A palpably bourgeois excursion and a good deal more worldly than the M.R. James, with his protagonist's ascetic 'Evening Drink of small Ale in a silver vessel of about a pint measure.' I came upon this book at a Tynemouth book fair last year and, recalling the author's name and - it must be said - fetishizing the belisha orange Penguin design, I bought the musty smelling 52-year-old book (its inner cover inscribed 'R.H.H. Jones, MARCH 1965' in starchy red ink).

One could make obvious points regarding this being published with the world on the edge of the precipice.

I prefer to highlight Quiller-Couch's role as a pillar of the establishment past: educated, simultaneously liberal and conservative. Not tied to social conservatism; indeed open to the bohemian, but skeptical of 'modenity' in its economic sense. This story reflects Q-C's position as cultured cultural arbiter: telling the story of an Oxford undergraduate's rites of passage in the Loire Valley, south France. The story centres on Bergerac, a market town 'on the edge of claret country' and particularly on the unique drunken experience produced by a near-mythical, 'extinct' local white wine named Mont-Bazillac (one which produced no hangover). It is a delicately sweet wine, with almost a trace of the madeira about it - one of my favourite drinks, immortalised in English song by Flanders and Swann.

Ungodly Church of England vicars, gentle mockery of the 'teetotal craze', 'old boys with grizzled moustaches' and 'prize Baden-Powell scouts', ease among classicist porticos; these symbolise the culture inherited by the likes of the late Sirs Hugh Carleton Greene and John Mortimer, both critical figures in the liberalisation of Britain in the 1960s. One can easily trace the lineage through to the jocular Horace Rumpole, with his love of liberty and fine clarets. There is an instinctive, well-heeled Europeanism at play, not especially political but cultural.

Having recently finished Martin J. Wiener's English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850-1980 (Cambridge University Press, 1981), one can identify AQC as in the lineage of prominent figures who shaped our culture in that period through suspicion of industrialisation and materialism: John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, William Morris, G.K. Chesterton, Herbert Asquith, Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Aneurin Bevan, to name but eight. He is a not a Liberal in the free-market libertarian sense as Nick Clegg, but a Keynesian Liberal. Liberals tend to accept the prevailing consensus of their day, but their value is in achieving significant reforms - the like of which Roy Jenkins and David Steel achieved, but which it seems doubtful that Clegg will, hitched to a discredited economic programme.

'Q', as he was known, wrote novels and verse, as well as teaching and becoming a key player in English literary criticism pre-F.R. Leavis. He edited the vastly popular Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1900 (later extended to 1918), constantly referenced in Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey. His daughter was the inspiration for Kenneth Grahame's Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, he completed unfinished works by Robert Louis Stevenson and a certain Alastair Cooke was a notable student of his. In addition, this native of Cornwall was active in local Liberal Party politics.

An interesting footnote to this tale is that  the village of Monbazillac - near Bergerac - was designated in 1936 as an AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée), a specific regional wine classified by central government as adhering to traditional standards of wine production. The sort of preservationist ideal inherent in the controversial EU legislation, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the popular Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) over here in the UK.

Ultimately, this is a light, jocund story; how much you enjoy it will largely depend on how partial you are to old-school liberal values, or indeed to sweet white wines from the Loire Valley.


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