Waugh’s Claret Phobia

London wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd have posted on their internet site an article by Auberon Waugh about his father’s knowledge of wine. This originally appeared in their house journal Number Three St James’s Street for Spring 1986. They claim Evelyn Waugh to have been a regular customer but should not be confused with another wine merchant Saccone & Speed that published Evelyn Waugh’s booklet Wine in Peace and War (1947). In his article Auberon explains that his father’s wine knowledgeability is probably overrated:

I was never entirely convinced that my Father, for all his poetic gifts, knew very much about wine. Certainly his brother, Alec, knew much more. When Evelyn wrote those words [in a 1937 article], he was just laying down his first cellar. My Grandfather, Arthur Waugh, who was a publisher and critic, drank nothing but Keystone Australian Burgundy, a beverage which he believed to have tonic properties, much to the embarrassment of his two sons.

The most interesting feature of Auberon’s quite comprehensive article is his description of his father’s total aversion to claret (the red wine of Bordeaux) following the attack of mania that is documented in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold:

Plainly, this violent repudiation of the world’s second best wine-producing area was the result of some psychological trauma, if not actual brain damage. He was quite happy to experiment with wines from unlikely places like Chile (probably of Cabernet base, although in those days they did not specify the grape) and once discovered a new enthusiasm for the red wines of Germany. Even more shaming than that, he came back from Rhodesia one day announcing a new discovery from Portugal called Mateus Rosé, and drank it through one whole summer. Whenever challenged with this, I loyally maintain that the Mateus Rosé of the late ‘50s was a quite different wine from the sugary pink fizz of today, but I do not honestly know where the truth lies…

I think I may have one clue, which is neither psychological nor biochemical, for Evelyn Waugh’s repudiation of claret. For some reason, he always referred to it as “clart”, even in such homely expressions as “to tap the claret”, meaning to draw blood in a fight. “Have a glass of clart,” he would say. Some had difficulty in understanding what he meant, but he persisted. Then in 1956 there was published a rather shameful book called “Noblesse Oblige”, edited by Nancy Mitford, with contributions from herself, Waugh, John Betjeman, Christopher Sykes and others discussing the characteristics of the English upper class. In the course of his contribution, Sykes – who was a friend of my Father’s despite being, as he frequently pointed out, of better breeding – mentioned “a Gloucestershire landowner” who believed “that persons of family always refer to the wines of Bordeaux as ‘clart’, to rhyme with cart”. Mr Sykes opined that “this delusion” showed “an impulse towards gentility” which might be preferable to the contrary impulse, among true aristocrats, towards affecting the mannerisms of the proletariat. My Father spotted the reference to himself immediately, and although he took it in good part, it must have left him in something of a quandary. Either he had to drop his harmless affectation in deference to the mockery of a younger man and lesser artist, which he did not deign to do, or he had to persist in the awareness that everyone was sniggering at him as the Gloucestershire landowner who said “clart” when he meant “claret”. I do not know how much influence it had on his subsequent behaviour, but it is fact that within a year he had sold not only his house in Gloucestershire but also all his claret, and never touched the stuff again.

 

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