One could describe it as racial pigeonholing. The rich versus the poor, the chic against the commonplace, the snobby as opposed to the culturally alienated. I am, of course, talking about good and bad spirits and wines, and the trap set up by the beautiful Lara and my beloved Spectator with my Low Life colleague and me as the entrapped fools.
Let’s take it from the top. The sainted editor once witnessed Jeremy and me downing a bottle of that stuff that drove Verlaine nuts and helped Van Gogh chop off his ear: absinthe. Jeremy had brought a bottle to the summer party, and after we were introduced to David Cameron, we proceeded to kill it before it killed us. The sainted one was impressed that we were still standing afterwards. Somewhere along the line, Lara had the idea to pit us against each other while we chose which of the spirits in nameless bottles we preferred. The object being, I assume, that the High Life correspondent would obviously recognise the superior brand, whereas the Low Life columnist would choose the cheaper version.
It was not a bad idea as far as ideas go, just as picking England to win the world cup every four years also has a loyal following. Jeremy and I met at the Speccie at three in the afternoon, sat down at the conference room and the contest began. There were two glasses brought in, one containing a very expensive gin, the other a very inexpensive one, then followed by vodka, Scotch, red wine and champagne.
Now I can’t speak for Jeremy, but the best way to describe what followed is thus: had I been brought into a room with three beds on each side, one side that included Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth and Keira Knightley, while the other side was occupied by Rosie O’Donnell, Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer, and had I then picked the side with Schumer, I swear I would look for the tallest building around, go to the top and throw myself head first from it.
Thank God, this was not the case. Alas, both Jeremy and I picked the cheapest gin, Scotch, vodka and wine, both getting the champagne right because — and I am convinced of this — the other sample was pure urine. Otherwise we both would have batted 0. But my Low Life colleague and close buddy at least had an excuse. His funds are limited and he doesn’t hang out at Loulou’s all night. He drinks in pubs and other inexpensive such places. I have no such excuse. My young son JT, who was watching, screamed out in horror when I even got the red wine wrong. ‘Jesus dad, you picked the one they serve on the train in Bulgaria, the other was Château Lafite.’ (He was engaged to the Lafite heiress for a while.)
All I can say is I have no excuses. I proved I’m a man of the people, with plebeian tastes, so the next time someone calls me a snob I will give him a punch in the noggin, as they do in Low Life pubs.
Taki’s suit was the customary perfectly tailored garment, so unobtrusive as to be invisible. My tailors for the occasion were Cancer Research and friends of the local donkey sanctuary. Taki had brought along his son, JT. JT struck me as super-bright, a great laugh, unsnobbish, fully alive. Spectator editors Lara Prendergast and Danielle Wall came in from the kitchen beaming archly, each bearing two spirit glasses two thirds full of clear liquid. Danielle and Lara bringing in the booze is one of the finest sights in England. ‘Vodka,’ they said. Party on.
There is so much top-notch booze knocking around in 22 Old Queen Street, the place ought to be a bonded warehouse. I knew, therefore, that the expensive, High Life version of the two would be such a thoroughbred it probably wouldn’t even taste like vodka. I took a glug from the left-hand glass. My eyes started from my head. A jackbooted torchlight procession marched down my throat, singing death songs as it went. I took a slug from the other glass. Flaming tar barrels bounced down my gullet pursued by hobnail-booted village hooligans.
Taki plumped uncertainly for the flaming torches — as did I. Uproar, followed by laughter and jeering from the two editors. One vodka was pharmaceutical grade ethanol, presumably, the by-product of an oil refinery; the other distilled by craftsmen from hand-picked, organically reared grains, subtly flavoured with vervain, mistletoe and holy moly, and came in a pretty bottle.
Next — whisky. I was in a supermarket in France recently and on the booze shelf was a bottle of ‘Scotch Whisky’. That was the brand name. It was about six quid. I bought a bottle. It was OK. I rammed my hooter into each of the two glasses before tasting them, as I’d been taught to do with single malts, searching for seaweed and cuttlefish notes. The first whisky tasted like turps, the second brake fluid. I chose the turps, as did Taki.
Wrong again. The turps was the inexpensive whisky. JT was flabbergasted. He snatched up what had been revealed as the Low Life whisky and took a sip. When he could speak again, he shouted, ‘But Dad, that’s the kind of stuff you get on the train!’ ‘When was the last time you took a train,’ a piqued Taki growled back.
Gin — same story. We both preferred the bathtub version. Red wine — ditto. Finally, champagne. The Spectator doesn’t pay much, but to make up for it, once or twice a year they line the contributors up against a wall and power-hose them down with Pol Roger. The difference between the champagne in the glasses placed before us was so obvious that our selection was unhesitating. Our first and only points were up on the board.
‘Jeez, you guys drink like a couple of teenage girls!’ said JT. ‘You like to drink cheap shit and good champagne!’ As teenage girls are, in my opinion, the best people of all to get drunk with, I took that as a compliment. But Taki, I’m afraid, looked like a whipped dog.
Illustration by Jason Ford