Ripeness Is All

We all, they say, have one book in us. God knows what mine would be. How about Good Wine Needs No Bush: Political Maunderings of an Expatriate Oenophile? Or perhaps Latin Love in a Cold Climate: Memories of a Minnesota Classicist.

These are merely titles in the mind. More intriguing are authors who produce one brilliant book and only one—vox et praeterea nihil. What fresh dragons of injustice did Harper Lee slay after she killed her mockingbird? Search me. Peter Beckford was a Georgian foxhunter of broad and elegant taste. He was partly responsible for introducing Clementi, the pianist, to polite English society, and yet his classic Thoughts on Hunting in a Series of Familiar Letters to a Friend are the only thoughts I know he committed to print.

Until last week I had always thought of Rose Macaulay as another such auctor unius libri, all her unread early work leading to the great triumph of The Towers of Trebizond, the funniest book ever written about an Anglo-Catholic suffragette traveling around Eastern Turkey on a camel. Then I found, in a second-hand stall (in original dust jacket, some damp staining, slightly foxed), The World My Wilderness, the story, published in 1950, of Barbary, a farouche seventeen-year-old art student, allowed to run wild through the wasteland of ragwort and fireweed, ruined banks, and roofless Wren churches that was the Square Mile of the City, the historic and commercial heart of London, in the years following the Blitz.

Barbary knows nothing about the centuries of commercial effort and bürgerlich devotion whose archaeology lies romantically at her feet, though she turns an honest penny painting watercolor postcards of the ruins to sell to rubber-necked tourists. She also turns several dishonest ones: shoplifting, stealing ration books (food and clothes were rationed in England for years following World War II), going with army deserters, and generally being the despair of her amiable if rather upright father, an eminent lawyer whose hair one imagines growing daily grayer beneath his barrister’s wig.

In fact the only thing that would prevent a right-thinking person from wanting to apply a stout boot to Barbary’s bony little behind is the fact that she learnt her unusual manners in an excellent school and while struggling for a good cause. Before coming to London she had been brought up by her divorced mother, a louche lady who had settled in the Côtes du Roussillon, not far from the Franco-Spanish frontier, just before the War. She stayed there for the duration, so Barbary had spent her formative years as a runner for the Resistance, dodging the Gestapo, sleeping rough on the maquis. Her mother, an easy-going artist, keen on painting and a quiet life, had never interfered. It is Barbary’s mother, in fact, who remains in the mind as a character, what the French call un type. You can savor her in your mind’s eye, lolling pneumatically on a chaise longue, an amber cigarette holder in one hand, a glass in the other, well-read, seductive, lovely to look at, delightful to behold, but perhaps a little overripe. One wonders if perhaps she is what Rose Macaulay herself feared she might become as she grew older: delightful but directionless, sunk in sin. She need not have worried; the published letters of her later years suggest a formidably crisp old lady, whose daily ritual involved early-morning mass and a cold open-air swim in a London park, followed by copious correspondence, much of it concerned with the technicalities of mediaeval Latin verse.

Overripe, though, is the word for the Pepperwood Grove Old Vine non-vintage zinfandel that sits in a glass beside me as I write. For all that (it comes from the big California firm of Don Sebastiani), this is wine with strong character—some of it the sort your mother warned you to avoid—per Yeats, caught in that sensual music all neglect monuments of un-aging intellect. The color recalls deep red lipstick, the kind that leaves an indelible mark on a shirt collar; the sweetness rising from the surface is redolent of the end of summer, the bubbling vats of black currants being boiled into jam. (How distant summer seems. Où sont les confitures d’antan?). The taste is chewy, like well-hung mutton (for which it would make a better mate than red-currant jelly). The grittiness that lingers on the palate is flecked with sensations of black pepper. Best of all, its percentage of alcohol by volume (13.5) exceeds its price in dollars. I shall pour myself another glass and take a long, hot bath.