20 APRIL 1996, Page 7


SIMON HOGGART I'm just back from a week in France. Nat- urally I took a case of non-French wine over on the ferry so as to have something decent to drink. The French are terrifically complacent about their wine, believing that the worst they produce is better than the best from anywhere else. They are wrong, and there are few sights more depressing than the parade of tired, ill-kept, dreary bottles on the shelves of French supermar- kets. The humblest British high street off- licence has wines from a dozen countries, and frequently twice that; in France it is hard to find wine from outside the region, never mind abroad. It may cost i1 or so per bottle less, but that is no compensation for Chablis like acidulated chalk dust, or clarets which have finesse and backbone but no discernible taste. Thanks to some wise choices made for us by John Armit Wines of Notting Hill, a merchant with which The Spectator is associated, we enjoyed superb South African cabernet and an Australian chardonnay which, if it were labelled Puligny Montrachet, would fetch £20 at Leclerc or Mammouth. I know many older drinkers like only French wines, but this is force of habit; just as men over 50 tend to prefer stockings to tights, it's a mat- ter of how you started. As for the wine merchants' slogans: 'an honest French country wine' generally means 'thin, taste- less, overpriced'; the French phrase 'gout de terroir' — supposedly preferable to the mass-produced blandness of New World wines — translates as 'musty flavour due to poor quality control'. To be fair, the vast Auchan supermarket just south of Cher- bourg does have a tiny section of shelving devoted to foreign wine. Here we picked up a delicious claret from Pecos County, Texas, at 22 francs a bottle. I have no idea how they manage it.

Is there a law somewhere which says that all petrol stations must be hideous? We live in Twickenham, which to most people means rugby, but to anyone in west London shows that we can't afford Richmond. However, down by the Thames is a small, quite magical area. Perfect Georgian hous- es cluster near the river, as secretive and smug as Benson's Tilling. There is the mys- terious Eel Pie Island, which used to be a destination for steamers on day trips from the East End. In their early days the Rolling Stones and The Who performed at the hotel there. This has since burned down, and the island has drawn in on itself. There are no cars, and the inhabitants Occasionally see their vehicles, parked on the mainland, bob around on the high tide. The footbridge, the only fixed access, has been declared dangerous by the council, which wants to close it, so that islanders will only be able to reach the rest of us by boat. Peter Townsend of The Who, having decided that his most famous song was wrong and that old age is, after all, prefer- able to death, lives on thy land in Montpe- lier Row, certainly one of the handsomest streets in England. Tennyson used to live in his house, which gives you some idea of cultural change in Britain over the last cen- tury. If you walk down the towpath, past York House (1635), then round by St Mary's Church — a bewildering blend of mediaeval and Georgian, where Alexander Pope is buried — the vista is suddenly ruined by the Shell station, garish, yellow and seriously offensive. The same is true in some of the loveliest towns and villages left in the country. (It's also increasingly the case in France.) Did the oil companies per- suade town planners that if motorists actu- ally had to peer for a petrol station they might crash? Is this why garages seem designed to be visible through half a mile of thick fog? McDonald's aren't allowed to erect giant arches in Hampstead, or, come to that, Richmond. Why should BP or Esso?

When you write about politics, people often ask you what the result of the next election will be, as if you had secret infor- mation which you kept out of your newspa- per. In any case, the public are a better guide than politicians, who live in their own private, enclosed world, like the inhabitants of Eel Pie Island, watching the votes float away on the tide. I sensed that all was lost for the Tories at a rugby international in Twickenham last month, when the PA sys- tem pompously announced, 'The Secretary of State for the National Heritage, the Right Honourable Virginia Bottomley MP', and the chaps in Barbours and cravats actu- ally booed as she sat in the stands. On the News Quiz last week the comedian Jeremy Hardy called the Conservatives 'ver- minous'. Nye Bevan was almost horse- whipped for saying much the same, but Hardy was cheered and applauded by the studio audience who are certainly not drawn from nature's left-wing rebels. Even more surprisingly, the traditionally timid BBC left the remark in. Producers sense that the despair of and contempt for the Government are so strong, there is no longer a price for saying so.

n holiday, I greatly enjoyed David Guterson's slow and beautifully observed murder mystery, Snow Falling on Cedars. Except for the sex scenes. Even the finest writers fall back on fine-writer clichés 'she felt the hard length of him . . . ' etc. The trouble is that, unlike sensitive books about interracial love in the post-war years, real sex is rarely careful, dignified and observed in meticulous detail; more usually it is messy, confused, silly and accompanied by a raging physical passion. Cheap pornography captures the mood better than most writers, except perhaps D. H. Lawrence in Lady Chatterley's Lover, one of his best works. My view is that serious writ- ers should stop bothering and either insert a slab of porn: 'her breath misted the cold window, quivering and merging with the fog outside. The flame which had begun to dance in her heart flickered with the fire in the grate as she turned towards him. "Blimey, what a whopper!" she exclaimed . . . ' ; or else gloss over it, as in the pre- permissive past: 'Then, as the harvest moon rose fat and golden over the fields, and the rich, intoxicating scent of hay was drawn first into her nostrils, then inside her very being, he gave her one.'