Only someone who follows no football can understand the feelings of confusion and fear that accompany the convergence of their personal diary and a major fixture. I’d just moved to teach English in a ballet school, which is a fair indication of both my knowledge of and interest in the offside rule. Unpacking complete, I took a stroll in the heat of the early September evening, intending to dine out but, as I hit the High Street, I witnessed a frenzy of male excitement. The town was a writhing mass of tattooed, bare flesh: lampposts had been scaled and the drumming against road signs and shop shutters gave the crowd’s noise a tribal quality. To me, the scene was straight out of Bosch or Bruegel and if this sounds like hyperbole, it isn’t: that evening, England had beaten Germany 5:1, which explained why the pavements and roads had disappeared beneath a flood of humanity. I headed back the ballet school, resigned to sleeping hungry. Alcohol rarely shows the Brits at their best. Cafés and restaurants in Venice can leave tables and chairs outside at night but, in the UK, this would be taken as a request by the restauranteur to have them thrown through the windows.
In Tasting Notes, Matthew Stewart’s second HappenStance pamphlet, his decision to juxtapose the advertising spiel and the wine’s own thoughts has a satirical aftertaste in the case of Zaleo Rosado, the winery’s Rosé. The spiel talks of raspberries and freshly cut roses, marketing the wine as the alcoholic equivalent of Eton Mess and a game of croquet. However, Stewart’s poem presents a different perspective, as the wine’s light, informal voice tells us that ‘At times I’ve heard it said I blush. / Well, wouldn’t you, if popped and poured / in some High Street pub, surrounded / by a gaggle of squawking girls / who hurl you back without a thought?’ Booze, the Rosado recognises, dupes customers with the pretence of a macho hierarchy: we expect spirits and export lagers to deliver a blokey alcoholic punch but rosé legitimizes the hen night bender. Even the winemaker sniggers at the Rosado, recognising that it hasn’t ‘got the guts for red’ but here’s the modern marketing genius as, served in 250ml ‘large’ glasses, there’s nothing sophisticated or light about it. Its summery veneer offers the ideal pretext and Stewart’s final rhetorical question convey’s the wine’s indignance. Take the plight of the Benedictine monks at Buckfast Abbey, Devon. Tucked away in their monastery they brew Buckfast Tonic Wine but Strathclyde Police linked it to 5000 crime reports in three years: one in ten of these offences was violent.
Zaleo’s Pardina, made from the region’s indigenous white grape, is treated to the same advertizing copy as the Rosado, as raspberries and roses are replaced by bananas, apples and limes. However, Stewart’s poem exploits the mutability at the heart of wines that don’t keep. The Pardina tells us: ’I wait all summer long, the last / to be picked. Dust builds on my skins.’ In these opening lines, the brief summer season is shown to be long in the eyes of this fleeting wine and we’re invited to imagine the kid who’s ‘picked’ last for football, where a game lasts an age. Dust is a Christian symbol of mortality and the Ash Wednesday cross of dust, marked with a thumbprint on the forehead, tells us that from dust we were made and to dust we will return. So, this word, applied to the grapes’ personified ‘skins’ lends them a human frailty. Stewart’s control of line breaks leaves his reader left dwelling on words like ‘last’, ‘ebb’ and ‘decline’. These poems, deceptively restrained in ambition, pack a punch nevertheless. In performance they read well but are doubly rewarding on the page.
I’ve held this post back until the supermarkets started their Christmas booze advertising offensive, as Matthew Stewart’s offering a few Zaleo wine deals here. Not only does he write poetry but he blends wine and runs the commercial side of the Zaleo winery. I also felt a bit of a fraud writing about these poems without sampling Matthew’s produce, so, if any friends and family are reading this, I’m hoping for a Christmas awash with Extremadura’s finest Tempranillo and Pardina. I apologise in advance for exposing my tattoos and damaging road signs.