Thursday 11 April 2019

Plain Man's Guide

So a pal of mine has very kindly given me a copy of Raymond Postgate's The Plain Man's Guide To Wine,1959 edition, which he found in a second-hand bookshop; generosity of the highest kind.

First of all it needs to be said that this slim (135 pages) volume, despite being sixty years behind the times, tells you just about everything you need to know about just about everything. Open it at random and the wisdom leaps out at you:

- The first rule for a wine drinker is: 'Drink what you like'
- Pour the wine, steadily and not splashily, into the type of glass named
- Ugly as only French provincial houses can be
- Most of them...require highly-seasoned food like gorgonzola, or spaghetti rich with garlic and olive oil
- Some bottles have the names of grapes on them

I could go on. Clearly, the main themes are that you should drink what you like, how you like, pouring steadily and avoiding gorgonzola; which actually means that you should drink what Raymond Postgate thinks you should drink; which means mostly French, plus some German: 'There is nothing more lovely than a superb burgundy or a first-rate hock'. In fact his admiration for Hocks, Moselles and Alsace wines - which he lumps together under the old appellation of Rhenish - is such that, 'Not to be mincing about it, they are the finest white wines in the world.' Italy, on the other hand? 'The wines of Italy are plentiful, but on the whole undistinguished.' The Americas and Australia are tipped as ones to watch. There is a lot about port, madeira and marsala. 'You probably should prefer sweet wines to begin with,' he assures the reader, 'because you probably need them. In nearly all countries sugar was rationed during the War - in Great Britain it still was rationed in 1953 - and many people still have a small but definite need for it.' If you want a tanker of port with your cottage pie, then Fay ce que vouldras is the maxim.

Which is all suitably bonkers and divertingly true to its period. Also informative: his account of Bordeaux reds is the first one I've been able to understand after eight years of failure. But then it occurs to me - doesn't the name, Raymond Postgate, sound vaguely familiar?

Well yes; which is the second thing to note. Far from being your average wine dullard, Raymond Postgate had a fairly startling early career as a left-wing, not-especially-wine-drinking firebrand who was arrested during World War I for objecting to military service on political grounds. His family disowned him for that, and for marrying the daughter of George Lansbury. He then wrote a book called Bolshevik Theory and helped to found the British Communist Party; Lenin sent him a signed photograph. After that, he edited the Encyclopædia Britannica, split from Moscow, joined the Home Guard during World War II and eventually founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Food, once the war had ended, with the aim of raising everyday eating standards in post-war Britain.

This was, in fact, a socialist's riposte to lousy British cooking - an appeal to the common man, rather than to the handful of gourmets left over after the fighting stopped. Postgate wanted good food and drink for everyone. Hence The Plain Man's Guide To Wine and indeed, The Good Food Guide, which he started in 1951 and which is still going. Better yet, his generally antsy approach won him no friends in the business, not least because of his insistence on using an army of volunteers rather than paid professionals. He was anti-establishment even when talking about pommes boulangère. And in 1965, Babycham sued him, unsuccessfully, for slagging off their product. That's what I would call a life lived to the full.

All of which means that this copy of The Plain Man's Guide To Wine is not a piece of antiquated booze hackwork, but a social document, a manifesto for a more just, more righteous, to-morrow, penned by someone who helped shape the politics of the last century. When Postgate talks about the beneficial qualities of Tokay ('A proved restorer of virility, and at the same time an increaser of fertility') he's not just saying it to sound impressive. He's saying it because it matters. When he says 'Don't smoke over wines,' he's got the working man's interests at heart in all sorts of ways. When you consider that a previous owner of my copy of The Plain Man's Guide To Wine turned down the corners of no fewer than six pages as aides-memoire, that's a testimony to the book's cogency right there. And when you add to all this the fact that his son, Oliver Postgate, was one of the creators of Noggin the Nog and Bagpuss, well: there are no words.


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