“Care for a glass of ginger wine, Eddie?”, my grandfather would ask his son-in-law on our pre-Christmas visit to his house.
This was the cue for all the colour in my father’s face to be drained from it whilst he summoned up a festive smile and accepted the heartfelt, annual offer. Whereas his family “liked a drink”, my mother’s side were teetotal (she virtually gave up alcohol herself after my christening party – that must either have been a great night, or it had suddenly dawned upon her that she would need to keep a clear head in bringing me up). Apart from enjoying the traditional Christmas Day meal, on the table at 12 noon sharp just like any other day, my grandparents honoured Christmas in their customary restrained and homely manner.
My dad was essentially a beer drinker, but could be persuaded to partake of a gin and tonic or a glass of wine, (or, frankly, anything) if it was offered to him. Ginger wine, however, was not a drink worthy to celebrate the Yuletide with in his mind. His misery was compounded by the fact that only he and his brother-in-law were ever afforded the doubtful privilege of being permitted to let the stuff pass their lips. Consequently, the same bottle must have lasted a decade or more. In fact, I don’t recall it ever being replaced (they were small measures). Perhaps it was grandad’s pointed annual reminder to his son-in-laws to treat his daughters well, or else they would be answerable to him by being forced to endure a second glass.
My grandparents’ sobriety was all the more remarkable given that, for the last forty years of their lives, they lived next door to the neighbourhood pub. It had both a public and saloon bar, as well as a “jug and bottle” (off-licence to anyone under the age of forty in this country and, for my continental and transatlantic readers, a separate room where people could buy drinks to take home without having to enter the pub). It was a raucous but friendly establishment.
I often wondered how they managed to sleep in the bedroom adjacent to it, especially at closing time when revellers spilled out onto the street, lingering long and loud before shambling home. I suppose it helped that my “(Big) Nan”, as opposed to my father’s mother who was, you guessed it, “Little Nan” (the distinction was immediately evident on meeting), was stone deaf, though she always refuted the accusation (after her doting husband had both pulled faces and shouted at her for five minutes).
My grandfather – funny how I never called him “Big Grandad” when he was around eight inches taller than my father’s father – had worked and brought his family of two daughters and one son up in a London fire station during the Blitz and, as a result, I was in awe of him. Chain smoking filterless “Senior Service” cigarettes, warming his backside against an open fire, pouring tea from his cup into the saucer before drinking it and constantly smoothing back his full head of bristling black hair, even at the age of eighty, he appeared even cooler in my young eyes (“old” people were cool then).
The manner in which he cherished his wife of sixty years (and fianceé of another seven) bespoke a deep love, although it made conversation with visitors redundant as the volume on the tiny black and white television set had to be turned up to maximum, especially when Double Your Money, Take Your Pick or Sunday Night at the London Palladium were on.
But back to the ginger wine, Stone’s Original Green Ginger Wine to be precise. Made to the original (1740) secret recipe that includes raisins and pure Australian ground ginger, it was an especially popular drink in the sixties when this story is set. But I think it is best drunk with something else, preferably with a spirit or in a cocktail. Whisky Mac, a blend of whisky and Stone’s, was an order I heard many times whilst hovering on the shadowy doorsteps of pubs and clubs at that time. Given that it is a fortified wine and, therefore, quite alcoholic, it is a powerful and acquired taste when drunk neat – which is how it was served to my father.
Though it must have taken him at least forty eight hours to recover from such a chore, he did only have to endure it once a year. And there was always the pub next door to escape to.