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Vintage Arlott

The master's writings on wine tell us more about him than his autobiography did

Suresh Menon

March 9, 2008

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Arlott's passion for wine was matched by his hospitality © BBC

Some of the finest writers on the game have written with equal felicity on matters outside of cricket. The obvious example is Neville Cardus and music. Then there is John Arlott. To understand him and get a clearer picture of the personality, one must look beyond his cricket writings. Arlott on Wine (edited by David Rayvern Allen) tells us more about the writer than his autobiography did. It is a treat both for those who believe that too much snobbery is attached to wine-drinking, as well as for those who can tell a Cabernet Sauvignon at 60 paces.

This collection of pieces published in the Evening News, wine magazines, and above all, the Guardian, is charming and literary; it is passionate and verges on poetry.

Jancis Robinson, acclaimed wine writer and author of The Oxford Companion to Wine ("The greatest wine book ever published", according to the Washington Post) has written, " I owe so much to John Arlott." Arlott himself pays tribute to some "vintage personalities" who taught him about wine - how it is made, how to drink it, and most of all, how to acknowledge it as one of the most civilised drinks a man could have.

It began after the 1948-49 cricket tour to South Africa, when Arlott decided to holiday in Sicily, having resolved to keep off alcohol and bring the colour back to his cheeks after weeks of indulging on tour. The resolution was broken on the third day thanks to the flask of wine in the hotel room; it led to a trip to the vineyard, enormous consumption of Italian vintages, and the awakening of the wine columnist who lies dormant in all of us who write professionally and drink for pleasure yet never throw a bridge between the writing and the drinking.

In the irritating manner he has of speaking about himself in the third person (a style which ruined his autobiography), Arlott says, "Without being, or pretending to be, the world's greatest connoisseur of wine, (he) became, and remains, well up in the front rank of those who enjoy it." The justification for drinking wine, says Arlott, "is pleasure".

Wine is bottled poetry, wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. Perhaps that explains why there is as much dogma about wine-drinking as there is about poetry-writing. Arlott has the self-assurance to tell his readers that drinking wine is a personal choice, and what works for one person need not necessarily work for another. Even the thumb rule - white wine with fish, red wine with red meat - "is a counsel of safety, not a rule," says Arlott.

It began after the 1948-49 cricket tour to South Africa, when Arlott decided to holiday in Sicily, having resolved to keep off alcohol after weeks of indulging on tour. The resolution was broken on the third day thanks to the flask of wine kept in the room

What comes across in the book is Arlott's hospitality and sheer enjoyment of wine. This, the editor Rayvern-Allen tells us, is "never more apparent than when he is entertaining at home". His hospitality is legendary and "every guest is treated in exactly the same way, whether they be casual royal caller or urgent delivery boy. A bottle appears from the well-stocked cellar below, a glass is immediately to hand, and an air of contentment and conviviality surrounds the table."

From such deep passion do the words gain their unbearable lightness of being, as it were. And from wide experience come such nuggets as the information that the Tate Gallery restaurant has the cheapest luxury drinking in England (this was written in 1976), that teenage parties should not be underestimated (and therefore that it might be a good idea to soak the carpet in advance with a fire-extinguishing liquid!), and that some excellent wines never become fashionable and therefore remain affordable. There is, too, sound advice on dealing with hangovers.

Arlott, who died in 1991, hoped "always to have enough to drink and hope that when we go, there will be enough for our children to drink, and to share with our friends and their friends. Because (wine) is the most civilised tipple in the world." And it takes a civilised person to write about it with such affection and knowledge.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore

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Suresh Menon Suresh Menon went from being a promising cricketer to a has-been, without the intervening period of a major career. He played league cricket in three cities with a group of overgrown enthusiasts who had the reverse of amnesia - they could remember things that never happened. For example, taking incredible catches at slip, or scoring centuries. Somehow Menon found the time to be the sports editor of the Pioneer and the Indian Express in New Delhi, Gulf News in Dubai, and the editor of the New Indian Express in Chennai. Currently he is a columnist with publications in India and abroad, and is beginning to think he might never play for India.
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