So now, just to add to my habitual and highly personal sense of grievance, I have the Waitrose Christmas wine catalogue, which addresses itself to some fantastical speculative human being, a person actually 'Looking forward to sharing great company, great food and drink' over the holiday period. Everything about this beautifully-produced, 122-page graveyard of irony is excruciating: from the first picture of Phillip Schofield in a sweater (two more to come, ladies!) to the news that for at least one writer 'My boyfriend and I start Christmas Day, still in our pyjamas', to the recommendation that you chuck £4.49 at a 300ml bottle of AquaRiva Organic Agave Syrup in order to make yourself an AquaRiva Tequila Ding Dong, to the crazed assertion that 'With a price ceiling of £30, Champagne is well in range.'
Is it worse than the IKEA catalogue, the current heavyweight champion of vacuity? Of course not. The 2017 IKEA catalogue is a masterclass in denatured language, insistently mechanical in its upbeat formulations, everything it describes purged of the realities of human experience. 'Being together is what we care about'; 'Eric really embodies the essence of a digital nomad'; 'Adding a nursery in your bedroom doesn't have to mean giving up your meticulous wardrobes'. I could go on. Waitrose is bad, but IKEA has a genius for meaningless feelgood pap that takes it out of this world and into some other realm entirely. I sometimes read extracts out loud to my wife, just to annoy her.
Actually, it's the combination of supersmiley prose and Waitrose price policy that really sets me off. After all, I have had dealings with some of the wines it promotes: the crummy Canaletto Montepulciano d'Abruzzo ('an area known for its rich, robust reds') at £7.99; Les Dauphins Côtes du Rhône Villages (apparently 'generously perfumed' but also routinely indifferent in actual taste) for £8.99; Vasse Felix Cabernet Merlot, which I was trying only the other day, a hairy little bastard, although Waitrose cries up its 'great depth of colour', at £12.99; Cuvée Royale Crémant de Limoux ('wax and honeysuckle'), which, to be honest, I quite like, is up there, but at £11.99. All these wines are overpriced by approximately two quid a bottle, even though the rubric advises you (assuming you've got people coming round and you're not spending Christmas alone in front of the microwave) to 'go for mid-price wines that offer both quality and value'. This, accompanied by a picture of a Les Dauphins CDR at an almost satirical £11.99 a bottle. 'All the wines are terrific value,' says Schofield, apparently quite unflustered by the idea that nothing in this terrible magazine is worth anything like the price demanded.
To get the world of Waitrose out of my head, I look for something altogether chewier and more involving: and find it in Henry Jeffreys' just-out Empire Of Booze (Unbound Books). This is an ebulliently-written, fact-stuffed account of the relationship between the British and the world of drinks they consume - and have consumed - ranging across the centuries from Roman times to the present day. Brandy, port, claret, champagne, beer, gin, whisky, marsala, rum - all bear the mark of some kind of British intervention. Empire Of Booze unpacks their stories, bringing in such heroes as Sir Kenelm Digby, George Orwell, Arnaud de Pontac, Captain Bill McCoy, Jean-Antoine Chaptal and Samuel Johnson; while reminding us at the same time of the Blucher shoe and John Mytton's bear. There is drunkness and poverty. There is imposture, crookedness and fine wine. There is some killing. There is, as far as I can tell, no mention of Phillip Schofield's idea of what makes a perfect Christmas. On that basis alone, it would be worth a plug.